The Doctor Who season finale has a touching ending. If only we didn’t have to navigate so many puzzles to get there.
A story is what a memory becomes once it’s been forgotten.
With all apologies to our Rachel Gibson Shepherd, I thought last week’s episode of Doctor Who was a masterpiece. I really liked it upon first viewing, and then fell deeply in love when I re-watched it later that night. It’s clever, atmospheric, and delves deeply into the Doctor’s conscience and past, using the Doctor’s time alone to reveal things about him we’ve never known. It’s basically a 43-minute monologue where the Doctor has no world to save, no civilization to protect, only himself and his past to confront while the specter of Clara’s death haunts his every decision.
But that was last week. As the Doctor would say, you can’t revisit your own timeline. So on to “Hell Bent,” the Season Nine finale.
When we last left the Doctor, he’d escaped his near-absolute death inside his confession dial and found himself back on Gallifrey, ready to fulfill a prophecy and wreak havoc on his own race for what he’s endured. Immediately, this presents a problem. The entirety of the new Doctor Who series has dealt with the Doctor’s anguish at having destroyed his home world, and the crushing knowledge that he wiped out his own race to save the galaxy. When he suddenly realizes that he didn’t commit a global genocide in “The Day of the Doctor,” it gave him a new lease on life, and he’s spent his off moments since searching for his long-lost home planet. So why is he suddenly so keen to destroy it again?
Count that as one of the many, many unanswered questions in “Hell Bent,” which is one of the more frustrating examples of “Moffat complexity” in recent memory. There’s some really beautiful things in this episode, but they’ll fall apart if you think about them too hard. Let’s break this down:
1) The Doctor isn’t mad at all of Gallifrey – just President Rassilon
Apparently the Doctor isn’t really angry at everyone. He’s just furious with President Rassilon, the President of the Time Lords last seen in “The End of Time” looking a lot more like Timothy Dalton. He’s regenerated into Donald “Maester Lewin” Sumpter since then, but the Doctor tends to hold a grudge. Gallifrey has been hiding out at the back of the universe ever since the Doctor stashed it there at the end of “The Day of the Doctor,” and Rassilon is tired of that noise and also worried about the Hybrid. So…he makes a pact with the immortal Ashildr to get the Doctor back to Gallifrey to sort things out. The Doctor is imprisoned inside his own confession dial — finally revealed to be a way for dying Time Lords to make a final confession and join the Matrix — with the hope that he’ll reveal what he knows about the Hybrid. Naturally, the Doctor is pissed when he figures this out and basically leads a coup to overthrow Rassilon.
The problem here is that it’s all so damn confusing. Doctor Who jettisoned the deep intricacies of the series when it rebooted in order to attract new fans, but now it’s happy to dump 35 years of Gallifreyan politics, history, and science onto viewers in the first 45 minutes of an episode. Take it easy, guys. 15-year-old girls who just loved Matt Smith are having a hell of a hard time keeping all of this straight (and so am I).
2) The Hybrid & Extraction Chambers
The Hybrid is supposedly a combination of two great warrior races (assumed to be Dalek and Time Lord) who is prophesized to destroy Gallifrey. The Doctor says he once snuck into the Cloisters as a boy and overheard the Hybrid prophecy. Once in charge, the Doctor says he will need help defeating the Hybrid and uses an Extraction Chamber to pluck Clara out of time. Clara is saved? It’s not that simple. Clara’s timeline has already happened. She definitely dies at the hands of the Quantum Shade at the end of “Face the Raven,” but the Doctor has basically frozen her time stream one second before her final heartbeat. She exists in the real world as a suspended animation, but only until she finishes her work and returns to her death.
3) None of this really matters
The truth is that none of this really matters. It’s a complex mess of regenerations, Time Lord hell, Gallifreyan consciousness computers, and other complexities, but it’s all preamble for the pulsing heart of the episode.
The Doctor doesn’t care about the Hybrid. He’s here for Clara, and once he has her he’s prepared to run. Her loss left him with a shattered soul (I’m speaking poetically here, but based on the previous uses of Gallifreyan terms, I could understand if you’re confused), and he’s devastated to be without her. He even spoke to her memory as though she was watching while he navigated the confession dial last week. Maybe Clara doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of the universe, but she matters to him.
So they steal another TARDIS and hightail it across the galaxy just like the Doctor did so many years ago, heading for the one place where the Time Lords may not look for them: the end of the universe. He’s greeted there by none other than the immortal Ashildr, who’s out-survived even the other immortal races. Is she the Hybrid? As a Viking implanted with Mire tech, she’s the product of two warrior races. It’s a good thought, but so much time alone at the end of the universe has led Ashildr to another course of thinking: the hybrid isn’t any one being. It’s the combination of the Doctor and Clara who, together, are too powerful. In fact, Ashildr isn’t the first person to figure it all out. Missy was. She was the one who put the Doctor and Clara together in the first place, hoping (much like Health Ledger’s Joker) to see the universe burn. Normal is so boring, you know?
The situation is eerily reminiscent of the Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble. The DoctorDonna couldn’t exist, and Donna had her memories cruelly wiped as a result. Now it’s time for the Doctor to do something similar to Clara. He could just return her home to die, and that’s actually what she wants, but the Doctor can’t bring himself to do it. He just loves her too much. She’ll be able to go on living in her extended state once her memories of the Doctor are gone.
But it doesn’t happen that way. Instead, it’s the Doctor who has his own memory wiped – thus assuring that he’ll never have to live with painful memories of losing Clara – and she’s free to go. The DoctorDonna situation gets turned on his head, and Clara is free to take the second TARDIS (now “disguised” as a 1950s-style American diner) and travel the universe with Ashildr at her side. She’ll have to eventually return to face the raven, but, as she says, she’s content to take the long way to get there.
As the Doctor returns to his own TARDIS, Rigsy’s artwork of Clara crumbles away and the Time Lord begins a new phase in his life (complete with a new sonic screwdriver!). It’s touching. For once, a female companion gets to go make her own way in the universe. If much of this season has been about Clara’s cockiness, the way she almost viewed herself as the Doctor’s equal, now she’ll get the chance to go meet the universe on her own.
In the end, “Hell Bent” is reminiscent of the rest of the season: more complicated than it needs to be. The simplicity of the last third is beautiful and touching, but I wish we hadn’t had to take such a twisty road to get there.
-How cool was that old school TARDIS design?
-This season of Doctor Who was a huge commitment for Maisie Williams. She ended up being in a THIRD or it.
-You have to think we’ll see Clara again in some anniversary special. The show has a way of working these things out.
-Thank heavens we’re done with the sonic sunglasses.
See you all in a few weeks for the Christmas special!