Doctor Who: “Hell Bent”

Even though “Hell Bent” is as unrepentantly sci-fi and literal as “Heaven Sent” is allegorical and rich with subtext, even though it’s as chaotic and messy and all over the place as its part 1 is focused and precise, I loved it. I don’t know if it’s the best episode of the season, but it might be my favorite. To discuss the many scattered reasons why, let’s turn to an old format for finales and take it 5 minutes at a time.

0:00 – 5:00

The diner framing device is beautiful and sad, as it should be. It’s also a classic Moffat fakeout, because of course our first assumption is that this is a Clara echo who, like the others, has enough instinctive affinity with the Doctor to accept a song as payment, but doesn’t know who he is.

About that song: I haven’t always liked Clara, but I’ve always liked her theme. It’s one of Murray Gold’s best things.

The Sisterhood of Karn have been linked to Gallifrey since their first (and, until very recently, last) appearance in “The Brain of Morbius,” but it’s still kind of goofy that they’re here. Not that I mind. They’re fun.

5:01 – 10:00

I love the Doctor’s ancestral barn. I love that this is the home he comes to now on Gallifrey. It isn’t just a beautiful set with a lot of resonance after “Day of the Doctor” and “Listen,” but also it fights against the Doctor’s patrician roots (as a “highborn Gallifreyan” according to Ohila). Whatever the circumstances of his childhood, he has come to identify himself with the “common” people of the planet. They may treat him as visiting royalty, but are also willing to shield his life with their own. The scene where the old woman it belongs to recognizes him despite his new face is gold.

Speaking of Gold, how about the incidental music? Shades of both Tron and Star Wars. Works for me.

They order him to lay down his weapons and he drops his spoon. The payoff from “Robot of Sherwood,” a long time coming.

We’ll know pretty soon that he’s been scheming to get to the Capitol for a while now, probably since he first entered the confession dial. He wants them to take him there. But he’s not going to make it look easy. First he ignores a gunship, then a squad of infantry, and finally a brace of High Council dignitaries…

10:01 – 15:00

…before he finally gets Lord President Rassilon to come out personally. Here’s one of the few minor irritants of the episode: Moffat deciding to indulge RTD’s resurrected Rassilon rather than sweep him under the rug. He makes the best of it, at least, but it’s still so strange to have Rassilon around at all. He’s a figure from classic Who, both the architect of Time Lord technology and society and a legendary figure who traps prideful Time Lords who seek true immortality. It’s not completely antithetical to convert him into a petty, frothing tinpot dictator, but it really stretches the imagination. “Get off my planet” is a strange thing for the Doctor to say to the man who virtually built that planet…unless, of course, Rassilon’s status as Gallifrey’s founder is more reputation than truth. Regardless, I hope we’ve seen the back of him for a good long time.

“Stories are where memories go when they’re forgotten.”

15:01 – 20:00

The Doctor can only pull off this bloodless coup because of the respect he earned from his fellow soldiers in the war. This makes his beef with soldiers in Series 8 even more random; he’s essentially left the planet in the hands of the military, having run off the political class.

20:01 – 25:00

If the Doctor really did come up with this plan to rescue Clara soon after she died and he realized who was kidnapping him, it means that “Heaven Sent” was the beginning but not the end of the grieving process. If we believe in the stages of grief, we might say he did depression and bargaining, but is now doing anger and denial. It’s a bit out of order, but people say that can happen.

It’s during this five-minute stretch that we see the Doctor steal a gun and shoot an unarmed man in cold blood. Ohila’s later comment that he’s breaking all his own principles is on target: I’m not sure that he really needed to shoot the General to get away with the next steps of his plan. It does, however, provide “regeneration in progress” for the “Next Time” trailer, and it does provide our first onscreen cross-gender regeneration. It’s not clear whether Gallifreyans have our idea of race, but if they do, it’s also the first Time Lord cross-race regeneration. An argument could be made (though why would you want to?) that River and Missy were special cases, but the General is basic Gallifreyan.

Certainly he’s run for and won the office of Lord President in the (classic series) past, but here the Doctor seems to have reclaimed the title merely by showing up and exiling the previous one at gunpoint.

25:01 – 30:00

It’s not clear to me why wiping Clara’s memory would keep her safe. Surely if the Time Lords really wanted to find her, they could pretty easily track down one woman on one planet in one country and probably one city. They wouldn’t need to home in on her memories of the Doctor; Earth police work without telepathy all the time.

