“Hell Bent” was destined to be a polarizing episode—regardless of quality. Not only is Steven Moffat writing a season finale, but he’s writing a season finale featuring the last appearance of a companion, after airing what may go down as one of the greatest episodes in the show’s history (“Heaven Sent”). Certain viewers are going to flat-out hate this episode. It’s not difficult to understand why. If, for instance, you had given me the broad strokes of the episodes—The Doctor returns to Gallifrey only to again flee, so that he can figure out a way to restore Clara to life—I would have been underwhelmed. But here’s the funny thing—it totally and completely worked for me. It’s as if Steven Moffat has taken notes from not only his years as showrunner, but from the Russell T. Davies’ years as well (more on that later) in terms of how to properly say goodbye to a companion.
Unlike the period of the show spearheaded by Davies, which frequently dealt in heartbreaking, no-win scenarios—all stemming from The Doctor’s decision to commit mass genocide before the Time War claimed a billion more lives—Steven Moffat’s era has thrived on The Doctor finding loopholes. In Season Five, he left behind clues for Amy Pond to remember and reclaim him from the cracks in time. In Season Six, he discovered a way of escaping his seemingly inevitable assassination. In Season Seven, he found a way to extract Clara, unharmed, from his time stream. Finally, in “The Time of The Doctor,” he cheated his prophesized death on Trenzalore. Indeed, “Hell Bent” probably most resembles Season Six’s “The Wedding of River Song,” in that the entire hour basically boils down to The Doctor desperately chasing a resolution to a single problem (incidentally, both “problems” concern moments that have been “frozen”). That being said, unlike that Season Six finale, which felt overstuffed and underdeveloped for large stretches, “Hell Bent” is a much more focused affair.
The first stretch of the episode finds The Doctor returning to the American diner from “The Impossible Astronaut” (yet another callback to Season Six). Looking like a Scottish Johnny Cash with his sunglasses on and a guitar slung over his shoulder, he enters to find what looks to be Clara in a waitress uniform. For whatever reason, she does not seem to recognize him. As the two get to chatting, The Doctor begins to weave a story of how he lost his close friend, Clara. This narrative device succinctly announces the episode’s intent. What follows will not be a bombastic space adventure, but, instead, a memory.
We flashback to The Doctor on Gallifrey, where he returns to the farmhouse from “Day of the Doctor.” Learning of his arrival, a regenerated President Rassilon (Donald Sumpter, taking over from Timothy Dalton) and the High Council send out escorts to take him back to the city. In the face of these demands, however, The Doctor pulls a Clint Eastwood and silently stares them down. In a nice bit of world building, he is joined by several lower-class Gallifreyans, as well as several members of the Time Lord military, who see The Doctor as a war hero. Rassilon huffs and puffs but, in the end, The Doctor clearly holds all the cards. He subsequently strips the President of his authority and banishes him. This is one instance where it becomes hard for me to defend the Gallifrey material, given that Timothy Dalton’s Rassilon from “The End of Time” provided the show with a memorable and menacing villain for The Doctor. Here, Rassilon is reduced to an impotent Daffy Duck figure, who can only rant and rave before The Doctor’s Bugs Bunny casually dismisses him.
It’s only after Rassilon’s banishment that The Doctor reveals the real reason he wanted to infiltrate Gallifrey: to use their time extraction technology to pull Clara out of her time stream in the split second before the raven took her life. Naturally, Clara is confused and scared, as her body is essentially frozen in that split second (she doesn’t even have a pulse). Escaping the Time Lord, The Doctor heads with Clara to the Cloister, an area underground the city where a vast information matrix is stored. Here, The Doctor hopes to find a way to restore Clara fully to life. The Time Lords pursue, shouting that, by keeping Clara alive and disrupting a “fixed point,” The Doctor risks tearing apart all of space and time.
It’s at this point that Moffat makes clear that The Doctor’s long awaited return to Gallifrey, far from being the epic, Star Wars-esque space opera one would imagine, merely stands as a misdirection for a much smaller, more poignant story about a man who just wants to have his friend back. Yes, some people will no doubt be upset that Gallifrey amounts to little more than a launching pad. And, yes, it’s hard to argue that the episode’s first 20 or so minutes don’t feel a bit like a bait-and-switch, since it’s not made entirely clear whether The Doctor wanted revenge (i.e. banishing Rassilon and assuming command), or simply to worm his way to the Extraction device. Of course, that’s not to say the two couldn’t dovetail, but that approach does effectively muddy the waters a bit.
