Previously on Doctor Who, ‘Heaven Sent’
In the season finale, “Hell Bent” kicks off the new Doctor Who spinoff, Clara Who, in which his most apt pupil loses her pulse, steals a TARDIS from the Doctor, wipes his memory in a reverse Donna Noble, and tumbles off into the universe with a semi-immortal Viking girl as her own companion, eternally zero seconds from death as long as she can outrun the Time Lords. Just kidding! Or am I?
“Nothing’s sad ’til it’s over.”
If, like me, you felt a bit emotionally bereft from her death in “Face the Raven,” “Hell Bent” probably filled that hole. In the latter, I felt quite let down by the lack of a clever solution, nor was I moved to tears by the silent death for someone she scarcely knows. Whereas the true final adventure of the Doctor and Clara Oswald is a culmination of literally the longest con ever and gives Clara complete agency. She reboots his role as the Doctor by helping him re-steal a TARDIS and run away from Gallifrey; her death is still certain, but redefined as a result of her saving him. One might even say that once again he ran away with the President’s (himself) wife or daughter, depending on your interpretation of their relationship.
Remember when I pointed out the stasis chamber in “Face the Raven” as a strangely-ignored possible solution and how it could be tragically hopeful if Clara was frozen in time one second before the clock runs out with the Raven forever cawing in wait while the Doctor tried to figure out how to save her until the end of time? Let’s just go ahead and label that stasis chamber with a big fat FORESHADOWING because that is exactly (well, symbolically) what happened. Ah, so satisfying.
To say the ending is controversial is a gross understatement. A great many fans are Capaldi-level Cranky, claiming wimping out on Clara’s death. But, in short, the Doctor’s plan all along was to use the Time Lord extraction chamber to pull her out of the last second of life, travel far enough into the future to where time’s need for her death to be a constant would run out allowing her timeline (and heart) to restart, and wipe her memory of him. When a trip to the very last dying ember of the universe wasn’t enough, he proceeds with the memory wipe in the hope that the rest of the plan would eventually work. Sadly even the Doctor is occasionally wrong, which she anticipates and wipes his memory instead, leaving her with the next best thing: a chance for them both to keep running, the very definition of her character. To cap it off, Ashildr, who was herself cheated out of a satisfying death of saving her own people and a chance at being a companion, joins her. This leads us to…
“Dear lord, how do you cope with all that ego?”
Another season theme that came to head is Women in Power, but, like the rest of the true plot, this was at first concealed. The Doctor arrives on Gallifrey and waits in the barn for a response. After a brief visit from who is presumably his adoptive mother, he first receives a single male soldier in a warship, followed by a small army and the General, the male Time Lord council, and finally the male Lord President, Rassilon. The army detail of 11 men (12 in all, ahem!) who fought alongside him in the Time War refuse to execute him and fade into the background, save for the General who later regenerates into a black woman, relieved to be back to herself. The Doctor unseats and bans Rassilon, leaving Ohila of the Sisterhood of Karn sort of in charge. Enter Ashildr, who points out that the true mastermind is the one who paired the Doctor with someone who would drive him past every last one of his limits—Missy. Women… Women everywhere.
And the Hybrid is___?
If you were looking for a story about Gallifrey and how the Doctor rains anger down upon it, or a straight answer about the Hybrid’s identity, I’m sorry to say, this ain’t it. Once his plan is in motion, the Doctor admits that he doesn’t know who the Hybrid is, only that he used and/or became the prophecy to manipulate the Time Lords into giving him what he wanted. He and Ashildr even have a Whovian debate at the very end of time**—it could be her, him, or the combination of the Doctor and Clara. He did satisfy all requirements for being the Hybrid: he conquered Gallifrey and stood in its ruins, broke a million, million hearts (his, in the confession dial) to save his own (Clara), and unraveled the web of time. Yet the implication remains that it may yet be something else.
**If you’re wondering how long Whovians can argue, here’s your answer.
“This is Gallifrey. Death is Time Lord for Man Flu.”
In another controversial move, the Doctor uses an actual gun (gasp!) and kills (double gasp!) the General as he blocks the Doctor and Clara from escaping the extraction chamber. Killing is indeed against the Doctor’s code, but as he said in “Face the Raven”: “The Doctor is no longer here. You are stuck with me.” From that point, he is himself. Further, in visual storytelling, broken mirrors always signal a personality split or identity fracture.
When he puts on his coat in front of the broken mirror inside the barn, this tells us that he is choosing his face. This identity commands warships with a blip of his sunglasses, lets others do the talking while he stands silently in authority, and is willing to take a life (albeit with a backup) to fulfill his plan. The General then becomes another close ally to choose (temporary) death as a way to stay true to his/her own purpose while allowing his hero a win.
“Words are his weapons”: the recap
Framing the story, the Doctor parks a dusty truck at a café in the Nevada desert where Clara is the only waitress, only he doesn’t remember her, just a song named “Clara” he plays on his guitar, and tells her a story.
Back on Gallifrey, he silently takes up residence in the barn, which we last saw him in as a child in “Listen” and where he confronted The Moment. The Lord President Rassilon rages at his return and the Sisterhood of Karn arrive to observe the fireworks as the Cloister Wraiths ring warning bells. After he draws a literal line in the sand and slams the door on processions of lesser Gallifreyans, Rassilon deigns to threaten the Doctor in person. For the first 20 minutes, the Doctor says nothing on Gallifrey, until this: “Get off my planet.” Not only do Rassilon’s troops turn on him, but the Doctor summarily banishes him and the council after tossing the confession dial into the sand line. So done.
