Doctor Who Review: Hell Bent

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Run you clever boy, and be a Doctor.

And now we’ve finally reached the finale episode of series 9, bringing the latest season of Doctor Who to it’s close. After the closing scenes of last week’s episode, and the various trailers and promotional clips that were released across the week, I was pretty excited for this story. Yes, I know, this shouldn’t be such a big deal.

But it’s the return of Gallifrey. After ten years of ruminations on the importance of Gallifrey and its legacy, to return to the planet of the Time Lords is something that’s going to create some serious expectations. Particularly so, in fact, when you consider the inclusion of the Hybrid; a new addition for this series, carrying the potential to make us re-evaluate everything we thought we knew about the Doctor Who mythos. In fact, that was the promise: Moffat and Capaldi were both insisting that, with certain revelations, we’d never see the Doctor the same way again.

Did Hell Bent deliver, then? I’d say it did, actually, albeit not in the way I was expecting.

One of the things I found fascinating about the Gallifrey plot (beginning as it did after the cold open) was how long they held off on making the Doctor actually speak. That’s perhaps an odd thing to pick up on – I don’t think I’ve seen it discussed elsewhere yet – but it’s something that stood out to me as I was watching it. Obviously, it’s a very direct contrast to Heaven Sent, an episode which is nothing but the Doctor talking, and I think that’s part of what makes it so effective in establishing a very commanding presence for the Doctor in these sequences. He commands respect and authority simply though his presence, and that makes the audience feel his presence as well.

Similarly, the way the Doctor dealt with Rassilon and the High Council was unexpected, but I think it was effective in its simplicity. I think the majority of people were expecting that to form the entirety of the plot – The End of Time Part Three, as it were – but in the end, the Doctor simply kicked them off the planet by organising what would probably be considered his fastest revolution yet. It’s actually helped by the aforementioned silence, because this becomes more believable as the Doctor’s authority is emphasised; it’s ultimately a clever, swift way to deal with the Gallifrey problem before moving onto the main plot.

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It was smart, I think, to open in Nevada, rather than on Gallifrey, with this framing device. It turns the entire episode into one of Moffat’s favourite tropes – the puzzle box, with the layered reveal of the truth, pulling back every level of misdirection and obfuscation.

Even after Clara’s death in Face the Raven, I knew she’d be in this episode. In part because of things like casting announcements, but moreso because pictures of Jenna-Louise Coleman in her waitress outfit had been released, and we’d not seen that scene in the series thus far. My assumption, and I think that of many others, had been that this was another echo of Clara; the Doctor would go to visit her, as part of a final goodbye, which would form a quiet, intimate coda to the series after the loud bombast of the Gallifreyan Western. It would have been, I think, a rather bittersweet, melancholy goodbye, that could have fit Clara quite well. Moffat likely expected people to make this assumption, and played into it accordingly.

But then, halfway through the episode, the implication shifts. Because the Doctor starts talking about how he’d had to “wipe Clara’s memory”, the immediate assumption is that we’re now seeing her post memory wipe. And, well, of course that’s the assumption – why wouldn’t it be? We have every reason to believe that we’re now seeing the Doctor and Clara, post mind wipe, and this is all building up to a tragic ending. It’s clever, really; the framing device makes it seem like the story we’re watching is inevitable, but in fact, it’s the greatest sleight of hand of all. We’ve no idea where we’re going or what we’re going to see.

Because, in the end, it’s not a tragic ending. It’s the most ultimately triumphant ending a companion has ever received, and perhaps the most fitting of them all for Clara Oswald, the Impossible Girl. It’s a brilliant final twist; throughout the whole of this season, we’d been lead to believe that Clara becoming more and more like the Doctor would lead to her downfall. In the end, though, it lead to her becoming a Doctor in her own right, travelling the universe in a rackety old TARDIS, with a companion right by her side. It’s beautiful in terms of what it implies, and allows, for Clara Oswald – just like in her first trip in the TARDIS, way back in The Rings of Akhaten, Clara ends with thousands of different possibilities ahead of her.

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It’s not just the story and the writing that works about this episode, though. It has two other core strengths; the visuals, and the acting.

Once again, Rachel Talalay has done a fantastic job of simply making this episode look beautiful. Every scene is just so nice to look at, you know? From the drylands of Gallifrey, to the interior of the classic TARDIS, there’s never anything on screen that looks less than perfect. (In the most recent issue of DWM [other Doctor Who Magazines do exist, probably] Talalay talks about how the classic TARDIS set was a bit of a nuisance to film on, primarily due to the fact it was constructed for 1960s style TV and filming. It’s an interesting account of the production of this episode, and made me appreciate what we saw on screen even more.)

