A lot has happened in the previous three episodes, with each leading into the next, but the first thing we see in ‘Hell Bent’ isn’t a direct continuation of the story, but seemingly from a different time in the future. The first thing we see is the Doctor in a desert in the USA, carrying his guitar. He enters a ’50s Americana themed diner with a jukebox. There is a waitress there, and who seems to be Clara, despite the fact that we saw her die in ‘Face The Raven’. Is she one of the Clara’s that are splintered across the Doctor’s timestream like Oswin and the Victorian Clara, or is something else going on? Even odder, the Doctor doesn’t appear to recognise her. He plays a song entitled ‘Clara’, and the waitress asks him to tell her about Clara.
We return to where we were at the end of ‘Heaven Sent’. The Doctor is in Gallifrey, and is hiding out in a remote farm in the Dry Lands. In the capital city, the Timelord High Council are aware of the Doctor’s return, and are worried. The Sisterhood of Karn also arrive. The Doctor’s location is tracked down, and he is personally requested to come to the capital city several times, it coming from higher up the chain of command each time, and each time the Doctor refuses to even acknowledge them.
Eventually the President, Rassilon arrives. He says the reason they imprisoned the Doctor in his own Confession Dial was to get answers about the Hybrid, that was all they wanted and he could have left right away if he’d have given that information. The Doctor tells Rassilon to get off the planet. Rassilon threatens to have his soldiers shoot at the Doctor. They do, but make sure to miss. Some of these soliders served with the Doctor in the Time War, and all have respect for him. All the soldiers decide to side with the Doctor. Rassilon is banished from Gallifrey, along with all the High Council, leaving only the General of Gallifrey’s armed forces and the Sisterhood of Karn. They are willing to do anything the Doctor asks to protect them from the Hybrid. It is thought to be a crossbreed between Dalek and Timelord, but whatever it is, it’s prophesied to one day stand in the ruins of Gallifrey. The Doctor wants to use an extraction chamber so he can talk to Clara.
This goes to the exact moment before Clara dies, and brings her from just before that moment and into Gallifrey. She is understandably confused. The General explains that while she is conscious and can move, she is technically frozen in time. Her death is a historical fact that can’t be changed, after they have the information from her they will have to return her.
The Doctor manages to get the General’s gun from him. The General tells the Doctor that Clara has already been dead for a long time at this point, trying to cheat that could destroy time itself. Clara begs the Doctor not to kill the General, but as the General will regenerate the Doctor doesn’t see it as a problem. The General does indeed regenerate… into a female Timelord. This is similar to the Master becoming Missy, but in a way it’s the opposite, as in this case the General’s incarnations were always female except for that last one, which was the first time she’d been male.
The Doctor and Clara run into a giant Matrix computer which can predict the future and where all dead Timelords are eventually loaded up to. It is a graveyard-like place, which has Daleks, Weeping Angels and Cybermen like flies caught in cobwebs. They tried to break into the computer and ended up getting ‘filed’ away. The Doctor is the only one who has ever escaped the Matrix.
He tells Clara a bit about what happened to him when he was in the Confession Dial. He lied about knowing what the Hybrid is. He saw it as all the Timelords fault that Clara died, and wanted to get them to bring her back somehow. Clara is upset when she learns that the Doctor spent four and a half billion years in the Confession Dial for her. But she distracts the Sisterhood of Karn and the General while the Doctor sneaks out and steals another TARDIS for him and Clara to escape in. Ohila, the leader of the Sisterhood of Karn, tells the Doctor he has gone too far this time.
In the new TARDIS, the Doctor tells Clara that she should regain a pulse the further away they get from Gallifrey… but she doesn’t. She is worried about what the Timelords said, that time will fracture. The Doctor says, a little unconvincingly, that time will heal itself. He takes the TARDIS to the last hours of the universe, where the Timelords won’t be able to get them. Clara is still worried. “What if the universe needs me to die?” she asks. The Doctor replies “The universe is over, it doesn’t have a say anymore!”
