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

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Doctor Who Review: Face The Raven

doctor who face the raven review sarah dollard steven moffat justin molotnikov jenna coleman clara oswald maisie williams me trap street

I guess we’re both just going to have to be brave.

I’ve been looking forward to this episode for a while now actually – I mean, obviously, I’m always looking forward to new Doctor Who, but particularly since I saw the fifth episode of You, Me and the Apocalypse, which shared a writer with Face The Raven. Sarah Dollard did a rather fantastic job on that show, so I was definitely looking forward to seeing her work on Doctor Who.

And it was great!

The trap streets are, first and foremost, a rather wonderful concept, well realised and fantastically presented. It’s the sort of idea you would have expected Doctor Who to have used in the past, and the fact that it now actually has is brilliant, because now things are a lot more complete, in a way. Face The Raven does a great job of showing it off in a uniquely Doctor Who way, too – Capaldi’s narration over clips of the Doctor, Clara and Rigsy walking through London, searching for trap streets does a wonderful job of grounding the idea, while invoking the classic Doctor Who juxtaposition between the mundane and the alien. I can almost guarantee that kids up and down the country were counting their steps on the way to school on Monday morning, and ending up highly suspicious when they inevitably lost count.

On top of that, though, the alien refugee camp aspect was a genuine stroke of genius, taking an already fantastic concept on to the next level entirely. Dollard did a great job of fleshing out that community, in a fairly limited space of time; one line that stood out to me, actually, was when one of the aliens said something along the lines of “Humans can survive losing whole limbs”. Little more than a throwaway line, I know, but I liked the implications of it; it counters the usual idea of aliens being more resilient and stronger than humans, and carries connotations of a sort of alien culture we’re not necessarily as familiar with in comparison to others.

It was also really nice to see the various different alien species we’ve grown to know over the years; I know they were just cameos, but it’s always exciting to see Ood and Judoon and the like. I really hope that at some stage in the next few years we return to these Trap Streets; there’s a lot of mileage there, and you could definitely get a few more episodes out of it. We’ve only really scratched the surface of the idea, and there’s definitely more to see.

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Of course, the Ood and the Judoon weren’t the only returning characters; we also had Rigsy and Ashildr, both in prominent roles. Admittedly, I was skeptical when I heard Rigsy was returning – I wasn’t entirely sure whether there was anything new to explore with the character, primarily – but watching the episode, it actually makes a lot of sense. I’m not really sure if Clara’s death would have had as much thematic weight had it not been a character that the audience, and both Clara and the Doctor, weren’t already familiar with. Rigsy makes a lot of sense, then; the only other character I can think of who might have fit the same requirements is actually Courtney Woods, but I’m not sure if that would actually have been better or not. Regardless, though, Joivan Wade did an excellent job playing Rigsy here, who is a really great character. (Did anyone know Joivan Wade is part of that Mandem on the Wall YouTube channel? I found that out recently, thought it was quite interesting.)

Maisie Williams gave another great performance in this episode with Ashildr’s third appearance this series – now, of course, she’s going by Mayor Me, and she’s leading the alien refugee camp of the trap streets. It was wonderful to see the character back again, further extending her progression across the series; Face the Raven does a really good job of building on Ashildr’s previous appearances, particularly that of The Woman Who Lived, by positioning the character in a slightly more villainous, antagonistic role. I actually really liked the way in which it was initially made to appear that she was working alone – for example, the involvement of the TARDIS key harkens back to Ashildr’s previous desire to leave the planet – which makes the eventual reveal that a higher power is involved all the more interesting a reveal. (Any guesses on who they are, out of interest? I’m thinking Time Lords.)

Honestly, the only slight issue I had was the fact that we actually knew Maisie Williams was returning. It would have been truly amazing if that had been kept a secret – honestly, a truly massive surprise. Nevermind, though. It’ll be surprising enough when she’s revealed to be the next companion! (Please?)

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Of course, though, the most important part of this episode was Clara. Because this was her departure, in the end. (Probably.)

Now, Clara’s already had two very good departures – once at the end of Death in Heaven, and then once again at the end of Last Christmas – so I was a little anxious to see how this departure for Clara actually went, and whether or not it would be a case of diminishing returns, or third time lucky. Thankfully, though, this was a wonderful exit for Clara, which was ultimately really fitting in terms of her character arc and progression.

In the end, Clara was undone by her flaws, and her attempts to become more like the Doctor. She had to be brave, and face the raven.

Thematically, there was a lot of resonance throughout this scene and all of Clara’s previous episodes, because it formed the culmination of a journey that we’d seen and taken part in alongside her. As a concept, I thought it was probably the best death that Clara could have been given; even though it was a result of her attempt to be more like the Doctor, in the end, she had total control over her death. The circumstances were inevitable, yes, but in the end, Clara was brave. Like she always has been.

It was a very intense set of scenes, and it’s times like this when Doctor Who fans should be thankful for writers like Sarah Dollard, and for actors like Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman, because this was a truly wonderful sequence. It’s worth singling out Jenna Coleman though, particularly, given that this may well be one of the last times we ever see her as Clara.

