Why couldn’t the Doctor’s recently deceased companion do the right thing, and stay dead?
Doctor WhoAirtime: Saturdays, 8.05pm
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Maisie Williams
Subtitle: Series 9 Episode 12 - "Hell Bent"
Air date: 2015-12-05
Doctor Who fans of a certain age will remember a companion by the name of Perpugilliam Brown, better known as Peri (Nicole Bryant). A botany student from America, Peri came a cropper in the 1986 serial "Mindwarp". A mad doctor (wouldn’t you know it) captures Peri and forcibly involves her in a mind transplant operation to save the intellect of his dying master, Kiv (Christopher Ryan). When Kiv wakes in Peri’s body, Bryant’s pitch-perfect performance arouses feelings of genuine revulsion: her head shaven from the procedure, her stance, her suddenly monstrous voice, and even the way she holds her hands are so utterly unlike the character we are accustomed to seeing week in, week out alongside Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor as to be horrifying. Moments later, in a gesture reminiscent of Veronica’s (Geena Davis) killing of Seth (Jeff Goldblum) in The Fly (released in cinemas weeks before the story’s transmission), Peri is shot dead by the warrior Yrcanos (Brian Blessed), who’s aghast at the abomination his new-found friend has become.
In an era when companions tended to part company with the Doctor with a smile and a wave from the door of the TARDIS more often than not, Peri’s death was an object lesson in how to achieve the perfect dramatic climax to a story -- it was (and remains) vile, visceral, and shocking. So it proved the let-down to end all let-downs when the season finale, “The Ultimate Foe”, revealed that Peri was not dead after all, but had somehow miraculously survived and was living as Yrcanos’ warrior queen. This sop to sentiment was met with near-universal derision; even Colin Baker described it as schlocky.
Why does this happy-ever-after ending so offend the sensibilities? Oh, let me count the ways: because Nicola Bryant knocks her death scene out of the park, and her character’s survival detracts from that excellent performance; because it’s a cheesy ending; because, in its assumption that viewers just can’t brook the idea of Peri being dead, it condescends to them; because every so often, the Doctor should lose. In the case of Doctor Who, this lesson was learned 30 years ago.
So why couldn’t the Doctor’s recently deceased companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) do the right thing, and stay dead?
"Hell Bent" started off well. I don’t know how it was when serials based on Gallifrey first appeared in the 1970s, but these days, whenever the show visits the Doctor’s home planet, fandom gasps in anticipation -- and all the more so this time, as the Time Lords have spent the last two series out of commission, placed in some alternate universe for their protection after the conclusion of the Time War in "The Day Of The Doctor" (2013).
The problems set in shortly after the Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) arrival, when two events conspire to make a mockery of his return. Firstly, he returns to his dilapidated childhood home, and meets an elderly woman (Linda Broughton), who is meant to be… who? His mother? His conscience? We never find out. Nor do we find out what the rent-a-crowd who gather round the Doctor as he eats at a table outside are doing in the middle of nowhere. Haven’t they got better things to do than watch the Doctor -- who is, it’s true, a war hero -- eat soup? If it’s fan adoration, they’re rank amateurs. They don’t even have marker pens.
Secondly, when the Time Lords finally do turn up, it is to apprehend the Doctor. A stand-off ensues between him and Rassilon (Donald Sumpter), which ends with the idiotic spectacle of this revered, ancient, endlessly wise Time Lord losing his rag with the Doctor, ultimately ordering his guards to execute him, which they refuse to do, of course. A long and beautifully shot scene in which the guards wrestle with their consciences and then decide to defy their president has all the tension removed from it before it even begins, because Rassilon’s characterisation is not set up properly. A scene of this nature would have made dramatic sense, if we had had a half-hour or more of scenes in which the antagonistic relationship between Rassilon and the Doctor is explored, and we see Rassilon edging closer and closer to unreason. Expressed another way, this is an instance of that great unspoken rule of screenwriting: you can’t rush character development. Writer Steven Moffat knows this, and tries his best to fulfill the need, featuring successive cutaways to the Time Lord Council, in which we see Rassilon getting more and more exasperated with the Doctor’s refusal to comply with his demands. But all the while, we hear the clock ticking -- Moffat desperately wants to get on with The Next Bit, and so the smooth transition from one emotional state to another that would have made Rassilon’s outburst believable is lost.
When we finally hit the episode’s A-plot, the search for the McGuffin known as the Hybrid -- a long-prophesied evil force that will destroy, well, just about everything -- the Doctor insists that the Time Lords must speak to Clara, who knows all about it. So off they toddle to London in 2015, and Clara’s death scene in last month’s "Face the Raven". Time stops courtesy of some snazzy special effects, and Clara finds herself on Gallifrey. She’s not quite slipped the noose: her death, an established historical event, is pending, but she’s in a kind of holding pattern.
