TV See, I told you. Well, yes, so did the cover of Doctor Who Magazine, but there was always the potential that the Jenna Coleman in the waitress outfit would be one of the many of the Clara-shaped humans populating time and space, the Doctor having dropped by to consider the old days with someone who looked like a friend he once knew. Now we know it was rather the reverse and that rather like Me, Clara’s become another of the Doctor’s friends to cheat death, although unlike Me who has had more heartbeats than she should ever have had (and thanks to being rescued at the death of the universe a few more), she exists in the space just before beating her last.
Hell Bent is not an easy episode to write about especially as a series finale. An arguably even more atypical piece of Doctor Who than Heaven Sent, it’s the kind of bitty instalment that has you in bits, the sort of experiment that the best episodic television has to present every now and then in order to demonstrate that it’s very far from being run of the mill. It’s Listen. Or Warriors Gate. Or The Silurians. Or The Keys of Marinus. They’re also injection moulded not to be popular, so trust Steven Moffat and Doctor Who to put it at the end of a run of episodes, though it’s also true that in a couple of weeks we have what looks like a romping Christmas special which in the future when boxed sets are released will be watched at the end of the run.
Did I enjoy it? Perhaps, maybe, not sure. As might have become clear over the many years we’ve been a hybrid, my tastes in Doctor Who aren’t necessarily conservative, I like experimental Who as much as I like experimental anything, but there is still a point when I also think the show has to settle down and do the generic things, when it has to reconfirm its principles and beliefs and just tell a thumping good story. In a run of episodes which has gone out of its way to very specifically not do that, to have ended everything with a Gallifrey based alien invasion on a base under siege would have been a disservice but part of me still longs for the days when a series finale amounted to the Doctor thwarting an alien invasion. With jokes.
The revival has somewhat trained us to expect the massive triumphant conclusion with space battles and speeches when the classic series wasn’t this at all, and indeed with the exception of regeneration stories, tended to simply offer an adventure which could just as easily have slotted anywhere in the previous run of stories. Season 13 could just as easily have ended on The Brain of Morbius and indeed no one really thinks of Season 17 concluding with Shada, The Horns of Nimon being perfectly expectable for that slot, if not necessarily as a piece of drama. Even when you look at the exceptions, The Green Death or whatever, more often than not, it’s still about telling a self contained stories rather than answering a series of narrative questions.
Instead, the show is now in a place where it feels like every instalment has to be an intellectual or emotional visual tone poem. What you would have thought would be celebratory symphonic moments like the Doctor’s return to his home planet become percussive thrums with filigree edging, running giving way to much talking and an audience left to read between the lines depending on how an actor’s skin shifts around their periorbitals or which direction their tongue wipes along their bottom lip (unsurprisingly quite difficult when you’re watching it on a 22” portable with a dodgy backlight). Stunning and statemental as a piece of television but there’s still the need to take a step back and wonder, “What’s it for?” and more importantly, “Who?”
Lord knows there are enough fan pleasing moments in Hell Bent to keep us squeeing no matter when in the past fifty-two years they hitched themselves to the back of the TARDIS, the sort of episode with has a three hundred and sixty degree specially created version of a 60s time ship and actually lets us see inside the citadels established in the Tenth Doctor’s memorial flashbacks. Does the Doctor really admit that he’s half-human in his conversation with Me? The fact that they’re even having the conversation is significant but this in an episode filled with such discussions in which bits and pieces of arcane mythology almost become the topic of Socratic dialogue. With another ten minutes UNIT dating might finally have been sort out once and for all.
Plus there’s the whole business of dealing with Rassilon, the Doctor becoming the President of Gallifrey and effectively resetting the status quo back to something not unlike that seen in the 80s. Does this mean Gallifrey is back, back, back? Can he get a call from the Time Lords as he once did before and be sent on some mission to stop the Xerons from every existing or to a colony to find out why all the natural resources are disappearing out of its core only to discover it was The Meddling Monk all along? Hope so. However unpopular they are amongst fandom, I’ve always had a soft spot for them if only because just as lots of planets have a north, at least one of them should be the Vatican, as a contrast to explain why the Doctor is the way he is.
