Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Maisie Williams, Donald Sumpter, Clare Higgins, Ken Bones, T'Nia Miller, Malachi Kirby, Linda Broughton
Transmitted 5th December, BBC One
This review is based on a preview copy of the episode. It contains plot spoilers.
Clara Oswald was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
Opening this review with a misquotation from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is not arguing for a direct parallel between that book and Hell Bent. There are echoes, however, in the tripartite division of the story into past, present and future sections in which the Doctor is, if possible, both Marley’s Ghost and Scrooge. He confronts his past, attempts to reshape his present, and is surprised by the questions posed in and by his future in which his past, in the sense of his memory of events, is actively reshaped. Throughout Steven Moffat displays preoccupations familiar from his previous work from inside and outside Doctor Who, while also making inventive use of elements inherited more generally from Doctor Who’s past.
Several episodes in this series, particularly those where Moffat is a credited writer, have emphasised the centrality of Clara to the Doctor’s world. For Clara, things seem to have been slightly different. I’ve complained in reviews here and elsewhere that Clara seems to have been marginalised at some points in the season, with several episodes giving her little to do or writing her out almost completely. Hell Bent begins with a double-bluff concerning her which draws on long-term viewers’ memories of her introduction and first season arc while teasing about the Doctor’s intentions and backstory as well as the very existence of Clara in the narrative. Clara Oswald, it turns out, is as good a performer as Jenna Coleman can make her, and that is very good indeed; and the Doctor is not as in control of the situation as we might at first assume. All this is for a later revelation.
As it is, the sight of the Doctor travelling across (one of) the United States of America in a stationwagon carrying his guitar journeys some way towards rehabilitating one of the (for me at least) less successful set pieces of the opening episode, the introduction of the Doctor seemingly in a state of midlife crisis playing guitar on a tank. In contrast the Doctor with guitar here is a different kind of folk hero-musician, not anxiously playing to a crowd both appreciative and oblivious in the arena but one with a quieter and introspective ambivalence, who could have been one of the Bob Dylan figures in Todd Haynes's film I’m Not There.
The Dylanesque Doctor compliments the American styling of Gallifrey. This Americanism isn’t simplistic: it’s an American-ness filtered through non-American readings and reconstructions, appropriate for a Doctor Who made in Cardiff and in this case Lanzarote. Shedding his red velvet coat after his return home, the Doctor adopts a demeanour reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name but an outfit owing more to the classic western, including a character whose actions reflect upon genre morality and authority, Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in High Noon. Spaghetti western (the location for Gallifrey is politically if not geographically southern European) receives a transfusion of Hollywood introspection. The art deco stylings of the Time Lord city (its name another American reference), if coloured green, could easily represent the Emerald City of a still-potent American myth, The Wizard of Oz. The parched landscape isn’t just that of the spaghetti western but of another British institution’s idea of America, 2000AD’s Judge Dredd and the America between the megacities of its early epic The Cursed Earth.
Gallifrey as America is by no means new. The barn introduced in The Day of the Doctor and revisited in Listen has always had something of the American Gothic about it. The Outsiders of The Invasion of Time were styled after native Americans (a costume intended more appropriately for the feline natives of Gallifrey in the story which The Invasion of Time replaced). In The Deadly Assassin it’s explained that the Doctor’s exile to Earth was the result of the Celestial Intervention Agency’s actions, Gallifrey’s CIA undertaking dirty tricks in an era of post-Watergate scepticism. It’s where we first hear the city of the Time Lords referred to as the Capitol, the American term for legislative buildings. So Hell Bent is built on decades of layering.
This is a 2000AD-influenced British Marvel depiction of Gallifrey, too. Gone are the voids of The End of Time and (at first) the wrecked landscape of The Day of the Doctor. Instead the Gallifrey whose Capitol is contained within a sphere, introduced in The Sound of Drums but recalling artwork from early 1980s Doctor Who Monthly, is extended and explored, the outfits of the military recollecting the uniforms seen in the Steve Parkhouse/Mick Austin era of the Doctor Who Monthly comic strip. Later in the episode, the conversation the Doctor has in the Matrix Cloister with Clara about the young Time Lord who broke in there and who turns out to have been the Doctor himself is a reminder of something this reader at least felt invited to infer at the end of the Steve Moore/Steve Dillon Doctor Who Weekly comic strip The Stolen TARDIS.
