Doctor Who 9.12: “Hell Bent” Review

The End of an Era

A Television Review by Akash Singh


Doctor Who’s magnificent ninth season (including the one serious misfire) has been a rumination on death and grief. As a series constructed around the concept of an alien man called the Time Lord who spent his seemingly countless days and nights traveling through time and space, death would have become something of a second nature. The Doctor, by virtue of whom he chose to become through his own actions, never acquiesces to circumstances that would allow for something like a comfortable adventure vacation on something like a beach. Adventures wrought with dangers always have consequences, something the Doctor just learned in the most intimate, most painful of ways once more. So many people the Doctor met on his adventures, clever, good, kind, flawed people who fell to Death’s embraces and never woke up. Numerous companions of the Doctor’s went through a cycle that, if not their own death, signaled the death of their relationship and each time the weight of that thread snapping in the air was felt wholeheartedly. The Doctor knows this pain, he understands the bearing upon his two hearts when that grief cloaks him like a terrifying, withering grey shroud. When Ashildr lay at the precipice of death, the Doctor broke inside. He couldn’t bear to kill the child in the field of mines, knowing full well that that man would become an enemy, and he couldn’t bear the pain of a dead child who had sacrificed herself on his plan to save her village. When he broke Ashildr’s death, he saved her from death but the pain of death itself never escaped her. Her own children died from the Plague and she couldn’t save them. She lost so many to whom she had felt so close, with whom she had shared an identity and as the years passed by, she became someone else, someone colder. Death is a part of the natural cycle and breaking it gave the Doctor a grave consequence through the very girl he had broken those rules to save.


It’s in his nature, the Doctor, to save people. Yet he always had this ability to make a choice for the greater good, a choice that seemed interminably easy to those around him. In the seminal episode Fires of Pompeii, the Doctor notes that the devastation of Pompeii and Herculaneum at the hands of Mt. Vesuvius was a fixed point in time and any attempt to thwart that would be catastrophic. Donna couldn’t bring herself to think like that, she couldn’t bear to think that they had the chance to save people with the knowledge of history and still their hands were tied. She implored him to at least save one family, the family that they knew, whose faces had become etched in her mind. The Doctor relents and the visage of the patriarch in the family became the face he would choose for this particular regeneration, the face that reminded him of the moment he had broken the laws to save a handful of lives, the moment when his duties as a Doctor superseded his identity as a Time Lord. The moment when the Doctor relents to Donna is one of the most powerful moments in Doctor Who history and not just because David Tennant and Catherine Tate had incredible performances. It showed the reality of the consequences of such a decision, the decision that had seemed so easy for the Doctor to make. It lifted the veil of the  ease to reveal the incredible emotional complexity of the internal war that would split him apart. That moment was echoed in his fateful revival of Ashildr when he in other moments would have just walked away and that was echoed when he threatened Ashildr to save Clara, knowing full well that no respite would arrive in those palpable moments of despair.


The return of Gallifrey was always a key fan theory for the new Who and the fiftieth anniversary special only served to fuel the fan fires considerably. Theories of the following season following the Doctor on his true search for Gallifrey were considerable, but season eight eschewed that idea until the end, where a dejected Capaldi lied to a knowing Clara that he had found his home planet at last. That the season constructed most consciously around the concept of death end where the Doctor felt the greatest grief of death was a wise choice, in part because of how different Gallifrey was from how most fans imagined it (certainly my own assumptions were thrown wildly into the mix). The Time Lords were never a bunch comprised of smiles and warm embraces, imbuing within them more than a shade of antagonism. That antagonism is spread on even more thickly here, from the very first frame of the Doctor approaching the city on Gallifrey and appearing in front of a Lord President determined to see the Doctor dead and a legion (slight hyperbole) of his finest soldiers there. Yet the soldiers don’t shoot. Their guns shoot all around the Doctor but the being with the guitar in the center remains intact. Clara had warned the Doctor not to become a Warrior and thusly it is the greatest of ironies that his life was spared on account of his reputation as being one. But in a way it is a secondary title that fits the Doctor’s recent, grueling task of trying to save Clara from the fate of the raven. Four  and a half billion years he spent in that confession dial, breaking the wall and dying over and over and over again so he could free himself and save the companion who had become so much like him, so dear to him. The window into Gallifrey at last afforded the Doctor the opportunity to seek retribution against those responsible for Clara’s fate.


