In “Hell Bent” Doctor Who gives us a Season 9 finale with everything but the kitchen sink. Clara receives her due, the Doctor makes his mark on Gallifrey, and the ghosts of series past are ever present. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman gave emotional performances, creating a strong end to the season.
“Hell Bent” gave us a story that was rich in terms of narrative and visuals. The scenes in Gallifrey were beautifully filmed. The reddish light of the planet sitting at the end of the universe made for a counterpoint to the bright white Time Lord technologies used to break all the rules in a dying empire.
Season 9 has been an outstanding season of Doctor Who, maybe it’s best. “Hell Bent” gives us the closure through reinvention, creating a satisfying end to a season full of quality storytelling.
Get off my planet
The Doctor’s been traveling and finds himself in Nevada. He arrives at the same diner in which he met River, Rory, and Amy in “The Impossible Astronaut.” Of course that diner was in Utah and this is in Nevada, hence his later remark about it being on the other side of the hill. At the diner he offers to play electric guitar in exchange for food. The waitress serving the Doctor is Clara Oswald, yet neither act as though they know each other. The Doctor plays a song on his guitar. Clara asks if it’s a sad song. The Doctor tells her, “Nothing’s sad ‘til it’s over, then everything is.” When he tells her the name of the song is “Clara,” she responds, “Tell me about her.”
After escaping the castle prison, the Doctor finds himself on Gallifrey. He heads towards a barn. This is the same barn that we saw the Doctor sleeping in as a young boy in the episode “Listen,” as well as where the War Doctor brought The Moment in “The Day of the Doctor.”
In the Citadel the Lord President Rassilon asks if all the bells in the Cloister are ringing. The soldier down in the cloister reports that the Cloister Wraiths are very active, and that all the bells are ringing. All the activity in the cloister indicates that Gallifrey is facing great danger. Rassilon asks where the Doctor has gone. He’s not the only one interested in the Doctor’s return to Gallifrey. Ohila, the High Priestess of the Sisterhood of Karn, has arrived in Gallifrey as well. She tells Rassilon she’s come to watch the fireworks.
A woman who seems to know the Doctor from his youth enters the barn where he rests. Once she recognizes the Doctor she tells him, “They’ll kill you.”
The Doctor sits outside of the barn having some soup as a crowd of people begin to gather around him. The people of Gallifrey are excited about the Doctor’s return as well. The military sends a ship to retrieve the Doctor, ordering him to lay down any weapons on his person. He lays down the spoon because if we learned nothing else from “Robot of Sherwood” it’s that the Doctor is very dangerous with cutlery. Instead he walks towards the ship, looks through the window at the pilot, and draws a line in the sand, literally.
Back at the Citadel, they’re a bit mystified.
The General: “We could talk to him.”
Rassilon: “Words are his weapon.”
The General: “When did they stop being ours?”
Next, the General arrives at the barn to offer the greetings of the High Council of Gallifrey. The Doctor shuts the door on him. When Rassilon asks through the communicator who the Doctor thinks he is, the General responds, “The man who won the Time War, sir.” Looks like the common folk aren’t the only ones who remember.
Later, the High Council arrives in person. They bow, but again the Doctor returns to the barn. He isn’t here to talk to a bunch of council members.
Watching from the Citadel, Rassilon asks the others in the chamber what the Doctor wants. Ohila replies, “The Doctor does not blame Gallifey for the horrors of the Time War. …He just blames you.” It’s not clear why Rassilon is letting Ohila continue to hang out.
Rassilon finally comes to the barn himself. He extends a hand, but the Doctor does not take it. Instead, the Doctor takes out his confession dial and drops it on the ground, telling him, “Get off my planet.” Rassilon insists that they needed the information about the hybrid, and if the Doctor had just told them what they needed to know, he could have walked out of the castle prison. Again the Doctor tells Rassilon, “Get off my planet.” Well, that just makes the Lord President angry.
When Rassilon tells the soldiers to fire on his command, the General reminds the Lord President that the Doctor is a war hero and that some of these soldiers have served under him. At Rassilon’s command the soldiers fire, and all of them miss. When Rassilon asks how they could have all missed, a soldier tells him that there was a saying in the Time War: “First thing you notice about the Doctor of War is that he’s unarmed. For many it’s also the last.” The soldier drops his weapon and walks over to join the Doctor.
We see Clara and the Doctor at the diner once more.
Clara: “Is this a story or did this really happen?”
The Doctor: “Every story ever told really happened. Stories… are where memories go when they’re forgotten.”
