• 22nd December 2015 • Review by Alex Newsome •
Series finales can be a tricky affair. They come with the expectation that the stakes will be suitably raised, and for the writer, this can become a problem year on year. Through the RTD years, the peril that our heroes were put in had to be ramped up further each year, with more and more spectacular moments until we reached the point that the TARDIS, piloted by almost every companion since 2005, dragged the Earth across space without creating the devastating tidal waves this would surely cause. It is a moment that still makes me reconsider reaching for the Series 4 DVD.
This is something that the Moffat era has been keen to play differently from the off. The series 5 finale, while dealing with a universe ending problem, was in reality a surprisingly low key affair, series 6 confined its climax to an alternate timeline and series 8 essentially replayed “The Invasion”, but grounded in the relationship between Clara and Danny. Going in therefore, it was highly interesting to see what direction this finale would take. With only the Clara story to wrap up and no need to ground the show on present day Earth, this year’s finale felt like it had more of a chance of expanding into a big spectacle affair. It was perhaps surprising then, that “Hell Bent” is actually far more low key than its trappings would have you believe.
Of course, it could really only ever have ended this way. With series, 9, Moffat has made a conscious decision to slow things down even further than with 8, with not only the large amount of multi part stories, but also just the general way that those stories are handled. For the opening two parter alone, where Series 8 used the Daleks for a flashy affair, 9 uses them as a dressing for an introspective talky two parter that is more akin to the Big Finish play Davros than it is “Journey’s End”. It would consequently have been entirely against the tone to end that way, and we are instead presented with not perhaps the finale we expected, but certainly the one that best concludes the story.
Ultimately, the story though isn’t really the mystery of the hybrid, and it certainly isn’t the Doctor returning to Gallifrey, even though both are important to the narrative. It is the finale note on Clara’s story, and it is perhaps one of the best developments of a companion that the show has seen. While at times it could be seen as uneven, there has been something of a long game played with Clara, that has allowed us to see someone plucked into this extraordinary world, attempt to maintain this and their normal life, and then when this fails, try to throw themselves into their comfort of the wonders of time and space only to go too far.
These are notes we’ve seen before with other characters, but the development of them here is to a far greater degree than we’ve seen before. While the show has come under criticism before for a lack of willingness to kill its darlings when it comes to companions, it certainly hasn’t been afraid in recent years to turn their worlds upside down to the point of no return. It is a testament to Steven Moffat’s writing that though by the end of the episode Clara is still running through the universe, it doesn’t feel like a conclusion to appease a younger audience that don’t want to see a major character’s demise. Her death is still written and will happen, but we can easily accept that it won’t be just yet.
The Doctor meanwhile comes out of the episode no less unscathed, and the reversal of the memory wipe plot device from series 4 actually manages to provide a different though similar take on the sadness expressed in that series that prevents it from feeling stale. In some ways, this even seems crueler, with the knowledge of events left intact, but the face to place to them removed.
It feels a satisfying way to conclude the story that has been played out through this series; though while the script tries to heavily imply that it has been the story of two people pushing each other without regards to the consequences, it has really played out more as Clara aspiring to be more like the Doctor. You can argue that one plays into the other, but ultimately this isn’t hugely important, as what matters is the realisation between the characters that they cannot stay together due to the danger this puts them and anybody else in, and with this the show seems to be exploring areas it hasn’t previously.
Consequently, it shouldn’t be surprising that to ground this, we are presented with some familiar trappings to set the scenes for the emotional core to play out. A return to Galifrey has been something of an inevitability ever since the end of “The Day of The Doctor”, though I’d wager that at that time, most of the audience weren’t expecting that the search would be concluded so soon.
This said, it is thankful that the time spent here is briefer than the trailers would have led you to believe, and aside from the opening scenes with the barn, it largely serves as a device to allow the Clara story to play out the way Moffatt wishes. The idea that the cause of Clara’s death is due to the Time Lords trying to obtain information on the hybrid perhaps stretches credulity to some extent, and seems to be there as a means of placing the Doctor at odds with his own people once again and give him a cause to leave. Even then, this is largely deferred to Rassilion, whose appearance was perhaps the most underwhelming part of the story, but whose exile will doubtless set the show up for some big events further down the line.
This is of little matter though, and once the Doctor is in the capital, things pick up at a pace with the Doctor going too far to save his friend. It’s an old story previously told, but when done well it will always be effective. It’s particularly pleasing to see the way the hybrid thread is woven into this, and even more pleasing still that it’s left vague enough for the audience to make their own conclusions. The performances of Capaldi, Coleman and Williams are all in fine form in these scenes, but Capaldi’s is particularly note worthy. From the shooting of the General onwards, he portrays the inner conflict of the charterer with a wordless dexterity that you can’t help but feel could only have been pulled of in this way by him. Any other Doctor could have played these moments and made them their own, but none would have been quite like the performance we see here.
It somehow therefore almost feels wrong to try and compare “Hell Bent” to “Heaven Sent”, as while both part of the same story in some way, they are both such different affairs with different aims that it would be an unfair comparison. While “Heaven Sent” deals with the Doctor coping on the grief of what happened to Clara on the move, it still manages to stand alone in many respects. That is far less true of “Hell Bent”, which aside from its concluding of the overall story, also contains so many ongoing plot threads or references that they could perhaps be baffling to a casual viewer.
There are of course far too many nods to the past to go into in the space of this review, from the reuse of the diner to the expansion of the Matrix mythology. However it is worth noting that the use of a (slightly modified) classic TARDIS was wonderful to see, and again, the additions to the mythology are well used. The idea that the original set we are all so familiar with is the default setting, and the Time Lords’ use of extraction, are all very interesting to long term fans, and give us a huge amount more to ponder over for years to come.
Ultimately though, these nods are not what the story is concerned with, in much the same way that is isn’t concerned with being stand alone. It has no cause to be, and is so intrinsically linked with the rest of the development of the series that it would seem unfair to try and pass a judgement on it in comparison tot he prior episode in the same way that it would feel unfair to try and isolate the last verse of a song. It draws everything together to a hugely satisfying conclusion and in doing so, more than any other recent series, makes you feel that the series has to be judged as a whole rather than as the sum of it’s parts.
All of which leaves us with only one real question: where next? It’s been made no secret that Moffat had originally been looking at exiting the show around now, but with those plans on hold, a change of tone won’t come with a new production team alone. The upcoming Christmas special seems to reflect the need for a change given its apparent screwball comedy nature, and while I don’t necessarily long for a change from what we’ve had this series, I recognise the need to do so to maintain the show’s longevity.
For every fan that loves the tone that this series has taken, there will be another who finds the slower pace and darker tone removed from their version of the show, and long for a lighter affair with more monsters and stand alone tales that are less reliant on continuing plot strands. Is this better? Well that depends entirely on your point of view and what you consider to be “your” Doctor Who. For many of this site’s writers and I would wager, readers as well, this series has perhaps been the strongest since the shows return.
Change will be inevitable, but we shouldn’t deride those who enjoy it when it comes if it is not to our taste, nor should we mourn what we feel have been lost from the highs of this series. If this presented nearly everything you want from your Doctor Who, then count it as a high achievement that over fifty years on, the show is still capable of surprising; and whatever comes next, it is sure to do so again.