Still chugging through DWM #494. And it strikes me a lot of writing about Doctor Who – and not just my writing about it – comes to rest upon the notion that the series is forever moving forward. That new things are coming. Is that simply because it’s the promise of the format, or because we (still!) like continual reassurance there’s more to follow?
“Since the Cloister Wars. Since the night he stole the moon and the President’s wife. Since he was a little girl. One of those was a lie, can you guess which one?”
Well, Missy, now we know.
Plot resolution is tough. The fact of the matter is, it’s far easier to ask interesting questions than it is to answer them captivatingly. But in Hell Bent, the full-stop to this year’s run, Steven Moffat lays all of our current concerns to rest, and in great style – even when it comes to the sonic screwdriver. It’s not that the story is especially stuffed with revelatory moments, even though we’ve come to expect them at this time of the Doctor Who year (He’s really the Master! Or: She’s really the Master!). It’s that, while there are surprises, the true pyrotechnics come from character revelations, rather than plot.
In many cases, these were fuses that had been lit quite some time ago. The longest of all is the return to Gallifrey. In 2013, the Doctor vowed he’d take “the long way around” in getting back, a phrase he resurrects in this story to allude to his prison sentence in Heaven Sent, before it’s then gifted to Clara as she leaves the show. As if the fact she was now heading off in her own TARDIS, throwing switches and levers with élan, wasn’t confirmation enough of her well-earned Doctorate.
But in taking this route, we see the Doctor has reverted to something of his earlier self, the “Doctor of war” incarnation. The shooting script to Hell Bent confirms it, which describes that shot of Peter Capaldi walking across the dry lands with jacket slung over his shoulder in reference to John Hurt’s arrival in The Day of the Doctor. On a similar tack – albeit one not actually taken in the finished episode – when he discards his velveteen attire, he is then directed to dress in peasant’s clothes, “as close to Shane as we dare”.
Once more, the Doctor has set aside his accoutrements to become a figure of vengeance. A man on the outside, who doesn’t head for his actual home, but for his spiritual one; the barn in the middle of nowhere. It’s a formidable portrait. All the more frightening because during these early scenes on Gallifrey he barely utters a line. “Words are his weapons,” says Rassilon, which is true. But even those, he’s thrown away. As if all he needs is that powerful impulse for retribution. Faced with a Sky Tank, he marks out a line in the sand with his heel, and then turns his back. Murray Gold’s score strikes up ‘The Doctor’s Theme’ (perhaps more popularly known as ‘Flavia’s Theme’ thanks to Russell T Davies’ messing around on a Ninth Doctor DVD commentary), performed now in the style of an Ennio Morricone track.
It’s affecting, not just because of the ‘lonesome stranger’ myths that are being invoked, but the way it dares to tread across the badlands of Doctor Who. That tune, for example, wending its way back into the show. For us old timers (sat in our rocking chairs on the porch, hocking loogies into a diamond logo mug) it’s like a song from way back when. There’s such a frisson when different bits of Doctor Who connect. More pertinently, I believe there’s also a long held fear by fans that no good ever comes of having Gallifrey in the show. The truism seems to be that its very presence ‘normalises’ the Doctor, making him one of many, rather than a lone original. So it’s smart that Moffat and his team have gone to great pains to depict him standing apart.
There’s also the theory that this is a place better realised in description than actualisation. Those of us now called indoors to wash up our Doctor Who crockery remain haunted by the drab versions brought to us in the 1980s. Again, I feel this anxiety is counteracted. Director Rachel Talalay sends her camera shuttling through an exquisitely dense CGI-rendered version of the capital before a final boom as it bounces through the glass dome into the Citadel of the Time Lords. It’s a wonderfully impactful moment, which seems designed to communicate: Don’t worry, we can do this now.
My impression is that Moffat has brought us here simply as a treat. Ever since it was named, Gallifrey has been Doctor Who’s hottest ticket, even if it never quite matched up to the reviews. “I can’t miss Gallifrey!” gasped Sarah Jane Smith back in 1976. With cloister bells ringing out across the city, wraiths circulating below, it’s finally the place it always should have been, but with the Doctor’s visit ending up in a massive family row (as per), I doubt we’ll be back there again soon. It was good to see it, now let’s move on… Although, I am campaigning for more from the reliably epic Donald Sumpter, whose voice sizzles with the aeons, as Rassilon.
But the Doctor. That’s who we were talking about. I’ve usually prickled at attempts to build his mythos within the show’s own fiction. However, in this case, Moffat has earned that right through years of meticulous groundwork. This renegade is referred to as, “The man who won the Time War,” something of a folk legend among his people. It’s interesting, then, that when he’s raised so high, he too looks despotic. “Get off my planet,” he tells Rassilon, one alpha male usurping the next. “Tell the High Council they’re on the next shuttle,” he says, dismantling the regime.
It takes someone like Ohila to step inside that, and remind him of his ‘never cruel or cowardly’ vow. Because the Doctor doesn’t really have what it takes to become a monster. Grabbing the Commander’s gun inside the Extraction Chamber, he doesn’t appear threatening. He just seems desperate. And that, truly, is the keynote to all of his actions. A desperation to save his Clara. A desperation for everything to be okay, which we can all relate to. “Pulse, yeah? You have a pulse, yes? Pulse?!” he yells, impotently willing it to be so. What was the plan anyway? For the pair of them to live out their lives in hiding, knocking around the far-end of time?
If there is something potentially contentious about this wonderful story, I’m guessing it’s going to be Clara, and that her return shows up Face The Raven as yet another feign in a long series of such about whether or not the girl once known as ‘impossible’ has truly died. I’ve already excused Osgood’s return earlier this series. I find this one to be equally as permissible. Not just because her demise is subverted in ingenious style and that the Doctor ultimately has to pay the price for it, but because it gives us what those other potential/fake (delete as per your whim) exits didn’t: Thematic resolution. It’s entirely satisfactory that she leaves our programme under her own aegis. Her line that “tomorrow’s promised to no, one… but I insist upon my past” is one of the most beautiful Moffat’s ever written. It also shows her taking control of their relationship. Unlike most other Doctor Who companions, she is the lead in her own story, and it’s she who brings this chapter to an end. Whatever she said to the Doctor back in the Cloisters, I hope we’ll never know. Although, if it lives on in song, perhaps it’s that musical motif which has accompanied her all these years. The one the Doctor plays in the diner in the opening scene.
Last year’s Doctor Who series finale spoke of death, this one brings us life. In a peculiar way, the unveiling of an old TARDIS interior is absolutely part of that. Because this is pure celebration, an enjoyment of the brilliance of this show, and how much it has to offer. Another note from Moffat’s script has it exactly: ‘The Doctor is flying around the classic console like a distinguished Scottish actor who’s slightly too excited for his own good.’ But more significantly, it precipitates a new life for Clara, even if it’s one that will dog Jenna Coleman’s heels for the rest of her natural. Fans will never stop asking when we’ll be getting to see that spin-off show with Maisie Williams. And a new life for the Doctor too, of course. In this year when the programme has felt particularly reinvigorated, it nonetheless does it all again.
Nothing’s sad until it’s over. Back in the TARDIS, the lights come on. The Doctor climbs into a Doctory coat. The new sonic springs from the console. Snap! The doors close and off we go – the resolution of one mighty story, overlapping with the start of the next.