As is Steven Moffat’s usual practice with the second half of a two-part story, the season finale of Doctor Who, “Hell Bent,” opens with a moment of maximum disorientation for the viewer. Last week, we saw the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) survive a torment that lasted for billions of years as he refused to provide information about the mysterious “Hybrid” creature prophesied to threaten the whole universe, breaking through at last to arrive on his homeworld, Gallifrey. Now, suddenly he’s a lonely drifter wandering into a Nevada diner and finding Clara (Jenna Coleman) behind the counter, neither of them apparently recognizing the other. He picks out Murray Gold’s “Clara” theme on his guitar and begins telling the story of how he came to be here.
Director Rachel Talalay follows up her triumph in “Heaven Sent” with a sequence in which the Doctor’s confrontation with the Time Lords is cast as a classic western. In the dusty wastelands, the Doctor retreats to the old barn from last season’s “Listen” that figured importantly in his childhood, and without needing a single line of dialogue, intimidates all those sent to fetch him until finally the president himself (Donald Sumpter) comes to see him. Through sheer force of personality, the Doctor deposes the man who ordered his torture and takes control of Gallifrey. His true purpose is revealed when he uses Time Lord technology to extract Clara from the moment of her death at the end of “Face the Raven” and is determined to restore her to a normal life.
Capaldi is magnificent as he shows the Doctor driven to the same dark extremes as David Tennant’s Doctor was in 2009’s “The Waters of Mars”—a being of unimaginable power, with his moral compass disconnected. His shooting of the friendly Time Lord general (Ken Bones) when the man tries to stop him shows how completely his usual principles have been replaced by a ruthless single-mindedness. (The general regenerates, providing us with the first on-screen instance of a Time Lord changing gender after a regeneration. Kudos to Moffat for slipping in this important stepping stone toward an eventual female Doctor without making any fuss about it.) Clara, meanwhile, realizes her death is still an inevitability (she’s only walking and talking thanks to the Time Lords’ super-technology), and Coleman excels at showing her character’s horror at what the Doctor has suffered, and what it’s done to him.
There are some intriguing new elements that add depth to the depiction of Gallifrey, in particular the macabre cloister wraiths: spectral avatars of dead Time Lords that guard the Matrix, the repository of all Time Lord knowledge. But as usual with Moffat finales, the focus quickly narrows down to just the central characters. In a clever reference to the Doctor’s original departure from his homeworld, he and Clara steal a TARDIS (whose interior is a beautiful variation on the original TARDIS control room from the 1960s) and flee to the end of the universe. They encounter again the immortal Ashildr (Maisie Williams), and the nature of the Hybrid is revealed.
For a moment, Moffat teases that he might be going with the idea that the Doctor is half-human (a ridiculous concept advanced in the 1996 telemovie starring Paul McGann, and resolutely ignored ever since by both fans and writers). But the true answer is that the Hybrid isn’t one creature, but two (the Doctor and Clara), who, as the Doctor has come to realize, will be disastrous for the universe if they remain together. As he says, “I know I went too far,” and he intends to break Clara free from the fixed point of her death and wipe her memories of him, restoring her to a normal life. But this hubristic plan fails, as Clara takes the memory-wiping into her own hands, modifying the device so it will affect one of them randomly.
Capaldi and Coleman share the climax of the story as they activate the device together and wait to see which of them will succumb. Coleman’s tear-streaked face as Clara realizes the Doctor is the one chosen, and is saying goodbye to her, shows one last time her ability to portray hugely emotional moments in the most natural and unforced way. As we return to the Nevada diner, we now understand that the Doctor has no idea the woman he’s talking to is the Clara he once knew—or that the diner itself is the camouflaged exterior of the second TARDIS.
Clara’s character development reaches its logical conclusion as she effectively becomes another Doctor, spinning off into the universe with her own time machine and Ashildr as her companion. Unfortunately, the very neatness of this happy ending for Clara obscures the idea that she’s supposedly still one heartbeat from death. It’s true that she promises she’ll eventually go back to Gallifrey to be returned to her fixed death (and, after all, she’s been left with the knowledge of the Doctor in her head which he said would enable the Time Lords to track her down), but her talk of going “the long way around” tends to give the impression that she’s been given an arbitrary reprieve that diminishes the fine ending of “Face the Raven.”
Apart from that one flaw, though, “Hell Bent” is a strong finale to what has been possibly Moffat’s best season as showrunner. There was only one serious misfire, the standalone episode “Sleep No More,” and the predominance of multi-episode stories meant that each adventure had a greater-than-normal significance. It’s been a tremendous season for Capaldi, too, who now completely owns the role of the Doctor. The final scene—like the opening Gallifrey sequence, completely wordless—is filled with good cheer (even before the preview of what looks to be a riotously madcap Christmas special) as the Doctor recovers his TARDIS, closes the door with a click of his fingers, and even gets a new sonic screwdriver, before heading off confidently toward new adventures.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: “The War Games,” from 1969, starring Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines, and Wendy Padbury, is the story that introduced the Time Lords into Doctor Who. A 10-episode epic that was the last story for all three regular cast members, it provided a tremendous end to a memorable era of the series.
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