Opening the episode, the Doctor finds himself in the Nevada desert he had previously visited with Amy and Rory, in his earlier incarnation. Entering a diner, he encounters Clara, who appears to have cheerfully recovered from her death, although he fails to recognise her. Pleasingly, in the background, “Don't Stop Me Now”, as sung by ‘Foxes’ in Mummy on the Orient Express, is playing on the radio.
Linking his guitar to the radio, he gently plucks out the opening bars of Clara’s theme, which, aside from sounding beautiful, works surprisingly well. He then goes on to tell his story to the young woman waitressing in the diner..
Cutting to Gallifrey, the Doctor makes his way across the barren landscape, to a barn. Yes.. it’s that barn. Again. A Time War, the Fall of Arcadia, 4.5 billion years, and a journey to the end of the universe, and that sodding barn is STILL standing! They build ‘em to last on Gallifrey!
At the barn, the Doctor is met by a woman, who gives him a knowing look. The implication seems to be that this could be his mother, though, mercifully, we are spared an explanation as to her identity.
For no reason, other than being fond of a firework display (a reference, perhaps to The Brain of Morbius), Ohila is on Gallifrey, where she explains to Rassilon, now capably played by Donald Sumpter, that he blames him for the events of the Time War. Sending a military ship to bring the Doctor to the Capitol fails, and so Rassilon, accompanied by a General and several Chancery Guards, offers the hand of friendship. When the Doctor rejects this, Rassilon’s immediate reaction is to have him executed. A natural progression..!
Ordering Rassilon and the High Council “off his planet”, a request to which the all-powerful Time Lord accedes to a little too readily, the Doctor appears to assume the role of President. However, what he really wants is the use of an “extraction chamber”, to travel back to the moment before Clara’s death, in order to save her.
To procure the use of the extraction chamber, and In an extremely uncharacteristic move, the Doctor shoots the General, which, whilst not killing him, does force a regeneration. I know that he has been trapped for 4.5 billion years inside a confession dial, but, for me, this scene is completely unnecessary. Aside from serving no actual purpose, the idea that the Doctor would shoot an unarmed man is, to me, unfathomable. The regeneration of the General from a white male to a black female is clearly an attempt at progressivism, however, feels tokenistic rather than progressive.
Heading down into the depths of the Cloisters, Clara questions how Gallifrey returned. Rather than write a cogent explanation into the script, we are told that the Doctor “didn't ask”, again, something I find rather incredulous, given he has buggered around for the best part of five billion years trying to find the bloody planet!
Similarly, we are never given any insight into why the Doctor blames the Time Lords for Clara's demise in Trap Street . They had absolutely nothing to do with it! Her demise was an act of self-sacrifice, at the hands of Ashildr. His anger at the Time Lords seems wholly misplaced.
Stealing a Tardis gives us an opportunity to visit the classic console room from the Hartnell era, and Capaldi looks thoroughly at home in the stolen capsule, as he travels through time, to the very end of the universe, where Ashildr (Me) is squirreled away watching stars burn. I find it odd that longevity seems to equate to eternal youth, and that she hasn't aged a day in the trillions of years that have passed. Similarly, as the Doctor had previously explained, whilst immortal, she isn’t indestructible, and so that she has survived for so long is, frankly, miraculous. We know that the universe lasts at least 100 trillion years, since it took that long for the human race to evolve into the Toclafane in the 2007 story, The Sound of Drums.
The resolution, such as it is, of the Hybrid arc is wholly unsatisfying. The Doctor is the Hybrid, Me is the Hybrid, together they are the Hybrid, or Clara and the Doctor are the Hybrid, and does it really matter who the Hybrid is anyway? If you are expecting a definitive answer from this episode, you certainly aren't going to get one. My theory, and it is simply that, is that the Doctor is the Hybrid. (And the award for the paragraph with the most mentions of the word “hybrid” goes to…!)
Scientifically, a hybrid is the offspring of two species. It is not an "augmented" entity, in the case of Ashildr, neither is it two entities farting around in a Tardis together. Whether we like it or not, the TV movie already established that the Doctor is half-human, and his reaction to Ashildr's proposition of this theory seems to be almost knowingly dismissive.