Like his High Noon precursor Will Kane, the Doctor doesn’t cower in the face of a gun, though Kane didn’t have to face one as large as one on the Time Lord military vessel. The insectoid appearance of the Time Lord craft have something vaguely of Starship Troopers about them, a reminder of how militarised a society Gallifrey had become during the Time War. The Doctor’s renunciation of his title at the end of Face the Raven gains more force here; Moffat is revisiting and perhaps also revising the War Doctor. The episode vividly depicts the authority the Doctor has as the man who won the Time War. The traveller is changed into a man of the people and the planet, seen eating a soup the colour of soil and sky. An interlude in the chamber of the high council is accompanied by music inspired by the Carmina Burana familiar from the Omen films. Negotiation strategies fail bringing the Time Lord Messiah, Rassilon, up against the Doctor as a morally certain Antichrist.
It’s appropriate that the Doctor proclaimed in publicity as a rebel Time Lord, who imports part of Peter Capaldi’s own life story as a post-punk musician into his identity, this should so completely undermine the rule of ‘Rassilon the Redeemer… Rassilon the Resurrected’. Anarchy in the Time Lords indeed. Donald Sumpter plays Rassilon as a reedier figure than Timothy Dalton, a more pensive and nervous incarnation, a war leader more bureaucratic than imperious. The Moffat/Sumpter Rassilon is capable of indulging and enjoying petty hatreds where the Russell T Davies-written Dalton Rassilon was coldly dismissive. Sumpter’s Rassilon is authoritative but fragile, as he has to be to be both followed and removed so early in the story.
The Doctor, meanwhile, is coldly tricksterish. On the basis of the first segment, viewers might have expected Hell Bent to be about the Doctor leading a rebellion of the socially excluded country dwellers on Gallifrey. The Capitol isn’t stormed; instead the Doctor becomes the de facto leader of a military coup, a coup where his allies don’t know where he is leading them. Capaldi is on superb form here as a Doctor who manages to be both testy academic dashing down a pupil and master of misdirection who sets up another red herring.
Part one of the story segues into the second part. The Doctor has dealt sufficiently with his past: he now needs to revise his present. The re-presentation of Clara’s death is played and delivered extremely well; Jenna Coleman’s reaction to the suspension of the raven and the sudden appearance of a duplicate Doctor flagged up the absurdity of the situation without diluting the horror of Clara’s death. The suspension of time is represented by the impression of analogue colour television ghosting, appropriate because from now on Clara is a Doctor Who-science version of a ghost. From the point of view of any observer trapped in the usual processes of time, she’s a duplicate of the Clara who we saw die in Face the Raven; but from the point of view of the Time Lord someone artificially extracted from time temporarily and always dependent on her return and death. The backlighting of the Doctor is reminiscent of the rescue of Caecilius and his family in The Fires of Pompeii, revisited in The Girl Who Died, a reminder that this Doctor regards himself as someone who saves people and of his real intentions in retrieving Clara. Of course he was going to try to save Clara; of course this was always his plan. Unfortunately sometimes people are ungrateful, particularly when they are being denied agency.
Triangulating the single-minded Doctor between a violated and understandably uncomfortable Clara and the decent and honourable General challenges the audience’s perception of the Doctor as hero and builds on the re-establishment of Clara as moral centre which occurred when she accepted her fate towards the end of Face the Raven. The Doctor’s destructive insistence on his own needs is well contrasted with the politeness and sympathy shown by the General: ‘You too, Sir,’ in the face of death is generous. The Doctor’s dismissal of death on Gallifrey as ‘man flu’ is nonsensical and flies in the face of the Doctor’s own desperation at what seems to be the end of his life in The Time of the Doctor. The regeneration of the General as a woman is a rebuke to this comment, made more pointed by her relief at shaking off a masculine excess of ego, something from which the Doctor suffers. The whole sequence from Clara’s anger at the nature of her rescue to the General’s post-regenerative remarks gives much for students of Doctor Who’s attitude to gender to consider. More broadly, it’s with moments like these that the picture of the Doctor as off the rails and forgetting his principles is coloured in. Although I’d seen ‘Female General’ in the cast list I’d not expected that she would be the same character; farewell to Ken Bones who was a touchstone of solidity in the best Lethbridge-Stewart tradition in The Day of the Doctor and whose placing as e voice of Gallifrey in The Time of the Doctor gave him a centrality in the ongoing myth which suggested we would see him again, if (as turns out) only once. Hello too to T'Nia Miller whose casting is another this year to maintain Doctor Who's links with the works of Russell T Davies, and who carries forward the General with laconic efficiency.
In Doctor Who, emotional and moral anguish needs to be offset by adventure, so the Doctor takes Clara into the Matrix Cloisters to dodge monsters or prove his affinity with them. The trapped Dalek begging for euthanasia, the Weeping Angels and the Cyberman are all reminders of Clara’s timelooped, undead condition. The revelations about the Confession Dial and the way it operates cast some light on the confessional purpose of the interspersed diner scenes. In the Cloister, Clara returns to her old role as the Doctor’s manager-therapist, acting for both of them when asking Ohila and the Time Lords to tell her how long the Doctor was in the Confession Dial, and successfully developing a strategy to allow the Doctor to steal a TARDIS and restart his future. She also, crucially, deploys a phrase the Doctor previously used to include himself and Ashildr: ‘people like you and me’. The Doctor is treating Clara as someone to whom he has a ‘duty of care’, but his actions, none greater than extracting her from her timestream, both neglect this duty and ignore the metamorphoses Clara has undergone.
