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Doctor Who S9.12 'Hell Bent' review

After the formally innovative genius of “Heaven Sent”, “Hell Bent” is a slightly disappointing conclusion to the series. Though it has many great moments, it’s a little on the talky side, and feels like it could have done with a bit more blood and thunder. Plus not for the first time it sees a season-arc puzzle resolved in a manner that, frankly, feels like a bit of a swizz.

Both the title of the episode (suggestive of a Doctor consumed by vengeance) and the closing moments of “Heaven Sent” suggested that we could expect to see the Doctor on the war path. It feels rather anti-climactic, therefore, to see the Doctor defeating the regenerated Rassilon (a disappointingly under-used Donald Sumpter) with little more than a Paddington Bear hard stare, when we were expecting to see the Hybrid “standing in the ruins of Gallifrey”. And speaking of the Hybrid, how can a hybrid be two people? Er, that’s not a hybrid!

Still, the episode looks glorious – particularly in the early sequences, redolent of a Sergio Leone western, and when we reach the crumbling ruins at the end of everything, bathed in golden light. The cloisters of Gallifrey are effectively spooky, and it’s shocking to see the Doctor pull a gun on someone, as he did in “The End Of Time” – and even more shocking to see him actually use it. Capaldi delivers another powerfully intense performance.

Then there are the countless fan-pleasing treats: the use of phrases like “reverse the polarity” and “Shobogans” (outsider Time Lords, if you didn't know); references to the DoctorDonna and the four knocks from “The End Of Time”; the return of Gallifreyan repository of knowledge the Matrix (last seen in 1986’s “The Trial Of A Time Lord”) and the roundel-porn of an old-fashioned TARDIS console room. It’s also a relief to see the Doctor get a new sonic screwdriver – hopefully that’s the last we’ll see of those dreadful shades...

TIME LORD TRIVIA

Did you spot the words “No matter where you go, there you are?” on a Nevada road sign? Though it didn’t originate there, the phrase was popularised by 1984’s The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension!

There’s some deliciously cheeky traditionalist-trolling too. Not only does Steven Moffat further pave the way for a female Doctor by having a middle-aged white man regenerating into a young black woman, but he also teases long-term fans by invoking the terrible heresy of the 1996 Paul McGann TV movie. In that, it was revealed that the Doctor is half-human, a continuity detail that’s been dismissed as “not really canon” ever since. For one jaw-dropping moment, as Ashildr speculates that the Hybrid could be half Time Lord, half human, you think, “Oh my god, are they actually going to go there?” Pure devilment, and very amusing.

Some elements of this continuity-fest don't really make much sense, though. Nice though it is to see the café from “The Impossible Astronaut” again, why on Earth would Clara disguise her TARDIS as that? She wasn’t there with the Doctor, Amy and Rory – indeed, there’s no indication she knows anything about that adventure. And pleasing though it is to see Ohila, head of the Sisterhood of Karn, again, how can she rock up on Gallifrey and wander around like she owns the place? There doesn’t seem to be that much point to her presence.

Then there’s the matter of Clara’s ultimate fate. There’s a certain neatness to it – for a long time, critics of the character have been saying she’s “basically become the Doctor”, and here she pretty much does! It’s not entirely convincing, though. After establishing that Clara must die, or it will have catastrophic consequence, it’s hard to swallow that she can be taken out of time using Gallifreyan technology and allowed to explore the universe in a TARDIS. Technically, she is still doomed – one day, she’ll have to return to the trap street and be killed by the raven. But it still seems like a bit of a cheat.

It’s a curious kind of happy ending, too, when you think about. Clara’s new travelling companion, Ashildr, is not a particularly nice piece of work, and is the very person responsible for Clara’s death! What’s more, earlier in the season the series took great pains to convince us that immortality is a curse, not a blessing. But apparently it’s a blast as long as you’ve got a half-inched TARDIS and another immortal buddy to keep you company... Hmm.

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IT’S WOSSISNAME!

You may know him from his roles in Game Of Thrones (Maester Luwin) or Being Human (Kemp) but Donald Sumpter (Rassilon) has also appeared in Doctor Who twice before. He was a space station crewmember in 1968’s “The Wheel In Space”, and a Navy officer in 1972’s “The Sea Devils”.

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LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION

If you want to visit that diner you don’t have to go to Nevada – it’s slap bang in the middle of Cardiff Bay (Eddie’s Diner, Mermaid Quay, CF10 5BZ), with the desert exterior dropped in via the magic of greenscreen.

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SPECULATION

When the Doctor revisits the barn where he grew up, an unnamed woman (who may or may not be his mother…) mentions “the boys”, plural… Does that mean the Doctor has a brother?

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CH-CH-CHANGES

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen someone other than the Doctor regenerate on-screen – we saw River Song do it twice! But it’s the first time we’ve seen another Time Lord regenerating since companion Romana did so (in very tongue in cheek fashion) back in 1979.

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THE BELLS! THE BELLS!

And so the new series finally explains what exactly the cloister bell has to do with cloisters, by revealing that they chime in the cloisters of Gallifrey. But when this “warning of impending disaster” was first introduced in 1981’s “Logopolis”, it was so named because the TARDIS itself had cloisters.

Doctor Who airs on Saturday evenings on BBC One in the UK and BBC America in the US.

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WriterSteven Moffat
DirectorRachel Talalay
The One WhereThe Doctor saves Clara by extracting her from time, just before the moment of death but then must wipe all his memories of her.

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Available platformsTV