The Matrix, which I guess I didn’t need to explain last week since the Doctor did it this week, looks just a little cheap to me. It’s fun but not really clear why it would have any physical manifestation at all (or why it’s necessary to link that idea to the Cloisters, but whatever), and you’d think if it had one it would look a little less like an ordinary basement with some rope lights. I can’t decide if the Sliders are eerie or if they just make the whole place look like a haunted house amusement ride at a run-down boardwalk.

It’s kind of worth it just to see what it takes to get a Dalek to plead “exterminate me,” though.

30:01 – 35:00

Doubtless there are a bunch of fans who’re already hip-deep into figuring out the significance of the story about the Doctor “stealing” the President’s daughter — who she was (Susan?), who the President was (his son?), what the deal was with the moon (another egg?). It’s a cinch Moffat left it vague on purpose, though.

“I can’t be the Doctor all the time.”

I like that Clara’s important heart-to-heart with him here is unheard. The one in “Face the Raven” was a little much, and it’s better just to imagine the words you say when you find out someone has technically suffered for more than four billion years and many more deaths to have the slimmest chance to save your life.

35:01 – 40:00

I’ll always, always love the Doctor stealing a TARDIS and running away. Always.

That classic control room — it’s austere and maybe just a tiny bit boring, but it’s comforting. There’s something reassuring about how cozy it is, how few shadows there are, how it’s just the one level with no stairs or weird undercarriages. I’m glad to see it get redesigned every so often, but even now this still feels like home.

“Don’t you trust me anymore?”
“Not when you’re shouting.”

40:01 – 45:00

It’s surprising to see that Me is the most resilient immortal of them all. Maybe we can assume that Captain Jack was too reckless not to burn out eventually, but is the Heart of the TARDIS less powerful than a second-rate warrior race’s first aid kit? Maybe we assume, as I’ve seen people suggest, that Me has found ways to extend and continually renew its capabilities. Or maybe she’s just more careful.

Is she playing chess with herself? Does she already know the Doctor is planning to show up?

“Does it matter” if the Doctor is half-human? Probably not. There might, someday, be a third story where that question has any impact on the plot. But it will almost certainly not be a good one.

45:01 – 50:00

I’d forgotten that Missy gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number. And though “the hybrid is two people” is kind of a cheap way to fulfill a prophecy, a prophecy is a cheap way to drive a story, so whatever.

Whatever you’ve thought of Maisie Williams in her four appearances this season, she’s fantastic here and looks quite glamorous to boot.

People are saying that the Doctor allowing (or appearing to allow) Clara to disappear from his memory rather than vice versa is “Donna done right.” I can see where they’re coming from, though I think it’s praise rather than criticism to suggest that the RTD era wasn’t afraid to let the Doctor make morally problematic choices.

50:01 – 55:00

If you are cruel or cowardly, and we all are sometimes, make amends. I love pears, though, juicy or not.

The Doctor says “I became the Hybrid,” so in his mind at least he’s only entertaining two of the presented possibilities.

And of course here’s where we find out it’s a fakeout: that it’s the Doctor who doesn’t remember Clara, not the other way around. It had to be this way: he’d never have the strength to carry on and pretend she didn’t exist. Of the two of them, she’s the only one strong enough to do it. Beautiful and sad.

“Memories become stories when we forget them. Maybe some of them become songs.”

55:01 – 59:50

It’s lovely to have Me and Clara in the TARDIS, the immortal and the undead, having adventures together. I’m a fan.

And with this Moffat has in one way cheated and in another satisfied all of my companion departure complaints. On the one hand, he’s killed her. The universe depends on her death; sooner or later, they’re going to have to go back to Gallifrey and put her back. And on the other hand, she’s found the strength to leave the Doctor by choice, and presumably to go pursue her own cause: traveling the universe herself, most likely righting wrongs the way the Doctor did, trying to keep Me out of trouble. That diner traveling in time and space is pretty much perfect. I can’t even guess how many thousands of words of fanfic have already been written since Saturday night.

“Run you clever boy…and be a Doctor.”

A new sonic. Rigsy’s loving tribute flaking off in a blizzard of paint. And he’s gone.

Doctor Who: “The Woman Who Lived”

For a moment in this season’s opening two-parter I got the ghastly fear that by the end of this year we’d have a definitive, boring answer to the question of “why did the Doctor run away from Gallifrey?” Something like “he felt ashamed of his role in developing a hybrid warrior.” This episode gives some hope that we’re not headed there, simply by providing an excellent answer on its own. The Doctor ran away, always runs away, because if you live too long in one place and time, you risk burning out whatever it is that makes you who you ought to be.