At the barn on Gallifrey the soldiers proceed to drop their weapons and stand behind the Doctor. Rassilon is about the kill the Doctor when more ships arrive. Rassilon thinks the general sent for reinforcements, but they are the Doctor’s. When Rassilon yells, “What? I am Rassilon…the redeemer! Rassilon, the resurrected! Gallifrey is mine!” the General responds, “Lord President, with respect, get off his planet.”
Gallifrey is at the extreme end of the universe for it’s own protection, which the Doctor knows all too well since he took the long way round. The General warns that Rassilon might not find anywhere to go. When the General suggests he might be going too far, the Doctor responds, “Oh, I’ve barely started. Tell the High Council they’re on the next shuttle.” The Doctor really isn’t happy about being trapped in his own confession dial billions of years.
The Doctor goes into the Cloister and finds Ohila waiting for him. He notes that she’s a long way from home. She tells the Doctor, “At the end of everything, one must expect the company of immortals.” The Doctor expresses his… let’s call it rage… at what Rassilon did to him:
“A confession dial is a ritual act of purification. It allows a dying Time Lord to face his demons and make his peace, before his mind is uploaded to the Matrix. It was never intended as a torture chamber for the living.”
Later the Doctor meets with the General and Ohila in the presidential chamber to discuss the hybrid. The hybrid is a creature thought to be crossbred between Time Lords and Daleks, that “will unravel the web of time and destroy a billion billion hearts to heal its own.” To save them all the Doctor is going to need some help, “Oh, not from you lot. No, you’d cramp my style. Look at your hats.”
He wants to use an extraction chamber to talk to an old friend–Clara. She is removed from the moment just before the raven kills her. She enters the extraction chamber and asks if they are in the TARDIS. He tells Clara they are on Gallifrey and she asks, “Did I miss something?” The Doctor tells her, “We’re several billion years in the future and the universe is pretty much over, so yeah, quite a lot.”
The General tells Clara they only have a few minutes with her. The General says that according to the Doctor she knows something about the hybrid. Sounds like the General doesn’t realize that the Doctor lies. Clara doesn’t respond because she’s trying to figure out why everything sounds wrong. The Doctor tells her that everything sounds strange because she can’t hear her own heartbeat. He explains, “Your physical processes have been time locked, frozen between one heartbeat and the next. Even your breathing is just a habit. You don’t need it.” The General tells Clara that she died billions of years ago and that her death is an established historical event and cannot be altered.
The Doctor takes the General’s gun. He wants to save Clara, but the General reminds him of the risk: “She’s been dead for half the lifetime of the universe. If you tried to change that, you could fracture time itself. Doctor, Lord President, are you really going to take that risk?” Clara says she doesn’t want this and asks the Doctor to put down the gun.
The Doctor: “Regeneration?”
The General: “Tenth”
The Doctor: “Good luck.”
The General: “You too, sir.”
The Doctor shoots twice and the general falls. The Doctor takes a human compatible neural block and they run.
After they leave the General regenerates into a woman. Along with Missy/The Master this is the second time we’ve see a Time Lord regenerate into the opposite sex. This certainly opens the door for the Doctor’s next regeneration. After the regeneration is complete the General says, “Back to normal, am I? The only time I’ve been a man, that last body. Dear Lord, how do you cope with all that ego?”
At the diner waitress Clara is still listening to the Doctor’s tale. She points out this Clara person in his story must have been very important to the Doctor because “You killed a man, you don’t seem the type.”
Back on Gallifrey, Clara is less understanding about the Doctor killing the General. He dismisses her concern, saying, “We’re on Gallifrey. Death is Time Lord for man flu.” He runs with Clara into the Cloisters, or “the hell of the Time Lords” as Ohila calls it. Clara asks how Gallifrey became free of the other dimension it had been frozen within. The Doctor never bothered to ask because it would have made the Time Lords feel clever to tell him how they did it. She asks him about the neural block he took, but the Doctor doesn’t answer her question.
In Nevada the waitress Clara asks the same question, but this time he answer. He explains, “There was only one way to keep Clara safe. I had to wipe some of her memory.”
The General calls for every exit from the Cloisters to be blocked. The soldier points out that no one has ever made it back out of the Cloisters. Ohila comments, “Not quite no one,” referring to the Doctor’s past exploits.
The Doctor explains that they’re safe in the Cloisters. The Cloister Wraiths guard the Matrix and only attack if you try to leave, or try to stay. As they walk through the Cloisters they stumble upon a Dalek who calls out to them, “Exterminate…me!” A Dalek calling for help, now that is scary. It’s likely left over from the Cloister Wars, and now it’s filed into the biggest database in history, the Matrix. Next they face weeping angels and a cyberman. The cloister is using these trapped creatures as a defense.