Of course, with the acting, we’ve got to salute our two main leads: Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. Capaldi was on fine form once again, demonstrating the same skills we saw on display last week. Capaldi did a great job of conveying the breadth of the Doctor’s emotions this week; his rage at the Time Lords, his desperation to save Clara, and, most poignant of all, his discussion with Clara at the end, unaware of who she really was. Capaldi did an amazing job this episode – and indeed this season – but it was those final scenes that really demonstrated his prowess. You can see it in his eyes; Capaldi takes those scenes, already written wonderfully by Moffat, and elevates them to 110%.

But he’s not the only one who does that – Jenna Coleman is just as skilled, and gives just as compelling a performance. Once again, there’s a danger that I’d be reduced to simply listing scenes – “Don’t you trust me?” “Not when you’re shouting, no.” – so I want to highlight, once again, the final goodbye between the Doctor and Clara in the diner. Where the Doctor doesn’t even realise he’s saying goodbye, not to her. Jenna Coleman gives a great performance; she does a wonderful job of showing the audience Clara’s reluctance to let the Doctor go, and appearing to still want to tell him the truth. It’s very well done.

In the end, then, Hell Bent is one of Moffat’s best series finales. It’s full of neat little touches; something I really loved was the use of Clara’s Theme throughout, which is one of Murray Gold’s most beautiful scores. (And an on-screen depiction of a cross-race, cross-gender regeneration! Wonderful stuff.) While I might have perhaps liked a little more resolution to the Gallifrey plotline, in the end, we got an intensely emotional, intimate plot, about the end of a friendship, performed by talented actors, on a beautiful set.

And I think it’s difficult to ask for more than that.

10/10

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

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Star Wars Retrospective: The Phantom Menace

star wars the phantom menace review logo episode i george lucas prequel trilogy

So, The Force Awakens is coming out in about a week’s time. I am rather excited, I must admit. It looks to be very promising, and I’m confident that it can deliver on that promise. I’m somewhat apprehensive, admittedly, but for the most part, I am in fact rather confident with regards to the whole affair. You could say I’ve got a good feeling about this.

I thought that now, then, would be a good time to rewatch all the previous Star Wars movies. Obviously, they’re films I love, but… it’s been a very long time since I’ve actually seen them all. I think it probably is about a decade since I have actually seen them – I was a huge fan around the age of 7, but then, also around the age of 7, Doctor Who returned to television. And so my allegiance shifted, from one sci-fi fantasy great to another.

There was actually some debate, internally, as to whether or not I should be watching the movies in their chronological order (Originals, then Prequels), or the story order (Prequels, then Originals), or perhaps even the Machete Order. Ultimately, I elected to follow the story order – the prequels have been around more or less my entire life, and I’ve always thought of them as following this order. It didn’t seem entirely accurate, in terms of my own personal Star Wars experience, to watch them out of order. (Though in hindsight I probably did watch the Originals first.)

As I was watching this movie (and I imagine this will be particularly true of all the prequels) I was particularly conscious of the reputation of this movie; The Phantom Menace is the most loathed of all the prequels, after all. But the thing is, I’ve always enjoyed it – at least, I enjoyed it ten years ago. (I didn’t even have a problem with Jar Jar!) So, I was interested to see whether or not, watching it now, as a much more critically minded individual, it would reach my lofty standards for different forms of media and whatnot.

Honestly? I actually thought it was alright.

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I mean, don’t get me wrong, I certainly had issues with it. (And I have ideas for how it could have been improved, which will soon form the basis of their own post, so follow me and check back in a few days for that.) It’s just that… none of my issues really aligned with the ones people typically point out?

The dialogue wasn’t awful – there were definitely clunky lines, and the script probably would have benefitted from an extra comb through during pre-production. I still don’t mind Jar-Jar, although having rewatched this movie I’m a lot less convinced of the Darth Darth Binks theory.  Lack of a protagonist isn’t an issue I really saw here (it’s an ensemble film, duh), and nor was an over reliance on the lore from the original trilogy – I quite liked Jabba the Hutt being in it, for example. (Also, rather hilariously, Jabba the Hutt is credited as playing himself in the movie. That made me laugh. I wonder if he has an IMDB page?)

