By: Gabe @nospokenwords
All things must end. It is an axiom accepted by scientists, philosophers, Mister Spock and our own dear Clara Oswald. It is not a sentiment shared by the Doctor. At least not this Doctor, this time. At its core, “Hell Bent” is an episode about Doc 12 and his assertion that “summer never has to end” if you steal a time machine.
On first viewing, “Hell Bent” seemed like a mess, tied together loosely by scenes of the Doctor telling a story to a woman who looks like Clara. However, subsequent viewings and consideration reveal that this is an episode that has a lot of meat and manages to succeed in spite of itself and the musings of writer extraordinaire Steven Moffat.
When the Doctor awakes in Nevada, stumbles into a diner that looks like the place where he met the Ponds in “The Impossible Astronaut” and is met by a waitress that looks a lot like Clara, it seems like maybe he has gone back into his mind palace and this isn’t really happening. The lack of recognition says different. Also, there are early clues to Moffat’s misdirection. We know the diner was in Utah, not Nevada, for example.
The Doctor begins to spin a tale of how he got to this place and his quest to fill the lost memories of Clara. I loved hearing his guitar version of Clara’s theme, which was beautiful and haunting. In retrospect, it was also fun to watch Clara toying with the Doctor, leading him on with statements like, “She must have been very important to you.”
The diner scene was just one of many instances of things not being what they seem. As the Doctor talks about his arrival back on Gallifrey, his extreme anger at Rassilon seems to be about the Time War and his own entrapment in the confession dial. The later revelation that it was really about Clara was difficult to reconcile because of the complete lack of logic. At the same time, it also spoke volumes about the relationship he built with his companion.
The scene when the Doctor systematically deposes Rassilon with just a few words and no violence was powerful. It embodied everything we have come to know of the Time Lord who hates soldiers, guns and death. One of the first Gallifreyian soldiers to throw his allegiance to the Doctor said, “The first thing you notice about the Doctor of War is that he’s unarmed. For many, it’s also the last.” That is slightly betrayed when the Doctor calls in four armed airships to cover Rassilon, but the point is not completely lost that “words are his weapon.”
Moffat had teased that this episode was a “big Star Wars” episode, and I’m actually glad for this spoiler because otherwise, I would have groaned out loud at the scenes and music on Gallifrey. It wasn’t an homage to Star Wars, it was wholesale hackery. Knowing in advance that he was going for that, it let me groan internally and carry on with the story.
With Rassilon and the High Council out of the way (for this episode anyway… count on their return), business can get back to stopping the hybrid, right? Sure, but first we need help from people who don’t wear bad hats that might cramp the Doctor’s style. He has always leaned on his companions, so it isn’t a surprise that the Doctor requests getting Clara’s help via a Time Lord extraction chamber. It clearly is quite a feat as it requires at least three techs to run the thing.
Spared certain death, Clara seems momentarily taken aback. The General explains that “they always tell them” that their death is only spared for a few minutes while they help deal with a problem. It is here that we learn that the Doctor’s plan was always to save Clara.
When the Doctor asks for a neuro block, I thought Moffat telegraphed the ending for us – that the diner scenes were the Doctor talking to a Clara who had no idea who he was. The scene also presented a huge problem in that it shows our peace loving, gun hating, perpetually unarmed Doctor shoot the General. Sure, he confirmed that the Time Lord still had regenerations remaining, but it was still difficult to resolve with our Doctor. He was unravelling, and at least Clara recognized and challenged this angry Doctor.
The Time Lords were responsible for her death, the Doctor reasoned, so they needed to help resurrect her. “I have a duty of care,” he says. That perfectly sums up the depth of his feelings for her because the way he delivers the line betrays that the reason he saves her runs deeper. The Doctor did not go to such ends to save the Ponds, and he actually abandoned countless companions in the past. Since “School Reunion” we’ve had the idea that the Doctor has a problem with good-byes. River really drove the same point home in “The Angels Take Manhattan” when she tried to conceal her broken wrist because she didn’t want the Doctor to see her vulnerability. In Clara, the Doctor found the rare companion where good-bye hurt too much.
If you put the events of the episode in context, the Doctor of War never fired a gun at an enemy. This Doctor fired a gun at an ally. He compromised himself more for Clara than he had for his own people.
The issue of the hybrid also seems open ended. He may have been the hybrid standing in the ruins of Gallifrey when he goes to the end of time to try to save Clara. Me was also there. Could she be the hybrid? Clara didn’t actually leave the stolen TARDIS, so Me’s theory that the pair of them together are the hybrid doesn’t quite work. This may be the new Fields of Trenzalore from Moffat for a new Doctor.
I really appreciate that Clara isn’t dead. As long as she is alive, there is hope that the Doctor, Clara, Me or someone else will find a solution to her end. Avoiding endings is what this Doctor is about, and in spite of how illogical that may be, I at least sympathized with his plight in this instance.
Doctor Who is at its best when the Doctor is flawed. This Doctor is brutally flawed, and he eventually comes to realize it, but doesn’t actually change. “Nothing is sad until it is over, then everything is,” he laments to Clara in the diner. However, the Doctor is still the loveable Time Lord when he thinks he won and chirps, “I’m going to invent a flying submarine. Why? Because no ever has and it’s annoying!”
We’ve seen flashes in the past of the Doctor thinking himself a god only to be grounded by reality. Think “Waters of Mars.” In this episode, a desperate Doctor proclaims, “The universe is over! It doesn’t have a say anymore! As of this moment, I’m answerable to no one!”
Like that case of failing to save Adelaide in the “Water of Mars,” this Doctor recognizes his own avarice. When clever Clara attempts to reverse the polarity of the nuero block, the Doctor seems to accept that they can’t have a happy ending and one of them must forget the other. “Look how far I was willing to go for fear of losing you?” he asks. “This has to stop. One of us has to go.”
In his good-bye to Clara after having his memory of Clara erased, the Doctor tells her, “Run like hell because you always need to. Laugh at everything because it’s always funny. Never be cruel. Never be cowardly. And if you are, always make amends.” The Doctor’s contrition appears to be letting go of Clara. However, as you may expect, the Doctor then begins a search based on the hole her memory left in him.
Clara, as she has done throughout her tenure with 12, offers a perfect mirror. She’s similar, but better than he is. She says, “We all face the raven at the end. That’s the deal.” The Doctor, by rejecting this simple truth, is both endearing and tragic. That’s why I watch Doctor Who.
The episode wasn’t without its issues. A big one that I kept coming back to was, if the hybrid was so important, why didn’t the Time Lords question the Doctor before? Apparently, he learned of this prophesy when he was a young Time Lord at the Academy, so they had plenty of opportunity. Also, if the Mire had medical repair technology, why didn’t more Mire survive, or why didn’t other races steal their technology? In my opinion, the title sequence is an ongoing problem, but I did cheer out loud when I saw Jenna Coleman’s name one more time. Like the Doctor, I don’t like saying good-bye to dear friends.
All things considered, it was a good, if not slightly flawed, glimpse into the mind of our beloved Doctor. So close to a god, he always falls short. That’s interesting. That’s why he needs companions, and I can’t wait to see who the next one is.
First, we have Christmas fun with River!