Doctor Who Hell Bent: could Clara return and other questions answered

We attempt to explain the series nine finale

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It’s true what they say: you can’t go home again. Maybe shops on the high street will have changed, maybe old neighbours will have moved away, maybe you’ll overthrow the president and hijack advanced technology to bring your friend back from the dead. Also, everything will seem smaller.

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In Hell Bent, the Doctor returns to Gallifrey with all the enthusiasm of every person ever invited to a school reunion. Rather than immediately storming into the Capitol, the Doctor decides to bed down in an old barn. But not just any old barn…

Where have we seen that barn before?

They don’t build ramshackle old barns like they used to, and the Doctor has been visiting this particular hay store for a very, very long time. It seems likely this is the same barn the Doctor (or whatever he was calling himself during the Time War) used to house the apocalyptic weapon ‘The Moment’ in the Day of the Doctor.

Going back further, in Listen we saw the Doctor as a child, crying his eyes out in fear of joining the Time Lord academy. 

The old woman who recognises the Doctor is presumably the same woman we hear comforting him off screen. It’s worth noting that this woman, as well as the people who gather around the Doctor like he’s a folk hero, are not Time Lords, despite coming from Gallifrey…

But what’s the difference between a Time Lord and a regular Gallifreyan?

Essentially, it’s a class system. The Time Lords are the upper classes – “high born Gallifreyans” in the words of Ashildr – while the Gallifreyans are lower class – they’re “no-one who matters”, in the words of the Time Lord president.

Beyond that, it’s not clear if there are physiological differences – are they both superintelligent, for example? Would even the stupidest Gallifreyan make Einstein look like a chump? If that’s the case, it seems a shame they’re essentially peasants on Gallifrey.

It has been suggested that only Time Lords are able to regenerate, due to the genetic meddling of Time Lord progenitor Rassilon, but that hasn’t been confirmed in the series itself. However, it would make sense that the status of ‘Time Lord’ is something that can be bestowed, rather than something you’re born with. River Song was conceived by human parents, but her in utero exposure to the time vortex resulted in her being born Time Lord.  

All of this discussion of Time Lord biology brings up another question…

How did the old woman recognise the Doctor?

He’s not only grown up since that night in the barn, he’s been through about a dozen more faces, so how would she know it was him?

Again, the series has been vague as to how and if Time Lords recognise each other post regeneration. In The Sound of Drums, David Tennant’s Doctor said he would be able to recognise the Master the moment he saw him: in that case as Prime Minister Harold Saxon. However that contradicts his failure to see through his enemy’s numerous forms and disguises over the years, including his most recent appearance as Missy.

Has the Doctor ever been a woman?

Let’s not get side-tracked by this issue yet again, but after the Doctor shot and killed the Time Lord general (not the first time he’s done this) his victim noted she was ‘back to normal’ as a woman? This possibly suggests Time Lords tend to stick to one gender most of the time. 

Here’s the big one: did the Doctor accidentally confirm he had been female at least once before? Missy was the first to suggest the possibility, claiming she had known the Doc “since the Cloister Wars, since the night he stole the moon and the President’s wife, since he was a little girl.” She then teased: “One of those was a lie, can you guess which one?”

Flash forward to Hell Bent, and the Doctor confirms the existence of the ‘Cloister Wars’, but corrects the story of the moon as the President’s wife, saying that this was a lie and in actual fact it was the President’s daughter. So if the Cloister Wars are true, and the president’s wife story is a lie, that means the Doctor must have really been a little girl, right? Unless Missy was lying about it all. But she wouldn’t do that to us, would she? 

Back to the plot, and it emerges that the Doctor has history with the Time Lord president. Yes, as we suspected, it’s Rassilon, who has changed his face since his last appearance as Timothy Dalton. Rassilon is a legend in Time Lord history, responsible for creating much of the technology that established their dominance over time and space. He was brought back to fight the Time War, where he gradually turned into a tyrant and outright villain.

The Doctor exiles Rassilon and takes over the presidency (not the first time he’s done this) and immediately abuses his position to abduct Clara, pulling her out of time moments before her death. They flee through the cloisters (the computer known as the Matrix in other stories) and eventually flee the planet in a stolen TARDIS (not the first time etc etc etc).