Her performance was fantastic; genuinely compelling, and it gave life to some absolutely fantastic scenes. Which is what we’ve become accustomed to from Jenna Coleman, really; I am pretty firm in my belief that she is the best companion we’ve had over the past ten years.

So, then, Face the Raven. Honestly, it was truly excellent – I loved it. 10/10.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, Hell Bent is literally starting right now. I have cut it pretty fine with the review this week!

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Doctor Who Review: The Woman Who Lived

doctor who the woman who lived review catherine tregenna series 9 steven moffat ed bazelgette maisie williams peter capaldi rufus hound

We need the mayflies. You see, the mayflies, they know more than us. They know how beautiful and precious life is, because it’s so fleeting.

So, with this episode, we’re beginning to see something of a departure from the traditional two parter structure of the series thus far. Obviously, this episode and the previous one are both connected, but here the level of connection is something that liberties are taken with. It’s a pretty wise choice; the format of the two parter was starting to struggle with Under the Lake & Before the Flood, to be honest, so mixing it up a little provides some much needed variety.

The two episodes are of course connected by Maisie Williams, who once again did a fantastic job here. This episode, I’d argue, is actually a better showcase of her acting skills than The Girl Who Died; the bitterness to Ashildr (or rather, ‘Me’) contrasts well with her more Doctor like qualities. A lot of that comes down to the writing, of course; Catherine Tregenna did a great job of finding a really interesting angle from which to examine what’s happened to Ashildr. Playing up her similarities to the Doctor – the long life-time, the adventurous nature – serves well to emphasis the changes that occurred as a result of her having to live her extended lifespan in a linear fashion, one day after the other.

Similarly, positioning Maisie Williams as a more antagonistic figure feeds into this, and is effective for much the same reason; the fact we already know of her as a ‘Hybrid’ adds a certain tension to these moments, given that there’s a real possibility that she could become a fully fledged villain. It’s a very well done, considered and subtle performance, that’s helped by nuanced writing. It’s fair to say that Maisie Williams is going to go down as one of the strongest guest stars of the series, not because of her prominence, but due to a genuine abundance of skill.

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Capaldi too is worth commenting upon; he does a wonderful job of selling the Doctor’s anguish and indecision with regards to Ashildr – it’s worth singling out the discussion of Ashildr’s journals as being a great moment for both Capaldi and Williams. Once again, we’re lucky to have Capaldi. (It was also nice to see Ashildr taking the role of the companion throughout this episode; though Clara was much missed, it’s interesting to see how Capaldi’s Doctor interacts with another character filling the companion role, particularly given Jenna’s upcoming departure.)

Admittedly, though, the strengths of the episodes are disproportionately weighted towards the part of Ashildr, specifically, and the performances of Capaldi and Williams; everything else was a little weaker in some regards.

Take, for example, the plot. Certainly it was a little thin – but, frankly, that’s both understandable and forgivable. The MacGuffin if far from the most important aspect of the episode – that’s Ashildr and the Doctor, and rightfully so. I’ve not begrudged episodes a weak plot before, of course, particularly when the focus is in the right place – and particularly in instances like this when the main object of their focus is pulled off so well – but I do feel like the thin plot had a little bit of an impact on this one. Not a huge problem – but it is noticeable.

Similarly, Rufus Hound’s standup section was… well, I actually liked it, for the most part. That sort of dodgy pun telling does actually appeal to me. Probably could have been funnier, though. Also undecided on the penis jokes.

It’s odd, actually – I started writing both of those things as complaints, before realising that I actually don’t mind them so much; a thin plot isn’t the end of the world, and I like puns. There’s just something about the episode that didn’t quite feel right; a little Doctor Who by numbers. It’s understandable, I suppose; Catherine Tregenna is on record as not being someone with a big interest in Doctor Who, which perhaps explains why we got something that – whilst very good – is certainly a departure from the norm.

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I did have one technical complaint, though. Well, two, but one more significant than the other. The minor one was a couple of weird, jerky cuts between close ups and wide shots; it looked unprofessional, and a little sloppy. I suppose it may have been a deliberate directorial flourish, but not an effective one, to my mind.

The other, though, was the music. This is actually a fairly regular complaint, but it’s never been accurate for me before: the music was too loud and too obtrusive to be able to hear the dialogue. I also wasn’t particularly impressed by certain aspects of the score, though – there was one repetitive motif used whilst the Doctor and Ashildr were sneaking throughout the house that got rather grating rather quickly. (On the flip side of that, though, the theme for Ashildr was rather wonderful. I love that she got a theme at all, even, given that’s usually reserved for Doctors and Companions!)

So, a little bit of an odd one. Enjoyable, though. It’s certainly not traditional Doctor Who, but I much preferred it to this season’s previous attempt at traditionalism. We’ll call it an 8/10.

