Monday, December 7, 2015

Doctor Who Season 9, Episode 12: Hell Bent

And so ends Season 9 of Doctor Who. Overall it was a pretty good season. I think the decision to go with mostly two part episodes helped, as it allowed the stories to breathe a bit and avoid the "Whoops, out of time!" hasty wrap ups that have plagued other seasons. 

There were a couple of missteps this season (cough Sleep No More cough), but for the most part this was a big improvement over last season.

A couple of weeks ago in Face The Raven we said goodbye to Clara Oswald, seemingly forever. Well, we should all know by now that nothing's ever permanent on this show, so this week we find out she's not really dead and we get to say goodbye to her all over again.

The New Series has always had a problem letting go of the Doctor's companions, making their departures needlessly complicated and convoluted. Rose Tyler was sucked into an supposedly locked parallel Earth, but returned to our world several times before permanently settling on her new home with a clone of the Tenth Doctor. Donna Noble's brain merged with Number Ten, causing her mind to overload and the Doctor to erase her memory of him to save her life. Rory Williams was wiped out of existence, reborn as an Auton and then restored as a human when the entire universe was destroyed and reset (!). Later Amy and Rory were zapped back in time by a Weeping Angel and had to live out their lives in the past.

I'm starting to miss the days of the Classic Series, in which companions simply told the Doctor they were done traveling and walked off the set. 

When the show kills off a companion and then cheats to bring them back, all it does is undermine and cheapen their exits. Especially in the case of Clara. Her death, as puzzling and nonsensical as it was, was actually quite moving. She faced her doom with quiet dignity and grace. And it only took two episodes for all that to be undone though with a cheap stunt.

Last season many fans (including me) noted that Clara was becoming more and more Doctor-like. In fact, in the episode Flatline, she actually took over for the Doctor, as she investigated strange goings-on in while he was trapped inside the shrunken TARDIS. She even wielded his sonic in that episode.

At the end of this episode they take this transformation to its ultimate conclusion. Clara has literally become the Doctor now. She's even got a TARDIS and her own companion in Ashildr, as they fly off on their own series of adventures at the end.


The Plot:
The Doctor, inexplicably armed with his electric guitar, enters a diner in the middle of the Nevada desert. The diner looks suspiciously like the one were he met Amy, Rory and River several seasons ago in The Impossible Astronaut. He orders a lemonade from a waitress who looks suspiciously like Clara, and begins telling her his story.

In his story, he wakes up in a similar desert on Gallifrey, which has apparently somehow escaped the pocket of time in which it was trapped. He makes his way to the barn we saw in The Day Of The Doctor. He's summoned before the Time Lord High Council, but refuses to come out and face any underlings. He only comes out of the barn when Rassilon, Lord President of Gallifrey, appears.

Rassilon was the one who trapped the Doctor in the confession dial for four and a half billion years, to get him to confess the identity of the Hybrid, the being who's prophesied to stand in the ruins of Gallifrey. The Doctor refuses to tell him, so Rassilon orders him killed.

Fortunately for the Doctor, the soldiers of Gallifrey consider him a war hero (as he stopped the Last Great Time War) and refuse to fire. The Doctor then takes over, impeaching Rassilon and banishing him. The Doctor then becomes the new Lord President.

He then barges into the Extraction Chamber to revive Clara. It seems the Time Lords can extract a person from their time stream the second before their death, for... reasons. But they must always return them after a few minutes, or Time itself will unravel, which sounds like a bad thing. When Clara's extracted, she's concerned that she doesn't have a pulse. This is apparently normal, as she's now frozen in the moment before her final heartbeat.

The Doctor extracts Clara on the pretense that she knows who the Hybrid is, but then refuses to return her to her time stream. The Doctor  shoots the General who tries to stop him (forcing him to regenerate) and he and Clara hide in the Matrix crypt. The Matrix is an organic computer which contains the brains of every Time Lords who's died.

Inside the crypt, Clara quizzes the Doctor and finds out he endured over four billion years of torture just to save her (more on that later). His plan was to endure billions of years of torture just so he could return to Gallifrey and extract Clara, thus preventing her premature death. Clara (and the Time Lords) thinks he's nuts for doing such a thing to himself. The General enters the crypt and demands the Doctor surrender and return Clara to her time stream.

