Sunday, December 6, 2015

Undermine All Emotion: "Hell Bent" Is Another Dismal End For Clara Oswald.

The Good: Moments of performance, Moments of character
The Bad: Narrative makes no sense, Undermines all emotional resonance for viewers, Lack of significant character moments, Abysmal continuity
The Basics: "Hell Bent" has all sorts of people who can't remember things telling a story that brings Clara Oswald back, yet again, from the dead . . . sort of.

It has been, almost inarguably, a rough season for Doctor Who. As the season reaches its peak, fans - rightfully - were split on the direction of the series. For those who suffered through "Heaven Sent" (reviewed here!) - an episode whose sole purpose was to move The Doctor from our universe into whatever pocket universe Gallifrey was placed as a result of the events of "The Day Of The Doctor." The thing is, the much-neglected search for Gallifrey that seemed to be the purpose The Doctor was given coming into the tenure of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor is troubling to fans who have stuck with the continuation of Doctor Who that began in 2005.

The whole concept of the quest to find Gallifrey exists in conflict with what The Doctor told The Master in "Last Of The Time Lords" (reviewed here!); to release Gallifrey from its time lock would bring with it the Daleks and thousands of other nightmares that were trapped by the way The Doctor ended the Last Time War. So, as "Hell Bent" begins, attentive viewers have to be concerned by The Doctor arriving at Gallifrey. If Gallifrey has evolved past the final day of the Time War, then it would explain why Timothy Dalton's character from "Last Of The Time Lords" is not around in "Hell Bent" and would allow for the Gallifreyans to evolve beyond where they were when last we saw them. And if the billions of years The Doctor spent in "Heaven Sent" in his Confession Dial's scenario getting from Earth to Gallifrey were only a function of the Dial's pocket universe, then The Doctor is not likely to find his people to be at all reasonable or likable. So, "Hell Bent" has a lot of potential at its outset.

Sadly, so much of that potential is squandered in "Hell Bent" and after two years of anticipation for what would happen when The Doctor found Gallifrey, The Doctor's homeworld is almost incidental to the episode of Doctor Who.

Opening in Nevada, The Doctor enters a diner where he encounters a woman who appears to be Clara and he begins to tell her the story of his return to Gallifrey. Flashing back to Gallifrey, The Doctor stops his approach to the Capital City and, instead, heads to his childhood house. The Doctor has a bowl of soup and rejects the appearance of the military, a General, and, ultimately, The President and his firing squad. When the soldiers refuse to execute The Doctor, The Doctor deposes The President and disbands the government on Gallifrey. The General allows The Doctor to seize power because of his fear of The Hybrid, which is said to bring about the destruction of Gallifrey.

To protect Gallifrey, The Doctor is allowed the use of an Extraction Chamber. In it, he pulls Clara out of the moment of her death in order to get information from her about the Hybrid. Instead, though, he takes the General's firearm and helps Clara escape the Extraction Chamber. They escape to the cloisters that house the Matrix, the Gallifreyan computer that generated the Hybrid prophecy, where The Doctor hatches a plan to escape Gallifrey and save Clara's life. To that end, he takes a newly-stolen TARDIS to the end of time where he encounters Me and is faced with a difficult choice over what to do with Clara.

"Hell Bent" calls to mind the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Life Support" (reviewed here!) where one character is agonizingly killed over and over again. Between that and the old phrase "It's hard to say good-bye, if you won't leave," it's pretty easy to sum up "Hell Bent" as something of a waste of time for fans of Doctor Who.

"Hell Bent" is an annoying impossibility and one that is overly complicated for what it is. The episode feels like it could be a pilot episode for a spin-off (one made impossibly problematic for a pragmatist if Maisie Williams is not done growing up!) or is a complicated revisiting of Clara's death while completely copping out on the emotional ramifications of Clara's death. But, from a narrative perspective, "Hell Bent" is an irksome impossibility; The Doctor is telling Clara the story of his saving Clara's life . . . but he only has the vaguest recollection of who Clara was. The specifics of this adventure are so ingrained with Clara that The Doctor should be unable to tell even a fraction of the story.

Beyond that, "Hell Bent" once again buggers the entire concept of Clara as the Impossible Girl. The first moment The Doctor walks into the diner, viewers are given hope that The Doctor is encountering another version of Clara from somewhere else in The Doctor's timestream. Before The Doctor encountered Clara, he encountered Oswin and a Clara who was killed by the end of "The Snowmen;" as the Impossible Girl, Clara Oswald journeys all through The Doctor's timeline and saves his life from the attempts by The Great Intelligence to kill him all along his timestream. So, the hope viewers have at the very beginning when Clara first appears that the diner's waitress is a different iteration of Clara is a rational one. Sadly, Steven Moffat goes for flash and ridiculousness over sticking to his own conceptual narrative. Instead, "Hell Bent" is a poor explanation for why The Doctor and Clara do not appear to recognize one another at the outset of the episode.

Much of the beginning of "Hell Bent" hinges on the Matrix prophecy of the Hybrid. Like many Doctor Who prophecies, the Hybrid is created as a matter of plot convenience and pops up into the narrative only when it is needed. In other words, it is not like there is a long prophecy about The Doctor that was revealed ten seasons ago and viewers can slowly piece together and become concerned about. No, suddenly, everyone in power on Gallifrey is terrified about The Hybrid, even though we've only heard reference to the Hybrid once or twice before (and never in the Gallifrey episodes since the 2005 continuation began).

So, the plot of "Hell Bent" is pretty much nonsense and fans of Doctor Who are likely to roll their eyes the moment mind wiping comes into the episode as a conceit (did Moffat think viewers skipped the season with Donna Noble?!).

All "Hell Bent" truly has going for it are moments of character and a few key moments of performance. The character elements are undermined because when one rewatches the episode, the narrative conceit means that the moments of character make no genuine sense; The Doctor cannot tell the story with key moments of emotional depth when he doesn't actually remember them.

In the Cloisters, as The Doctor and Clara work a secret escape hatch, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman give truly great performances. They have the chance for one last, truly emotional scene together and it plays perfectly because of the depth of the emotion they play. Capaldi plays the scene as a person who waited four billion years to see his Companion again and Coleman plays the moment with such appreciation and sadness that one is almost sad to think that Clara might die . . . yet again.

Maisie Williams steals the climax of the episode as Me. She has some wonderful facial expressions and delivers many of her lines with a gravity that is appropriate and severe. For sure, it makes no sense that Ashildr could actually have a nose ring, but Williams's performance is enough to make one overlook the make-up problem.

The Doctor has been trillions of years into the future, but in "Hell Bent" the scale is made in billions of years and that seems like another detail in an episode that doesn't care about reason, specificity, continuity or reason. The episode attempts an emotional tug and it fails; making for an ultimately unsatisfying final send-off for a character who can always be brought back.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Ninth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sophomore season of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor here!

For other works with Donald Sumpter, please check out my reviews of:
Game Of Thrones - Season 2
Game Of Thrones - Season 1
The Constant Gardener


For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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