Hell Bent starts itself of as a kind of space western/space Glasgow as the Doctor strides into a diner where Clara is behind the counter. She doesn't recognise him, but he tells her the story of his return to Gallifrey. It pits the Doctor as some kind of gunslinger returning home with a bounty on his head; "They'll kill you" one of the residents warns him. Capaldi plays the part well throughout the first ten minutes, nearly silent but ever expressive as increasingly higher Gallifreyan ranks come to greet him, only for him to turn away until the person he actually wants to see makes an appearance. It's a High Noon like stand-off and there's even a clever piece of musical comedy as a bell sounds in the score as the Doctor and the President meet.
It then switches up into a horror movie as a time-looped not-dead Clara and the Doctor head into the "Time Lord hell," full of foes neutralised but still very creepy. From the oozing Dalek to the scariest Who creatures ever, the Weeping Angels, the decaying, smoky figures are still pretty creepy and brief glimpses allow them to be used for maximum effect. The production design in the last two episodes have been exemplary, creating worlds that feel tangible but still with that glorious Doctor Who sheen of special effects. Gallifrey looks magnificent.
However, as the episode continues, it becomes more troublesome. As Jen pointed out last week, Heaven Sent afforded us a fairly unique opportunity in Who; to witness the Doctor's grieving process after losing his companion. I love that he works for four and a half billion years to get back to her again and the torture he puts himself through to get to the Time Lords. It's only once he gets Clara back that the episode starts to lose it a bit.
Face The Raven was a cracking sendoff for Clara. It was reckless, stupid, noble and in the service of others, everything that she has embodied in her role as a companion, particularly over the course of the last series. Hell Bent kind of feels like we've overwritten both of those episodes by having a collaborative grieving process that simply involves the Doctor forgetting, rather than learning from his recurring mania to put himself first every now and again, something we also saw with Ten.
The evolution of the Doctor and Clara into the Hybrid, ending with one of them forgetting, also felt like a complete retread of the Doctor-Donna, only with the forgetfulness reversed in this instance. For a partnership that's been as wonderful and fairly New Who unique in the Doctor and Clara, it's a shame that their ending feels cribbed from somewhere else. Capaldi and Coleman sell it well and remain true to their iterations right to the end, but it lacked the same emotional weight that Face the Raven had or the trauma of seeing Donna forget everything that had made her so wonderful during her time with the Doctor.
The constant repetition of their goodbyes to each other also felt somewhat staid and the episode falls prey to something Who doesn't tend to do too often; it feels drawn out. The pacing is a little too languid for the story that it's telling and for an audience who already knows that the outcome results in Clara leaving because Jenna Coleman is leaving the series.
There's lots of neat touches elsewhere like the "I had a duty of care" line that sums up Clara and the Doctor's relationship perfectly. The return of the round things ("I love the round things!") is very welcome. There's also the General's regeneration into a woman, once again confirming that Time Lords can switch genders in the regeneration process. He's a sly one is that Moffat. But this doesn't make up for the fact that it feels like a Return of the King style "we're not ready to finish this just yet" ending.
A mixed bag of an episode that starts well but ends a little off, Hell Bent may be towards the more negative end of the quality spectrum for this series, but that's not unexpected, given some of the heights we've reached. We're also promised what could be sheer joy in a Capaldi's Doctor team-up with River Song for the Christmas Special and Jen will be back to review that one for you all.
You can read Jen's review of previous episode, Heaven Sent, here.
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