This story was never about Gallifrey. As far as the Doctor is concerned, his home planet is somewhere between a distraction and a means to an end. For anyone hoping for big revelations in the wake of Gallifrey’s return, that’s bound to be a bit of a disappointment. After all, this surely must be what the show has been building toward at least since “The Day Of The Doctor,” and arguably from the very moment back in Christopher Eccleston’s year in the TARDIS that we learned the Doctor was the last of the Time Lords. The proper, official return of the Doctor’s people is the culmination of a ten-year story, and it makes sense for audiences to be interested in that, especially when you throw in the season-long arc about the Doctor and the hybrid. But, as the Doctor makes clear in the Cloister, none of that matters to him, at least not right now. Ken Bones is back as the general from the 50th anniversary special, and Donald Sumpter, Game Of Thrones’ Maester Luwin, takes over for Timothy Dalton as Rassilon, the resurrected founder of Time Lord society last seen in “The End Of Time.” The Doctor summarily banishes one of those characters and mortally (or at least regeneratively, giving us our first onscreen regeneration that changes a Time Lord’s race and gender) wounds the other, yet both still feel like sideshows. Gallifrey and its absence have long defined the new series Doctors, yet when he finally makes it home, he doesn’t care. He only cares about saving the life of his best friend, and he will break all of his rules to do so.

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The result, then, is that the audience is invited to think going in that “Hell Bent” will be an epic finale along the lines of, say, “The Big Bang” or “The Wedding Of River Song,” only for the show to swerve toward something closer to the sustained heartbreak (admittedly still mixed with plenty of narrative pyrotechnics) of “The Angels Take Manhattan.” The framing device of the Doctor telling Clara the story of their parting is the first clue that this episode is far more about their relationship than it ever was about Gallifrey, but it’s fair to say that “Hell Bent” delivers something rather different from what it and the episodes building up to it appear to promise. This definitely isn’t the first narrative swerve in new Doctor Who, and in the Moffat era in particular, and this is actually one of the better-executed examples, if only because what we get in the second half of the episode is so compelling. Where “Hell Bent” errs is in its lack of narrative signposting, as we’re about a half-hour into the story before the Doctor makes absolutely clear that he’s here to save Clara, rather than deal with the prophecy of the Hybrid. The Doctor’s silence in the early going certainly contributes to the Western atmosphere, but it creates ambiguity as to what he’s actually so furious about. Ohila of the Sisterhood of Karn suggests the Doctor holds Rassilon alone responsible for the Time War, but there’s good reason to think that’s beside the point, and that it’s really all to do with the confession dial, considering the Doctor is shown holding it in the barn and it dominates the conversation when he and Rassilon meet face to face. Basically, “Hell Bent” is coy about its actual story for no particular reason beyond the fact that Steven Moffat sometimes likes being coy, and this somewhat detracts from what really does end up being a fantastic story.

There’s a bait and switch in this episode, no question. Hell, there might be three or four of them, depending on how you count them. As far as Gallifrey is concerned, the crucial misdirection spins out of the very end of last week’s “Heaven Sent,” as the Doctor addressed his Time Lord tormentors after escaping the confession dial: “The Hybrid destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins is me.” (Or “Me.” We’ll get back to that.) Naturally enough, the audience focused on the Doctor’s words, yet they were beside the point. It was his tone that mattered. For all his triumph as he finished his billions-year story about the bird and the diamond mountain, his tone as he addressed the Gallifreyan boy and the confession dial suggested a man far beyond mere words like “anger” or “rage.” The Doctor of “Hell Bent” is traumatized and broken, and his inability to let Clara go is what ends up driving the story, even as the entire rest of the universe, Clara very much included, tells him he has to accept the horrible truth. All the business with prophecies and hybrids and Time Lords is only so much window dressing.

