The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Review of Hell Bent
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

Moffat couldn't kill a character to save his own goddamn life.

He likes to pretend he's ruthless. He tugs heartstrings with near misses and kills off minor or supporting characters, but when it comes down to it, he's simply unable to commit, even when the narrative demands it.

I had to wonder whether he was trolling himself or just trying to cut off naysayers at the pass when he wrote Ashildr's words pointing out the way that the Doctor's actions earlier in the episode had completely undermined the emotional impact of the previous two episodes. "She died for who she was and for 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." And yet that's exactly what Moffat does.

It has become something of an in-joke in fandom that you don't have to worry when a character seems to die, because they'll just come back at some point (I still haven't ruled out a Danny Pink return). I don't think anyone was completely destroyed by Clara's death in Face the Raven because (a) we've become inured to Companion death (hers, even! Versions of her have already died in Asylum of the Daleks and The Snowmen!) and (b) we were all waiting for the end of the series for exactly this reason. There's no "just this once" to Moffat's "everybody lives!"

In case it's not obvious, that detail bugged the shit out of me. It colored my perception of the entire episode, and even as I write this, I'm not 100% sure how I feel about it as a whole. I can't deny that Moffat has a way with dialog one-liners; every time there's something that makes me smile, or even laugh outright. Whether that's part of a larger, enjoyable whole or the bright spot in an otherwise awkward entry, I still can't quite say. Let me try to take the major chunks one by one and tease out a coherent opinion on Hell Bent by the end.

Gallifrey:
I'm actually glad to see Gallifrey back in the show. I've always felt the Doctor's home world added an interesting layer to the overall narrative of his travels. I'm dubious whether or not it makes sense for it to be back given all the stuff Moffat threw at us for the fiftieth, but he did at least hang a lampshade on it by having Clara ask the Doctor about it and him deflecting by saying he hadn't asked because it would've made the Time Lords "feel clever."

There's a huge amount of series mythos woven into these events. Using ideas like the Matrix or the megalomaniacal Rassilon and combining them with snippets we've seen elsewhere—either crossing eras like the Sisterhood of Karn or recent developments like the Confession Dial—expands the mythos further. I can see how it might be overwhelming for new viewers, but I think it was done well enough that no one would've been left behind, even if they'd only watched this season. Overall, I'm okay with it.

Regeneration:
Speaking of expanding the mythos, though, Moffat certainly outdid himself on the regeneration front. If some fans thought the Master as Missy was bad, they probably hated seeing the General regenerate not only into a different race (brilliant!) but also a different gender right in front of their eyes. And kudos for the execution on that reveal. Nicely done.

While that scene could have implications for the Doctor's own future, there are clues about his past scattered about, too. As the Doctor and Clara make their way through the Cloister, they come across a Dalek getting "filed" by the Matrix. He tells her it's "probably a leftover from the Cloister Wars." Later, she catches him out when he's talking about the one other legendary person who ever made it out of the Cloister alive, but emerged mad. "The last I heard," he explains to her, "he stole the moon and the President's wife."

Clara, of course, recognizes the reference. "Was she, um... Was she nice, the President's wife?"

"Ah, well, that was a lie, put about by the Shabogans," he says. "It was the President's daughter. I didn't steal the moon, I lost..." He trails off as he realizes what he's said, giving us a moment to realize something ourselves.

Remember back in The Magician's Apprentice, when Missy and Clara were having their little chat in the square? Clara says, "Since when do you care about the Doctor?"

"Since always," Missy replies. "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?"

We've just heard the Doctor talk about the Cloister Wars—making that piece a truth—and admit the moon/wife story was a lie. That leaves the third piece of Missy's statement to be the other truth. Of course, one would have to assume Missy was telling the truth herself when she said one of those was a lie, which is never a sure thing. As with anything in Doctor Who, fans can interpret that as they will.

The Hybrid:
There's plenty of room for interpretation when it comes to the Hybrid, too. It appears there are (at least?) three answers to the question of who the Hybrid is. The two obvious ones implied by the final line of last week's episode are the Doctor himself and Ashildr/Me. Ashildr's suggestion is that the Doctor and Clara together are the Hybrid.

All three of them "stand in the ruins of Gallifrey," there at the end of the universe. Any of the proposed Hybrids qualify as being a combination of two warrior races (though I love that they maintained deniability on the Doctor's "half human" heritage so I can continue to sing LALALA with my ears plugged when that comes up). I think, like the Doctor's lineage, it doesn't matter in the end. Any version one wants to choose will work; any head canon is viable.

