And Exhale – Begin Again, Doctor Who: Hell Bent, Reviews, 06/12/2015

I always knew Clara’s departure would be anti-climactic. She’s had six departures from Doctor Who already, three of them fatal. Phil Sandifer’s review was enthusiastic, and while I agree that the episode was just as awesome as he said, I can’t help but feel let down.

Steven Moffat was able to do a lot in this script, both regarding what you might consider


and what you might not. Here’s a list, with a little commentary.

Girlfriend Gillian was so sick of Clara this season. While I
still like the character, and will watch her stories again
whenever I like, I still think, as far as the production of
Doctor Who goes, it was time for her to leave.
Goodbye Clara

If I can say the Doctor and Clara’s relationship had any running theme this season, it was that they bring out the best and the worst in each other. Both equally reckless, but equally kind. They’re each other’s best friends, and have saved each other’s lives literally countless times. 

At the same time, they make each other idiots. Clara got herself killed in Face the Raven because she tried to start her own Doctor-ish scheme, but without the knowledge required to know how it could backfire on her. The Doctor nearly destroys the universe with the paradox of travelling with Clara, who should be dead.*

* Again, I’d say this is a matter of the Doctor’s subjective timeline. He watched Clara die, so created a point in his own past where he would have had to overwrite his own timeline to save her. 

But this is also something that deflated the story, because Hell Bent didn’t depict the actual destabilization of the web of time when the Doctor rescued Clara from the moment of her death. The frantic running around as everyone took the prospect very seriously was all they could do to justify how seriously everyone took it.

It wasn’t a full Delgo, though. As viewers of Doctor Who, we care about the characters because they’re the lead actors, and we’ve been watching the Doctor and Clara in the TARDIS for more than three years. 

Yet the story can’t depict why they mustn’t be together anymore. I can understand why, at least causally. Moffatt already produced a masterpiece in Heaven Sent that achieved something no other Doctor Who writer ever has, depicting the plodding duration of immortality. 

The Doctor dredged up all the signifiers and echoes of
past Doctor Who to rescue Clara. But Hell Bent was
incapable of continuing the status quo. Any more than
the Doctor himself could have returned to the old,
white, classic TARDIS.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

The only reason for the Doctor and Clara not to be together anymore is that Jenna Coleman is leaving Doctor Who to star in a high-profile BBC miniseries as the young Queen Victoria. 

I thought her death in Face the Raven was a wonderful, courageous way to finish the Clara story. It was powerful, beautiful, and tragically sad, entirely appropriate for the character as well. It provoked a discussion that Doctor Who would benefit from having, examining why someone would want to travel with the Doctor when it really is so dangerous.

At least I can continue looking forward to that discussion in the distant future, when a head writer has the guts to kill a Companion character with the comprehensive narrative logic of Clara Oswald and Face the Raven, but actually have her stay dead. Moffat, with his love of happy endings even hidden inside apparent tragedies, can’t allow that.

So Clara’s existence now has the same potential as Ashildir/Me. They’re two immortals exploring the universe in a rickety old TARDIS that they’re still figuring out how to fly, stuck in the shape of a retro American diner. 

They’re literally a new universe now. Not diegetically, but meta-narratively. They stole a TARDIS and flew out of Doctor Who. Now, whenever Jenna Coleman and Maisie Williams need some extra cash, they can book some days recording a new set of stories in the ongoing Big Finish series Clara and Me.

The Epic Stumbles of Idiots

The Time Lords are back, in all their blustering stupidity and profundity. Their story in Hell Bent leaves them in a perfect place going forward. Here’s how.

Robert Holmes designed Time Lords themselves to be
parodies of themselves and us, which is why their
leaders all wear that ostentatiously ridiculous
ceremonial headgear. Eric Saward's mistake in handling
the Time Lords was in taking the headdresses seriously
instead of the lurking terrors to which the headpieces
blind you. Fitting, really.
I remember when Doctor Who returned under Russell T Davies, he said that one of the reasons he got rid of the Time Lords was that there wasn’t much left to do with them anymore. And one of the reasons for the mysterious backstory for the Doctor in the Sylvester McCoy era was to restore some mystery to the Time Lords.

When they were first introduced under Terrence Dicks and Barry Letts, the Time Lords were austere technocrats of the fabric of the universe. They dispatched missions, pronounced judgments, and delivered exposition, not much else. 

Robert Holmes made the Time Lords truly interesting as sci-fi by making them a satirical reflection of human elitism. The Deadly Assassin introduced Gallifrey as a society where drama could happen, where the ossified elite of an agelessly old tradition could easily forget the Lovecraftian ghosts and demons on which their whole civilization was built.

