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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