‘Doctor Who’ Season 9 Finale Review: Clara Oswald Says Goodbye (For Real, This Time) in ‘Hell Bent’
Recap and review of Doctor Who – Season 9 Finale – Hell Bent:
Occasionally, Doctor Who has trouble sticking to its guns on certain plot points. So it’s not a huge surprise when the show finds a loophole that brings back Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), essentially turning her into Schrodinger’s Companion: neither alive nor dead until the fixed point in time in which the raven tragically comes to claim her. “Hell Bent” doesn’t pretend that this isn’t a cheat, yet the implications of Clara’s continued survival are massive, because it essentially results in The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) finding himself in the same position as Donna Noble, from so many years before. I suppose this is just a long-winded way of saying that “Hell Bent” is a bold way to end the season, and an even bolder way to close out Clara’s arc on the series. But it works, due in large part to how emotional “Hell Bent” happens to be.
The story, such as it is, is surprisingly straightforward when you cut away some of the Clara bits: The Doctor has arrived on Gallifrey, and he quickly declares himself President in order to combat the influence of the regenerated Rassilon (Donald Sumpter), who’s essentially gone from “benevolent ruler prone to lapses of corruption” to “unrepentant tyrant”. The episode essentially allows Peter Capaldi to flex his acting muscles, showing us a scarier side to the Twelfth Doctor. The intensity and passion were always there, but “Hell Bent” gives us a look into the Twelfth Doctor-as-War Hero characterization, illustrating that this is a man to be reckoned with, in more ways than we’ve had the opportunity to see this season. Capaldi offers a vibrant characterization as The Doctor once again battles against his own kind and (what else?) steals a TARDIS and runs, which more or less shows the extent to which history repeats itself with a guy like The Doctor. Of course, his mission also involves doing his damndest to get Clara back, as this ends up being a mission that spans the better part of four billion years. We learn that the Hybrid we’ve been hearing about all season is not, in fact, The Doctor. Or, rather, it’s not JUST The Doctor. And this is the first twist in an episode that seems to relish in piling them on, one after the other. Granted, it’s complicated storytelling, but it’s so nakedly emotional and otherworldly that I found myself reminded of the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who, in which The Doctor’s cavalier nature belied a deeper need to be affected. The Doctor is a man who wants to feel, even when it’s ultimately not good for his emotional and psychological well-being, because it helps ground him. It’s basically the same reason he has companions. And so what bigger representation could there be for this concept than the Hybrid twist Moffat ultimately delivers?
Yes, The Hybrid is both The Doctor and Clara. Ashildr (Maisie Williams) arrives to explain that the combination of The Doctor and Clara represent to halves of a half-human/half-Time Lord hybrid. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing except that, simply by virtue of being together, The Doctor and Clara are placing the entire universe in jeopardy. It’s the recognition that making connections with other people makes it difficult to let go. In essence, The Doctor has lost his objectivity as a Time Lord because he cares too much. He can’t simply let Clara go. He fights back against the inevitability of death, and it makes for an absolutely harrowing bit of storytelling, because this was a moment in which The Doctor was truly powerless. Watching Clara die, and knowing there was nothing he could do to stop it, marked a change in The Doctor that would have had far bloodier consequences if not for Clara making him swear off seeking revenge in her name. In that sense, Clara can be a good influence on The Doctor, even though the episode suggests that both she and The Doctor are mutually dangerous to one another…and the universe. Case in point, The Doctor risks upsetting the balance of the universe by messing with the fixed point that is Clara’s death. He finds a loophole by snatching her out of time just before the raven claims her, which feels like a massive narrative cheat, albeit one that doesn’t seem entirely unprecedented, considering how fixed points have been altered in the past. Granted, in the case of Rose Tyler’s father being rescued from his preordained death, the Ninth Doctor had to combat Reapers who’ve come to set the universe back to right. So the world does have safegguards in place to prevent people from cheating the system, necessitating a bit of cleverness from The Doctor, as Clara exists frozen in that moment, neither alive nor dead. This allows her to live seemingly indefinitely between one heartbeat and her last, until the day when she must inevitably return to the fixed point to meet her fate. But there’s an even bigger catch on the other side of this twist, and it’s one that is likely to be among the more controversial decisions Steven Moffat has made as showrunner.
The relationship between Clara and The Doctor threatens the entire universe, so The Doctor has little choice but to do to Clara what he did to Donna Noble way the hell back in Season 4: erase her memories so that she never remembers being with The Doctor. They’ll never meet again, and thus, they’ll never risk bringing out the recklessness in each other again. But things don’t exactly go according to plan, as the process gets reversed, and it’s The Doctor who ends up losing all his memories of Clara. This could potentially be huge: Clara was very much a humanizing influence on The Doctor, to such an extent that the universe essentially viewed he and Clara as two halves of a whole that was at least partially human. Sure, Clara often brought out the boldness and recklessness in The Doctor, as he did in her, but she also tempered that boldness, keeping him in line. It was her plea, in “Face the Raven”, that prevented The Doctor from taking revenge on Ashildr right then and there, and it’s her memory that prevents him from being a bloodthirsty, vengeance-seeking maniac in the aftermath of her death. But now, The Doctor has never met her. Now, he’s right back to being the dark, tortured man he was following the loss of Amy and Rory. And considering this is already one of the darker interpretations of The Doctor in recent memory, it’s intriguing to think of how erasing Clara from his personal history might change him, potentially for the worse. By the same token, part of me wants a spinoff with Clara and Ashildr, as the two decide to venture off together in a TARDIS so Clara can make the most of the time she has left. In essence, Clara has become The Doctor, while Ashildr gets to finally be the companion, just like she’s always wanted. It’s an emotional farewell, mostly because it isn’t a farewell at all: to The Doctor, Clara is a stranger. So when they meet again at that diner in Nevada, there are echoes of their earlier connection, but nothing concrete. And it must remain that way, for the sake of the universe. Of course, it’s sort of bittersweet to think that two people who are mutually terrible at goodbyes have created a situation in which they never have to say goodbye, because it’s as if they never really met in the first place.
This was a beautiful finale and an unsurprisingly emotional exit for Jenna Coleman (for real, this time), who turns in a wonderful performance here. Capaldi has had an outstanding season, and he’s had chemistry with virtually every single one of his costars. But none more so than Coleman. And so it is, once again, that I lament the loss of this duo as an on-screen pairing. They had a great run together, though, and I thought the conclusion to their arc was touching. “Hell Bent” is top tier Doctor Who, and it bodes well for what’s in store for the Christmas special, as River Song returns in what could be the type of pairing that helps us forget about Clara. If nothing else, The Doctor is already way ahead of us there.
But what did you think of the Doctor Who Season 9 Finale, “Hell Bent”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Doctor Who, read our review of the first part of this finale, “Heaven Sent”!