Aired 5 December 2015
Following the huge surge of momentum at the end of ‘Heaven Sent,’ Steven Moffat decides to slow proceedings down at the beginning of ‘Hell Bent.’ However, he still manages to accomplish a lot in those initial few minutes, first and most importantly revealing that Clara has returned. On top of that, a visit to a familiar locale from ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ as well as a very in-depth look at Gallifrey are attained, all of this before the credits roll.
Given the lengthy buildup of the return of Gallifrey and last episode’s cliffhanger of the Doctor finally returning to cause some mayhem, Rassilon and the Time Lords actually end up being one of the more inconsequential parts of ‘Hell Bent,’ instead just setting further plot developments in motion. It’s not entirely surprising that the confession dial is Rassilon’s doing, and even though the Doctor’s reasons for leaving Gallifrey may have slightly changed given recent revelations, Rassilon still wants him dead. He thus duly orders the Doctor be shot outside of the Gallifreyan barn that has featured so prevalently as of late, though it should come as no surprise that these orders are not carried out.
What follows is, though, is one of the more momentous events in Doctor Who as the Doctor doesn’t just veer into darker territory but actively breaks his own code of ethics. This is a scenario fraught with risk since it potentially takes the Doctor down an unsympathetic and non-heroic path, but it’s a risk Moffat deems necessary. It’s notable every time the Doctor takes up a gun, but it’s even more notable when he actually fires, and that’s the case here as he shoots the Time Lord General. The argument can be made that he did make sure that there were regenerations remaining, but the Doctor himself has stated just how painful and unwelcoming the regeneration process is, and so it still seems like a drastic step for the character to take even if an entire life isn’t at stake. The fact that he shoots the man who has been supporting him is all the more uncomfortable, and this is without a doubt the most callous and cruel the Doctor has been in quite some time. He proclaims that he is answerable to nobody, and that should fill the universe with fear.
The impetus for these actions, of course, is his desire to save Clara, and saved she is as she is extracted from her timeline just before her final heartbeat and breath. It’s staggering to think just how much the Doctor has gone through for her- literally billions of years or repeated futility- and Jenna Coleman does a great job in even beginning to portray the necessary emotion in understanding it. And yet, despite being in this position with a new lease of sorts on life, Clara still maintains her sense of calm and composure, still taking control of what remains of her life. She’s been modelling herself after the Doctor for quite a long time, and that desire comes full-circle as she takes the ultimate step that would normally be reserved for the Doctor and wipes his memory- or at least the portion of it that pertains to her- to save him from himself and his unending quest to save her. This leads to a reversal of the expected as it’s the Doctor left hazy and unsure of what to make of everything, another fine example of Doctor Who not being afraid to slow things down for more character-driven moments.
Inevitably the treatment of Clara will be met with some exasperated sighs as yet another companion is retrieved from certain death. However, it’s hard to argue that Clara is a companion in a league of her own, and it’s only fitting that she is the one who ends up with a stolen TARDIS of her own, complete with her own companion in Ashildr and closing the lingering plot hole of just why Ashildr remembers Clara so vividly in ‘Face the Raven.’ This is the second in two very different but effective types of good-byes for the character, but it’s fair to say that the events here lessen her initial farewell at least a little bit in retrospect.
‘Hell Bent’ is the perfect episode for families and hardcore fans alike. The raw emotion at the core of the story is enough to keep any viewer entranced, but the little touches like seeing the High Council in their full pomp, having the Sisterhood of Karn return, and having the Doctor play Clara’s theme on his guitar are immensely gratifying in their own right. As any bold story is apt to do, it will surely leave viewers divided regarding the treatment of the Doctor, Clara, and even Gallifrey itself. And there’s no denying that this has been a very bold series of Doctor Who, with many more hits than misses. ‘Hell Bent’ is confident and ambitious, and it leaves the Doctor open to beginning yet another new journey. Whether Gallifrey and the Time Lords have more to do in that journey after such a long search remains to be seen.