There’s a continual and cumulative sense that the Doctor’s achievements in this story are anything but, and not only because they are presented as flashbacks linking the Doctor’s uncertain reminiscences in the diner. The Doctor’s refashioning of his present ends with Ohila treating his flight from Gallifrey with contempt. The Doctor seems to want incompatible things from his future, promising Clara renewed adventures in time and space while saying he needs to make an adjustment beforehand – wiping her memory – and desperately heading further and further forward in time in the hope that her heartbeat will start.
The third section of the story suggests that the only future on offer in following this route is the last dying ember of the universe sustained by Ashildr. Maisie Williams is found reigning over the ruins of Gallifrey in the manner of a supremely confident queen of a school sixth form, more socially confident than the Doctor but academically the pupil who has outshone her teacher, who was after all more absent than not. The Doctor finally addresses her as Me; a concession to her own sense of identity at last and accepting that after billions of years his memories of her can’t define her. Peter Capaldi plays the Doctor as fond of her and angry with her too. Their discussion sees the Doctor’s days like crazy paving meet Me’s slow road: summer can’t last for ever, Me has learned, but for the Doctor it can and must. Her questioning about his secrets – the half-human question is pointedly raised and tantalisingly remains open – reveals that the Doctor and Clara together are the Hybrid, if it exists at all.
The painful relationship break-up which ensues is most agonising because Clara successfully asserts her agency in a way which has to harm the Doctor’s sense of who he is. The Doctor, at the end of the universe and ‘answerable to no-one’, has to be threatened into accepting that he is answerable to himself and to his friends. With Clara, he can’t be the Doctor as she and he want him to be. Nevertheless, this final decision on who will lose their memory is agreed together using a Time Lord device which it turns out Clara has successfully reprogrammed, despite the Doctor’s doubts. There are immediate regrets, but the conversation restates several of the essentials of modern Doctor Who. Important is the reminder that no-one is ever safe; the Doctor has taken on the role of Jackie to Clara’s Rose and needs to be relieved of that nisidentification, brutally. Also important is the idea that if you are cowardly, you must make amends: the Doctor has sacrificed his memory for Clara, perhaps, but the new authorities he left behind on Gallifrey now have a case for restitution too, amongst others.
The Doctor’s theft of a TARDIS, complete withPeter Brachacki-inspired décor, was a sign that his quest for his future was an attempt to recover a past he could no longer have. As Me said, Clara was dead and gone by her own choice; keeping her alive and not alive and without her memories of her time with the Doctor was no existence at all. However, it turns out that the new/old TARDIS can be a new start for two people and the departure of Clara and Me in their TARDIS makes the nods to Warriors’ Gate seen by some in Heaven Sent a pointer to the final circumstances of Clara’s departure, having some parallels to that of Romana in that she (and Me) become alternative Doctors, on the run with a TARDIS with a broken chameleon circuit. It’s also part of an uplifting conclusion after a grim fifty-odd minutes.
The absence of dialogue as the Doctor reconciles his immediate experiences emphasises the visual. The Doctor has been poised between superhuman and everyman since the beginning of the series. His discomfort at the dematerialisation of the diner around him and the revelation of the landscape of dust and sand and rock is crushing, as if the Doctor is a desert traveller who finds the oasis they have discovered is a mirage. However, the reunion of Time Lord and TARDIS is beautifully choreographed, the ship emerging from left as if it’s the only tangible thing in a dream world. The Doctor’s awakening of his ship is a recovery of his own sense of self after four and a half billion years of his own time, using the same visual language of lights switching on as used in Heaven Sent to mark return to consciousness. The new sonic screwdriver (not quite sure what the merchandisers will make of this one, but we will see) is given to the Doctor as if by the Lady of the Lake to King Arthur, rippling out from the surface of the console. Rigsy’s painting and Clara’s final chalked message assure the audience that there will be some relic of Clara in the Doctor’s future even as her image is blown away on a Nevada wind.