All of which is perfectly fine. But I do fear what the casuals, the not we, the general audience or whatever other patronising description you want to choose to describe the sorts of people who don’t live this are thinking. What possible reason would they have to tune in? There’s an argument that after ten years, the show has amassed a certain reputational surplice and that it’s good that it’s offering something entirely unlike the rest of Saturday night but equally, as I suggested last week and Hell Bent simply went on to confirm, there’s a reason Dennis Potter plays went out on BBC Two. For all the scares and such in here, it doesn’t feel like a show that even children would want to watch. There’s an imbalance.
To a degree, it’s television series experiencing the same growing pains as various strands of the franchise during the wilderness years and although Hell Bent only resembles something like The Ancestor Cell in the sense that it also features Gallifrey, references to a Time War and ends with the Doctor experiencing amnesia (which I’ll talk about in a moment), just as that wasn’t in the business of creating accessible crowd pleasing material, it’s almost as though Hell Bent knows it was only going to be getting a four and a half million overnight, six million consolidated and slightly depressed iPlayer numbers and doesn’t care. I only hope that now it’s had its Lungbarrow, it’s got it out of its system and the next thing will be The Dying Days.
On the Doctor’s amnesia: if he has forgotten Clara, it’s not like she’s been expunged from the universe. Next time he turns up on Earth, even if her death has become part of the timeline (expect a memorial garden in the school grounds during Class), isn’t Kate or somebody going to mention her existence to him even if it’s to pass on their condolences? Isn’t she mentioned in his two thousand year diary and aren’t her belongings still in the TARDIS somewhere? When Charley Pollard was needfully expunged from Sixy’s brain, someone was added to fill the lack. Even if she doesn’t remember any of his adventures with her, the universe does. Unfortunately for some, I suspect this is a topic which will be returned to.
On his gun: yes, well hum. As you know, the idea of the Doctor brandishing a gun has always been a bit of a moveable feast in terms of its validity and for all the times he's admonished others, he's certainly held a few of his own. Although the Doctor does shoot a fellow time lord in the face, it is after checking which incarnation he's in and the result is a middle aged white man regenerating into a younger woman of colour who then moans about her predecessor's ego (which is to the good). Notice how there's little in the way of post-regenerative torpor which the Doctor endures. Perhaps the reason he's generally out of sorts during and after these changes is because he's half-human which means his body takes longer to settle down.
On Me: fruitless in the end. For a character who appeared in four whole episodes this year she still feels like a series of interesting ideas in search of a point, mainly existing to function in various scripts as a replacement for other individuals. The one useful thought, of being an immortal whose memory exists in written memoirs, which would have been enough to fuel a potentially classic episode in the right hands, became somewhat thrown away, as has the notion of the Doctor having created an immortal with the potential to do irreparable damage to the time line just by living through it. My impression, despite this ending, is that she’ll be back, that this is incomplete business.
On Clara: I’m pleased Clara isn’t dead quite yet, as such, even if it also means we sat through a ten minute death scene in Face The Raven only to be faced with another hour’s worth. There is something hopelessly poignant about one of Murray’s companion themes turning diagetic so that the character it signatures can hear it themselves, playing again with the notion which has bubbled under the drama since The Feast of Steven of just how aware the Doctor is about being part of a television series, whether he’s regurgitating that music because he’s heard it soundtracking his life, like the Time Lord equivalent of Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction.
Did I enjoy it? Perhaps, maybe, not sure. I smiled through most of it, was moved when expected and giggled as the TARDII skipped off into the vortex or at least opposite ends of the television screen. The aforementioned fan pleasing moments were very pleasing and unlike last year, I didn’t end feeling disgruntled and alienated but somewhat elated. But most importantly, as with the rest of this season, I’ve felt like the Doctor has returned, all fourteen incarnations of him staring back at us through Capaldi’s eyes (when he’s not wearing those bloody shades), the man who says words like “never cruel or cowardly” and understands what they mean. In the end, what more could we want?