Where have we seen that TARDIS before?

This TARDIS should look familiar to you. The inside is still in its gleaming white ‘Factory Settings’ mode, as piloted by the first Doctor and rebuilt for An Adventure in Space and Time. The same is true of the outside. Remember the Doctor’s TARDIS is permanently stuck in the appearance of a police box due to a malfunctioning chameleon circuit, and other TARDISES change shape to suit their environment. However, when they’re not having to hide the time machines clearly default to a blank grey cylinder. 

We have seen this version before. In the Time of the Doctor, Clara sprinkles herself throughout the Doctor’s Time Line, including the moment he first stole what would become ‘his’ TARDIS. 

Who is the hybrid?

Which brings us on to Clara’s fate. First the Doctor has a word with Ashildr, clearing up the question of the hybrid once and for all. The Doctor’s line at the end of Heaven Sent…

…is revealed to have been a play on words. According to the Doctor, he isn’t the hybrid, Me is. And you know what? In many ways he’s right. After all, there’s Ashildr sitting in Gallifrey’s ruins.

(Side note: does this mean the Mire are immortal too? Or did the Doctor really, really improve their battlefield medical kit?)

Ashildr dismisses the idea that she is named in the prophecy, and claims that the hybrid isn’t one person but two, the Doctor and Clara. Missy engineered their meeting because she knew they would hit it off so well, the Doctor and Clara would drive each other to greater and greater extremes.

This line of thinking actually helps explain Missy’s plot in series eight. Before, it seemed like Missy had purposefully brought Clara and the Doc together because she knew that Clara would eventually fall in love with a maths teacher who would fall in front of a car, causing Clara to blackmail the Doctor into journeying to the underworld where Missy would reveal her undead Cyberarmy. Which even for Missy, is a stretch.

Instead, it’s now clear that Missy’s plan was more general. She knew that while Clara and the Doctor would love each other – we can’t remember him destroying all of time for Rose, jus’ sayin’ – they were bad for each other too. Missy simply wanted to screw with the Doctor long term – destroying time was just a side effect. It’s the equivalent of organising a date between your caffeine addicted best friend and a professional barista.

The Doctor realises they need to stop seeing each other, and pulls out a special gizmo that will wipe Clara’s memory of him, because when the Doctor splits up with someone it’s for good (he mentions that he used to do this telepathically, suggesting his loss of the power last week was some convenient plotting).

Could Clara return?

Clara has anticipated this (because Clara is amazing and haters feel free to shut it) and monkeyed around with the gadget. Hit the button and it’s 50/50 who will forget whom. It’s memory Russian roulette, the Deer Hunter crossed with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The device backfires on the Doctor, touching goodbye, yada yada yada. The Doctor wakes up in the desert and it’s revealed that the diner he wandered into at the start of the episode is the TARDIS from earlier (in a nice touch, and as we predicted, it has duplicated the diner he previously visited with Rory and Amy). The Doctor can’t remember Clara herself, but can remember their adventures together.

Clara and Ashildr leave, using the massive TARDIS manual to help them work the controls (the Doctor threw his version into a black hole). Clara reveals that she isn’t ageing, and while her death is a historical certainty, it won’t happen until she chooses to return to Gallifrey and be reinserted into her timeline. The two immortal gals ride off into the sunset in their stolen Tardis like Thelma and Louise. Only without the dying at the end (sorry, spoilers!).

Obviously, this leaves things open to a return for both characters (fanficiton is a certainty). Unlike Donna – whose brain will overcook if she ever remembers the Doctor – there don’t seem to be any ill effects from Clara and the Doctor chatting in the diner. The only thing stopping them being reunited is a sense of responsibility on Clara’s part, the availability of Jenna Coleman and the whims of the writer. However, we wouldn’t expect Clara to show up any time soon.

It’s reminiscent of Jenny, the Doctor’s daughter, who we last saw in, yes, The Doctor’s Daughter.

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Hopefully, Clara and Ashildr don’t follow in Jenny’s footsteps, and crash into a moon four seconds after the credits roll.