Much like humanity. But subsequent Time Lord stories failed to follow up on this potential, instead reverting to the austere significance of Dicks’ conception, while keeping the trappings and myopia of Holmes’ conception. When you combine this with the tendency to idiot plots under Eric Saward’s script editorship, you end up with a set of ideas that looks exhausted.

Moffat has reintroduced Gallifrey, but in a way that lives up to the storytelling potential that Holmes gave them. They’re a civilization with great power, but also myopia about their past (which is also a fear). 

They can dispense justice and guard the coherence of the universe, but can also collapse into petty dictatorship, as under Rassilon. Rassilon himself is exiled from Gallifrey, which means that a later writer can bring him back as a villain on a mission of revenge against the Doctor for his humiliation in the coup against him. 

My own vision of Shobogan culture, based on what I spin
in my imagination from Hell Bent, is a society of
pacifists with all the power of Time Lords, but who
use them differently, largely refraining from using the
full extent of the powers they have, for fear of the
corruption that would be inevitable after that. Not a
bad pitch for a Doctor Who story concept, is it?
There’s also the Time Lords’ transgender and non-racial nature, as the General regenerates from an elderly white man into a young black woman, and remarks that she prefers being a woman. And it’s utterly casual.

The presence of the Sisterhood of Karn is also remarkably suggestive, but we don’t really know of what. Ohila has apparently survived for billions of years, effectively immortal and quite serene about it. But the nature of the Sisterhood’s relationship with Gallifrey, the Doctor, and the wider universe remains unexplored, so there’s plenty to work through here in future stories.

As well, we see Shobogan life, and they seem to be pretty close allies of the Doctor. They’re ostensibly the underclass of Gallifrey, but the Doctor seems content to leave them to their lot, which is very unlike him when dealing with an oppressed underclass. Usually, he does his best at least to nudge them toward revolution.

But maybe the Shobogans aren’t an underclass per se. Maybe they’re a society of Gallifreyans who are radical pacifists, having given up much of the technology, pomp, galactico-political power, and will to dominate of the Time Lords. 

The contrast between the Time Lord soldiers and the Shobogans in their confrontation is that the Shobogans never take up arms, and as the soldiers betray Rassilon, they join the Doctor and the Shobogans. 

Maybe the Doctor was a member of the ruling class of Time Lords who explored Shobogan philosophy and eventually decided to dedicate himself to their ideals of peace and justice from a more activist perspective while exploring the universe. Maybe someone else will write an entirely different story about this, because now they can.

There’s so much potential here for more, and more creative, Doctor Who stories about the Time Lords and Gallifrey. Not only has Moffat brought Gallifrey back, but he’s done it in a way that fills them with more possibility for interesting stories and ideas than the Time Lords have had since the 1970s. 

I just wish one of those episodes had been Hell Bent. This episode was mostly setup for the future’s potential, tying up loose ends, and ending the storylines that had to end for production reasons. 

It took her until the very end of the universe itself to
grow into the profundity of character that naming
yourself after an indexical implies. Typical human.
The Terror of Everlasting Time

I knew that Hell Bent was going to be something of a let-down after the masterpiece of Heaven Sent. I explained why in last week’s Doctor Who post about that episode. 

But I think I’ve found this season’s underlying thematic arc to be the most interesting of any since Doctor Who returned to television. Moffat has been, in different contexts and stories, in conjunction with the best writers in his bullpen, exploring what it means to be immortal.

He finds that it’s largely a pretty horrifying thing, immortality. Even though we’re afraid of death, everlasting life is even worse. 

The Dalek city in The Witch’s Familiar is built on still-living Dalek corpses, intelligent creatures genetically incapable of dying, but still decaying into self-aware all-consuming sludge with enough rage to drown the universe. Immortality in its purest Lovecraftian horror.

The story of Ashildir gives a more profound and reflective account of immortality. As the billions of years add up for her, until she and her library are the last bubble of reality in the final days of the universe, her first centuries of pain and resentment have given way to serenity at last. 

With the slow growth of years, sadness becomes beautiful.

Clara is now a walking existential treatise. Rescued from the last seconds of her life, she now exists as a living moment. Like Ashildir/Me, she’s frozen in time, forever as she is. 

But she’s grateful for all the extra years, decades, centuries, or even more of life, experience, and adventuring that she’ll have travelling in her own narrative universe with Me. They’re their own new iteration of Doctor Who, living as long as the actors do, probably on Big Finish audios. 

The Doctor spent last episode trapped in the horrifying repetition of 4.5-billion years of a few repeating days, being chased, tortured, and finally killed in an interrogation. And it was an interrogation over nothing, since all this talk of the Hybrid was just empty, serious only because the characters discussed it so seriously.