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Doctor Who Review: The Girl Who Died

doctor who the girl who died review jamie mathieson steven moffat ed bazalgette vikings maisie williams title card

I’m the Doctor, and I save people. And if there’s anybody listening who has any kind of problem with that, then to hell with you!

Every so often, the question of who the next showrunner will be comes up. Mark Gatiss, Chris Chibnall and Toby Whithouse tend to be logical choices; Neil Cross looked like a possibility at one stage, and Peter Harness seems like he might be putting himself into the running now.

Another name that tends to come up is Jamie Mathieson – which is understandable really. His two episodes last year, Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline were amongst the best of series 8, and I think it’s fair to say that his first two episodes comprised the strongest debut of any new writer across the whole of the Moffat era, and perhaps the RTD era as well.

And, typically, I’m not so inclined to agree with that crowd – Jamie Mathieson is great, but he’s not got any showrunning experience, so he seems an unrealistic choice – but after this episode, to hell with what’s realistic. I think Jamie Mathieson would be a fantastic choice to replace Steven Moffat, when the time comes, because he really clearly gets it.

The Girl Who Died  is a very funny episode – which is what you’d expect, really, given that Jamie Mathieson used to be a stand up comedian, and Steven Moffat used to be a sitcom writer. So, two writers with a background in comedy, and you get one of the funniest episodes we’ve had across the entirety of Peter Capaldi’s tenure. Lots of things to appreciate here; the introduction of our alien Odin works very well, especially just after the Doctor’s dismal attempt at convincing the Vikings he’s Odin. I was also rather fond of the cut from “you’re ready to use swords” to the village in total disaster. That was quite effective as well. Honestly, very funny episode.

Oh, and the Benny Hill theme! That was rather wonderful as well.

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The cast all did very well here too. Peter Capaldi is excellent. I don’t single him out enough, do I? It feels unfair, honestly. But it’s difficult to properly analyse his performance, particularly in a review like this. One day I might have to do a video review, picking out and commenting on every facial expression he pulls; for now, though, I’ll have to just refer to them more generally. Essentially every line he delivered was pitch perfect; the Odin jokes, translating for the baby, and his weariness after Ashildr’s death. Extremely well portrayed; once again, you’re reminded of how skillful Capaldi is, and how lucky we are that he’s the Doctor.

Jenna Coleman finally got something substantial to do this week, which was nice. You could really see Clara’s development into a quasi-Doctor figure (was it just me, or was Jenna Coleman imitating Matt Smith’s body language during her confrontation with Odin?) and Jenna Coleman did a great job of portraying that. Very strong episode for Clara, there, both in terms of the writing and Jenna Coleman’s acting. Which is nice!

And, of course, Maisie Williams. There is something a little odd about watching her acting, because she’s very close to my own age. I feel like it contravenes some natural order that she is out being a successful actress at this age. Probably she should just have a blog or something. (Or maybe I should be a successful actress!)

But, yes, aside from my own slightly ridiculous hangups, Maisie Williams is really, really good. I understand the hype now – I’ve never actually seen her in anything before (at least not acting – I’ve seen her vines, and she has a great sense of humour) but I am inclined to search her other work, like Cyberbully and whatnot. She gave an excellent performance. Clearly, she’s a skilled actress. I’m looking forward to her return next week quite a lot!

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My favourite part of the episode, though, aside from the jokes and the acting and the direction and the clever plot resolution, was the way it handled the Doctor, and his approach to the “rules”, as it were.

It was really, really well handled; the Doctor’s rejection of the rule that he can’t save Ashildr is fantastic, and Jamie Mathieson did a great job of writing the Doctor weary, tired of the death. In many ways, it felt like a rejection of the problems of Before the Flood, too – the Doctor isn’t just accepting a death because of “the rules”, he’s driven to actually do something about it. Because he’s the Doctor. And he saves people.

That is a rather wonderful vision of the character, and I’m glad it’s something that we saw front and centre this week.

(Also, on the topic of David Tennant and Pompeii: On the one hand, I’m inclined to question the conventional wisdom of using flashbacks to a seven-year-old episode in conjunction with a plot point that no one really cared about… but on the other hand, it must be said that they did use it rather effectively, and we probably saw the best possible use of it that there could have been. So, you know, I’m happy enough to forgive it, but it does make me wonder about the how close we’re skirting to the ‘too much continuity’ line.)

[And! I guessed the hybrid line, before Capaldi finished it. I wonder where that might be doing? The concept of the hybrid is clearly the series arc, though to what it’s building up to it’s hard to say. Something to do with the War Lords? The Doctor, half human? Perhaps Maisie Williams will return in the finale as the season big bad? Probably not that last one.]

So, yes. I’m extremely pleased with this episode. Honestly, it may well be the best of series 9 so far; funny jokes, a clever plot, excellent performances, compelling writing, and a fantastic depiction of the Doctor and Clara. And on top of that, it more or less manages to tell a full story in and of itself! Certainly, this is my favourite of Jamie Mathieson’s three episodes.

10/10

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