Gallifrey almost seems like a MacGuffin, a device that was used perfectly to close out the search for it while leaving plenty of opportunities for the planet to be visited once more. The finale really belongs to Capaldi and Coleman, who shine together for one last time before the Doctor and Clara reach their final parting of the ways. The Doctor reaches in and grasps Clara at the very end of her time stream, right before she met her fixed point of a death at the raven’s talons. The moment Clara sees the Doctor with a gun, however, her expression changes and she looks upon this manifestation of the Warrior with fright. You can sense the despair Coleman evokes in that moment, the fright mixing with guilt that she may have led the Doctor away from himself. She implores to him that he ought to just let her go, but after all that had transpired, the Doctor simply couldn’t bring himself to do that. The creation of this hybrid of the Doctor and Clara at Missy’s hands led to friendship, magic, and a bond that was too strong for even death to overcome. But it also led to at times what was an unimaginable chaos, an incredible amount of pain. Clara and the Doctor have both realized this and understood it to a certain degree. But Clara is the one who managed to find the strength to move onwards. That isn’t to say the Doctor is weak, but his multitude of experience over Clara have simultaneously made him that much more inured and susceptible to grief. Hell Bent pivots at the emotional crux when Clara realizes the multitude of deaths the Doctor suffered through to save her and it is at that moment perhaps that the realization of their hybrid is truly understood between them. It’s a painfully emotional moment, but one that is true in Who’s embrace of the bittersweet. It is in that spirit that the ending is comprised. The Doctor’s memory of Clara begins to fade away into a nether sphere (although I hope he retains some knowledge of her) and Clara flies off in her own TARDIS with Ashildr as her companion, the fixed point of her death a knowing shroud in her mind. What a journey.

Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:

+The Doctor rocking his Western guitar

+The entire diner sequence was sublime. The Doctor playing Clara’s theme on his guitar was so, so perfect.

+“How did you get here?”

“Magic. Or maybe I went to the airport and caught a plane.”

+“I think that it’s called ‘Clara.’”

+The societal hierarchy of Gallifrey was a welcome addition. So the Time Lords behave as the overlords of an entire planet? Sounds intriguing.

+“You like a cliffhanger, don’t you?”

+“On pain of death, no one take a selfie.”

+“Doctor, please. I don’t want this.

+“Death is Time Lord for man-food.”

+“Back to a woman, am I?” Come on Moffat, a female Doctor is next and you know it.

+“How do you deal with that ego?”

+“I had the duty of care.”

+“Since when is hope a bad thing?

“Hope is a terrible thing on the scaffold.”

+“What if the universe needs me to die?

+“You don’t like endings.”

+“She died for who she was and who she loved.”

+“We have no right to change who she was.”

+“Me, go to hell.”

+“We know someone can’t last forever.”

+“These have been the best years of my life and they are mine.”

+“Good luck, Clara.”

“Good luck, Doctor.”

+“I don’ think I could ever forget you.”

+“Never be cruel, never be cowardly. And if you are, always make amends.”

+“It was Amy and Rory.”

+What a neat reversal of Donna’s fate

+The sight of two women in the TARDIS was amazing

+I honestly cannot say enough about Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman together. Through phenomenal scripts and otherwise, the two committed to one another completely and it was an absolute joy to watch.



Episode Title: Hell Bent

Written by: Steven Moffat

Directed by: Rachel Talalay

Image Courtesy: Metro UK, Blogtor Who, Incoherent



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