The season finale of Doctor Who is frequently a mixed affair. We build all season towards some kind of mystery or looming threat and then, fingers crossed, get a payoff. Hell Bent falls into the same category as many finales of Moffat’s tenure, somewhat clunkily constructed, a bit contrived, and a bit of a cheat to get the show where he wants it to be. But at the same time it’s rousing and emotionally affecting, leaving you with such a sense of elation you forgive the many sins of the episode.
Directly picking up from the events of Heaven Sent, we see the Doctor walk into an American diner and begin a conversation with a waitress, a woman seemingly unfamiliar with this man but who is recognizable as his presumed dead companion Clara. He begins to tell her a story, recanting his return to his home planet of Gallifrey after emerging from his prison with his own Confession dial. After returning to his childhood home, he rebukes all messengers who come before him in their efforts to bring him to an audience with Lord President Rassilon. Finally, the ruler of the Time Lords comes to the Doctor, who initiates a coup, dethroning the person responsible for the horrors of the Time War and installing himself as the defacto leader of the Time Lords. An act fueled by his heroic status as the savior of Gallifrey but also as the only one who knows the truth behind the looming threat of the Hybrid, an entity destined to stand over the ruins of the planet. Pledging to save his home once again, the Doctor requires the use of a piece of Time Lord technology which will allow him to extract his recently departed companion Clara from her time stream to help him succeed.
Going into the episode the big plot line was that of The Hybrid, but rather a merger of two warrior races destined to stand over the ruins of the Time Lord’s homeworld. The episode establishes why this has become such a pressing concern. The prophecy was originally conceived by the Matrix, a central computer on Gallifrey that houses the consciousness of deceased Time Lords. Housed in the Cloister, deep in the bowels of the Citadel, a young Doctor stumbled deep into this forbidden chamber and was made privy to details concerning the Hybrid that terrified him into leaving his home behind and he’s been on the run ever since. With a suggestion the threat is imminent, the Time Lord High Council placed the Doctor within his confession dial to draw out his secrets in an attempt to save themselves.
Despite the end of Heaven Sent, where the Doctor proclaimed himself the Hybrid, this episode makes it clear he’s not entirely sure, that declaration seemingly part of some grandstanding. In a neat twist, this looming threat is somewhat discarded, instead of a triumphant return of the Time Lords and dealing with a spectacular threat, Hell Bent goes for something far more intimate. It turns out the Doctor clinging to his secrets was merely a ploy to ensure that he was brought back to his people to sort some unfinished business.
His return sees him nestle with the lower folk, a social group the Doctor clearly comes from despite some comments in episodes past about his position amongst higher born Gallifreyans and one that clearly holds reverence for him as savior of his people. A literal line in the sand is drawn and sparks a revolution and removal from power of Rassilon (Donald Sumpter), last seen in The End of Time. No longer the power mad incarnation (played by Timothy Dalton) with his crazed plan to sacrifice all life to save the Time Lords. For those unfamiliar with the show’s history, Rassilon was one of the original three founders of the Time Lord society. This incarnation, presumably many years after he was thrown back into the time lock and a generation or more later still clings to power, a tyrant, but not so much of a nutjob. The Doctor still holds him accountable for the horrors of the Time War and his first act is to expel him.
It turns out the return of the Time Lords is basically a plot convenience rather than the big spectacle we expected, to give the Doctor access to some of their technology so he can rip Clara out of time a heartbeat before her death. From an emotional and character point of view that’s pretty powerful, underlined in a particularly moving scene where Clara discovers how the Doctor spent a little over 4 billion years enduring hell to save her. It takes what starts as a large scale entry to the Whoniverse and makes it something far more intimate and affecting. To save her, he breaks all his own rules, putting the fabric of time itself at risk. The show comes full circle, with the Doctor making himself an outcast on his home planet again, stealing a TARDIS again (classic design FTW!), and running away, again.
Of course it can’t last, which brings us to the true ending of Clara’s arc on the show. She is such a threat now, to the integrity of time, that she must be shielded away from the Time Lords. So after hiding out at the end of time and engaging in discussion with the returning Ashildur/Me (Maisie Williams) who after billions of years surely surpasses the Doctor’s knowledge, comes to the conclusion her mind must be wiped, to protect her and allow her to be safely tucked away to live out her days.
It’s an outcome that mirrors the terrible fate of another companion, Donna Noble. Only this time, Clara hears his plans and confronts him about how heinous it is to deny her knowledge of her past. They use a memory block giving them both a 50/50 chance to removing the memories of each other either way severing the threat of the Time Lord’s finding her. The twist in the tale is that the framing device in the episode of the diner, where we thought Clara didn’t recognize the Doctor, is actually inverted, it was he who was wiped. This sets in motion two finales, one for the Doctor, back on his path without his fixation on Clara and the other a fitting end for her. A Thelma and Louise moment as Me/Ashildur and Clara head off into the cosmos on their own newly stolen TARDIS on a whole new set of adventures.
This was not just a preservation measure to shield Clara from the Time Lords seeking to reinsert her into her own timeline, but a necessary fate as their journey together has become somewhat destructive. Clara has taken on so many of the doctor’s traits they both push and feed each other. The companion typically brings a level of humanity to the Doctor’s travels and pulls him back from the edge at times. Without that, he is reckless. With someone enabling him, it is a threat to the galaxy.
It’s a perfect resolution for Clara, a form of graduation for her. She steps into her own TARDIS, stuck between one heartbeat and her last. She’ll die eventually but the Doctor bought her an eternity of adventures before she succumbs to the same fate we all eventually will. It comes at a personal cost. He remembers adventures with Clara but not her face, a faded memory but remnants are there. It’s loosely explained and probably for the best, we’re unsure exactly what he can piece together.
The Doctor’s ending wraps up some of the themes from the whole season, about confronting his demons, many of his own creation. This finale is a fitting one, atonement and punishment with his trials in Heaven Sent and now Hell Bent. It’s a poignant sacrifice (to lose his own memories, to let Clara go to save her) but a natural one. We all bid farewell to people and times in our lives, they become stories we tell rather than something tangible and ever present.
But the other outcome is also about saving himself. In the episode we hear words oft repeated on the show, “never be cruel, never be cowardly”, a mantra set down by old show writer Terrance Dicks in his guidelines for writing the character. He is chided by Clara, reminded of his responsibilities and place in the Universe before they bid each other farewell. We leave him unburdened, released. The Doctor is back. He survived hell and heartbreak, but with something of a clean slate. It’s been a heavy and audacious season with some genuine payoffs. With this resolution comes a new chapter for our venerable Time Lord. And damn does The Husband’s of River Song look like a madcap way to kick it off.