This review of the Doctor Who finale contains spoilers. Do not read unless you’ve seen the episode. But, do whatever you want, it’s your life.
I can’t believe it’s over already. I suppose having a series full of two-parters will make any stretch go by faster, but the ninth series of the rebooted Doctor Who seems to have flown by. I reckon time flies when you’re having fun, right? And all year I’ve been singing the praises of Peter Capaldi‘s sophomore outing which, up to now, has consisted of 10 episodes I’ve liked if not loved and one episode I’ve truly hated. Still a very good ratio. So how does the finale episode, “Hell Bent,” stack up? As far as I’m concerned, its only downfall is it wasn’t “Heaven Sent.”
After the surprise (unless you read BBC official plot synopses) reveal of Gallifrey at the end of last week, especially following Clara dying in “Face the Raven” and the Doctor’s subsequent long-way-round journey, fans were left to speculate to what great lengths he’d go to find retribution. Would he lay waste to the whole of Gallifrey? Was he indeed the prophesied Hybrid? Would he be able to save Clara from her fate? The answer to all of these questions, in true Steven Moffat fashion, is: Kinda?
Moffat does his usual expectation versus reality thing with the framing story, where the Doctor, complete with dusty boots, a new electric guitar, and his sonic sunglasses, ambles into a gas station diner in the middle of the Nevada desert. Nobody’s in there except the woman behind the counter… but it’s Clara! Or, at least we think it’s Clara. How could she be there if she’s dead? She seems not to know him. He relays the whole story to her and it’s only toward the end that we realize who the one with the missing memory is and how they got there. I’ll come back to this later, but I thought this framing device added a lyrical, elegiac air to the episode, more like a somber memory than, like last year’s finale, an urgent mission.
Director Rachel Talalay (who is, by the way, a brilliant genius who should direct for the show every year) gave the opening of this episode a western movie vibe from the Doctor in the diner in the desert to him trudging through the Gallifreyan landscape toward his true “home,” the barn that served as his resting place as a child, which was also where he took the Moment during the Time War. He’s peeved, let’s just say, and refuses to speak to any of the Time Lord military or High Council, even drawing a line in the sand at one point. The Time Lord President (Donald Sumpter) is none too pleased with any of the Doctor’s posturing and even orders his execution, which is flatly disobeyed by the military on hand. The Doctor won the Time War, after all, and saved all of Gallifrey. He may be overly confident in his order “Get off my planet,” but the Doctor seems to have earned that power.
We find out that the Time Lord President here is indeed Rassilon himself, last seen on screen in the horrible garbage known as “The End of Time,” there played by Timothy Dalton. And the Doctor, who was renowned through the Time War for not carrying a weapon, has Rassilon and the whole High Council banished, for having started the Time War in the first place, for attempting to destroy Earth that one time, and for the whole billions-of-years-in-a-confession-dial thing. You really can’t blame him, but it leaves open the possibility that they could return some day. Smart, long-term thinking. Also, he’s the Doctor.
But this gets us to the main crux of the episode: the Doctor is besought by the General (Ken Bones) to explain the Hybrid and stop it from destroying Gallifrey. Gallifrey is sitting at the very end of the universe, with time almost out anyway, and the Sisterhood of Karn led by Ohila (Clare Higgins) are there to witness/help given that they’re immortals. One must expect the company of other immortals at the end of things, ya see. The Doctor asks for an extraction, removing Clara from the moment just before her death, in between heartbeats even, in order to “help” him. She isn’t alive, has no pulse, but is there physically.
Of course, we soon learn that the Doctor doesn’t know anything about the Hybrid and all of this was just a ploy to find a way to save Clara. After all, he punched a wall for four-and-a-half billion years to get out of the confession dial all to try to save her. I love that Clara is mad at him about it. “Why would you do that to yourself?” she asks him. And later, once it’s clear that her not dying would do irrevocable damage to the space-time continuum, the Doctor still maintains he’s going to try to save her, because, using his repeated phrase, he has “duty of care.” The Doctor won’t stop trying to save her. He can’t. Even if she doesn’t want to be saved.