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In that sense, “Hell Bent” works for Gallifrey much as “The Magician’s Apprentice”/“The Witch’s Familiar” did for Davros and Missy, as these stories transform them into potential recurring presences without undercutting their narrative importance. Gallifrey is now in a position where it can return in any subsequent story, but that doesn’t undo how significant the planet remains in the larger mythos of the show. Maybe “Hell Bent” throws away a story worth telling in which the Doctor had more fully focused on finding Gallifrey, or even just one in which the Doctor dealt more directly with the fallout of the Time War, but tonight’s episode effectively suggests there isn’t much else left to say about that. Or, at least, the Doctor has much more important things on his mind, starting with saving the life of his friends. What “Hell Bent” ends up disproving instead is something the new series implicitly supposed when it destroyed Gallifrey in the first place, namely that Time Lords can’t represent a compelling presence in the show, either as outright villains or as uneasy allies. To be sure, there’s some of the dusty senators and stilted mysticisms about tonight’s episode, particularly when Rassilon and Ohila are arguing, but the episode manages to present more of the workings of Time Lord society than we’ve ever seen onscreen, and much of it suggests worthwhile stories are waiting to be told on this world.

Indeed, the Doctor’s largely silent trip to the Dry Lands and the barn—previously seen in “The Day Of The Doctor” and “Listen”—suggests more about his past and the structure of Time Lord society than nearly anything we’ve seen in the show’s 52 years, even if the show (and the Doctor) says almost nothing out loud. It’s never said explicitly, but “Hell Bent” comes closer than any other episode to clarifying that Gallifrey might be the home of the Time Lords, but not all Gallifreyans are Time Lords. The episode builds implicitly yet strongly on what we glimpsed of the Doctor’s childhood in “Listen,” and the presentation of the Doctor as a war hero equal parts respected and feared by those he served with is a detail worth exploring in future, as it creates a totally different context for this character we otherwise know so well. Between that treatment and the Doctor’s general conduct once he seizes control of Gallifrey, there’s a good argument to be made that Gallifrey is the one place in the universe where the Doctor can never truly be himself: He can be an old warrior, or a legendary hybrid, or the Lord President, or just a broken old man, but he sure as hell isn’t the Doctor. Again, that’s an idea worth developing down the line, but it works just fine here in support of the more targeted story of the Doctor’s efforts to rescue Clara.

One controversial aspect of this episode—certainly the bit I’m still struggling to sort out for myself—is the decision to bring back Clara. The ending of “Face The Raven” was a beautiful, powerful 10 minutes of television, and it’s worrisome to think that “Hell Bent” might unring that bell. On balance, I don’t think it does, unless someone feels that ending was powerful exclusively because Clara died. Yet I would say the fact of her death was less important to the poignancy of “Face The Raven” than was the way in which Clara prepared for her death, how she demanded the Doctor give her the right to choose what meaning her death would have. “Face The Raven,” “Heaven Sent,” and “Hell Bent” suggest the fundamental conflict between those who have nothing left but to be remembered and those who are left behind to do the remembering. Clara asked the Doctor to remember what she stood for, both so that he can know Clara died because of who she was—a point Ashildr reiterates here—and so that he can find the inspiration he needs to keep being the Doctor. He appeared to find that at the climax of “Heaven Sent,” but that peace of mind abandons him when he confronts his tormentors here and sets into motion his plan to save Clara.

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What makes so much of this work are the performances from Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. The Doctor’s anguish is palpable, and his incarnation of the Time Lord is better equipped to linger in heartbreak than his immediate predecessors. When we talk about this being a more straightforward version of the Doctor, what’s on display here shines through, as the Doctor struggles to convince Clara that he even slightly knows what he’s doing. He raises his voice, and he angrily claims there is no one for him to answer to, when the look in Clara’s eyes makes it clear there’s absolutely still one person left. Before that, he is circumspect even by his standards, refusing to give straight answers to even the most basic questions. The episode has some fun with this—it’s a fun gag when the Doctor admits that saying precisely what the Cloister and the Matrix are hurts him a bit—but the episode soon reveals that the Doctor can barely face the reality of what the Time Lords did to him, and how well-earned Clara and the universe’s hatred of the Time Lords really is.

As for Clara, her role here is, logically enough, an extension of the end of “Face The Raven,” as she tries to convince the Doctor that it’s not worth burning his world and all he stood for just to hang on to her. The Doctor and Clara both recognize that he’s doing this as much for himself as he is for her; she does try to get some sense into him, yet she also recognizes how much he has endured and will yet endure with her inevitable death. Clara is never going to be in that first tier of companions, because the show never brought her character arc into a single clear focus, yet the show did end up finding something special between Clara and this Doctor, as their friendship created both incredible depth of caring and a very real danger that each would spur the other toward disaster. Clara and the Doctor will always stand by each other, which is why they no longer can. “Face The Raven” used Clara’s death to illustrate that point, “Heaven Sent” seized upon the Doctor’s grief, and now “Hell Bent” reverses one without undoing the other. If anything, bringing Clara back only serves to amplify the Doctor’s pain, or at least bring it closer to the surface, which is where it really ought to be in a television story.