Hell Bent ends with the Doctor's first cameo in the Big
Finish audio series Clara and Me, starring Jenna
Coleman and Maisie Williams.
I think it was supposed to be empty. In a narrative universe like Doctor Who, a computer run by ghosts and protected by other ghosts is a concept that gets casually thrown around in a season with at least five different philosophical explorations of immortality and time. An idea as ordinary now as some kind of warrior race hybrid is honestly pretty dull.

And I think Moffat knew it was dull. Just a phrase to hang some portentous moments on. Like Davies’ Bad Wolf, but designed with the knowledge that it would be anti-climactic from the start, so the audience would know to look for the real significance of the season elsewhere.

The Story Is More Real Than the Experience

Another significant idea this season only really became clear with the final gambit of whether the Doctor or Clara will lose their memory of the other. 

Clara’s death was a response, from Moffat, to the Doctor’s cruel treatment of Donna, erasing her memory without her consent, to save her life when she didn’t want to be saved. Clara died on her own terms in Face the Raven, and the Doctor had to live with that.

But he still didn’t want to live with it. Clara was his best friend, and he didn’t just want her to die. Leave the show with someone else and be happy, fine. But don’t die. 

All that talk about “duty of care” was, pretty clearly by this episode, the Doctor’s socially awkward way of saying to Clara, “You’re my best mate, I love you, I don’t want to live without you, and I can’t let anything happen to you when I can figure out a way to save you.” They don’t need to say any of that to each other.

So when the Doctor forgets Clara, it’s a beautiful moment when he doesn’t recognize her, even though he’s looking for her. The Doctor still remembers that he had adventures with Clara. He remembers them as stories.

Clara will always be an important part of Doctor Who,
but like the paint of Rigsy's memorial flaking off the
TARDIS as it dematerializes, she can't stay forever.
He can talk about them, the way we talk about episodes of Doctor Who. We have streaming services, our DVDs, our novels for the tie-in fiction. We can watch the stories, read them, memorize our favourite lines, and be able to talk about them, sometimes in ridiculous levels of detail.

But he doesn’t remember the experiences. The stories are now real for the Doctor, just as they always were.

Goodbye Steven?

The stories are real. It’s been the centrepiece of how Moffat has approached so much of his writing for so long. It’s how he approaches Doctor Who, and Capaldi says it in his first scene of Hell Bent in the diner with Clara. All stories are real, and they’re real because they’re stories.

And while I love to hear it, and I love Moffat’s ideas, his writing style, his deft blend of comedy and drama, his plot craftsmanship. But it’s getting old. 

He’s talked in interviews leading up to this season that he wanted to experiment with Doctor Who’s story style so the show wouldn’t get stagnant. That willingness to experiment is a major part of his appeal to me. He’s always pushing himself to do something different.

But there are limits. He’s still working on Doctor Who, having just become the second-longest-serving lead producer of all time. The only one who beat him, John Nathan-Turner, desperately wanted to leave, but was kept on because the BBC brass hated him and refused to advance his career.

Moffat knows the history of the show. He knows that Doctor Who always has to outlive you and grow beyond you. It’s the secret of regeneration – you keep your immortality productive by becoming an utterly different version of yourself every now and then.

I think Moffat knows that it’s time for Doctor Who to do that with the creative producers’ chair. It’s why I think his seventh year (2016, Capaldi’s third, the new companion’s first, Doctor Who’s 53rd) will be his last. 

It’s why he made a point since the start of the Capaldi years of hiring new people. I remember him saying that he loved the perspective of Jamie Mathieson and Sarah Dollard because they were young enough that they primarily know only 21st-century Doctor Who. 

They don’t have the hangups on the past that many of Moffat’s generation of Doctor Who writers do. Maybe Jamie Mathieson will become the new creative producer in 2017. Maybe it’ll be Sarah Dollard, who already has creative producer experience with the Welsh drama Cara Fi.

Either way, both of them will continue to write Doctor Who, and Peter Harness won’t leave anytime soon. The flawed but reliable writers like Mark Gatiss and Toby Whithouse will stay in the roster, Gareth Roberts will usually be available. And who knows what will come out of the Class project under Patrick Ness.

This season, Moffat seems to be moving the pieces into place for his departure, making sure there are so many possible new leaders and creatives dedicated to Doctor Who that its renaissance will continue. And he’s left Doctor Who with ideas that still have so much potential to be explored, especially how he brought back the Time Lords.

I just wish the storyline of Hell Bent did more than move pieces into place for the show to go forward in the future. While it made me very happy about what Doctor Who can do next, I was a little underwhelmed at how little it did this weekend.

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