Is Hell Bent successful? This partly depends on how well one responds to the episodic structure. It is jarring to find characters being established and then disappearing quickly from the plot, such as Donald Sumpter’s Rassilon; Ohila, the General and Gastron disappear from the story without the audience being certain that their role in it is over. (As an aside, Steven Moffat’s development of the ties of obligation between the Doctor and the Sisterhood of Karn is intriguing – Ohila’s line about loving fireworks appears to say she has come to Gallifrey as a spectator, but might also be a fannish reference to the ‘Mighty Atom and a Thunder Flash’ the Doctor leaves behind to help sustain the sacred flame at the end of The Brain of Morbius.) The audience is deliberately led up a few garden paths before establishing that the story is both a revenge and a rescue narrative, and also a continuation in a series of new landscapes of the quest begun, over and over again, in Heaven Sent. After supervising a closed, repetitive world in Heaven Sent, Rachel Talalay and her team make the best use of a series of contrasting wide landscapes and closed worlds, all in their ways representing different stages of contemplation.
There are obvious criticisms. The story is fuel for those who remonstrate with Steven Moffat for not letting the dead stay dead. The extension of Clara’s life through Time Lord intervention isn’t a denial of the decision she made to take responsibility and die, though. The story works to make the Doctor understand why Clara died, and when he realises he can’t accept it, realising his is the wound that must be cauterised. If the flexibility of Doctor Who can’t be used to explore death, then it is being restrained from dramatic purpose, and this does. Clara and Me have both stopped the Doctor’s denial of their deaths making them into victims of his all-powerful but uncontrolled compassion and it’s right that they collaborate in his rehabilitation at the end. If the Doctor, as we have been told repeatedly since 2005, changes lives, the people he meets have to be shown to change his to validate Doctor Who as drama.
Doctor Who is more than a drama series; it’s a pan-media, pop culture event. There were several points in this episode where it seemed to be in open conversation with its own media coverage and reception. If so, there’s some acceptance of criticism: Clara’s declaration that she can’t trust the Doctor when he shouts feels like an acknowledgement of audience resistance to the Malcolm Tucker-like ‘Shuttity-up’ Doctor of Peter Capaldi’s first season, and an admission that this element was overdone. Like Peter Capaldi the actor, the Doctor can’t be the Doctor all the time, but unlike Peter Capaldi the actor he has (at least to our knowledge) no episodes of Veep to go and direct. There’s perhaps something too about Capaldi’s comment on his 1970s fanhood, that if you grow up with Doctor Who you have to leave it. Capaldi was an active fan before the era of Longleat and Doctor Who fandom’s discovery that it could be its own rock and roll; but it’s tempting (though not necessarily in the text) to read Clara here as the fan who recognises the addiction, makes the break, but finds after a dialogue there were things in her existence with the Doctor worth pursuing on their own terms. Memories become stories become songs.
As often in recent Doctor Who, the conclusion of the season could have been better served by the episodes which led up to it. The coalition between Missy and the Daleks hinted at in The Witch’s Familiar fails to materialise here, but may well in the future. Indeed, there is a point where the viewer might expect Missy to wander in from the shadows and gloat at what appears to be her triumph, though perhaps the Doctor does not quite go far enough to dramatically justify it. I think I’d have liked another Ashildr episode between The Woman Who Lived and Face the Raven, probably involving Clara to give the two women more of a rapport. The legend of the Hybrid could have been better-exposed throughout the series too, even if its development had to be left to the end.
One more problem is illustrated by Clara's reference to the Chronolock and the viewer being shown those '000' digits showing that her time was up. There's no explanation for new viewers or those who weren't concentrating as to what this is. It's fine for Doctor Who to be uncompromising, but at the same time it needs to be accessible. The absence of information for viewers who didn't see Face the Raven adds to the disquiet felt in some circles that a more welcoming, happier Doctor Who might be more successful as Saturday night television. Currently it's a bit of an outlier, though still more successful at winning and keeping viewers than some critics will have us think.
Otherwise, Hell Bent rattles through a lot of story at great pace and with a more single-minded determination than most other Steven Moffat finales. Its title is appropriate in so many ways, alluding not only to the Doctor’s determination but how his purpose corrupts him, as well as to the warped society of the Time Lords and Rassilon, the destination of the end of the universe, and the rescue of Clara into a half-life which doesn’t restore her to her former state. It occurs to me late in the review that this guitar-playing Doctor is an Orpheus in Hades, but it’s his mistake to keep looking back; Clara is no Eurydice, and neither is Me. For all the sleight of hand with plotting (I’m not sure at this point whether the Matrix Cloister labyrinth scene really justified itself in terms of whether the Doctor and Clara really needed to be there, but it played the part of a world of the dead more than adequately and gave the monsters some exposure) Hell Bent satisfactorily ended the Doctor’s relationship with Clara as we have known it (despite what we’ve been told, there is potential for a reunion) and seems to have completed the Doctor’s two-season long quest to rediscover himself. A less introverted and better-signposted arc in the future would be welcome, but Hell Bent succeeded on more than its own terms both a series and serial drama and as retelling and extension of folk tale.