Wasted Potential: Doctor Who’s “Hell Bent”

Doctor Who Hell Bent Season 9 FinaleThe net is dark and full of spoilers!  This article discusses the Doctor Who episode “Hell Bent,” as well as other events in season 9.

“Hell Bent” had loads of promise.  It immediately picks up after “Heaven Sent,” destined to be a NuWho classic, and the trailer for “Hell Bent” was absolutely fantastic in setting a dramatic tone for the season finale.

Unfortunately, they seem to have poured all their energy into that trailer.

It’s not that they didn’t do what I was hoping they would do.  It’s that they really didn’t do anything at all.  There were so many potential stories to be woven from available elements – the Sisterhood of Karn, the return of the Time Lords, the death of Clara, the prophecy, Ashildr and more –  and writer (and showrunner) Steven Moffat chose none of them.  I fear he’s (again) patting himself on the back for creating a plot that no one saw coming, because he doesn’t seem to understand that unless the resulting story is compelling, we don’t care if we’re surprised by it.

Lord President Rassilon the Reborn

Donald Sumpter plays Rassilon, and Time Lord regalia continues to push the absurdity envelope.

It started strong.  Finally, the fate of Gallifrey would be addressed.  We got to see some very neat interactions between the Doctor and other Gallifreyans.  Previously, he was seen at home as as a goofball and a screw-up, but here he’s being held in esteem over even the Lord President and as a war hero no less.  I appreciated the president referring to himself as “Rassilon the Resurrected.”  The founder of the Time Lords was long dead in the old series, and some fans disapproved of the character appearing without explanation in “The End of Time.”  Now it’s clear the Time Lords brought him back in their desperation to win the Time War.

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And then the episode starts to go all wrong.

First, the General, who apparently doesn’t deserve a name, and the Doctor snag Clara out of her timeline.  The General is led to believe she possesses vital information.  In fact, the Doctor is solely motivated to save her from death, even though he knows changing a fixed point in time will damage the fabric of reality.  Not exactly his most mature moment.

Then he shoots the General.

Doctor with a Gun, Hell Bent, Doctor Who

One of the most out-of-character moments for the Doctor in fifty years of Doctor Who.

The Doctor became a war hero without using a gun.  He was combating Daleks, and he still wouldn’t wield a weapon.  Yet here he is, shooting a man who’s just trying to preserve the space-time continuum.  It’s supposed to illustrate how much he truly cares for Clara, but it’s so contrary to his nature that it falls completely flat.

“‘Death’ is just Time Lord for ‘man flu,’” he quips.  No, it’s not.  He just robbed the General of hundreds of years of potential life.

There’s a saying in fiction writing: “Show, don’t tell.”  What happens next is a lot of running without clear purpose while the Doctor explains a wide variety of things.  It’s a whole lot of talk without much show, and it’s painfully dreary.

And it’s all wrapped up in a thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion.  Yet again, a major character cheats death, a repeating problem with the show (which I’ve previously discussed).  It sours what had been a moving death scene, and it yet again suggests our heroes should have little fear of suffering real consequences.

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Clara acts as if she’s being all responsible, recognizing she  needs to face her fate, yet she has no trouble running off on adventures for an indeterminate amount of time first, damage to time and space be damned.  Worse, Ashildr, a moderately awful person at best (remember, she robs people out of boredom), now gets exactly what she wants: the ability to travel in time and space.

Dr Who Hell Bent Original TARDIS

Full points for recreating the original 1963 console room for the TARDIS stolen from Gallifrey.  Look!  The round things!

Meanwhile, the Doctor is left without his memories of Clara, and for no good reason.  It was never clear to me how erasing Clara’s mind of knowledge of the Doctor would allow her live on, but it makes even less sense that the Doctor forgetting her would accomplish anything at all.  And how did the Doctor lose his memory?  Clara sabotaged his equipment.  Yes, she admitted it, but she didn’t stop him from using it either.  So, now, even though Clara says she can accept her death, it’s the Doctor who’s suffering while she’s gallivanting around the universe with her new sociopath friend.

I don’t understand how anyone finds that a satisfying ending.

And the whole hybrid thing?  The “Bad Wolf” of season 9, popping up every couple of episodes?  That thing which made the Time Lords so fearful they locked a war hero inside a confession dial for billions of years?  Apparently it’s not really a thing.  Ashildr suggests the hybrid is actually the Doctor and Clara together, especially in light of the chaos the Doctor was willing to risk to save Clara, but that’s not what hybrid means.  Not much of a prophecy if you have to redefine entire words for it to work.

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While certainly not the worst episode of the season, “Hell Bent” reeks of mediocrity.  More disappointing than what it was, however, is what it could have been.  There was so many ways “Hell Bent” could have gone, and, in the end, it really took none of them.

 

2 comments

  • I agree with you completely. This episode gave the impression of someone tying up the loose ends of a canceled series. I don’t know if you’ve seen Alphas – but kind of like that. Clara definitely should have stayed dead. Her slow motion death scene did not strike a chord with me. Trying to save her would have been okay, if she’d still died in the end. My favorite thing about the episode was seeing the old white console room again. I was kind of hoping the Doctor would decide to keep it.

    I’m not sure what Moffat was thinking. The show seemed to have been recovering from a slump in season 8. Just as hopes were rising, the end the season with a fizzle. Thanks for the posts, I’ve enjoyed hearing your thoughts on the show this season.

  • Wesley

    I just stumbled across this and I absolutely agree with everything you’ve said. ‘Heaven Sent’ gave us such a good buildup, promising a vengeful Doctor who would take on the Time Lords for killing his best friend, and then all we got after the first decent twenty minutes was a Clara-centric episode in which Moffat seemed to completely forget everything that had happened in the previous episode. It gave the impression that when he wrote it, he didn’t change his first draft, and just ran with ideas as they came to him rather than actually checking to see if they were coherent.

    What frustrates me is that the rest of Series 9 was so good (with perhaps the exception of ‘Sleep No More’, but to be fair, nearly every season of Who has one turkey), and the teams behind the show had understood what the Twelfth Doctor was like, and had acted on it to make some solid and entertaining stories. Then suddenly it turned into the Clara show all over again, and all of that felt like it was wasted.

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