For my part, I choose to believe it's the Doctor and Clara as a team. Together, they pushed too far and caused the Doctor to lose sight of "every code [he's] ever lived by," as Ohila put it. She called him on that several times, in fact. "Why did you banish [Rassilon]?" she asks. "Was it punishment? Or for your own protection? Or are you just being cruel? Or just being cowardly?"

Part of the Doctor's personal code—even stated outright in The Day of the Doctor—is the promise of his name. The man who would call himself the Doctor was "never cruel or cowardly." It's no mistake that Ohila chooses those particular words to throw in his face.

Another shock was that he went ahead and pulled the trigger to force the General's regeneration. One could argue that since "death is Time Lord for 'man flu,'" it was not an anti-Doctor act, but given that he's claimed before that "[he] never would!" I think it's fair to say that counts at the very least as a stretch of his own rules. Eleven once told Madame Kovarian that "good men don't need rules." We saw here a hint of the reason the Doctor has made himself so many.

"Final" Goodbye:
In the end, though, the Doctor-Clara couldn't last. I did really enjoy the skillful misdirection throughout, leading us to conclude the Doctor was recounting the full tale to a mind-wiped Clara rather than the other way around. That part made me nod in appreciation, even as I cringed again at the lack of narrative commitment in leaving her (sort of) alive.

And then Clara and Ashildr flew off in their own stolen TARDIS. (It looked—and sounded—just like Hartnell's! So much love!) If the BBC had infinite money, you just know they could make that spinoff fly (and for all we know, Big Finish will), but until another anniversary special rolls around, I think we won't see any more of that new TARDIS team. This makes at least the third farewell for Clara's character (not even counting the splinter incarnations), and I'm so tired of it now that even though I've come to quite like the character, I am well glad to be rid of her.

Acting and Direction:
By now it should go without saying that I think Capaldi is brilliant. Both he and Jenna Coleman were fabulous here, speaking volumes with just a look. The successes of the episode are largely down to them, though Rachel Talalay's direction cannot be complimented highly enough. Not being a film student myself, I have only recently begun to notice how direction affects the presentation of a visual story. Watching these last two Talalay-led episodes have been wonderful examples from which to learn.

I find that as I wrap up my thoughts on Hell Bent, there's more here that makes me happy than makes me crabby, so I'd still rate it fairly high. Just once, though, I'd like a series' final episode to be its best instead of a slight letdown after a cracker of a penultimate one. I'll keep my fingers crossed for next year.

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Comments

1) We already knew that the Doctor once being a little girl was a lie. All 12 of the Doctor's original regenerations are accounted for with Eleven's explanation of why he was, in fact, the last one in The Time of the Doctor, there's no room to squeeze in another where he was a girl.

2) I'm surprised to say I actually like how Moffat was able to revive the possibility, at least, of the Doctor being half human and somehow actually make it work this time. The way it just came out of nowhere in the TV movie was hardly the only problem with the idea, but ironically it at least provided a bit of history Moffat to work from now so that it doesn't just come out of nowhere here, and something about the way he presented it as an unresolved question made it feel a lot more like the really cool mystery about the Doctor's past that the movie tried & utterly failed to deliver. All I know is, after this the possibility doesn't really bother me anymore.

By @xFlaregun (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

There's always wiggle room in headcanon. For example, the images that flashed on screen during the mindbending contest in The Brain of Morbius include faces we'd never seen before, but some fans believe(d?) that they were other unknown incarnations of the Doctor. If fans want to believe the Doctor was once a little girl, they now have enough to back that up. Yet an equally valid argument can be made the other way. It's open to interpretation.

I will admit that I found this presentation of the "half human" idea much less off-putting than the bombshell-dropped-as-a-pickpocketing-distraction version from The Movie. And it is also left up to interpretation, as the Doctor's only answer is, "Does it matter?" So yes—much less unpalatable this time, though I'll stick with my preferred reading. :)

By mrfranklin

Danny won't be back. The thing tying him to The Doctor was Clara and with her gone The Doctor has nothing to do with him.

Of course, Clara will probably be back at some point, and Ashlldir as well. But when she does reappear it will be about her and The Doctor. There won't be room in the story line for Danny.

Or, I hope not. Danny brought out the worst in Clara and she didn't do much for him. Their toxic relationship was bad for both of them.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Yeah, I was mostly being facetious. :) I don't see any real reason Danny would ever come back to the show.

By mrfranklin
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