Hell Bent ★★★★★

The Doctor faces down the Time Lords – and says a proper farewell to Clara in a satisfying finale that opens a well of sorrow

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Story 262

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Series 9 – Episode 12

Storyline


The Doctor faces a bittersweet homecoming as, betrayed and trapped, with both his hearts broken, he demonstrates just how far he would be willing to go if someone took everything he cared about from him. With his quest to reach Gallifrey seemingly over, the Time Lord engages his own people in a struggle that will take him to the very end of time itself, but who is the mysterious Hybrid mentioned in the Gallifreyan prophecy? And just what was it the Doctor left behind as his confession…?

First UK broadcast
Saturday 5 December 2015

Cast
The Doctor – Peter Capaldi
Clara Oswald – Jenna Coleman
Ashildr – Maisie Williams
President Rassilon – Donald Sumpter
The General – Ken Bones, T’nia Miller
Gastron – Malachi Kirby
Ohila – Clare Higgins
Woman – Linda Broughton
Plump man – Martin T Sherman

Crew
Writer – Steven Moffat
Director – Rachel Talalay
Producer – Peter Bennett
Music – Murray Gold
Designer – Michael Pickwoad
Executive producers – Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
First off, what a strange and poetic way to begin this superb finale. Perhaps we were expecting it to begin with fireworks on Gallifrey. A showdown between the Doctor and the Time Lords for the eternity of suffering they’ve caused him. But no. He saunters into Nevada, lost and forlorn, and sits down in a deserted diner, staffed by someone who looks like Clara.

If I was left unmoved by the predictable and, to my mind, tedious events of Face the Raven, episode 12 certainly does push my buttons. It touches me in unexpected ways; it convincingly opens up a well of sorrow and, yes, several times I had a tear in my eye. The first being when the Doctor strums “a sad song” on his guitar, a blues version of a familiar Murray Gold theme. “What’s it called?” “I think that it’s called Clara…” That really got me.

It’s easy to assume that he’s been searching for Clara, has located her but that, for some reason, she doesn’t recognise him. Throughout the episode, he relates recent events to her with what we perceive as deliberate ambiguity on his part, for her benefit. And, skipping ahead, it’s only towards the end that we realise that “diner Clara” is fully aware of what’s going on; it is the poor Doctor who’s stumbling in the dark with memory loss.

It’s a clever trick to pull on the viewers, making this, their real parting, especially effective. Clara is in charge of this situation. She has fixed things for him, reunited him with his Tardis and is saying goodbye: “You said memories become stories when we forget them. Maybe some of them become songs.” That’s beautiful. Admirable writing by Steven Moffat.

But, to the meat of the story. The Doctor returns to Gallifrey…

This is potentially a big deal. After the Time War, his home planet has been lurking “at the extreme end of the time continuum”. There’s always a worry that the idea of the Time Lords is far grander and more intriguing than the reality. Too often they’ve been depicted as decrepit old geezers, palsied Time Luvvies wibbling and chuntering their way through eternity, actually doing very little. Since Doctor Who returned in 2005 they’ve been wisely kept at arms’ length, only properly surfacing in the 50th anniversary special and in David Tennant’s lacklustre swansong, The End of Time (2009/2010).

In the latter story, wicked President Rassilon was played by no less than Timothy Dalton. Maybe the former 007 was unavailable or unaffordable in 2015. Now he’s played by Donald Sumpter with all the élan of a dyspeptic lorry driver. Sumpter is a reliable character actor (his Doctor Who CV goes back to The Wheel in Space 1968 and The Sea Devils 1972) but makes for uninspired casting here. But never mind. After a standoff in the desert, Rassilon the Redeemer and Resurrected loses his authority and is abruptly exiled from Gallifrey. The Doctor also despatches the High Council “on the next shuttle”. He’s on fire!

The Time Lords are a peculiar bunch – almost always seen striking a pose in their gilded robes and cumbersome collars. One of my oldest friends, Jan Vincent-Rudzki (who, in a former regeneration, was President of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society) has more than once remarked that this Gallifreyan regalia was established (in The Deadly Assassin) as “seldom worn robes” – meant to be dusted off only on very special occasions. They’ve since become de rigueur garb for Time Lords. Their identifying silhouette.

Steven Moffat gives Gallifrey enough colour and variety to avert a plod. The common people outside the Capitol look like Wild West pioneers and Peter Capaldi walks among them like Gallifrey’s answer to Henry Fonda. He returns to the barn dwelling of his youth, the same set from last year’s Listen, which confirms (lest any doubt remained) that Clara did visit him as a boy. He’s sheltered and protected by the plebeians and, soon after, venerated as a war hero by the presidential guards who lay down their arms.

What really livens things up is the inclusion of Ohila, leader of the Sisterhood of Karn, played with twinkle and gravitas by the majestic Clare Higgins. I lamented the fact that she had no more than a cameo in The Magician’s Apprentice, so welcome the sight of her waltzing into the council chamber. Just because she can. “I heard the Doctor had come home. One so loves fireworks.” A lot of TV viewers probably won’t have a clue who Higgins is; she’s more of a theatre actress. I loved her in Vincent in Brixton at the National in 2003, for which she won three of her Best Actress Olivier Awards.

Also award-worthy – for diversity in casting – is the regeneration of the General. While I don’t for a moment condone the Doctor shooting the General (who last appeared in the 50th and in any case seems to be an ally), the cheeky transformation from Ken Bones to T’nia Miller definitely warrants a cheer – for reasons too plain to spell out.