And this is what makes the title “Hell Bent” so appropriate. The Doctor is willing to tear apart space and time itself, become a mythical creature that unravels the time web, and generally destroy everything, just because he misses his friend. After stealing another TARDIS– wait!
Sidebar: I suppose I ought to mention the whole thing about the Matrix. This was something that was introduced in the 1977 story “The Deadly Assassin,” where the Doctor is called back to Gallifrey by a vision to prevent an assassination. At any rate, the Matrix is where every Time Lord’s memories are uploaded for quick reference. The Doctor enters the Matrix in that story, and it’s much like the film The Matrix with a strange construct of a location and rules that don’t adhere to logic. In this story, the physical place where the Matrix resides is the Cloister. This is where my least favorite stuff in the episode happens. It’s a very Moffat thing to have needless creatures – in this case, the Wraiths – and is equally dumb to depict trapped Daleks, Cybermen, and Weeping Angels just for the sake of scares. That all felt unnecessary to me. But, anyway. Sidebar over.
After stealing another TARDIS, the factory setting one that looks like the First Doctor’s, Clara and the Doctor try to go as far forward as they can to break Clara out of her extraction. But they can’t. There are four knocks (like in “End of Time”) and the Doctor goes out to talk to “Me.” Oh, how Moffat must loved getting to play the pronoun game this series. Maisie Williams returns again, apparently the last immortal creature in the universe as it’s about to implode. They quickly discuss what must have been every fan’s query: Who was the Hybrid? Lots of people thought it was Me herself, being half human/half Mire. Others thought it referred to the Doctor’s TV Movie assertion that he’s half-human on his mother’s side. Both of these theories are brought up, and even swept aside (“Does it matter?”) before we get what I think is both a cheat and a perfectly valid answer.
The Hybrid is the Doctor and Clara together. It might not be; it might have been just a prophecy that was never going to come true, but the effect is still the same. After all, the episode points out, who was it that got the Doctor and Clara together? It was Missy/the Master, a “lover of chaos” who even tried to give the Doctor an army of undead Cybermen to complete his task. I can buy that quite a bit, actually. It’s cool that the “villain” of the piece ended up being someone who isn’t even in it.
And so the Doctor realizes he has to put it all to an end, by wiping her memory of him. It’d be easy for him to do; he’s done it before, but this time, Clara puts her foot down. She demands to keep her memories because that’s all that she’s got and they were the best times in her life. How could she just forget that? Leaving it to “chance,” but I suspect actually not, the Doctor and Clara hit the device simultaneously and it ends up that the Doctor’s the one who loses his memory of Clara, which is actually for the best. He’s Hell Bent, after all.
So we return to the diner (which they establish looks like the same one that Matt Smith went to with Amy and Rory…because it is; there’s a real diner like that in Cardiff so it’s easy to film at) and the realization that the Doctor doesn’t remember Clara at all, except the absence of her in his mind, and the sad song he plays on the guitar. We had assumed Clara was the one with no memory, but she remembers all of it. Quite sad, but she also still has to die. And the Diner is the other TARDIS. In a very Moffat-esque ending that doesn’t diminish the importance of Clara’s “sad and beautiful” death, she and Me decide to go have adventures of their own before returning to Gallifrey to return her the extraction point. Sweet, I think. And fitting; Clara finally gets to be the Doctor. Maybe they’ll get a spinoff series (which they won’t) called Me and Me.
Despite a few things I didn’t care for, I thought “Hell Bent” was a very fitting close to a fabulous series. How can the ninth year of a show be its best yet? Everybody is firing on all cylinders and it all cooked. Except that one squeaky wheel, which we never have to watch again because it didn’t actually happen. 11 great episodes! And only 20 days to wait until the Christmas special, which looks like a ridiculous hoot of a silly thing, with River Song even.
Let me know your thoughts on “Hell Bent” and Series 9 as a whole in the comments below! Or hit me up on Twitter because I love talking about this stuff.
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor as well as a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. He also has spent way too long thinking about Doctor Who, so help him out with some Twitter follows.