Sunday, 6 December 2015

Doctor Who - Hell Bent

Contains Spoilers.

Of all the ways I expected Doctor Who's ninth series finale to open, that certainly wasn't it. After that unspeakably dramatic ending to last week's Heaven Sent, rather than immediately resume with the Doctor marching towards the Gallifrey Citadel we begin in a small American diner, where the Doctor stumbles in and finds a waitress who looks identical to Clara. We don't know it yet, but Moffat's trademark games begin now. And so does the emotion.

The Doctor sits down, sparking up a conversation with the waitress, and strums a tune on his guitar: Clara's theme. "Is it a sad song?", the waitress asks. The Doctor replies "Nothing's sad until it's over, then everything is." "What's it called?" "I think it's called Clara." "Tell me about her...". And so he does, and only then do we cut back to Gallifrey and resume where last week's monumental cliffhanger left off. We're yet to even see the title sequence, and Hell Bent is ready to drop some major emotion. We can only assume the Doctor has found his long lost companion, but she seems to have no idea who he is.

From that moment it became immediately clear: This episode was never going to be about Gallifrey or the Timelords or the Doctor seeking vengeance. This was an episode about the Doctor and Clara, and the lengths that he would go to when he just might be able to save her. That said, the Gallifrey stuff all works terrifically well. After the title sequence, a silent Peter Capaldi wanders around the barn we flashed back to in Listen, before having one lonely meal at a table surrounded by onlooking villagers as the Timelord army approaches. President Rassilion (played this time by Donald Sumpter) orders the Doctor's execution, but the army sides with the Doctor, and instead he banishes Rassilion before heading to the Citadel to discuss this ominous Hybrid that we've been teased about all season.

But, again, Hell Bent sidesteps giving us a real answer. We know that the Hybrid was never a Dalek-Timelord combination as many speculated, but Moffat simply offers us a few theories, and leaves the rest alone. Sometimes solid answers don't work, especially in a show like Doctor Who where not everything absolutely needs to be wrapped up in a neat little package. We hear the Doctor's beliefs, and we hear Ashildr's beliefs, but which is true?

Many, I presume, will be disappointed about Gallifrey's minimalist role in this finale, but I'm fine with it. After being trapped in that confession dial for four and a half billion years just because he thought he could save Clara, I think the Doctor is perfectly justified to avoid the big Timelord confrontation today and focus instead on saving his best friend. There's still quite a bit more I could say about the incorporation of Gallifrey, but I'd much rather talk about what, in my eyes, made this the best series finale to Doctor Who's best series: sheer emotional poetry.

Look at the Doctor's sorrow as he first plays Clara's tune on his guitar. Watch Clara's face as she discovers the Doctor was trapped in the confession dial for over four billion years just to try and save her. After we discover that the waitress is the real Clara, note how her whole face drops when the Doctor tells her, unbeknownst, that he would know Clara the minute he saw her, yet has no idea she is standing directly before him. Smile amid tears as the Doctor warns Clara not to eat pears because they're too soft as he gives her all of his final pieces of advice while he says his last goodbye to her before his memory is wiped and he forgets everything. Steven Moffat has been hit and miss with how he handles emotion, but he hit the nail on the head here. This was all sad, beautiful and poetic writing that acts as a perfect encapsulation of everything this series has offered us.

This finale isn't for everyone, I'll readily admit that in a heartbeat. Those who aren't fans of Clara and were excited for a big Gallifreyan showdown will probably never forgive Moffat for this. But those who liked Clara as a companion and don't mind personal, intimate finales will find an awful lot to fall in love with here. Clara's transition into becoming the Doctor has been admirably handled across the series, and Moffat capped that off seamlessly with Hell Bent. I mean, not only did Clara talk about "reversing the polarity", but she stole a TARDIS from Gallifrey, found a companion, and set off to have adventures of her own before ultimately returning to her own timeline to die the way she already had done.

It's a wonderfully poetic ending for Clara, as it gives a much loved companion the chance to have a deservedly happy ending after that ending in Face the Raven, but it also doesn't undo the events of her death either. Clara dying in Face the Raven wasn't what made that episode so emotional, it all came from the dialogue between her and the Doctor beforehand and Clara's insistence on facing the raven head on, and the events of Hell Bent don't subtract from that in the slightest. She still has these moments, and, ultimately, she will return again to the moment of her own death, facing the raven one final time - but only after travelling around the universe again, carrying on with that adrenaline fuelled life she has always, always wanted.

I will miss Clara, I really will, and whoever acts as our new companion next year will have enormous shoes to fill by following Jenna Coleman, who has proven across her tenure that the companion character shouldn't be sidelined and treated simply as a question-asker. Coleman has delivered excellent performances in every way possible; she's been funny, she's excelled in fear, she's packed in the drama and ripped our hearts out with her emotional scenes. It's genuinely tough to imagine anyone alongside Peter Capaldi in that TARDIS besides her.

And speaking of Capaldi, there's not much left to say that I haven't already said across the previous eleven reviews. This man is an utter revelation; he will be remembered as the Doctor from the 21st Century no matter how long this show lives for. I've always been a big fan of Steven Moffat's Doctor Who writing. He doesn't always get it right, I know, but when he does he can make something genuinely remarkable, and I believe that is exactly what he's done not only with Hell Bent, but with series 9 as a whole.

I adored this show last year, but in 2015 it reached levels I never thought it capable of. Steven Moffat, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman have, together, elevated Doctor Who from a bloody good sci-fi series into something beautiful this year. We may never have another series quite like this one, and these three will always be my wonder trio for Doctor Who, but no matter where the show takes us next year, I already cannot wait to work my way back through series nine all over again. I've always enjoyed this show a great deal, but I feel this is the first time I can think of it as something truly, truly special. What a year it's been.

  • This episode was jam-packed with cross references to other episodes. The diner playing Foxes' rendition of "Don't Stop Me Now", which was heavily featured while the Doctor and Clara visited the Orient Express last series, was my favourite one. I also liked the Doctor dropping his spoon after the Gallifreyan Army instructed him to "drop your weapons", alluding to his fight with Robin Hood last year.
  • "You said memories become stories when we forget them. Maybe some of them become songs". Moffat gave us some beautiful lines in this episode. Clara's theme, especially on that guitar, is one that will bring a tear to my eye if I heard only even a second of it.
  • How about that new sonic screwdriver right!
  • "Never be cruel, and never be cowardly, and if you are, always make amends". 
  • "Run, you clever boy, and be a Doctor". Nope. 

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