Thoughts on: Hell Bent

Warning: spoilers.

In the week before Hell Bent aired, I had prepared myself, along with many, for a barnstorming, ambitious finale of grandiose scale — the Doctor’s spectacular, long-anticipated return to Gallifrey and his epic face-off with the Time Lords. Indeed, for the first fifteen or so minutes, that was what the episode looked like it was doing. There was the Doctor strutting back into town, channelling Clint Eastwood, facing down Rassilon in something like a Time Lord Western. It was all wonderfully atmospheric and intense. But, ultimately, for better or worse, this wasn’t a Time Lord Western or the Doctor’s legend-making homecoming to Gallifrey. The Doctor’s face-off with Rassilon was dealt with quickly, and the episode became an intimate, character-driven piece about the Doctor and Clara Oswald. It was about an ecstatic, passionate, but dangerously flawed friendship, and the terrible lengths to which the Doctor would go for Clara.

It took me a couple of attempts to see this and to really appreciate it. I think perhaps my preconceptions and expectations had something to do with my equivocal first impression. I had prepared myself for one thing, and when the episode took a turn (or a couple of turns) I didn’t expect and turned into something completely different, I was thrown. Making an effort to put aside my preconceptions, though, it was only after a couple of viewings that I came to appreciate the episode for the involving and emotional character piece that it was. Whether an episode centred on the Doctor’s return to Gallifrey would have been better is a relevant question, but, assessing the episode for what it was, and what it was trying to do, I think it was a success, though not without its faults. Watching the Doctor, completely devoid of self-awareness, hell bent on saving Clara at any cost, and witnessing the lengths to which he would go to save his friend, was a compelling and exhilarating story in itself. As a personal, character-driven piece about how far the Doctor’s emotion and grief would take him, it was very powerful and involving.

That said, I do think there is a fundamental problem at the heart of this script that saw the episode leave me (at first), along with many others, with a queer taste in our mouths. It’s that this finale, to an extent, tries to be two things at once. It tries both to be the long-anticipated return-of-Gallifrey episode, and Clara’s exit episode. Gallifrey didn’t need to feature in Clara’s exit. The Doctor didn’t need the Time Lords to meddle with time and save Clara. At the same time, the Doctor-and-Clara plot rather crowds out Gallifrey’s return, something which surely merited its own episode (if not two). The result was a finale that felt, to me at least, rushed (even for a 65-minute episode), disjointed and unfocussed. It took some concentration to keep up with everything that was going on. You think it’s going to go in one direction, but without warning it changes tack and veers in another. Sometimes this sort of thing works, but here I found it disorienting. You’d be forgiven if, somewhere along the way (especially since the narrative was heavily dialogue-reliant), you lost track of what was going on. I didn’t, but I struggled, more than I should have, to keep up.

I don’t think I’m necessarily unjustified in making this (admittedly subjective) point: Steven Moffat mentioned in an interview that, for a while, he thought he might be retiring as showrunner this year. He thought this might be his last finale. Understandably, he would have wanted to tie up his Gallifrey arc before he left, perhaps sooner than he might have if he had known he would be staying on for at least another series. Thus this messy and not completely coherent script. The return of Gallifrey really did need to be its own story, preferably a two-part story, while Clara’s exit story, in my opinion, would have benefited from doing without the intrusive culmination of the Gallifrey arc. All that said, though, I think the script just managed to pull it off. The script just managed to tie everything together — Gallifrey, the Hybrid, Clara’s exit — in an engaging and satisfying way and construct an eminently watchable joined-up narrative out of it all, deftly avoiding deteriorating into an incoherent mess. There are few writers who could have done that, but Moffat, evidently, is one of them.

Moffat by now knows how to push all the right emotional buttons in the event of character exits. While I still think I might have preferred Clara to have died, as tragically and traumatically as possible, this inversion of Donna’s situation is really very tragic and heartbreaking in its own way. It was really quite clever how it was done. I’m sure every fan watching thought to themselves “Oh Christ, we’re doing Donna again,” before the episode once again upended expectations and made the Doctor forget Clara. And, bloody hell, wasn’t it painful? Right in the feels. I think the only thing worse than a companion forgetting the Doctor is the Doctor forgetting his companion, especially a companion he was as passionately close to as Clara Oswald. The sight of the Doctor in the American diner, trying in vain, like a doddering, senile old man, to remember his forgotten friend, who was standing directly in front of him, was what really got me. The way Clara looked at him at that point, wistfully, teary-eyed, was almost too much to handle. Also, “Run you clever boy…” Welp. Going to cry now. In a sense, though, it’s a good thing Clara was written out in this way: it’s horrible to think that the Doctor won’t remember Clara, but at least it’ll make for a clean restart with a new companion — there’ll be no lingering regret and angst for Clara overshadowing the next companion, à la Martha, which is good.

As for Clara’s exit itself — I think I surprised myself at how much it didn’t bother me. I was one of those who, while expecting and hoping that Clara would make another appearance in the finale (I predicted correctly that the Doctor would meddle with time to save Clara), ultimately wanted Clara to stay dead. I thought, for a companion as important to the Doctor and as close to the Doctor as Clara, and given Clara’s worrying addiction to her dangerous, adrenaline-fuelled lifestyle with the Doctor, that death would have been the only appropriate and fitting end for her. Anything short of death would have felt anticlimactic, I thought. But I didn’t consider that Clara might be given her own Tardis and companion and carry on doing what she loved, that she’d actually do what she’d always been threatening to do and become the Doctor (in a sense). I really like that. I mean, I’m disappointed that the show didn’t have the courage to kill off a companion for good, but I’m not disappointed by this way of writing out Clara, as I thought I’d be if her exit amounted to anything short of death. I quite like the idea of Clara romping around space and time with Ashildr in a stolen borrowed Tardis, just like the Doctor.

Some final thoughts. I’m not sure how I feel about the lack of definitive resolution to the Hybrid arc. In the end it didn’t really matter, because the Doctor and Clara may as well have been the Hybrid, given how far the Doctor was prepared to go for Clara. Somehow, though, I don’t expect we’ll ever get an actual answer to what the fabled Hybrid of Time Lord prophecy is. Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord Victorious act was chilling. I think this is the first time we’ve seen the Doctor genuinely unhinged since The Waters of Mars, and, although I think the Doctor was scarier in that episode, that’s not to diminish Peter Capaldi’s performance by any means. I was glad to see Maisie Williams back, more enigmatic than ever as the now-billions (trillions?) of years-old Ashildr. She emphatically convinced as an impossibly old enigma, and I’m glad that her taking up with Clara means that we may yet see her again in the show. Also, it was so gratifying seeing the classic-style Tardis. Completely unnecessary, gratuitous fanservice it was, but when was that ever a bad thing? Finally, that final scene, the Doctor donning his velvet jacket again, catching his new screwdriver, snapping the Tardis doors shut, the hero theme playing in the background — it was a wonderfully uplifting, exhilarating end to the series and the beginning of a new era. Just superb.

Rating: 8/10.


Quote of the week:

“I was a completely different person in those days. Eccentric, a bit mad, rude to people.”

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