After the events of last week’s episode, the last place you might expect to find the Doctor is sitting in a strangely familiar American diner, playing blues guitar and spinning a yarn to a waitress who closely resembles an old friend. But such oddness is just par for the course in this bold, baffling, outrageously barmy finale, Hell Bent.
On the surface it seems like Steven Moffat’s latest finale has everything going for it: the long-awaited return to Gallifrey, plenty of call-backs to old friends, enemies and adventures, and a comment-stirring regeneration. But the end result is uneven and likely to be divisive amongst the fandom, but if you stick with it you might just find it’s more satisfying than first meets the eye.
Hell Bent gets off to a promising start with director Rachel Talalay evoking the mood of a sci-fi western as the Doctor returns to his home planet, engaging in a bitter standoff with the Time Lords, fronted by Donald Sumpter’s tyrannical president Rassilon.
Capaldi is on fantastic form in these opening scenes, modelling himself as a space Clint Eastwood, swaggering into town as a silent hero who can usurp an army and turn back a spaceship with just a look or a gesture.
The stage is seemingly set for another madcap romp as Moffat and Talalay ramp up the silly costumes and camp performances. We are also warned of an emerging threat in the form of potentially deadly foe, the Hybrid – an atrocity crossbred between two warrior races that is hell bent on unravelling “the web of time” itself.
Yet our hero’s true intention turns out to be not quite as noble as first appears as every step he’s taken to halt the hybrid is in fact part of a much bigger plan to bring back his dearly missed friend, Clara.
It’s this moment that will prove the most conflicting for fans. Some will understandably feel cheated, not least because this change in direction pushes the much anticipated return to Gallifrey into the background, leaving several conflicts unresolved as the Doctor and Clara make a swift escape.
More significantly, there’s a temptation to see Clara’s sort-of resurrection as something of a cop-out. Having bravely opted to kill Clara in the first place, Moffat fails to follow through with his choice, meddling with space and time to deliver a happy ending as Clara and Me ride-off into the cosmos inside a stolen TARDIS.
It’s frustrating partly because it diminishes the impact of Face the Raven and Heaven Sent (both superior episodes), but also because it’s completely illogical. By choosing to avoid a return to Gallifrey to face her fate, Clara is refusing to take responsibility for her dangerous behaviour, which is surely the entire point of her arc this series?
Still, there is another, far more satisfying way to view this twist that becomes clear as the episode develops. In offering the Doctor a way to save his friend, Moffat continues to explore his anger and grief whilst also opening a path toward closure and redemption.
Despite their genuine affection for one another, the Doctor and Clara are not good for each other – as this series has gone to great lengths to stress. He makes her reckless and she brings out the exact same quality in him.
That their companionship is revealed to be the Hybrid is both surprising and entirely believable – Clara has always brought out the worst (as well as the best) in the Doctor, from the moment he defied his own principles to resurrect Ashildr right up to his decision here to risk the destruction of the universe just to bring her back.
“This has to stop,” the Doctor finally accepts. “One of us has to go.”
Except his plan to wipe all memory of their time together from Clara’s mind doesn’t come-off as expected. Clara reverses the polarity, meaning it’s the Doctor who forgets her. It’s a clever twist, allowing the Time Lord to escape his grief and once again become the Doctor Clara wanted him to be. Cue a return to the TARDIS to retrieve his velvet jacket and a new sonic screwdriver: The Doctor is back.
When viewed in this light, it’s masterful story telling from Moffat. Having laid the seeds throughout the series, the writer intentionally led us down the wrong path in order to deliver a final shock that knocks us off our feet. It might not be to everyone’s tastes, but you have to admire Moffat’s mad ambition.
Hell Bent might not be the finale many wanted or were anticipating, but it’s still brave, inventive and affecting – anchored by two powerful lead performances from Capaldi and Coleman. No series is perfect, and Doctor Who is no exception, but series nine has proven the show remains unafraid to push boundaries and take risks. And for that it deserves to be heralded as one of Britain’s most exciting shows.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: Hell Bent on BBC iPlayer