It helps, of course, if you’ve had quite a long time to practice being who you ought to be. The Doctor has been stuck in one place and time for a couple of stretches of his life; most of his third life, for example, when he was exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, and a pile of centuries at the end of his eleventh (twelfth, I don’t know, whatever) defending the planet Trenzalore from invasion. In the first case, he had plenty of friends around to help him — Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Jo Grant, and Sarah Jane Smith foremost among them — and wasn’t there long enough to see any of them grow old and die. And in the second, he had already lived out a full Time Lord lifespan, believed he was at the end of it, and had a job to do. He didn’t have to survive on his wits alone, pretending to be a normal person, starting over every 25 years or so and struggling through Dark Ages European culture, loving and losing over and over with no end in sight. He didn’t come from humble beginnings with no one around like himself, figuring out all the ropes of being functionally immortal with no one to help him. If he had, he might very well have turned out like Ashildr.

Her life hasn’t been all bad, it seems. Like all lives, it’s had its ups — stints as royalty and as the most skilled archer imaginable — and its downs, what with the leper colonies and the losing lovers and children. In 1651 we find her a wealthy landowner and a successful highwayman. She’s a shrewder, worldlier take on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, with maybe a soupçon of Lady Johanna Constantine. It’s no surprise that after 800 years of human lives, she’s outgrown her planet and is ready to run away herself — to flee the banality of her own people, just as the Doctor did, and escape beyond the stars.

Maisie Williams is even more fantastic this week, outwardly a young woman and inwardly older than the Doctor when we first met him in 1963. Apart from maybe Kirsten Dunst as Claudia in Interview With the Vampire, it’s hard to think of any other young actor who’s pulled this trick off in a comparable way. Her attitudes, aptitudes, and circumstances seem fully believable, faltering only slightly toward the end when she’s called upon to jerk the wheel a hard left into Doctor Who Villain Lane and then pull a hard right back into Redeemed White Hat Street. That’s partly the script, though, which otherwise is a scintillating jewel from Catherine Tregenna, the very first female writer of the Moffat era and the first on the show in seven years. If you slogged through Torchwood you know that she was a standout on that show as well, and an old hand at writing people who were supposed to die but didn’t. The combination of the two make this a highlight on par with “Dark Water,” “Listen,” and “Hide” in my book.

Peter Capaldi is in top form as well, bringing exactly the right deftness to every scene, never overplaying his guilt for having doomed Ashildr by saving her, or his judgment of the person she’s become, or even his determination to tolerate a few bad puns and some banter to save a man’s life. He’s mellower than we’ve been told he’s supposed to be, and it suits him, whether he’s discovering why he has a device called a “curioscanner” or bribing a pair of guards with a fortune of 30 pounds.

There are a few slightly goofy Whoisms threaded into the plot, of course. It’s not clear why death should rip open the fabric of the universe even a little bit when part of the point of Ashildr is that death is the most natural aspect of life. It’s also not clear why a perfectly lovely color like purple should be “the color of death” (should someone notify Prince?), why a device that can create a transdimensional rift requires only one person to die in order to power it, or indeed why a feline-faced alien (“a lion man!” as one villager charmingly exclaims) who can breathe fire should need to wait for a hanging in order to arrange a human’s death. Here’s where aesthetics (including the never-not-welcome allusion to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête in the alien’s appearance) win out over logic, and I for one am happy this time to let them do so.

This is the first episode of series 9 that didn’t feel significantly indebted to any classic story or era of the show I can think of. In naming immortals or near-immortals the Doctor has traveled with, in fact, it names Jack Harkness (new series) while skipping over Romana (classic series), the Doctor’s Time Lady companion who also left him to head off into the sunset with a lion-faced alien (a benevolent member of the Tharil race; see “Warrior’s Gate”). It does, however, drop a reference to 1982’s “The Visitation,” in which the Terileptils really do start the Great Fire of London. And it does share a theory about immortality with one of the other rare and top-flight Doctor Who stories written by women, Barbara Clegg’s “Enlightenment” (1983). If you live too long, like that story’s Eternals (and in fact the Gallifrey-bound Time Lords), you need “ephemerals” — people who live short, brightly burning lives — to remind you of why life is worth living.

It’s actually nice to see Clara at the end of the episode, but it’s not because she would have enriched it. The joy of many companion-lite episodes is that they let us see the Doctor with new eyes, belonging to someone who doesn’t have to be generic enough to be a recurring co-star, and it’s a breath of fresh air. And in this case, it reminds us of why the Doctor travels with companions whose lives are short enough that he can and will lose them, companions for whom even a selfie, a captured image of one of very few moments we have to capture as mortals, can be a precious gift. And it prepares us for why he’ll eventually have to resign himself to letting her go.

