The Doctor is back on Gallifrey, but once again Doctor Who refuses to do what every other sci-fi series would do. Faced with this big moment, the episode is a stubborn rejection of the epic season finale battle with the biggest of Big Bads, and instead focusses on the Doctor and his loss. The major returning villain is dispatched quickly and easily, although we last saw Rassilon in an episode that cost the Doctor one of his lives. Here he indicates his refusal to get involved in that kind of a story by dropping a spoon, his weapon from Robot of Sherwood. It’s a useful restatement of the Doctor’s character, before it gets distorted.
From here on in the Doctor stops behaving like the Doctor. He has a crazy plan that would be better suited to the Master, not properly thought through and with the odds wildly against him. Having previously lectured just about everyone who will listen about fixed points in time, he tries to mess with one himself, with no clear idea how to deal with the fallout. With the fallout being the destruction of the universe, that’s a problem for everyone. It’s an important rule, and one that allows the Doctor to exist in a universe that makes some kind of sense. Without it the whole premise of Doctor Who collapses, because he can just go back and change anything. There have to be consequences to his actions, or the drama is lost. This goes back a long way, long before the term “fixed points” was invented, but our most recent example that offers a perfect parallel is Clara’s attempt to resurrect Danny. The Doctor wasn’t too keen on that idea, and here he is refusing to practice what he preaches. But this is the episode where the “madman in a box” becomes a dangerous madman rather than a loveable eccentric kind of madman. The Doctor is broken by the loss of Clara and his suffering in the confession dial, which has played out over billions of years. We can’t judge him for this, because there is nothing we have to relate to that experience. It’s the torture of Prometheus, the suffering of a god over an unimaginable period of time. What comes out the other side of that is also beyond our imagining.
First we are lulled into a false sense of security. The Doctor seems to be holding on to his values, dropping his only weapon, which is of course a spoon. The Doctor doesn’t use a gun, does he… With Gallifrey reiterated as a classist society, the Doctor is also shown as somebody who is more at home outside of the Citadel.
You have nothing, Doctor. Nothing! Do you know what I have, out here in the Dry Lands, where there’s nobody who matters? No witnesses.
The place where “nobody matters”. That’s where you’ll find the Doctor, quietly and calmly overthrowing the government, without so much as a spoon for a weapon. So we are in very Doctorish territory, until…
The Doctor murders somebody.
His justification is this:
We’re on Gallifrey. Death is Time Lord for man flu.
…but we’re not buying that. We know what regeneration means. We have seen it many times and we know that it matters. Here’s what the Tenth Doctor said in The End of Time:
Even then, even if I change, it feels like dying. Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away, and I’m dead.
In terms of showing how broken the Doctor is, and how he has gone too far, it works well, but the wisdom of this is debatable. Should we ever see the Doctor as a murderer, whatever situation he is placed in? Can we ever think of him as a hero again, a role model to aspire to? Dramatically, it’s magnificent. In terms of the longterm prospects of Doctor Who, it’s questionable. But the worst thing about it is that it is not done for sound dramatic reasons. It is done as an excuse to show a gender and race swap regeneration. This is Steven Moffat holding up two fingers to a section of Doctor Who fandom.
And I really don’t have much of a problem with that, but I do have a problem with the way it is done. Firstly, it is entirely gratuitous. We already know a Time Lord can change gender for a start, unless you have been closing your eyes every time Missy appears on the screen. But more importantly it does the opposite to what it is intended to do, by pushing the detractors from the idea further into their corner. Because this happens next:
Oh, back to normal, am I? The only time I’ve been a man, that last body. Dear Lord, how do you cope with all that ego?
In one fell swoop, this confirms all the fears of the fans who didn’t want a gender change. It’s being used to reinforce gender stereotypes. The “man-flu” comment does the same. It’s sitcom battle-of-the-sexes drivel. If the scene has any value, it is to provide an example of exactly what not to do when the time comes for the Doctor to change gender. Let’s not have comments like this, written by a male scriptwriter who seems to think he is doing women a favour, while getting a cheap laugh out of lazy clichés.
Where the episode is also morally tricky is that it clearly sets up the Doctor’s actions as wrong, and yet in the end he succeeds. To a certain extent he finds a third way, which works. The idea of Clara and Ashildr going off together on adventures is a perfect resolution to both their storylines, while Clara’s ultimate fate is not averted. Clara was becoming a pseudo-Doctor and finally gets to be one, whilst Ashildr gets her freedom from the slow path. I also love how the extra seat at the chess game at the end of the universe could be interpreted as being there for another version of Ashildr at the end of her travels, rather than the Doctor.
The episode leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and that’s fine, although I do think the trend nowadays for leaving plot threads dangling for the future (and often forgetting about them) is sometimes used too much as an excuse to behave like the writers of Lost. In particular, there’s not much point teasing us about the “hybrid” for the whole series, only to abandon the idea and have to explain what it was in a magazine article. Apparently it is supposed to be the combination of the Doctor and Clara, which doesn’t make a lot of sense anyway, being as it is the Doctor’s actions that drive the narrative. Clara is just his Lost Lenore (see Face the Raven), and in any case “hybrid” is a very odd word for a relationship between two people.