Assuming the Lord President role by right, the Doctor evades questions on the Hybrid, saying only that he needs an extraction chamber. In a neat 3-D-glasses-missing effect, he extracts Clara from her moment of death on Diagon Alley and onto Gallifrey, where the General explains that her physical processes are looped, her heartbeat frozen in time, until she can give them the crucial information… which nobody ever said she had. In the awkwardness, the Doctor grabs his gun, calls for a human-compatible neural block, and holds the chamber hostage. Mimicking 12’s first time saving her in “Deep Breath,” Clara gingerly grabs his hand and asks him to stop, but instead, he shoots the General after wishing him luck and escapes. The General regenerates and joins Ohila in tracking the Doctor down.
He takes Clara to the cloisters, searching past the screaming Cloister Wraiths and trapped arch-enemies—a crying Dalek, shifting Weeping Angels, and a Cyberman, all to disturbing effect—for the secret exit “a man” once found as a student, the back door through the Time Lord Matrix, where their consciousnesses are stored after death. Obviously, it was him. Like River in “Silence in the Library,” Clara demands he look her in the eye and tell her how long it’s been. “It was fine,” he’ll only say, until Ohila and the General admit it was more like 4.5 billion years, not just the 2 billion we suspected.
“Why would you even do that to yourself?!” she cries, stunned. She sits him down to say Important Things, then reads the waiting immortals the riot act, repeating only the last thing she told him.
“I said… Don’t worry, Doctor. They’ll all be looking at me… What do you think he’s going to do now? He’s stealing a TARDIS and running away. Bye!”
A white, first-Doctor-style TARDIS materializes around her (“I love the round things!”), and after Ohila calls him out for giving Clara hope, he slams the door again and larks her away, hoping her heartbeat will restart and time will heal itself. But it doesn’t. Hyperventilating, he drives them to the last shards of the universe, shouting:
“The universe is over. It doesn’t have a say anymore… as of this moment, I’m answerable to no one.”
Four knocks on the door reveal Ashildr and two library chairs as she watches the universe die out, both beautiful and sad, a combination he isn’t willing to accept. They debate the nature of the Hybrid as the Doctor repeats that Clara is JUST his friend. Mhmm. She eavesdrops from inside the TARDIS and overhears his plans to wipe her memory, deciding instead to reverse the polarity on the neural block with the sunglasses. Finally he concedes that one of them has to “go,” to forget the other and make this madness stop.
They hold the block together and quickly realize it’s him who’s forgetting. He falls as they tearfully offer their goodbyes, reassurance, and advice: “Run like hell… Laugh at everything… Never be cowardly or cruel… Never eat pears.” He swears to remember her, but wakes up in the desert saying, “Clara who?” Returning to the café, he tries hard to remember, but sadly doesn’t realize this is Clara. While some memories become stories, she advises, maybe some become songs. She leaves him playing the Clara theme and walks out the back door into the white TARDIS where Ashildr waits. As the functionally immortal women agree to “take the long way ‘round” back to Gallifrey, the diner dissolves, leaving his decorated TARDIS in its place, with his velvet jacket and the chalkboard reading, “Run you clever boy and be a Doctor.” The TARDIS console tosses him a new sonic screwdriver, and the two TARDISes, one stuck as a diner, tumble past each other in time and space.
That’s a wrap on Season 9, and quite a wonderful one in my opinion, minus one eye booger dud. Next up is the Christmas special, “The Husbands of River Song.” See you then!
Stray Thoughts, Trivia, Quotes, etc.
- Donald Sumpter, Rassilon, appeared on Doctor Who with the second Doctor in 1968’s “The Wheel in Space” Some of the episodes in this arc are missing to this day.
- The Matrix was first introduced in “The Deadly Assassin” in 1977
- The four knocks originated in “The End of Time”
- The diner was first seen in “The Impossible Astronaut,” the Western during Amy and Rory’s run; in real life it’s Eddie’s Diner on Mermaid Quay in Cardiff Bay.
- Shabogans are the people outside the Gallifreyan Citadel, considered troublemakers by the Time Lords.
- One of the songs he played on the guitar was the Bad Wolf theme, suggesting that certain aspects of his companions always haunt him, no matter the years and circumstances.
- Bars from “Hotel California” play during the 4.5 billion year revelation
- I’m still cranky about Orson Pink and I’m never letting it go.
- No, Clara can’t still find Danny and have a baby, because her biological processes are frozen, unless somehow she finally does outrun time’s need for her to die.
- It looks like the Time Lords granted him more regenerations than just one, so this is presumably not the last Doctor.
- The Dalek begging to be exterminated made me surprisingly emotional, and then the Weeping Angel scared the crap out of me.
- “You traveling?” “From time to time.”
- “The first thing you’ll notice about the Doctor of War is that he’s unarmed. For many, it’s also the last.”
- “On pain of death, no one take a selfie.”
- “Go to hell. By my calculations you’ve got about 5 minutes.”
- “Because we know summer can’t last forever.”—Ashildr = Game of Thrones shout out!
Doctor Who S9E12
Doctor Who turns the return of Gallifrey on its head with the biggest hoodwink of all time and a boatload of controversy as the Doctor saves Clara… kind of. Emotional, surprising, scary, frustrating, and triumphant, “Hell Bent” is all the things “Face the Raven” wasn’t. While problematic for some, I found it a thrilling, fun, and satisfying end to the season arc with payoffs and callouts for even the smallest details. The cinematography was different and interesting, and every character felt fully-fledged despite the lack of lines for some. Overall, well done.