Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Doctor Who: Hell Bent (Episode Review)

You have to hand it to the Doctor Who writing staff, it's not often that you find a single story which embodies an entire series. Between each stage of this three parter, we have a trio of stories representing every kind of tale we can find. Fear the Raven: A flawed story with a few errors, which nevertheless manages to come together at the end and delivers an excellent character dynamic. Heaven Sent: An insanely intelligent tale when it comes to time travel, perfect use of the actors, fantastic direction an memorable set-pieces. Then we have Hell Bent: Which is nonsensical crap. Not just your common or garden nonsensical crap, but the kind of nonsensical crap which registers alongside "midichlorians" and "Wesley Crusher" on the this-is-a-terrible-idea scale.

This episode isn't simply bad, it's the kind of absolute terribad which leaves you questioning why the hell you ever liked this series in the first place, and why you're still watching it. It's shark jumping to the Nth degree, it's pulling a full Bloodtide, and it's utlimately what has personally convinced me that Steven Moffat has become the George Lucas of Doctor Who. If you were to watch this right after the excellent delivery and drama of Heaven Sent, any human would urge you to seek out a decompression chamber to counteract the emotional whiplash likely putting your blood pressure into the hundreds. Okay, it doesn't make the Twin Dilemma look good by comparison, but hell's teeth it's certainly up there!

The story follows... you know what, screw it. The Doctor ends up on Gallifrey, stuff happens and we get a raging cluster-fuck of plot points strung together as the writers try to sort out this mess. There's some push to try and make the season long "A hybrid!" theme into an actual running sub-plot worthy of a true examination, the Doctor performs acts of demented character assassination and Steven Moffat destroys anything of value from past and future scrips. How does he do this? He restores Clara to life.

Now, resurrecting a companion is a weighty decision at the best of times. We've had quite a few live and die over the years - especially if you're counting Big Finish - and the Doctor has always felt their departures keenly. Adric is perhaps one of the best known examples of this staggering the Doctor, and it's made clear he can't save people with time travel even if he wanted to. The one time he tried, truly tried, it was made evident that he had finally gone too far in his "Time Lord Victorious" moment. Well, Hell Bent now tells us that the Doctor could have brought almost any and all of those people back to life if he just felt like it. He turns up on Gallifrey, strolls in as the Time Lords roll out the red carpet, and side with him over their president. He then goes and breaks time, bringing one of his companions back from death via a relatively simple means of time manipulation. In fact, the only reason any of them end up being against him is because he effectively didn't ask for their permission, and it has no long-term negative effects.

So, every time we see someone die from here on? Every side character, every companion, every person the Doctor bumps into and he wants to pull an "everybody lives!" moment on? He can do that. He can do that with incredible ease, and ultimately zero consequences. Sure, the story tries to bring up a few points about how this is wrong or how things don't work, but there's little to no substance there. We're just told bits and pieces of that, but there's nothing offered to substantiate this for even a second. So, say it with us kids: SHOW DON'T TELL!

Oh, but the problems can't end just there, can they. Even the complete destruction of all possible drama in the series, all future threats of any kind, can't just be the big problem here. That alone tips this into one of the stories ever produced for the franchise, but even its ongoing narrative threads are utter failures. People were already dubious about how the "HYBRID!!1!" messages could possibly link into a final message of some kind, and understandably so. What we get as a result is a terrible, drunken stab at some kind of story-arc which would be laughed off of most fanfiction websites. 

First of all, how is this story-arc set up? Davros. For no apparent reason, the creator of the Daleks brings it up out of nowhere and everyone promptly starts repeating it. All of a sudden it's some massive ongoing theme beaten over the viewer's head at many points, and just thrown in. Rather than a Saxon moment where it's in the background but slowly building up, or even a full on Bad Wolf carefully hidden here and there, it's shoved right in front of the audience. Worse still, it doesn't mean anything, it doesn't actually have any reason to be showing up so often and ultimately it contradicts itself. Case and point - The entire series has featured the Doctor questioning and looking confused whenever mention of a hybrid is made. Then, all of a sudden, Heaven Sent brings up a massive contradiction by claiming he knows exactly what it is and that everyone else doesn't know what it is. So, how does that then play out? All of a sudden the Doctor doesn't know who it is, Ashildr guesses who it might be, and everyone just accepts it. No, that actually happens, and it's even dumber than it sounds. In a move which sees the episode disappearing up its own arse at high speed, the hybrid is actually somehow Clara and the Doctor together. I could add context to that, but it honestly wouldn't help.

Finally, perhaps the most damning point is that things happen without rhyme or reason. Half the time this is done to excuse abrupt things the writers just want to do, or even throw in for sheer fan-service. The sudden return of Rassilon stands out among these, which just happens and adds nothing to the story. Some of these could at least be shrugged off if they're minor, but you have universe staggering story elements relying upon this. Case and point - Clara's memory needing to be erased. It's supposedly being done in order to prevent the Time Lords finding her (not to mention a huge end-of-the-universe thing), and admittedly even after royally borking up her demise this could have still given some reasonable pathos. Wounded pathos, mangled pathos, the kind of pathos which has been burned on one side and is half-baked, but given how bad this is you'd be forgiven for taking any pathos you could get. The problem however, is that this does nothing. The Doctor loses his image of Clara and that's about it, so he knows everything save for what she looks like.