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You could compare a lot of this with past new series companion exits: Rose’s heartbreaking parting followed by a seemingly impossible return, Donna’s memory wipe, Amy and Rory’s exit leading to the Doctor withdrawing from himself and the world, even Martha’s recognition that the two of them just aren’t right for each other. Without quite saying that Clara’s exit improves on them all, the show has definitely learned some valuable lessons from what worked and what didn’t. Clara’s return is far better than Rose’s because it’s the direct result of the Doctor’s onscreen action, rather than something just kind of mentioned offhandedly, and “Hell Bent” becomes all about the Doctor and Clara talking out what they mean to each other and why the must part, whereas “Journey’s End” goes perversely out of its way to minimize Rose and the 10th Doctor’s interactions. The Doctor’s actions here play far better than the century-long grieving (possibly sulking) of “The Snowmen,” because again we actually see it, and because it directly drives the plot instead of being this thing distracting from the inevitable business of the Doctor moving on. And tonight’s episode alludes to Donna’s fate in “Journey’s End”, taking a lot more care than that last time to consider what the companion wants in all this.

Clara’s presence in the opening scene of this episode is interesting, as it’s hard not to think that Steven Moffat wanted the audience—or at least the fans engaged in the speculation business—to assume that this Clara represents some manner of callback to the events of “The Name Of The Doctor,” in which Clara scattered herself throughout the Doctor’s timeline to save him from the Great Intelligence. It’s one of a couple instances of the show using fans’ knowledge against them, as with Ashildr flirting with (re)canonizing the Doctor’s half-human status from the Paul McGann TV movie. Once it becomes clear that the Doctor had to wipe Clara’s memories, “Hell Bent” refocuses the audience’s attention back to just this adventure, with no need for a Clara fragment to be involved, but even then there’s another clever reversal as it becomes clear it wasn’t Clara who lost her memories. The Doctor losing his memories is a brutal moment, with Capaldi conveying pain and sorrow worthy of a regeneration scene.

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Letting Clara run off with Ashildr in a stolen TARDIS stuck in the shape of an American diner is one logical way of closing off the plotline of Clara becoming like the Doctor, and it’s a hell of a lot more hopeful than having her die. There’s room for disagreement on whether this somehow cheapens the show to have the show give Clara such a happy ending, in that she could end up taking just as long to get back to Gallifrey as the Doctor did, never aging before she does eventually face her unalterable death. (Unless the show someday brings back Clara and reveals her heart did eventually start beating again. Also possible.) If someone as a viewer objects to this because that person feels tragic endings are inherently better or more mature than happy ones, at the very least when it involves actively reversing the former to go with the latter, well, I can sort of see that logic. But I tend to think the problem comes when stories just wave the equivalent of a magic wand to undo a tragedy, and that’s emphatically not what happens here. The Doctor suffers so, so much in “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent” to earn Clara her happy ending, and to find himself some measure of solace. Maybe that’s too incredible to be entirely mature, but I think this strikes the right balance in letting Doctor Who remain a fundamentally hopeful show without veering into outright wish fulfillment. But yeah, this one rides the line, and I can imagine that proving more than a little controversial.

As for the actual decision to even partially wipe the Doctor’s memory, well … this is the kind of fantastical occurrence that is difficult for an audience member to connect with emotionally, but it’s not too difficult to see how this could function as a kind of narrative shorthand for the Doctor gaining just enough distance from the memories of Clara to move on at last. As the episode ends, the Doctor still recalls all his adventures with Clara, and the conversation in the diner and the sight of Rigsy’s tribute graffiti should make it pretty obvious to the Doctor that he just met his lost companion, especially when that message is waiting for him in the TARDIS. The Doctor takes that message to heart, symbolized by him putting on his jacket and receiving a new sonic screwdriver. (Though let me make it damn clear that the hoodie and the sunglasses better not be gone for good, seeing as they’re just as essential to this Doctor’s identity.) All that the Doctor has gone through in “Hell Bent”—the realization of all the lines he crossed, mixed with his now blurred memories of Clara—have given him enough distance to realize he has to leave the pain of Clara’s loss behind. Her memory is gone and only the story—or the song—remains, and the Doctor can focus on the beauty and the inspiration of that, if he so chooses.