So why not stay like that? Cue the Doctor indulging in some very un-Doctorish behaviour, including killing a fellow Time Lord (Ken Bones; at least he regenerates, into a female incarnation played with aplomb by T’Nia Miller), and putting all the universe at risk to save Clara’s life. I’ll just repeat that: the Doctor endangers everything that has ever existed in order to save (let’s be honest) his squeeze. Moffat sells it, pulling on the current Doctor’s unusually intense, even co-dependent relationship with Clara as justification (after all, he recently spent four-and-a-half billion years in what amounted to a torture chamber for her). Before long, we’re at the very end of the universe, where even the pull of the Time Lords has no effect and Clara’s stay of execution can hopefully be made permanent. Who should turn up, however, but Me (Maisie Williams), in her fourth appearance. In a tense meeting, she and the Doctor hammer out the probable truth: the Hybrid is not of a Dalek and a Time Lord, as was believed, but the Doctor and Clara.
If the episode had ended at this point, with the Doctor being forced to return his companion to the scene of her death thus allowing history to unfold as it should, we would have had a marvelously tragic and offbeat ending to the series.
What we got instead was the Peri treatment. A bit of memory wiping later, Clara gets to waltz off in a TARDIS nicked -- again -- from the Gallifreyan workshops. Me accompanies her, because, you know, stuff. And the Doctor gets dropped off next to his own TARDIS.
Look at some of the neat things I’ve just recounted. In this episode we see Gallifrey; a regeneration occurs; we get to see the Doctor stopping time in its tracks; he steals a TARDIS, complete with 1963 vintage console room in a wonderful nod to the show’s black-and-white era; Clare Higgins, whose peerless work as Ohila opposite the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) in 2013 minisode ‘The Night of the Doctor’ elevated that installment far above the ordinary ephemeral status of a short, makes a reappearance. With the considerable combined heft of these story-telling components behind it, how does "Hell Bent" somehow manage to be less than the sum of its parts?
Simply put, it suffers from a surfeit of ideas. Even with the extra few minutes -- this week’s episode was an hour long -- there was insufficient time to explore one major revelation before it was time to move on to the next one. To some extent, this is common to the series as a whole. Moffat’s Doctor Who, and that of his predecessor, Russell T. Davies, is all about moments. An episode consists of one great big moment, the cliff-hanger, with three or four smaller moments, and lots of little moments. When they are all corralled into a nice, neat line, and complement one another, the concept works wonderfully, as "The Day Of The Doctor" demonstrated. But when they don’t, the effect is jarring. Rassilon’s humbling early on is a case in point; in the end, the confrontation between him and the Doctor didn’t matter a jot one way or the other. The scene went nowhere: it was hurriedly set up, played out, and then forgotten as a “moment”, and the episode would have been no worse off without it. The character of Ohila was similarly poorly treated, making a grand entrance in the first act before being reduced to the status of commentator; a tremendous waste of Clare Higgins’ talents.
We end up, as always, with a veritable undergrowth of plot points all left flapping in the breeze. With Clara and Me gallivanting around the universe in a TARDIS of their own (how did they know how to work its controls?), we can be sure of bumping into them again. The Doctor, too, will now surely be a wanted man -- after all, he killed a fellow Time Lord just to effect his escape from Gallifrey. "Am I a good man?" he once asked Clara, genuinely eager to know the answer. For the first time last night, I wasn’t sure.
This aside, things are left in a more or less satisfactory way, I suppose. But the one thing that really leaves a sour taste in the mouth is Clara’s fate. It panders to sentimentalism, of course, and will please fanboys, shippers, and any number of other fan groups who want Clara to stay on, or just wish a happy ending for her.
More particularly, however, the Doctor’s part in Clara’s fate is deeply troubling. In "Face The Raven", her death had gravitas, pathos, and dignity in equal measure. To find her alive and kicking, even if only on a technicality, cheapens that episode, for every time we watch that episode from now on, we’ll know that there is more to come. Indeed, it cheapens the status of the companion, for once again, we find the Doctor denying their agency, defining their future for them. One could well respond that he was saving her life -- a position in which no-one would begrudge someone else taking control; but Clara, remember, is already feted to die, here, now, in 2015, and furthermore she decided to do so with grace and poise. Towards the episode’s conclusion, she makes this very point, interrogating the Doctor over his decision to remain in prison for billions of years for the sake of someone who had already passed: “I was dead. I was dead, and God! -- why would you do that to yourself?”
"I had a duty of care", the Doctor responds lamely. But where was that oft-trumpeted "duty of care" to her when he made her an exile? For from now on, Clara will be nothing more than a woman with an odd tattoo on the back of her neck traveling the cosmos in a life support machine. Now, she’s in a perpetual limbo, destined to be able to travel anywhere but to her own time and place; for a return to Earth at the point when she left it will presumably see her die instantly under the malevolent gaze of the raven. The Doctor has succeeded in making her in his image. Now she, like him, is merely running away.
However, even from the encumbered mess that is this series finale, there are seedlings of hope. Oblivious to the sword of Damocles hanging over her head, Clara seemed downright chipper at the prospect of touring time and space, and the Doctor ends the episode with a new sonic screwdriver and a new-found gleam in his eye, the sort of gleam you get during the honeymoon period. Come to think of it, there is only one perspective from which putting the universe at risk to save one person makes sense -- and that would be if the Doctor’s in love with Clara. But that, surely, is another story.