The Doctor has found the service hatch he was looking for, but he needs to unlock it. While he works on it he explains the Matrix to Clara:
The Doctor: “When Time Lords die, their minds are uploaded to a thing called the Matrix. This structure, it’s like a living computer. It can predict the future, generate prophecies out of algorithms, ring the Cloister bells in the event of impending catastrophe. The Sliders – they’re just like the guard dogs, the firewall. Projections from inside the Matrix itself, the dead, manning the battlements.”
Clara: “Was I supposed to understand any of that?”
The Doctor: “The Time Lords have got a big computer made of ghosts, in a crypt, guarded by more ghosts.”
Clara: “Didn’t hurt, did it?”
The Doctor: “Tiny bit.”
Clara: “Why would a computer need to protect itself from the people who made it?”
The Doctor: “All computers do that in the end. You wait until the Internet starts. Oh, that was a war!”
We know what you’re thinking: “Really, they couldn’t have come up with a different name?” But the concept of the Matrix on Doctor Who was established well before the Wachowskis created the film. Doctor Who first introduced the Matrix in the 1976 serial “The Deadly Assassin” as a massive computer in which users, connected by a cable to one’s head, participate in representations of the real world, during which they will die in real life if they are killed in the Matrix. It has been argued that the film concept is a reinterpretation of the Doctor Who Matrix.
As he works on the hatch the Doctor tells Clara a story about a student from the Academy disappearing into the Cloisters for four days. Clara quickly figures out that the student in the story is the Doctor. He tells her, “I was a completely different person in those days. Eccentric, a bit mad, rude to people.” Clara wants to know how long it has been since he last saw her. He avoids answering her, instead telling her that he was stuck in a place because they wanted something from him. She asks why he changed his velvet coat, she had liked how it was “very Doctory.” The Doctor responds, “Well, I can’t be the Doctor all the time.”
The General and Ohila have found their way to a door to the Cloisters very close to the hatch the Doctor is working on. Meanwhile, the Doctor tells Clara the story of being trapped in the castle. He tells her about the wall he had to break through, adding, “But you can break through anything, given time.” She asks how much time, but they’re interrupted by the General and Ohila. Clara shouts at them to stay back, and for some reason they inch back when she says it. She turns and speaks to the Doctor.
Clara: “The Hybrid, what is it? What’s so important you would fight so long?”
The Doctor: “It doesn’t matter what the Hybrid is. It only matters that I convinced them that I knew. Otherwise, I’d have had nothing left to bargain with.”
Clara: “What were you bargaining for?”
The Doctor: “What do you think? You. I had to find a way to save you. I knew it had to be the Time Lords. They cost you your life on Trap Street, Clara, and I was going to make them bring you back. I just had to hang on in there for a bit.”
She asks him again how long, but he doesn’t answer her. She turns and asks the General and Ohila how long the Doctor was trapped in the confession dial. The General parrots what Rassilon said earlier, that the Doctor could have left anytime if he said what he knew. Ohila tells Clara that they believe the Doctor was trapped for four and a half billion years. In “Heaven Sent” we saw the Doctor estimate up to two billion years, so this is shocking news to the viewer that it was more than twice that length of time. Truly, an eternity.
Clara is shocked as well, and asks the Doctor, “Why would you even do that? I was dead! I was dead and gone. Why? Why would you even do that to yourself?” He responds, “I had a duty of care,” then quickly moves on to discuss his escape plan. From the hatch they’ll be able to get to the old workshops where they can access a TARDIS.
Clara only has one heartbeat and has things she wants to say to the Doctor. But first she shames the Time Lords, by telling them they are monsters hiding away at the end of time because they are hated. Ohila asks Clara what she whispered to the Doctor. Clara tells her it’s nothing she’s going to tell any of them, except for the part where she said, “Don’t worry, Doctor, they’ll all be looking at me.” The trapdoor is open and the Doctor is gone. When they ask what the Doctor is doing, Clara tells them after taking four and a half billion years for the Doctor to get to Gallifrey, the Doctor is stealing a TARDIS and running away.
A TARDIS materializes, rescuing Clara. Ohila yells to the Doctor that he’s gone to far and broken every code he’s ever lived by, but he tells her that the universe owes him. She warns the Doctor that he’s only giving Clara hope. He asks when hope is a bad thing and she responds, “Hope is a terrible thing when you’re on the scaffold.” The TARDIS dematerializes.
Time Won’t Heal
When they break free of Gallifrey’s time zone, Clara’s heart should start again. But it doesn’t. The countdown from “Face the Raven” is still on the back of her neck. Clara wants to know what it means that time can fracture if he saves her, but he assures her that time will heal. They travel further away from Gallifrey, but her heart still doesn’t start. Clara asks, “What if time isn’t healing. What if the universe needs me to die?” The Doctor says the universe is over and doesn’t get a say, adding, “As of this moment I’m answerable to no one.”