There’s a powerful message here about loss and grief and moving on, and one that only becomes clearer to me as I write out this review and think back on the episode. That “Hell Bent” doesn’t make me feel all those things emotionally in the moment quite as strongly as “Heaven Sent” or the ending of “Face The Raven” did is perhaps a sign that it’s just a tad too busy and not quite focused enough on what ends up being its strongest and most important story. That’s enough to call this a slight step down from the dizzying peaks of this season, but only a slight one. Doctor Who is great again, and this season represents maybe the best mixture yet of the show’s head and its heart(s).

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Doctor Who Season Nine: An Alternative Ranking

As I’ve done before with last season and my retrospective reviews of the Russell T. Davies era, I decided to put together a category-based ranking of this year’s stories. This is mostly because the letter grade system is always a pain in the ass to apply to episodes of television—particularly when I haven’t seen the future episodes that would theoretically help set the curve!—but a particular hassle with Doctor Who, as episodes can succeed or fail (or both!) in ways that are completely different from other episodes, which makes placing them on a single grading spectrum a fool’s errand. So then, throwing in last year’s Christmas special and splitting the Ashildr stories and the final set of episodes into individual entries because they’re more like linked stories than true multi-parters, here we go…

Stone-Cold Classic: “Last Christmas,” “The Girl Who Died,” “The Woman Who Lived,” “Heaven Sent”

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Not Perfect But Still Pretty Fantastic: “The Magician’s Apprentice”/“The Witch’s Familiar,” “The Zygon Invasion”/“The Zygon Inversion,” “Face The Raven,” “Hell Bent”

Solid Enough If Generally Unremarkable: “Under The Lake”/“Before The Flood”

The Best You Can Say Is It’s A Bit Dull: “Sleep No More”

And yeah, this season has definitely far surpassed last year, and I’d say it’s very close in quality to season five. I could also be talked into moving “The Magician’s Apprentice”/“The Witch’s Familiar” into the absent category of Some Fascinating Ideas But Seriously Flawed, but I think Missy is a strong enough element to earn it that higher ranking. Point is, even this theoretically better system I created is really inadequate to the task of parsing which episodes I think are best and how one stacks up against another. Probably just best to read the reviews.

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Stray observations

  • As far as the Hybrid goes, I think “Hell Bent” might be pulling a better version of what “The Name Of The Doctor” supposedly did with the whole Trenzalore business, as the events of this episode appear to satisfy the prophecy of the Hybrid, what with the Doctor seizing control of Gallifrey and both him and Ashildr later literally standing in Gallifrey’s ruins—hell, you could say the bit about the Doctor destroying a billion billion hearts to save his own refers to his torture in “Heaven Sent”—while still leaving room for a more epic story later on that deals with the Hybrid question head-on. If nothing else, Ohila appears to have unfinished business with the Doctor.
  • No specific reference is made to Rassilon regenerating, but I suppose there’s no particular need to. Donald Sumpter is okay in the role, but he’s a decidedly less menacing presence than Timothy Dalton was, making Rassilon appear a bit sniveling and feckless. Of course, since he’s only banished, it’s entirely possible he could come back in future as a more developed adversary, played either by Sumpter again or someone new. Again, this is the fun of having Gallifrey back while still keeping it in hiding: The show can now explore the possibilities of the Time Lords without feeling beholden to their presence.
  • Rachel Talalay’s direction of both this and “Heaven Sent” is fantastic, once more maximizing the always tiny budgets of British television to deliver something suitably epic. The Western atmosphere is particularly effective, but she proves just as at home with the more alien and science fiction elements. If she is now officially the go-to director for the epic stories of the Capaldi era, I’m happy.
  • How else could I end than mentioning the proper, glorious return of an old-school console room, looking more or less just as it did when William Hartnell was in the TARDIS? Much as I understand the logic of going with the modern-day TARDIS designs on a regular basis—I get the sense that that gloriously white and featureless old console room is a pain to light and shoot properly—it’s a joy to see it again, and I’m going to guess the realization of more than a few of Peter Capaldi’s boyhood dreams.

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