Season 9, Episode 12 “Hell Bent”
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Maisie Williams, Ken Bones, T’nia Miller, Clare Higgins
Air date: December 5, 2015
This week, we find the Doctor back on Gallifrey, the home of Time Lords. It’s a place of many traps, both for the Doctor and for Doctor Who. There is the Doctor’s own, occasionally troubled relationship with his own people. There is the temptation to reveal too much about who the Doctor really is. There is frequently the desire to indulge in the worst kind of fan nostalgia by summoning up key words, faces, and objects from the past.
In this week’s episode, “Hell Bent,” I think the Doctor emerges relatively unscathed, but only after the showrunner Steven Moffat leads us through some abrupt and unconvincing turns that aim high but cater to the show’s worst storytelling tendencies.
Central to the premise of Doctor Who is the mystery that surrounds the Doctor. Who is he, really? That’s a question fans have been asking since 1963. It’s a useful question, too. An incomplete understanding of the Doctor’s identity allows him to be whatever the show needs. He’s like the Joker in the deck of playing cards, being whatever is needed to strengthen the hand in play. He’s also like The Fool in the Tarot deck, frequently bringing choice, change, and transfiguration.
Gallifrey represents dangerous ground for the Doctor. It threatens to quantify the Doctor and make him normal, whatever that means on Gallifrey. If you can fully enumerate his powers, then you can set his limits. The show recognized this idea so much that it refused to even name the place until the eleventh season of Classic Doctor Who. That is after the Time Lords, its inhabitants, had intermittently appeared on screen several times. It took another three seasons for the Doctor to finally visit the place in “The Deadly Assassin.” Even then, the Doctor is as much a mystery to his own people as he is to the rest of us. He’s got no family, no real connections, almost no history in his file. He’s like a spy apparently come in from the cold, and his history is either classified or deleted. The quality of subsequent visits to Gallifrey often hinged on how much the mystery was preserved or undone, with familiarity being the Doctor’s enemy.
Nostalgia and sentimentality are also present on Gallifrey. Since the place symbolizes the Doctor’s past, there is a tendency to associate the place with words and faces from the show’s past. The fact that action in both the tenth and twentieth anniversary specials for Classic Doctor Who only underlines this fact. There is a tendency to directly or obliquely explain things about why the TARDIS and the Doctor are what they are, to mention or discuss how things used to be, and to bring up terms that function as dog whistles for longtime fans who “know.”
Finally, there is the relationship between the Doctor and his people. A trip to Gallifrey always seems to present the prospect of resolving or renewing whatever problems exist between the Doctor and his fellow Time Lords (often both at the same time.) This arises from the fact that the Doctor heals people and situations and that creates the prospect of gratitude. Gratitude from Gallifrey undermines the mystery by threatening to give a place to the Doctor in Time Lord society, often an honored one. The Doctor must refuse such things to continue being himself and some excuse must be manufactured to divide him from his homeland once again.
In “Hell Bent,” Steven Moffat tries his best to navigate around these tendencies. It’s a tough run. While he initially appears to meet the relationship between the Doctor and Gallifrey head on, he abruptly tries to sidestep it by turning it into a struggle over something highly personal. That is an interesting feint, but it doesn’t play out well for me because it does two things: first, it displays Moffat’s annoying tendency to try to turn viewer perceptions with little regard for pacing and preparation, and second, it forces the viewers to ask again why the Doctor cares so deeply for some of the people in his life. Two weeks ago, I remarked that part of me was whispering “finally, something we can’t undo”. This week’s episode proves that it’s all plastic in Moffat’s hands. Even the apparently impossible can be done on a moment’s notice. It’s annoying.
Likewise, there is some nostalgia. Characters, names, and visuals from various parts of the show’s past are summoned up for the pleasure of the viewing audience. While interesting, I think it rings a little hollow. It feels a bit gratuitous, as if Moffat and director Rachel Talalay are trying too hard to impress.
Where the episode finally does redeem itself is in its last act. Here, it finally presents an inversion of the logical, familiar course of action. While I cannot condone everything that happens there, it does make the Doctor whole again in a novel and interesting way. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman get to say the poignant goodbye that there was no time to speak two weeks ago. Some might have a problem with how events play out. I view it this way: as in “Heaven Sent” last week, the Doctor takes the long way around in order to avoid repeating an action in his past that felt wrong even as he was doing it.
I wish I could say that Season 9 ends on a stellar note, but I can’t. This an episode with some interesting features, but I find that it is unable to avoid too many of the pitfalls that plagued similar episodes in the past. In trying to be clever, it ended up being choppy and confusing. In trying to be spectacular, it just tried too hard, period. It’s not “Sleep No More,” but it’s nowhere near “Heaven Sent” or “The Girl Who Died” either.
So that’s it for Season 9. Be back in three weeks to talk about “The Husbands of River Song.”