Much more successful is how the episode stands as a critique of the fate of Donna. At last, the Doctor learns about consent. The fact that the sentence I just typed makes any kind of sense shows what a horrible mis-step the mind-wiping of Donna was. And the Doctor tries to do it again, with Clara. It takes an immortal being to point out the obvious:
That may not be what she wants.
…and then the Doctor finally learns his lesson and has to suffer the consequences:
CLARA: Nobody’s ever safe. I’ve never asked you for that, ever. These have been the best years of my life, and they are mine. Tomorrow is promised to no one, Doctor, but I insist upon my past. I am entitled to that. It’s mine.
DOCTOR: Oh, Clara Oswald. What am I doing? You’re right. You’re always, always right.
We have travelled a winding path to get here, but at last the Doctor has learnt how to be the Doctor again, and we can move on to new adventures. It has been quite a journey. RP
The view from across the pond:
In the vast history of Science Fiction, there are some planets whose names are known throughout fandom: Tattooine, Vulcan, Gallifrey; they are the stuff of legend. In 2005, after a hiatus of far too long, Doctor Who returned to our screens and by the second episode, we discovered that Gallifrey was gone! (So momentous was this news, that in 2009, when Star Trek returned to the silver screen, Vulcan followed its spiritual brother to oblivion!) So when the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, rolled around in 2013, and we learned that the destruction of Gallifrey was actually prevented by the Doctor, there was a feeling of excitement for the future. The Doctor then claims with glee that he will find his home one day; it’s a happy realization that he is no longer alone in the universe. Then, to add to the mystique, by the very next episode, The Time of the Doctor, the audience learns that the crack that had plagued Matt Smith’s Doctor might even lead to Gallifrey. It wasn’t until the end of Season 9 that the Doctor found himself on Gallifrey in the closing moments of Heaven Sent. This was going to be huge in a way that even President Trump couldn’t clearly express. Hell Bent was going to return the audience and the Doctor to Gallifrey. It should have been EPIC.
In 55 years of stories, Hell Bent is the only episode I gave a rating of zero. And it can be broken down by settings…
The Diner of Rassilon: With such an incredible ending, the pre-credit sequence doesn’t open where Heaven Sent ended. No, instead we’re at a diner where the Doctor will tell Clara a story of a girl named Clara who traveled with him but he has no memory of. Yes: he’s going to tell a story he shouldn’t even remember because the hole she left will be filled by the absence of memories… To quote the General, “What?”…
The Farmhouse Not-of-Rassilon: I had long suspected the farm was somewhere other than Gallifrey because during the The Day of the Doctor, while the planet is being bombarded by the Daleks, the farmhouse and miles of sky around it look beautifully clear. Birds fly overhead, and there is no sign that the planet is undergoing a massive attack. But now, we see the farm is on Gallifrey and it appears to be the Doctor’s childhood home as Ohila states he’s gone back to the beginning. The farmhouse is populated with 1800’s wild west settlers, as one would expect on Gallifrey, the most advanced civilization in the cosmos. We knew about the less advanced groups on Gallifrey, but was the Doctor really one of them and did they really hail from 1800s America? Then the Doctor makes a stand because he’s more upset about Clara’s death than he was for any other companion. His unspoken rebellion is actually impressive and handled very well giving the legendary hero of the Time War some semblance of power. So when Rassilon “the Redeemer” shows up, there’s some hope that things will improve. But Donald Sumpter is no Rassilon. Timothy Dalton’s Rassilon was glorious, magnificent and a bit terrifying. Sumpter’s Rassilon the “redeeeeemer” could also be called Rassilon the Whiner. (Don’t mess with Rassilon, damn it! He has an Infinity Gauntlet, for God’s sake!) He points the gauntlet at the Doctor, threatens him, and then gets booted off Gallifrey to go potentially nowhere. Even the General stands against him in favor of the Doctor! So even with all the power of the Infinity Gauntlet, the Doctor is able to kick Rassilon the Whiner off Farmville so he can go… nowhere? They are at the end of the universe, so far in the future that only Gallifrey and Me still exists! Hope Rassilon has a copy of How to be a Villain so he knows where to find a new lair! (ISBN-13: 978-0811846660)
The Capital of Rassilon: Now they head to the capital, where we would hope the epic stuff would happen. But no. They sit around discussing “the hybrid” which for some reason the General doesn’t want to say that “all prophesies” predict the coming hybrid, that will stand in the ashes of Gallifrey destroying a billion, billion hearts to heal its own. The General has effectively said “the Doctor will destroy the web of time and upset the audience by killing one of his own kind to quell his sorrow about his lost love, Clara”. Is there still a mystery? So now, the Doctor is able to move to…
The Cellar of Rassilon: This is the area that is the equivalent of Gallifrey’s Six Flags Haunted Mansion. Here, all the big villains make cameos and the Time Lords do nothing about them because the weeds are worse than the enemies. Yes, the Time War could have been ended by growing weeds in the Dalek spaceships… In Six Flags: Gallifrey, Cloister Wraiths float around on castors using holographic screens with flickering faces and screaming like banshees but they never actually do anything, especially if you sit on the sewer grate and talk for a while. They are guard dogs in the same way that gerbils are. For all of Gallifrey’s advanced tech, the Doctor sits on the floor rubbing it like a magic lantern and telling Clara how long he was in the confession dial. But he fails to tell her the truth of it! Like Groundhog Day, he doesn’t live 4.5 billion years. He lives 1 day over and over again. You don’t see Bill Murray complaining! In fact, Murray used the time to learn how to woo a woman and play the piano. The Doctor used the time to break his hand again and again instead of using a shovel. Does he tell Clara that? No! He lets her cry over his misspent day… Moving on.