The Doctor and Clara then escape the Matrix through a secret passage. He steals a TARDIS (!) and the two of them flee. The Doctor's sure that if they get far enough away from Gallifrey, Clara's heart will start beating again. He's puzzled though when that doesn't happen. He decides to fly the TARDIS to the literal end of the Universe itself, hoping that'll be far enough from the influence of Gallifrey for Clara's heart to start up again.

They arrive at the end of time, but Clara's heart still isn't beating. Suddenly there's a knock at the door. The Doctor exits the TARDIS and finds Ashildr, the immortal girl he created in The Girl Who Died, waiting for him. As they watch the stars go out, they discuss just who the Hybrid is. The Doctor thinks it's Ashildr, because she's a combination of human and the Mire. She suggests it's the Doctor himself, since he seems so preoccupied with Earth. Then she says maybe the Hyrbid isn't one person, and it's formed by the Doctor and Clara both. Missy brought the two of them together, so maybe their meeting was just a long con to destroy Gallifrey.

The Doctor seems to think that's a reasonable explanation, so he plans to erase himself from Clara's memory and send her to an out of the way corner of the universe. Clara overhears this, and using the sonic sunglasses, she reverses the polarity of the Doctor's memory-wiping widget (more on that later too). When the Doctor returns, she tells him what she's done. He says it doesn't matter– either way, one of them will forget the other. He presses the button, and finds he drew the short straw. The Doctor forgets Clara

So the Clara in the diner is real, and the Doctor doesn't know who she is or find her familiar at all. The Doctor leaves. Clara slips into the back room of the diner, and we find out it's all part of her TARDIS. She's for all intents and purposes a Time Lord now– she has her own TARDIS, and her own companion, Ashildr. Some day she'll return to Gallifrey so the Time Lords can put her back into her timestream to die, but until then, she and her companion tool off into adventure.

As the diner disappears, it reveals the Doctor's TARDIS waiting in the middle of the Nevada desert. He enters, puts his velvet jacket on, and the TARDIS makes him a brand new sonic screwdriver, so he can get rid of those thrice-damned sunglasses.

• When the Doctor first enters the diner, Foxes slow, jazzy rendition of Don't Stop Me Now is playing on the jukebox. We first heard the song  last season in Mummy On The Orient Express.

• Clara's diner looks just like the one we saw several seasons back in The Impossible Astronaut. Clara wasn't in that episode, and as far as we know never visited it. So how does she know what it looked like? Did the Doctor ever describe it to her in excruciatingly minute detail? Or did she and Ashildr pop over to Lake Silencio, scope out the real diner and then duplicate the look in their TARDIS?

• In the diner, Clara asks the Doctor if he's been traveling. He says, "Yeah, from time to time."

OK, that was a pretty cool line. Well done, Moffat. 

• Wow, Rassilon's really aged! Last time we saw him he looked like Timothy Dalton. Now he looks just like Maester Luwin on Game Of Thrones. Maybe he regenerated a time or two since.

Rassilon is played here by actor Donald Sumpter, who's no stranger to Doctor Who. He was in the 1968 episode The Wheel In Space, as well as 1972's The Sea Devils. He also guest starred in 2009's The Eternity Trap on The Sarah Jane Adventures.

• When Clara's "extracted" from her time stream, she notes that she doesn't have a pulse. The Doctor says it's because she was snatched out of time in the instant before her last heartbeat. Obviously he did this with the intention of allowing her to live out her normal lifespan with him.

The Time Lords tell him this is impossible though, as her death is a fixed point in time and cannot be altered. The implication is that even if she's not returned to her proper time, her next heartbeat will be her last. And therein lies the problem.

The Doctor flies her away from Gallifrey, hoping once they're away from the planet, her heart will restart, but it doesn't work. Her heart still isn't beating. Several more times during the episode she checks her pulse, but is disappointed to find out she still doesn't have one.

If her death is a fixed point and her next heartbeat is her last, why is he trying to get her heart started back up again? If his plan worked, wouldn't she have immediately collapsed and died?

And how the hell is she walking and talking if her heart– and presumably all her bodily functions– are suspended?

I suspect I'm being too literal here. The whole "final heartbeat" thing is supposed to be poeti and metaphorical, not logical.

• The Doctor escapes from the Extraction Chamber by shooting the General and "killing" him. The General, who looks like a middle aged Caucasian man, regenerates into a younger black woman. I wonder if she's also gay, disabled and an atheist as well? Gotta be diverse these days after all! Can't leave any group unrepresented.

