Doctor Who S9.12 'Hell Bent' review

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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...


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.

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.
Deputy Editor, SFX

Ian Berriman has been working for SFX – the world's leading sci-fi, fantasy and horror magazine – since March 2002. He also writes for Total Film, Electronic Sound and Retro Pop; other publications he's contributed to include Horrorville, When Saturday Comes and What DVD. A life-long Doctor Who fan, he's also a supporter of Hull City, and live-tweets along to BBC Four's Top Of The Pops repeats from his @TOTPFacts account.