So, let's consider the problems, shall we? Before the memory wipe, both the Doctor and Clara remember everything about one another without the slightest issue. Okay, it's the very end of the universe, but what the hell, that was going to happen anyway and their knowledge doesn't seem to be causing any additional effects.

They undergo the mind wipe, and it changes little to nothing. Clara still has her memory for contrived reasons and the Doctor has just about all of his own thoughts. So, does the universe get squashed down into the size of a thimble or spontaneously turn into a duck? Nope, everything is fine and dandy, without the slightest possible problem.
Hell, the really insulting bit? After the entire episode spent its entire run-time focusing upon how doomy and damning Clara's return and her knowledge will be, it promptly drops that. There's no hurry, no issues, not even the slightest rush to six that which went wrong. In fact, they're so leisurely that Clara openly says she'll take the "long way around" in order to get back. Cue desperate spin-off baiting, yet a-bloody-gain.

Hell Bent just proves one thing: Steven Moffat needs to step down as lead writer. Let's face it the guy has done some great stuff, arguably some of the best stories, for Doctor Who. Lately though, he's continued to chip away at more and more of the mythos, recycled his old ideas and contradicted himself to the point where he seems to be handing in first drafts for stories. Some of the older decisions were bad, inexcusably so, but this? This is the kind of abomination which inspires nothing but rage. It's the kind of insult any aspiring writer can look at, then promptly weep, seeing how easily some people can ride upon their reputation while churning out crap. It's the kind of festering turd which could have had all the dialogue mashed out with the caps lock held down, and the actors deliver it in Hulk speak, and it might only improve things.

Avoid this one. Avoid it to hell and back. Watch the last two by all means but please, just think up your own ending to this finale rather than subject yourself to this gibbering madness.


  1. Now I wasn't as mad as you were once this was over, though that might be because I realized that it was going to be one of "those" episodes fairly early on. You know, "those", where it starts off really interesting and has a good lead up, and then promptly craps the bed and it's just downhill from then on out (and of course I'll be thinking of the extractor from now on whenever anything bad happens).

    I was genuinely excited for this episode because I thought Heaven Sent was great and was really curious to see how the Doctor's confrontation with time lords who don't like him is resolved. To put it shortly, is the Doctor throwing a tantrum and everyone listening to this spoiled child of a character was definitely not how I thought things were going to go, and as you say it gets worse from then on out.

    So here's a big question of mine, if Clara and Ashildir are traveling to Gallifrey "the long way round" (implying it'll take both of them 4.5 billion years to get there) then why can't Clara travel with the Doctor anymore? He has a partner who can live as long as he can now, so age is no longer any sort of issue and if something tries to kill her, well her bodies functions are frozen anyway so it doesn't matter. She does not need sleep, food, water, she's effectively immortal, he couldn't have asked for a better companion.

    So here's another question of mine, why did the Doctor care so much about Gallifrey at the end of the previous season when in this one he doesn't care that he's on it again? It's just, as you say here, ignoring what was already established.

    1. Well, in all honesty, i'm mad because I watched it three times over. There's more and more terrible stuff you notice each time, which ranges from the downright dumb moments you get first time around to stuff you only pick up during the second run.

      For example, atop of the bits you pointed out, the Doctor has a lovely bit of character assassination where he murders the General. It's put down to the guy still having regenerations and thus not being a problem, but it's been established for years that regeneration itself is no small thing and that it's still effectively a form of death. So, we just had the Doctor kill someone because they were in his way rather than knocking them unconscious. If it's not so big a problem as the episode suggests, then the whole firing squad scene was pointless. Those soldiers should have just happily taken aim and fired, reasoning "well, we gave him a full set of new regenerations, so he should be fine!" Then atop of THAT, if the Doctor was so huge a threat to Gallifrey as the President thought, why in the hell did they give him that new set in the first place when he was about to die last time? This is not to mention BIGGER problems such as the Time Lords feeling the full force of a wussification barrage, and contradicting a lot of older stuff like how they're only supposed to have exiles out beyond the limits of the city. Those exiles do not interact with the city at all, and if the Doctor was with them, then he never would have been accepted into the Academy in the first place.

      These aren't small things either, these are big, BIG points from just the modern series and all. It just seems to sweep all of that under the rug without the slightest issue in a brazenly staggering act of lazy writing.

    2. I didn't mention the General bit partially because I didn't want to spoil it (thinking back on it I don't know why) but honestly after the terrible episodes we've had this season, I thought it was par for the course. Screw David Tennant's departure where he concretely states it is a HUGE deal for Time Lords when they regenerate, and screw the fact that he never needed to shoot the General in the first place (I still don't get why he did that).

      I didn't think of the exiles that way at all (that's just because I either didn't know that, or I forgot, I honestly can't tell), and I want to think that maybe the exit from the conclave somehow led out there, but in reality I know it's not.

  2. I thought that this was the worst episode of the season. I was annoyed that despite everything the Time Lords and the state of their society weren't a bigger part of the episode.

    Also, aren't the time lords supposed to be trapped in a pocket dimension still? Shouldn't the return of Gallifrey to the universe have been a bigger deal?

    Slightly less importantly did Moffat forget the end of the universe is around 100 trillion years away, not merely billions?

    1. The Time Lords aren't in a pocket dimension because they're not. That's literally it, at one point Clara asks him that and the Doctor says "Well they must have fixed that then."

      I honestly thought the episode would be about the Doctor uniting Gallifrey and bringing it back out of the pocket dimension, but nope.

      Also of course he forgot, but it's to be expected in this episode given everything else.