This feels less like an attempt at diversity, and more like pandering to me. Showrunner Steven Moffat knows there's a very vocal minority out there who want to see the Doctor regenerate into a black man, or a woman, or a black woman. The Master's recent transformation into Missy and the General's gender and race swap feels like Moffat paying lip service to these fans and trying to placate them. 

When Clara finds out the Doctor spent 4.5 billion years trapped in his confession dial, she says, "Why would you even do that? I was dead and gone. Why would you even do that to yourself? The Doctor says, "I had a duty of care," and says he did it to save her. Yeah. About that...

Last week in Heaven Sent, we did indeed see the Doctor trapped inside the confession dial for billions of years (last week the figure we were given was two billion, this week it's ballooned to four). As we were shown, the Doctor lived out a cycle every two or three days inside the dial. At the end of each cycle he sacrificed himself to power a telporter, and a brand new version of him was created. A version with no memory or awareness of the dial, the castle inside it or the previous cycle. From his point of view, every time he lived through a cycle was the first for him. There's nothing vague or uncertain about this, it's all spelled out very clearly.

So when Clara thinks the Doctor endured billions of years of torture to save her, she's sadly mistaken. According to the events as we saw them, he endured a couple of days at most without her. 

Moffat's plots are always needlessly complex, but now they're apparently so twisted that even he doesn't properly understand them.

• Because this was a Steven Moffat episode, he had to work the goddamned Weeping Angels into the story, whether it made any sense or not. When they were first introduced, the Angels were one of the most awesome villains the show had seen in decades. But thanks to epic overuse on Moffat's part, they've effectively been neutered, more likely to generate yawns than fear.

• The overall story arc this season has been the prophecy of the Hybrid, a being comprised of two warrior races that's destined to destroy Gallifrey. The minute the show first mentioned this, I got an uneasy feeling about it.

Way back in the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie, the Doctor told his companion Grace Holloway that he was "half human on his mother's side." This was certainly news to the fans who'd been watching the show from the beginning, as the Doctor had always been 100% Time Lord.

Most fans and writers chose to simply ignore this asinine bit of info and pretend it never happened.

As soon as they started talking about the Hybrid, I started wondering if Moffat was planning on dredging up the ill-advised half-human malarkey. 

I was watching this episode with a brick in my hand, ready to hurl it at my TV the minute the episode indeed established that the Doctor was half human on his mother's side. They came pretty close to actually saying it, but fortunately managed to skirt the issue. In the end, it turns out the Doctor wasn't the Hybrid after all. Well, he sort of was. He and Clara combined were the Hybrid. I think. Actually I'm honestly not sure what the hell happened. Such are Moffat's plots.

• It was cool to see a TARDIS in default mode, one that's not disguised as a police box. And the old-school control room, which resembled the interior of the First Doctor's TARDIS, was a nice touch too. I guess this control room must be the "factory setting."

This TARDIS also makes the familiar distressed "vwooorp vwooorp" noise, that sounds like someone sawing through piano strings. Both the Master and the Rani had TARDISES (TARDI?) that made the same sound.

But in The Time Of The Angels, River Song flew the TARDIS and said it makes that wheezing sound because the Doctor always leaves the parking brake on (!).

So does that mean the Doctor left this TARDIS' parking brake on as well? Did the Master and the Rani do the same? Or have all decided to ignore River and her little comment? You decide.

• Last season I (and many others) noted that Clara was becoming more and more Doctor-like. And how! In this episode she grabs the Doctor's memory wipe doohickey and reverses the polarity of it, so that it will affect whoever wields it. Then at the end of the episode she's piloting her own TARDIS like a pro!

OK, so she used the sonic sunglasses to alter the memory blocker, and Ashildr was helping her fly the TARDIS, but still... she seems to know way more about Gallifreyan technology than she should.

• Speaking of the memory blocker... Clara overhears the Doctor saying he has to erase her mind to save the universe. Clara then immediately picks up the mind-wiping gizmo and reverses its polarity.

So there just happened to be a memory erasing device lying on the console of this brand new TARDIS that the Doctor stole. Now THAT'S a coincidence!

• So I guess Clara's now a zombie with a TARDIS. A girl who's dead traveling through time and space with a girl who can't die. Let the fan fiction begin!

• If nothing else, at least this episode got rid of those motherfraking sonic sunglasses, and gave us a very cool looking new sonic screwdriver. 

Looking forward to Character Options releasing a toy of it! By the way, I have to wonder if the show periodically changes the design of the sonic and other props, just so the BBC's merchandising department will have something new to sell.

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