There’s a knock on the door and the Doctor says, “Four knocks…it’s always four knocks,” referring back to “The End of Time,” and the prophecy that four knocks would precede the death of the Tenth Doctor. He walks outside and find Ashildr. He’s not surprised, saying, “At the end of everything we should expect the company of immortals, or so I’ve been told.” The other immortals have gone and only Ashildr remains.
She’s been watching the stars die, which she thinks is beautiful. The Doctor disagrees, saying it’s sad. “No, it was both,” she tells him, “but that’s not something you would understand. You don’t like endings.” Ashildr points out that Clara died for who he was and who she loved, “She fell where she stood. It was sad. And it was beautiful. And it is over. We have no right to change who she was.” Ashildr tells the Doctor that they run because they know the summer can’t last forever.
Inside the TARDIS, Clara turns on the exterior monitor and starts watching the conversation between Ashildr and the Doctor.
The Doctor and Ashildr begin talking about the hybrid and what is it. He tells Ashildr that’s her, “Humans and the Mire, both warrior races, fits perfectly.” Ashildr suggests that perhaps it’s half Time Lord, half human, ten asks why he spends so much time on earth. This refers to a throw away line from the Eight Doctor about his mother being human. Ashildr then suggests that perhaps the hybrid is two people, not one:
“A dangerous combination of a passionate and powerful Time Lord and a young woman so very similar to him. Companions who are willing to push each other to extremes.”
Ashildr reminds the Doctor that he met Clara through Missy, the lover of chaos. Ashildr points out that the Doctor is willing to risk all of time and space because he misses Clara. The Doctor knows he went too far. He plans to take Clara to earth and wipe her memory with the neural block. They enter the TARDIS and Clara admits she’s been listening to their conversation.
Clara wants no part of the neural block. He tries to tell her that this is the only way. But Clara has made plans of her own, by reversing the polarity of the neural block with the sonic sunglasses. She tells him that if he tries to erase her memories, it will end of erasing his own. She tells him, “These have been the best years of my life, and they are mine. Tomorrow is promised to no one, but I insist on my past. I am entitled to that. It’s mine.” Together Clara and the Doctor are a dangerous combination, “You, me together, look how far I went for fear of losing you. This has to stop. One of us has to go.” It’s not clear if the neural block can be altered, so it’s unknown whose memories will be erased. They decide to press the button at the same time.
Clara won’t have to worry about forgetting the Doctor, because he realizes that it has affected him. He begins to share advice with Clara, including run like hell, laugh at everything, never be cowardly, and never eat pears. The Doctor asks Clara to smile one last time, though she cannot, and then collapses. The Doctor wakes to find himself in the Nevada desert.
Run You Clever Boy, Run
At the diner, the Doctor tells waitress Clara that he is trying to piece together the memories of Clara.
“When something goes missing, you can always recreate it by the hole it left. I know her name was Clara. I know we travelled together. I know that there was an Ice Warrior on a submarine and a mummy on the Orient Express. I know we sat together in the Cloisters and she told me something very important, but I have no idea what she said. Or what she looked like. Or how she talked. Or laughed. There’s nothing there. Just nothing.”
Yet he is certain if he met Clara again he would know. He seems to remember he was here with here at the diner, but then he remembers he was with Amy and Rory. The Doctor begins to play his guitar. Waitress Clara tells him, “You said memories become stories when we forget them. Maybe some of them become songs.”
Clara walks out a door into the TARDIS. Her TARDIS dematerializes and the Doctor finds himself alone in the desert, with his TARDIS. It’s covered with the graffiti that Rigsy painted to memorialize Clara, including her portrait.
Clara and Ashildr are in the recently stolen TARDIS, which resembles the early TARDIS designs in the classic series. Just like the Doctor’s TARDIS, the Chameleon circuit isn’t working. Their outer shell is stuck looking like an American diner. Time isn’t healing because Clara’s heart is still stopped. That means that her death is a fixed event and the universe depends on it happening. She realizes she must go back to Gallifrey and return to her death. Clara suggests they take the long way round to Gallifrey. It looks like Ashildr will get her wish to travel through time and space, but with Clara instead of the Doctor.
The Doctor enters his TARDIS and finds a message on the chalkboard: “Run you clever boy. And be a Doctor.” He puts the velvet jacket on and the TARDIS supplies him with a new sonic screwdriver. The TARDIS dematerializes, and we see the two TARDISes traveling in time and space.