Doctor Who: “Hell Bent”
This season of Doctor Who has been one of the best over all seasons to date, even with the awful exception of “Sleep No More.” Those first set of three two-part episodes built upon each other and hung together thematically in a way I’ve never seen this show accomplish before. The final two-part episode with the Zygons may not have been part of the overall arc, but it was the most politically topical I’ve seen the show go in my lifetime. Clara’s death in “Face the Raven” was a stunner of an episode. And that one person show Capaldi pulled off last week was something most modern-day TV shows, even in this new “Golden Age of Television,” would never have the nerve to attempt.
The Doctor: “We’re on Gallifrey! Death is Timelord for Man flu!”
I wondered to myself at the end of last week’s episode, when the last moments seemed like a sudden right turn into total predictability, if Moffat wasn’t running out of steam. He’s managed a heck of a thrill ride this season, but were we going to manage to hold it all the way to the end? Not once, but twice in this episode, the answer looked grim indeed. The Doctor had arrived on Gallifrey, but instead of a gripping plot, there were simply a lot of incoherent references which seemed mostly interested in easter egging.
Here is The Doctor on Gallifrey, in the same barn we saw him stand in during the 50th Anniversary episode (the “Bad Wolf” theme music even played.) But it’s not just the 50th Anniversary barn! It’s also the same barn from last season’s “Listen.” Simultaneously, the Doctor also arrives at the same diner he met Rory, Amy and River in during the Season 6 premiere of “The Impossible Astronaut.” (Note that he also got out of the wrong side of the car for driving on American roads. But nevermind.) The diner is mysteriously being run by Clara, begging the question if this is like last week. Is this diner just in The Doctor’s mind? Instead of retreating to his TARDIS, is he retreating to this remembered diner, to tell Clara how he survived whatever was about to happen?
The Doctor: “You cramp my style, look at your hats!”
Perhaps he should have maybe explained to Clara what was happening instead. Why, for instance, was Rassilon trying to have the Doctor executed? (Other than to lead to The Doctor being called Mr. President on second planet, though sans fancy jetliners to crash.) Why was the Doctor eating soup in front of a crowd? (Other than the parallel eating it alone last week?) Why was the Sisterhood of Karn was there, when they had no reason or right to be? A Dalek saying “Exterminate….me” is funny and all, but what was the point of that, or the Cyberman, or the Weeping Angels? What did this have to do with the Hybrid? At least we got the answer to that last one. Nothing. The entire Hybrid business, like communism, was a red herring.
The Doctor didn’t care about the Hybrid. The Doctor has no idea who the Hybrid is. He just pretended he knew, so that the TimeLords would fear him. So when he said “I need to go rescue Clara from dying, because she has the information we need,” they would take him there. (Nice touch with our now second male TimeLord regenerating into a TimeLady, this time on camera. “Only time I’ve been a man, that last body. My goodness, how do you cope with all that ego?”) That whole 2 billion years through the harder-than-diamond wall? (Ohila says it was more like 4.5 billion, but who’s counting?) That wasn’t to keep some vital secret from anyone. That was so the Doctor could go back and stop Clara from dying. Once he did that, he would then wipe her memory of him and put her back on Earth to go and live an ordinary life, safe from him, and safe from harm.
The Doctor: “On pain of death, no one take a selfie.”
You think I was disappointed when I realized the Hybrid was a red herring? Double that when I realized this was the Doctor’s endgame plan. We won’t end with Clara’s death. Her heroic final moments in “Face the Raven” will be negated, in favor of the Doctor pulling Donna 2.0 on her. But something funny happened on the way to a very bad ending to a spectacular season. It began when the Doctor once again stole a TARDIS and ran away. (A TARDIS, we should note, that deftly reused the set made for the 50th anniversary movie about Doctor Who‘s beginnings in An Adventure In Space and Time.)
They head to the End of the Universe, so far along that even the Restaurant that exists there has closed, in order to restart Clara’s heart, and memory wipe her. But before we could get around to it, another easter egg arrived in the form of four knocks. (“Four knocks. It’s always four knocks.”) Turns out it’s Me, now stripped of titles, sitting in a bubble of reality, watching the stars die. Is she the Hybrid? There is no Hybrid. Or maybe the Hybrid is just the pairing of the Doctor and Clara, not one person. The point is that the Hybrid is irrelevant. Me is there as a foil, so the Doctor can spill his plan in such a way that Clara hears him. Me and Clara in turn argue that the Doctor is behaving not only irrationally but unfairly. This entire “saving her” thing is pointless. No one killed her. Clara’s choices lead to her death. “It was sad and it was beautiful,” Me declares. (Quite right too.) Clara insists he has no right to take her past, her memories, the life she’s lived from her like this, over some misguided insistence about “duty of care,” but really because he just hates endings. She will not be Donna 2.0. She’s reversed the polarity on his memory wipe device. If he sets it off, it will blow up in his face.
The Doctor: “How are you sustaining it by the way?”
He doesn’t believe she’s done it. He thinks it didn’t take. But when he steps forward to use it on her, betting that he has a 50-50 chance of being right, at least he does it as her equal, her pressing the button with him, a 50 percent chance she’ll be the lucky one. Personally, I think the Doctor underestimated her. Let’s just call this payback for Donna, shall we, as the Doctor falls to the ground, his memory wiped of ever having seen Clara. Clara Who?
So this is really Clara, hiding out in the diner, having just dropped the Doctor back off on Earth, and on her way home? This is Clara saying goodbye? No. This is no diner. As she leaves the Doctor to his guitar, and walks into the diner’s back office, we see inside: the Round Things. The 1960s console. The diner dissipates around the Doctor with a TARDISy wheeze, leaving behind his own blue box, still painted with Rigsy’s memorial. Inside, a chalkboard with Clara’s original sign off: “Run you clever boy, and remember… Be a Doctor.” He obeys. Velvet coat? Check. TARDIS? Check. Brand new sexy gold and blue sonic screw driver? Check.
The Doctor: “Run like hell because you’ll always need to. Laugh at everything because it’s always funny. Never be cruel and never be cowardly and if you ever are, always make amends.”
Meanwhile, Me pores over the TARDIS manual, unable to turn back into the silver cylinder again. (Faulty chameleon circuits are apparently a feature.) Clara looks up, realizing that her heart never restarted. Her death is a fixed point in time. She should go back to Gallifrey, to return to that last moment to die. As Clara and Me’s eyes meet, everything in the episode that was not thought out properly, and red herrings wasting our time cease to matter. Here they are, in a stolen TARDIS, shaped like a 1950s diner. One frozen in time, a heartbeat away from death. The other with an infinite lifespan, but finite memory (it makes for an awkward social life!) And all of space and time before them.
After all, what’s the hurry? As the Blue Police Box TARDIS and the Doctor flies off one way, on his way to the Christmas special, flying the other way through space is a 1950s Diner TARDIS, on their way to their own adventures. Same old same old. Just Me and Clara Who, in the TARDIS, and the most spectacular spin-off idea the show has ever had.