With Clara in the Tardis, the Doctor, unaware that she is watching on the scanner, explains to Ashildr that he plans to wipe her memory, and send her home. Clara, however, has “reversed the polarity” of the neural block, and, ultimately, it is the Doctor who forfeits his memory of her. The Doctor is summarily dropped off in the middle of the Nevada desert, while Clara and Ashildr, who appear to have miraculously learnt how to operate a Tardis in the space of five minutes, fly off for pastures new.
As with the previous episode, Hell Bent effectively starts at the end of the episode, with the Doctor telling Clara, who he can't remember, all about Clara. Wait.. What? He can remember her name, remembers his adventures with her, and yet doesn't remember her. Similarly, he fails to notice that he is sitting inside a Tardis. It is a well established fact that the Time Lords can recognise a Tardis when they see one. The Third Doctor had no difficulty in identifying the Master's Tardis when it was disguised a horse-box. It is equally baffling that the Tardis chameleon circuit elects to disguise itself as a diner that the Doctor has already visited, when neither Me or Clara has ever been there, and therefore have no knowledge of what it looks like.
Along with a lacklustre resolution to the Hybrid arc, the return of Gallifrey is equally disappointing. What should have been a magnificent episode, with the Doctor returning home, we saw instead, a Clara-centric episode, which diminishes any impact her "death" in Face the Raven may have had. Yes, technically, she is dead, trapped between a heartbeat, but given she is now flitting around the universe with her executioner, she is clearly also alive. Inside a diner-shaped Tardis, she is Schrödinger's Clara.
The episode isn't without its moments. I like the idea that Gallifrey has Cloisters, which draw memories from the Matrix, to sound the Cloister Bells. It neatly explains why Tardises have foreknowledge of impending doom. Gallifrey itself looks stunning, the CGI ships are beautifully realised, and the costume department have excelled themselves, as the Time Lords and Chancery guards look resplendent in their attire. The incidental music is sublime, and the arrangement of Clara's theme on the Doctor's electric guitar is perfect. It almost goes without saying that Capaldi is, as always, completely on point, and Jenna Coleman acquits herself well, despite the abysmal focus on her character.
Clara, regrettably, is my biggest bugbear with this episode. Leaving aside the she has had more exits than a motorway, or the fact that Moffat seems to be incapable of killing anyone properly, she detracts from, what should have been, a superb story centred around the return of Gallifrey.
Ultimately, it isn't the Doctor who has an inability to let go of Clara; it's Steven Moffat. Her death in Face the Raven worked well, and her fleeting appearances in Heaven Sent were subtle and effective. And all of that is completely wasted by bringing her back a week later, for a self-indulgent, grandiose farewell, which lacks originality and undoes any of the emotion elicited from the previous stories. The concept of a "memory wipe" has already been used, and to much greater, and more devastating effect, with Donna Noble. Here it is sloppy and ineffective.
To round the episode off, and for no apparent reason (other than Christmas is just around the corner), the Tardis farts out a shiny new Sonic Screwdriver. Which is nice.
Final thoughts? A bloody mess! The return of Gallifrey should have been the highlight of the season. Instead, it served as little more than a cipher to bring back Clara, for an hour of self indulgent fanwank. Ohila, Rassilon, a Dalek, Cyberman and Weeping Angels all serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever, and even Ashidlr's appearance feels like an afterthought, tacked on to give Clara a get out of jail free card, albeit temporarily staving off the death that awaits her upon her next heartbeat.
It took the Doctor 4.5 billion years to return home, and he's interested in one thing, and one thing alone. Clara bloody Oswald. Unfortunately, I'm not! I had thought, even hoped, her story had been beautifully wrapped up in Face the Raven, so to piss away the best part of the finale wrapping it up yet again seemed utterly futile. Had the episode focused on Gallifrey, it could have been one of the strongest season finales since the show returned in 2005. Instead, all those beautiful echoes of Clara in Heaven Sent are lost in the cacophony of Hell Bent, which, even given it’s extended running time, attempted to cram in far more material than could comfortably fit in a single episode.
A disappointing episode, a wasted opportunity, and a great deal of style over substance. Hell Bent, whilst not the worst episode of the series (Sleep No More, I’m looking at you!) is barely worth the 4/10 I’m awarding it.