The anxiety over “the Hybrid” seems over-egged. It seems to be driving these episodes, although I haven’t mustered much interest in it. Don’t people on Gallifrey have greater concerns? Last week the Doctor told us, “The Hybrid… is me.” It’s easy to assume he’s talking about himself; the fact that he’s half-human (disregarded since 1996). He could just as easily be saying, “The Hybrid… is Me,” meaning Ashildr, the Viking he made immortal with a Mire implant.

Steven Moffat naughtily toys with both interpretations when the Doctor and Ashildr show up at the end of time in the ruins of the Capitol cloisters. Ashildr even throws a third theory into the mix that the Hybrid could be a destructive combination of both the Doctor and Clara. I’m pleased that it’s left unresolved.

Whatever the truth may be, the Doctor was prepared to conceal what he knows for millennia in the previous episode. Like Clara, I’m torn. Torn between incredulity and being appalled that he spent four and a half billion years struggling to get out of the castle trap in Heaven Sent, determined to keep his secret and rescue her. That time span is mind-boggling.

The implication is that the same eons have passed for the Time Lords and the Sisterhood of Karn. Fine, they all enjoy longevity but they aren’t immortal. Ohila and the General haven’t gained one wrinkle in that time. Ashildr, who is immortal (barring accidents), surely would have become stark raving mad. When she rejoins the narrative at the very end of time, she seems better adjusted than ever. These aren’t complaints; merely observations.

One of the immense joys of this finale, especially for fans, is surely the re-creation of the original Tardis control room from 1963. I would say “faithful”, except that the 1960s set was pale green and even at the beginning rather battered. In Hell Bent, they’ve made it white, gleaming and gorgeous. This may not be the Doctor’s own Tardis, simply a Tardis, but Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, Clara and Ashildr look perfectly at home in it.

Although the last act of the finale moves slowly, it is packed with emotion, laden with import and a lot of it is set inside a Tardis that looks like a Tardis. Adorable. Call me old-fashioned, but this loving re-creation of a classic 60s design is alone enough to moisten my jaded eyes. Even so, the modern Tardis designed by Michael Pickwoad is not diminished. It can hold its own. Like several directors this series, Rachel Talalay finds fresh angles to make the vast chamber look fabulous.

She nails the poignancy of the final few moments of Moffat’s script as it bestows an iconic status upon the 12th Doctor. No words are spoken, none are needed, as Murray Gold’s urgent theme for Capaldi builds. In a shaft of light and mist, he enters his long-abandoned Tardis. It slowly powers up in his presence. It comes alive. Clara has left a chalked message on his blackboard: “Run you clever boy and be a Doctor.” A new velvet jacket is waiting for him. A new sonic screwdriver pops out of the console. The doors close as he clicks his fingers. He engages the controls and heads off to new adventures.

I absolutely adore this closing sequence. Perhaps never before has the Doctor lost and won so much at the same time. He’s achieved what he set out to achieve billions of years ago. He’s vanquished his enemies and saved Clara. I’ve stated before that I wish they’d let someone important die – without deferral or resurrection. But, in dramatic terms, the survival of Clara works for me. For once, the Doctor has earned the power over life and death. His best pal is frozen between one heartbeat and the next. The two women that he has spared from death are united, in their own Tardis (stuck in the form of an American diner – “Awesome!”) and heading off together into adventures of their own.

In the final reckoning, the Moff has reverted and distilled the two lead characters to their essence. The Doctor is the lonely Lord of Time and Clara Oswald is the Impossible Girl once more.

★★★★★ Five stars each to Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Rachel Talalay and Steven Moffat.

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Going on set

I’ve visited some strange, otherworldly places, courtesy of Doctor Who. In another lifetime, in 1983, I wandered through the caves of Androzani Minor and sat behind Morgus’s desk on Androzani Major (from the finale of Peter Davision’s Doctor). I’ve been to Sarn, Telos, Varos, Necros and often loitered in the chamber where Colin Baker’s Doctor was put on trial by the Time Lords. Whoopee-doo! But, until this year, I had never set foot on Gallifrey.

In August, I had the pleasure of doing so with Waris Hussein, as we watched Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman filming in the Capitol cloisters, the subterranean database of the Time Lords’ Matrix festooned with foolhardy intruders such as Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels… And a Radio Times blogger. A fabulously detailed, weathered and solid set, it looked like it had been there for centuries.

That day Waris, the very first Doctor Who director, met Rachel Talalay, the very latest. We then had the pleasure of being led round the Tardis by the Doctor himself, Mr Capaldi, and the supremely talented production designer, Michael Pickwoad (see gallery below).

Even when idle, the current Tardis control room is a place of awe-inspiring beauty – a complete chamber, like a spherical tank. There is no “fourth wall”. You enter either from a passage below or from a platform leading to the police box doors. Once inside, you can easily believe it might transport you across time and space.

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The Tardis
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RT’s Patrick Mulkern and Peter Capaldi on set (11 August 2015). Photographed by Waris Hussein
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Waris Hussein and designer Michael Pickwoad on set (11 August 2015). Photographed by Patrick Mulkern
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Waris Hussein and designer Michael Pickwoad on set (11 August 2015). Photographed by Patrick Mulkern
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Waris Hussein and designer Michael Pickwoad on set (11 August 2015). Photographed by Patrick Mulkern
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Director Waris Hussein and Peter Capaldi on the Tardis set (11 August 2015). Photographed by Patrick Mulkern