Doctor Who: “The Girl Who Died”

Series 9 continues our tour of the classic series in general and the Tom Baker era in specific with a season 16/17 smorgasbord. Those two seasons were the “comedy” era, in which Douglas Adams first wrote for and then script-edited the show. It produced such classics as “The Pirate Planet,” in which a bombastic space captain with a cybernetic “eyepatch” flew around the galaxy raiding other planets and draining the life out of them, and frequently (“The Ribos Operation,” “The Androids of Tara,” “The Creature from the Pit”) featured aliens and alien cultures that seemed to take their cues in look and feel from past Earth cultures (mainly medieval and Renaissance Europe) while mixing in advanced technology and knowledge of space travel. In one story, “The Horns of Nimon,” the invading aliens present themselves as powerful gods who demand tribute from the weaker cultures they’re dominating. The two seasons are praised for their sense of humor and entertainment value, but have sometimes been regarded as slightly embarrassing by fans for bringing in a lower-budget slapstick feel that’s harder to take seriously.

So if the Vikings seem a little goofy, if the wigs fit a little poorly, if the fire-in-the-water gambit seems a bit ridiculous, maybe it’s because this story is deliberately harking back to the (really rather enjoyable) stretch of Doctor Who history from 1978-1980 when this sort of thing was business as usual. Or maybe it’s just that the presence of Maisie Williams, and indeed the production values up to this point, lead us to expect something that looks as good as Game of Thrones or even Vikings, and we have to remind ourselves that this is Doctor Who. Where, apparently, anyone who lived before maybe 1400 or so is kind of incompetent to live in their actual time and place and is moreover kind of an idiot. I mean, maybe? I’m not super well read about history. It could very well be that in a typical Viking village, at least half of them would not only have never even tried to pick up a sword back in their day, but actually be prone to fainting at the sight of blood.

No matter. Like those comedy Baker episodes of old, this isn’t really a story about the Vikings. It’s not about historical accuracy. It’s about different ways of fighting. It’s about what you do if you’re being threatened by a bully and you’re not really that good at physical combat, but you’re good at other things. Say, for example, you’re bad with a sword but you’re good with a wood knife and you can carve a beautiful dragon totem. Or maybe your footwork sucks but you can throw a ring over a peg with the best of them. Maybe you’re brave enough to declare war on the biggest bully around, but the only thing you can do to stand up to him is to tell a story that will embarrass him so badly he never attacks you again.

It’s unusual for the Doctor, who is the poster alien for “Fight Different,” to be the one locked into the idea that the Vikings must fight (and die) or flee (and live). It’s slightly tiresome for Clara always to have to remind him of what he’s been doing for around 2000 years, but it’s possible that losing companions or seeing them permanently changed by their adventures with him has taken its toll over time and he’s gotten gunshy about encouraging people to put themselves in danger. This makes room for Clara and Ashildr to demonstrate the alternative fighting skills which may have been the strength that got them teleported to the Mire ship along with the testosterone-filled Viking warriors (or maybe it was just that they were carrying the Doctor’s broken sonic sunglasses). Clara’s is, apparently, talking villains into running away, while Ashildr’s is — along with issuing ill-advised but courageous challenges — telling stories.

The episode is a bit heavy-handed with this, spelling the themes out rather than letting us read them for ourselves, so we’re told flat-out that it’s her stories that have saved the day, tricking the Mire into retreating from an illusory foe and, thanks to Clara’s iPhone video, leading to a true story that will damage their reputation beyond repair. The stories people tell to and about you, says “The Girl Who Died,” are more powerful weapons than any sword or gun in your hand.

All of this is generally worthwhile and, to some extent, true, and it distracts us from the ending we know has to come, because it’s right there in the title. It’s dismaying nonetheless when we see that the girl has actually died, partly because Williams has so successfully and immediately made us believe in Ashildr, a character who is like Arya Stark in a few ways yet unlike her in many more. What the Doctor does next does come as a surprise, partly because if it was mentioned earlier in the episode I missed it, and partly because he quickly and casually creates yet another pseudo-immortal not-quite-Time-Lord (joining Jenny and River) with just a bit of nanotech. It’s strange but not unwelcome, paying off in a reasonably satisfying and surprisingly early way the questions raised in “Deep Breath” and “The Witch’s Familiar. I’m looking forward to seeing where this new character goes.