In fact, you know, there was a lot to like and appreciate. The movie has a great design to it – it genuinely does look really impressive, and they do a wonderful job of making each of the three planets (Naboo, Tatooine, and Coruscant) all appear very distinct from one another, and imply very different cultures within each different planet. Even the CGI didn’t look awful to me, to be honest – certain bits had definitely aged poorly, but on the whole, it’s not actually particularly intrusive or anything. Physical models would likely have looked better, but they almost always do. Regardless, I think Lucas certainly deserves credit for pioneering this style of CGI use in movies.

The overarching story was actually rather impressive as well – or at least, I thought it was. Political machinations are a very different style of story to the precedent established by the Original Trilogy, but… well, duh? This is about the Republic, before it fell and became the Empire. By necessity, something like that will take a very different turn to the story of the rebellion. There were certainly aspects of the basic plot which were lacking, and at times the execution lead something to be desired, but honestly, I liked the general set up of the movie.

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Now, sure, on the flip side, there was stuff I didn’t like.

The Padme/Sabe “plot twist” was entirely superfluous at best, and verging on incomprehensible at worst. In case you’ve forgotten – which you may well have – there was a large chunk of the movie where they had Kiera Knightley pretend to be Natalie Portman, while Natalie Portman pretended to be Kiera Knightley. (Also, Natalie Portman dubbed over Kiera Knightley’s dialogue.) It’s a very weird little subplot, and as far as I can tell, it really doesn’t actually add anything to the story. You could definitely have taken that out, honestly.

(Plus… look, I know it’s cruel, but honestly, I can sort of understand why everyone thought Natalie Portman couldn’t act after this movie. I’m thinking the only reason Kiera Knightley wasn’t tarred with the same brush is because no one understood the whole nonsense surrounding her character. The pair of them are, rather obviously, the weak links in this cast, which is a huge shame.)

Similarly, I wasn’t so fond of child Anakin blowing up the Trade Federation spaceship in the end. Throughout the movie as a whole? Sure, no problem. Towards the end, though, the set of circumstances required to get him in the spaceship and flying around in space were completely contrived, and just not particularly effective. The sequence wasn’t exactly necessary either – with the pod race, we’d already established Anakin was an impressive pilot – and served only to make the other characters look stupid. (What exactly was Anakin even doing there? Why didn’t you just leave him on Coruscant, Qui-Gon?)

Really, though, the largest and most glaring problem with the film was it’s run time. It’s about 2 and a half hours long, and frankly, it’s about an hour too long. It could definitely be about 45 minutes shorter, at a minimum. It’s just far too slow paced (which has the added problem of making the instances where the pace picks up feel very disjointed from the rest of the movie) and the movie can’t sustain the runtime. Well, actually, that’s maybe a bit unfair. They do a reasonable job of having discrete phases to the movie, with different things happening in each… but it’s still way too long.

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Even then, though, there is a lot to like. The Duel of the Fates is a genuinely impressive lightsabre battle, which is really well scored by John Williams – it’s absolutely a stand out scene, however you look at it. And, you know, it works because it’s got three impressive characters in it – Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson both gave great performances throughout the film, which added a lot of weight to the final confrontation. And, of course, Darth Maul is a genuinely imposing figure throughout the movie – you can understand why he’s the one thing everyone always remembers of the movie. (Interestingly, Maul actually talks a lot more than I recalled. To be honest, I don’t like it. He should have been silent the whole time.)

So… yeah. Honestly, as a film, it’s not that bad. It’s alright. Bordering on good. Not great, sure. But it’s nowhere near as awful as people suggest. I think in part that’s the danger of overhyping these things. So many of the people watching The Phantom Menace for the first time had been building it up in their heads for… what, about twenty years? A huge, ridiculous length of time. Such a body of expectations had been placed upon the movie that it could never, ever have hoped to live up to those expectations, and that was the cause for the level of outcry at the movie.

Hopefully, with The Force Awakens, people will bear that in mind a little more. Expectations should be tempered somewhat, and maybe we’ll have a little more of a… rational response, I suppose. Let’s hope no one starts calling for J.J. Abrams’ head on a stick or anything. (Once, when I was 9 or 10, I read a news article about a Star Wars “superfan” who got a tattoo of Darth Vader holding George Lucas’ severed head, “for everything he’d done to the franchise”. Which seemed pretty weird to me: “What did he do to the franchise? He invented the damn thing!”, thought I. I would still maintain that fellow was slightly nuts.)

In the end, though, I’d give The Phantom Menace a 6/10. It’s an enjoyable movie, but not one I’d be in a hurry to rewatch. (Mind you, if they knocked an hour or so off of it, I’d bump it up to a 7/10)

Related:

Star Wars Retrospective

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