Wednesday, 23 December 2015

"Hell Bent"

The end of the peerless first episode of this story ends with the Doctor, for the first time this century, setting foot on the sands of his home planet. What we expect is a barnstorming homecoming and, indeed, the depiction of Gallifrey is (naturally) the most visually stunning that the programme has ever seen. Steven Moffat complements what we know about the Time Lord home world with his own intriguing additions to the mythos (the Cloister Wraiths or ‘Sliders’ being particularly memorable) and, in a nod to the past, the way in which the Doctor re-enters the higher echelons of Time Lord society has hints of The Invasion of Time. Yet, as the subdued pre-credits sequence shows, this is not the thrust of the story; and, indeed, the barn is literally not stormed.

The one thing that has been driving the Doctor is the loss of Clara, more specifically, his unwillingness to come to terms with it. Using all the power of Gallifrey, he rescues his best friend before the Raven claims her, despite the fact that this is a fixed point and will literally tear the cosmos apart. In order to do this, we see the Doctor act with greater authority – ordering Rassilon himself off Gallifrey, effectively staging a military coup in taking control of the planet and (most troublingly) shooting an ally. It is clear that the Doctor and Clara combined can be devastating. In the past two episodes, we have seen how frightening the Doctor can be when Clara is threatened and here we have its ultimate expression – the Doctor violating all that he has lived by. It could be said that the Doctor’s abandoning his sonic screwdriver in "The Witch's Familiar" means that the Doctor has abandoned his promise and his Name and, that the ‘me’ referred to at the end of "Heaven Sent" is not what the Doctor thought it would be. The Doctor and Clara, the human and the Time Lord have it in them to destroy everything. As Me says, they are the Hybrid.

Rachel Talalay again does stellar work in the director’s chair. The Gallifrey scenes have a hint of Western about them, but the sitcom-esque reactions of the Time Matron (as I am now going to call her) discovering people of greater and greater importance outside the barn work seamlessly with this. The scene where the Gallifreyan military surrender to the unarmed Doctor is brilliantly realised. The Capitol is a masterful combination of brilliant effects, design and great direction and the Cloisters are memorably spooky. We have the welcome return of Ken Bones as the General and Clare Higgins as Ohila. The resurrected Rassilon has regenerated into the less celebrated, but equally authoritative form of Donald Sumpter – less megalomaniacal than his previous form, but equally ruthless. We also have the return of Maisie Williams as Me – a lot wiser, if still not possessed of an infinite memory. Capaldi is his usual brilliant self – utterly commanding, yet making a line like ‘I had a duty of care’ truly heart-breaking.

Which brings us to the impossible girl. With the Doctor off the rails, it is Clara who must take responsibility. Despite her rescue, she is never passive in this story and she makes sure that the Doctor’s usual gambit backfires and it is his memory that is wiped – not just because Clara can keep what Donna could not, but so that the Doctor can finally let go. Jenna gives a stunning performance in her final story as the longest running companion of the revived series. She is left to live out her final seconds in her own time, like Albert in Discworld and like Vince Vega in Pulp Fiction, the fact that we have seen her die does not prevent her from riding off into the sunset – or, in this case, bucketing off into infinity in a TARDIS with a faulty chameleon circuit that has trapped it in the form of an American diner.

This season has mixed the intimate with the epic with even greater effect than before and, as the Doctor brandishes his new sonic screwdriver, it is clear that our never cruel, never cowardly, hero is back in black. Or burgundy.

NEXT: "The Husbands of River Song"

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