The White Room of Rassilon: This is the clean room on Gallifrey where they take apart hard drives and pull dead people in for a quick conversation. When they do, people automatically get tinnitus because they can’t hear their heartbeat any longer. The Doctor says he will try not to break the General’s jaw but has no problem killing him. The General, always awesome, even wishes the Doctor luck even as the Doctor shoots him. Who is meant to be the hero of this story again? The Doctor calls it “man flu” too. For the record, this is the same General who stood by the Doctor against Gallifrey’s most notorious ruler earlier in this very episode and the Doctor guns him down because it’s like “man flu”.
The Old School TARDIS of Rassilon: Ok, we get a retro TARDIS interior! This is where the Doctor will lose his memory of Clara. Clara will then become a Time Lord roaming about the Galaxy with Me, living between heartbeats, because she’s technically not alive and has learned how to pilot a TARDIS. And Me is now her companion. Or is that the other way around? Ashildr is so old she should know … well, basically everything, including how to fly a TARDIS. And even as far as that goes with being a hybrid, how did a Mire augmentation create the long life that even Rose wasn’t able to give Jack with the Time Vortex itself.
The Vista of Rassilon: Now, we get to sit down to watch the very final moments of the universe on armchairs that are in surprisingly good shape, having a game of chess and talking about things we’ve already discussed. Like, maybe the Doctor is a human/Gallifreyan which would make him the hybrid…or not, since Tennant’s Doctor explained that there can never be a human/Time Lord. But then Tennant’s Doctor was full of good information that Moffat ignores for this atrocity. Like regeneration feeling like death as another person replaces the old. And as for Ashildr, the whole season-long arc of her changing her name to “Me” feels like just a long game to get the Doctor to say his line about the hyrid “that will stand in the ruins of Gallifrey is me”. Not only is this a painful letdown, but it assumes that in less than 1000 years, Ashildr changed her name to Me, but in 4 bazillion years, she keeps using “Me” as her name and never had any inkling to change it again? No one said “hey you egocentric witch, that name’s dumber than a box of Adrics. Maybe change it!?” (And I use “witch” in the same way Missy doesn’t in The Witches Familiar!) And does anyone remember when Ashildr forgot her name after less than 1000 years and started calling herself “Me”? But she never forgot Clara????
Rassilon’s Restaurant at the End of the Universe: When the Doctor first wakes up in Nevada, Creepster McStalker is standing over him saying Clara asked him to keep an eye on him. Clara has vanished, so intent was Creepster at watching the Doctor, but he has a car parked right there which he will presumably drive the Doctor to the Diner that Clara is working in. So when the episode opened, why did the Doctor get out of a pickup truck? Did McStalker first stop at the car rental place to change vehicles? Was the windowless van already rented? After his guitar playing (which is incredible) Clara leaves to appear as Milliway’s one day before getting back to Gallifrey to accept her death.
The Doctor finishes the story morosely, gets in his TARDIS to start new adventures. With a proper sonic device, not glasses!
What. Was. The. Point?
Every setting is stagnant, tedious, and blatantly ignores whatever has gone before. It’s storytelling without a thought about why the story is being told to begin with. The epic quality that should have resulted in this episode ends up being almost completely nonexistent. The one saving grace is Peter Capaldi does a great goodbye. He’s had two official goodbyes with The Doctor Falls and Twice Upon a Time and he gets a pseudo goodbye here, which he again knocks out of the park. But that can’t sustain the episode; it, along with that impressive stand at the barn, helps rise it above a negative number but that’s as good as it gets.
It’s writing like this that makes it where Doctor Who, as magnificent a show as it is, can never compete with the likes of Babylon 5 for creating a cohesive universe. The rules change all the time so you can’t create a definitive guide because tomorrow’s writer might throw it all into the vortex anyway. I grant you that it is a risk worth taking, but much of this wasn’t from 50 years ago; it was a matter of a few short seasons between some of the more important things. To ignore something in that short a time is extremely disappointing.
Yes, this is more of a rant than anything else, but when Doctor Who becomes Plan 9 from Outer Gallifrey, there’s only so much constructive criticism that one can level at the story. It all falls to hell, bent into a shape that is unrecognizable in the Doctor Who universe. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Husbands of River Song