The ninth season of Doctor Who has seen many highs and a few lows (i.e. “Sleep No More”) and now it is time to say goodbye, until the Christmas Special. The season finale is coming off the back of the great “Heaven Sent”, raising the question can “Hell Bent” live up to that.
After spending four and a half billion years in a Time Lord Confession, Dial The Doctor escapes and finds himself on his home world of Gallifrey, breaking free from the pocket dimension he left it in. The Doctor is forced into conflict: the leadership of his race who trapped him and finding a way to save Clara, even if it means fracturing time itself.
“Heaven Sent” did set a high standard for “Hell Bent” and the series overall, a strong character driven episode that was a dark examination of The Doctor’s psyche. It was a tight, taut and a well-crafted mystery, being like Doctor Who version of Moon and Dark City. It was the series at its best and “Heaven Sent” deserves to be seen as an instant classic and “Hell Bent” could not match our lofty expectations.
“Heaven Sent” was a very experimental episode because of its sole focus on The Doctor. “Hell Bent” is a convenient episode, a big scale story spanning to the end of the universe, facing off his old foes and being prepared to break the laws of time for his own ends. “Hell Bent” starts off strong, being a showdown between The Doctor and The Lord President of the Time Lord (Game of Thrones‘ Donald Sumpter replacing Timothy Dalton). The desert setting and standoff on the outskirts of Gallifrey’s capital had the air of a Western because of its atmosphere and shooting style. It is great to finally see the Doctor’s home world in the rebooted series in its glory: we only had glimpses in previous seasons. Hopefully, we will get to see more of Gallifrey and its dynamics of the planet. The Cloisters mainframe was an excellent location where many of The Doctor’s famous enemies are trapped and begging for death.
When it is revealed how The Doctor plans to save Clara which undercuts the impact and emotion of her death in “Face the Raven.” One of the big rules in Doctor Who is The Doctor and his companions cannot cheat death, no matter what. He tried to rewrite history in “Water of Mars” has an adverse consequence on the people he saved and in “Father’s Day” Rose nearly destroyed the human race when she tries to stop her father’s death. Steven Moffat has to go through some serious writing gymnastics to justify this change. If Moffat can bring Clara back from the dead surely, he could find a way to get Amy and Rory from 1930s New York. To be fair, the finale does set up an excellent prospect for a spin-off series.
The finale is structured liked the ending for Season 3, having three radically differently styled of episodes linked together with an overarching story. Season 3 started with an episode at the end of the universe, going to modern-day Britain – where The Doctor and his companions are trying to stop The Master’s plan; the final episode set a year after where The Master has taken over the world, and Martha has to travel the globe to find a way to overthrow the overlord. Season 9’s three sees The Doctor and Clara go to the trap street to solve a murder mystery – the second episode seeing The Doctor having to face his demons and in the finale, he goes against his own race. The resolution to the episode is pretty much a role reversal of what happened to Donna Noble at the end of Season 4.
“Hell Bent” also shows a male Time Lord regenerating into a woman. This is meant to give us more evidence that Time Lords can change gender and most importantly set the precedent that The Doctor could become a woman.
Season 9 has been a much better outing for Peter Capaldi and The Doctor than Season 8 was. “Hell Bent” does end the season on a slight whimper considering the set up in “Face the Raven” and “Heaven Sent”, but it is still great to see Gallifrey properly and sets up more story opportunities for the future.