Stealing a TARDIS, The Doctor and Clara travel to what effectively stands as the final moments of time itself. Still, Clara’s pulse does not return. Outside, The Doctor finds the only other being that could have possibly survived the ravages of time: Ashildr/Me. Now face-to-face, the two begin discussing their theories about the hybrid, and Moffat engages in some truly delightful fan trolling. At the conclusion of last week’s episode, The Doctor’s claim that the “hybrid is me” held two distinct connotations—the hybrid is Me (since, she’s a combination of Mire and human) or he was referring to himself (which would confirm the “half human on my mother’s side” comment from the 1996 Paul McGann TV movie). Both theories are tossed about, only to be disregarded in favor of one that, because it’s Moffat, stretches the meaning of the word “hybrid”—the hybrid is not one person but two. Specifically, The Doctor and Clara. So long as The Doctor continues to travel with Clara, he will risk spreading chaos across the universe. The only other person to put two-and-two together was Missy, which retroactively explains why she brought the two together in the first place way back in “The Bells of St. John.”
The Doctor soon reveals to Me/Ashidlr that the only way to stop any eminent threat to the time stream is to erase Clara’s memory of him. Upon hearing this, Clara toys (or claims to have toyed) with The Doctor’s amnesia machine. The Doctor agrees to a compromise—they both press buttons on the machine. By the end, one of them will have totally forgotten the other. After a few seconds, The Doctor collapses. It’s here we return to the diner and realize the truth—it’s not that Clara doesn’t remember The Doctor, but rather The Doctor doesn’t remember her. Sure, he has the vague notion of traveling with someone named Clara and a basic grasp on the adventures they had together, but nothing definitive. It’s hard not to see this as Moffat’s way of writing his own version of Donna Noble’s departure in Season Four. Donna’s tenure as companion came to an end with The Doctor erasing her memory but, in that instance, it effectively eliminated all her character growth over the past year. By reversing the situation, Moffat has assured that Clara remains empowered by her experiences, whilst The Doctor still maintains a general outline of his friend. “Memories become stories when we forget them,” Clara tells The Doctor, who noodles Clara’s theme on his guitar. “Maybe some of them become songs.”
As I mentioned earlier, Clara’s “resurrection” is bound to cause no shortage of controversy. Some will no doubt see it as an undoing of the big emotional moments from “Face the Raven” and “Heaven Sent,” not to mention a cheap way to avoid actually dealing with death. Here’s where I’d disagree. Sure, there are people who will maintain that a permanent, tragic death represents something approaching mature, adult storytelling, but Doctor Who has always been, with very few exceptions, a show about the light at the end of the tunnel. While plenty of shows bathe in the dark waters of tragedy and loss (Maisie Williams’ presence brings to mind Game of Thrones), Doctor Who finds ways to inspire. In many ways, Clara does “die” in this episode. Only, instead of actually passing through to the other side, she ceases to become The Doctor’s companion (both literally and in The Doctor’s own mind), and becomes the actual Doctor—complete with a TARDIS (now stuck in the form of the diner) and a companion (Ashildr). Thematically, this an end that has been pre-visioned since Season Eight when the show first began explicitly toying with the idea of Clara wanting to be like The Doctor. Your appreciation of this concept will depend largely on how you feel about Clara, but—and this is coming from someone who felt her story never cohered properly—one has to admit that this is Moffat’s intrinsic story construction at its absolute finest.
No, “Hell Bent” is not as good as “Heaven Sent.” Then again, few things will ever be. In its defense, however, it has a lot more to juggle, even if a good portion of the balls in the air are simply there to divert our attention. What’s important, in the end, is that the episode provides a legitimate emotional experience. In this way, it does what all the best science-fiction does—takes a big ideas and makes them small and personal. And so, for the second time this year, we wave goodbye to Jenna Coleman’s Clara as she shoots off into space, off to have adventures.
Run, you clever girl.