There is a knock at the TARDIS door. The Doctor goes out to see who it is. It is Ashildr, who is the only thing alive now. She tells the Doctor however powerful they are, being the last immortals around as the universe dies, they have no right to change who Clara was, or the fact her death happened so long ago. The Hybrid comes up in conversation, and Clara watches this from a screen in the TARDIS. The Daleks and the Timelords both thought the Hybrid would be made up of them, but they would think that. The Doctor thinks Ashildr must be the Hyrbid. She disagrees. She thinks the Hybrid isn’t one entity or even a crossbreed. It’s two separate people. The Doctor and Clara, a Timelord and a human. They are very alike and are quite a dangerous combination, as the Doctor was prepared to destroy all of time and space to save her life. There’s also the fact that they only met because Missy matched them up, and knowing Missy, she probably did it so the destruction of time and space would be the ultimate result.
The Doctor realises that he can’t continue travelling with Clara, but still wants to save her life. He plans to wipe Clara’s memory, like he did with Donna Noble. Clara, having seen all this on the screen, refuses to go along with it.
“These have been the best years of my life. Tomorrow is promised to no-one Doctor, but I insist on my past. I am entitled to that”.
The Doctor suggests that they essentially “flip a coin”. The neuro blocker will erase one of their memories. It ends up erasing the Doctor’s. He wakes up in the middle of a desert. A man mentions Clara asking him to make sure the Doctor is OK, but the Doctor now has no memory of Clara. We are now back where we started in the episode. The Doctor tries to re-create his memories, trying to remember anything about Clara, little realising he is talking to her. She even mentions that for all he knows, Clara could be her. He plays Clara’s song again, while Clara goes back to same TARDIS console room she
was in before, along with Ashildr. The diner was part of the TARDIS, and it disappears. The Doctor then sees his own TARDIS.
In the diner TARDIS, Ashildr can’t work out how to change the look as the Chameleon Circuit is stuck. They both realise that Clara’s death cannot be changed. Clara fully intends to go back to Gallifrey and be returned to the moment of her death… but seeing as she has a time machine she can put it off for a bit and go travelling with Ashildr! We then see the Doctor’s police box TARDIS and Clara and Ashildr’s diner TARDIS next to each other.
No doubt the Clara and Ashildr in a diner-shaped TARDIS will probably inspire spin-off suggestions, possibly books and radio episodes, and I think will certainly inspire some fan fiction.
‘Hell Bent’ was a rollercoaster of an episode. As a 2-parter, continuing the pattern of this series with it referencing the previous episode, this uses an opposite and a rhyme, ‘Heaven Sent’ and ‘Hell Bent’. But if ‘Hell Bent’ resembles any other episode of series 9 in structure it’s ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’, with it seeming almost like a feature film, and the way it flashed between lots of different locations and shifts in tone. So it makes a nice bookend to have the first and last episodes of series 9 be so similar.
Once again, we have a self-fulfilling prophecy. The events of the last three episodes were because of fears of the prophecies of the Hybrid. As it turned out the Hybrid was the Doctor and Clara, that Clara’s death was an unintended consequence of the Timelords trying to work out what the Hybrid was, and that the Doctor was prepared to break time travel rules in hope of saving her, ironically it was the prophecies which made it happen in the first place.
I liked these exchanges between the Doctor and Clara.
Clara: “Have you been travelling?”
The Doctor: “From time to time”.
Clara: “Did I miss anything?”
The Doctor: “[…] We’re at the end of the universe, so quite a lot”.
The parts with the Doctor and Clara sharing a lemonade in the diner and him telling his story were also quite fun. There are also very sad moments, with Clara having this as her farewell to the Doctor, but not even being able to tell him who she was. Clara gets a bittersweet ending, but we are left knowing that she still has some fun ahead of her even if her ultimate fate cannot be avoided altogether.
Much as I’m sorry to see Clara go, it was a good exit and it feels like the right time for her to leave the Doctor.
Peter Capaldi’s version of the Doctor got off to a bit of a shaky start in his first series, but he has really come into his own this year.
Rachel Talaylay, the director of this episode and ‘Heaven Sent’, is a director they should try to get for future episodes if they can, as she shows a great sense of visual style.
Series 9 has generally been a series which has been smart, sophisticated and entertaining, one of the most consistently high quality of episodes.