Review: ‘Doctor Who’ is ‘Hell Bent’ on saying goodbye to a great character

Senior Television Writer
12.05.15 28 Comments

A few thoughts on tonight's “Doctor Who” season finale – and on this season as a whole – coming up just as soon as we have lunch followed by breakfast…

As someone with virtually no “Doctor Who” experience prior to the reboot, I've always appreciated Russell T. Davies' decision to kill off the Timelords. As it is, the new version of the series has plenty of links to the old – especially since Davies couldn't stop himself from continually bringing back more and more Daleks – but I've only occasionally felt like I arrived at class without having done the reading assignment when I watch episodes dealing with the Doctor's former friends and enemies. Obviously, the series has lots of fans who can recite chapter and verse on every adventure going back to William Hartnell, but for us relative newbies, sidelining the Time Lords did a good job of boiling the show down to its essence: a time-traveling anarchist demigod who travels across all of time and space

When Steven Moffat figured out a way to rescue all of Gallifrey in “The Day of the Doctor,” I knew it was only a matter of time before a whole lot of the old canon started wiggling its way back into the show, to the delight of one set of fans and the confusion of some others like me.

As a result, “Hell Bent” was something of a mixed bag. It was gibberish to me for a very long stretch, albeit gibberish that was occasionally wrapped in interesting packaging, like the Doctor essentially being set up as the gunslinger who returns to the Wild West town he was once banished from. It's entirely possible that all the business with the president (played by an actor, Donald Sumpter, who appeared in a Patrick Troughton episode from way back in 1968) and the other Time Lords was easy to follow for some of you (I will confess that my brain may have powered itself down to Homer Simpson capacity for some of this section), but I was mainly eager to get back to the fate of Clara, who evolved from simply being a puzzle in human form into a well-rounded character who was one of the best of the modern companions.

Fortunately, when we got there – and particularly when we realized whose memory had actually been altered – “Hell Bent” hit as hard as a companion episode should. I've always been angry about Donna, of all the modern companions, being the one to lose all memory of her time with the Doctor, since her life was far and away the one most in need of those adventures and her knowledge of them. And when it seemed like Clara the waitress had suffered the same fate, I was doubly annoyed, because you would hope Moffat – who prides himself on his cleverness – wouldn't just be repeating one of the more divisive moments of the Davies era.

Instead, it turned out Moffat was being every bit the clever boy that Clara wants the Doctor to be, and finding a way for the twists of the plot to tie in with the emotions of the Doctor and Clara's relationship. She's not the one who forgot; he is, but only to the extent that he can be right in front of one of his favorite people and be totally unaware of it. And Clara, who over the course of her time with Twelve, has learned to carry herself more and more like the Doctor, gets to not only remember him, but gets a reprieve from death(*), where she and Ashildr have their own stolen TARDIS (also with the camouflage circuit stuck on the very first identity chosen) and can enjoy their own adventures all through time and space, for however long they can stay ahead of the Time Lords and anyone else to do them harm. It's a far better send-off than the other companions have gotten (Rose stuck in a parallel Earth with a ghetto version of Ten, Martha dating Mickey, Donna with her mind wiped, Amy and Rory trapped in the past), which I imagine will fuel the annoyance of fans who view Clara as a Mary Sue character, but mainly made me wish for an occasional series of specials starring Jenna Coleman and Maisie Williams. 

(*) The idea that she could, at any moment, be called back to the trap street to suffer her death at the hands of the Raven recalls an idea that Marv Wolfman, who “killed” the Barry Allen version of the Flash in “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” had to bring the character back down the road: Barry would be plucked from the timestream in the moments before his death, giving him a new series of adventures that would be undertaken with the understanding that he would eventually, without warning, have to return to the events of “Crisis.”

Speaking of Ashildr, not only was this an excellent job for Williams on one of her “Game of Thrones” hiatuses, but she was an interesting break from seasonal convention, in that it kept seeming like she was going to be the big bad, when in fact she was just a person who kept struggling to find her way, and occasionally making bad choices, as she was forced by the Doctor's intervention in the Viking days to travel the verrrry long way round through time.

That notion of characters who have to travel through time in linear fashion, rather than the Doctor's way, has been a pet theme of Moffat's going all the way back to “The Girl in the Fireplace.” He had Eleven suffer that fate in his farewell episode, and put Twelve through a multi-billion year wringer in last week's “Heaven Sent.” But where some of Moffat's repeated devices have outlived their usefulness, “Heaven Sent” was one of the most powerful and memorable episodes of the entire modern era: a dazzling one-man showcase for Peter Capaldi where the twist's elegance only added to the power of the Doctor's desire to escape and get revenge on the beings responsible for Clara's death. (Also, it's not identical to “The Time of the Doctor,” in that Twelve constantly being replaced by the version that just arrived in the teleporter meant he didn't age, and only vaguely experienced the passage of all that time.)

This was, ultimately, one of Moffat's best years at the TARDIS' helm, with the decision to primarily do two-parters (or, here, three-parters) giving the stories a bit more room to breathe so that they could be satisfying on an intellectual and emotional level at the same time. And though I could have largely done without the return to Gallifrey, if the end result is “The New Adventures of Clara and Me” (whether as an actual show or a series of tie-in books), then why not?

What did everybody else think, of both the finale and the end of the Clara Oswald era? And will anyone miss the sonic sunglasses, or did they see like a mid-life crisis affectation?

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