Saturday, 8 April 2017

Death Becomes Her (So Die, Already)

Doctor Who
Hell Bent
Series Nine, Episode Twelve

Welcome back to Finale Town.  It’s been a while since I looked forward to one of these.  Doctor Who has had an awful lot of practice, but it’s stuck in a downward spiral where they’re concerned.

Russell T Davies used to make them bigger and… well, bigger every single year, chucking in armies and other armies and universes and kitchen sinks until even he didn’t sound like he knew what was at stake any more.  Steven Moffat’s finales are (mercifully) on a smaller scale, though they still do the “all of time and space are dying” stuff, albeit with the vim and excitement of a court order.  Since he took over in 2010, Moffat’s end-of-year focus has been on the characters, which I would absolutely applaud... only he insists on asking bloody stupid questions about his characters and then not answering them.

No doubt you’re familiar with his greatest hits.  “Will the Doctor die?”  “What is the Doctor’s name?”  “Is he a good man?”  (That’s “duh, no”, “duh, we don’t know” and “duh, yes.”)  Series Nine seems eager to keep up the tradition, only the mystery bag is dangerously near empty.  The Doctor has a “confession dial” on his person, which a Time Lord has when they’re about to die.  So maybe he’s going to…?  Okay so obviously he isn’t, and you all know that, so what else?  There’s the mystery of his face looking a bit familiar… only we got that out of the way in Episode Five, and it was pretty obvious anyway.  There’s the story of Clara, The Increasingly Risk-Taking, which is also sort of done and dusted now, unless you’re the kind of unscrupulous cynic who thinks it’s impossible for a main character to die two episodes before the series ends.  And may I say, shame on you.

Oh hi Clara.  You're looking well.  Gasp etc.
I guess that leaves The Hybrid: an age-old myth that apparently scares the Time Lords (in a “we conveniently didn’t mention it until Series Nine” sort of way), that inspires… nothing, actually.  This must be some new kind of threat that doesn’t do any actual threatening until you know what it is, and right up to the last twenty minutes of Hell Bent (the Series Nine closer) the Doctor still doesn’t know what the bloody thing is.  Oh, there’s some talk of time or space being ripped apart because of it, but we don’t actually see any of that; we rarely do in Moffat’s finales, which are always so sure they’re solving mysteries that’ll redefine the show as you know it that they forget to blow anything up, or really say anything of note.

The Time Lords seem desperate to know about the Hybrid, anyway, which is apparently the reason they trapped the Doctor in his confession dial for billions of years.  Except hang on – what was it for again?  Surprise, it’s typical old Moffat mission creep: this was the Doctor’s personal confession dial, a portent of his death, until it became a Time Lord prison designed to wheedle secrets out of him.  And how is all that personal-hell mind-buggery supposed to work, since the Doctor doesn’t have the answers?  Didn’t the Time Lords wonder, say after the first billion years, if they were wasting their time and ought to try something else?  Like asking him?  Why, besides giving us something to cliff-hang about, were they going on the offensive in the first place?  If he kept dying and starting over, why does he seem to remember all of it?  If he doesn’t, what’s he moaning about, considering the Doctor who escaped didn’t have to die like the rest?  And if he’s in a tiny prison that’s presumably in a different dimension, like the TARDIS, how can he literally punch his way out of it?

It’s all an excuse to get the Doctor back to Gallifrey (hold that thought), as well as make him sufficiently mad that he won’t want to come back, thus keeping the show away from the place deemed so boring Russell T Davies had to blow it up.  Which works if you bear that in mind (although I dunno, you could maybe write Gallifrey as interesting?), but it also means all that excitement and jubilation we should feel now that Gallifrey’s returning is AWOL.  (And, release that thought.)  It’s Gallifrey!  This time last year, the Doctor was smashing the TARDIS with his fist because the Master lied about where he could find it.  Hooray and stuff!  But no, we’re sticking with one of the Doctor’s least appealing qualities, his I Am The Doctor And I Always Win-ness, so we’re glowering instead of celebrating.  On arrival he stands up to authority (so far, so Doctor), uses words instead of weapons (ditto, up to a point), and tells Rassilon to “get off my planet”, and the rest of the planet’s High Council that they’re “on the next shuttle”.  That bit’s… maybe not so in character.

He’s angry, which is understandable what with Clara dying, plus that billions-of-years-smacking-a-wall thing.  But Rassilon?  Bear in mind this is the top brass on Gallifrey, until he became Timothy Dalton and tried to blow up the universe.  How do we square that one with this one?  Why is he back in charge and not in Time Lord jail, or dead?  (Eh, I guess the Master survived.)  And how could you possibly talk that blow-up-the-universe nutbag into buggering off on a space scooter?  Yes, yes, The Doctor Is That Awesome, you don’t need to keep telling us, but considering they successfully trapped him for blah-blah-many years, isn’t it rather pathetic that a heated exchange is all it takes for them to give up and roll over?  I mean, are we absolutely sure they’re antagonists?  Or was Rassilon the only one to worry about?

Hey ho, the Doctor’s got an ulterior motive for all of that anyway: this Hybrid stuff is a handy excuse to go and see Clara, pluck her out of her timeline moments before her death, bluff the Time Lords and voila, off they go adventuring!  Just as soon as he shoots his friend, the General, so they can get away.  Because “Regeneration is Time Lord man flu,” apparently.  Yeah, hell no it ain’t.  Coming one episode after a script that brilliantly evoked the psychological and physical horror of going through regeneration over and over again, and in a series that regularly makes a song and dance about how devastating it is to change bodies, this is an utter slap in the face, for starters.  Say what you like about the Doctor being angry or pushed to the brink, but tossing away another guy’s regeneration is not something he’d have countenanced before.  He doesn’t dwell on it here, big surprise, and neither does anyone else.  Death, in the Moffatverse, just sanded off another one of its edges.  And the Doctor’s stance on violence continues to wobble all over the place.  (Of course, you could say this is the Doctor showing his resentment for regeneration, because after all, Clara didn’t get to regenerate.  He does say of Clara that when she dies, she stays dead.  But Heaven Sent makes it pretty clear it’s not as simple as saying the Time Lords don’t suffer and die, the bunch of jessies.  So no, sorry.  It’s just shit.)

Can't tell if representation or trolling.
Not optimistic.
And yeah, Clara’s back.  Big duh.  Now, to be fair – oh, I am trying – this is almost a good way to end her story.  I’d be happier if it ended in Face The Raven, of course, since that was the point of Face The Raven.  (And I can’t believe we were still trying to end the story then, after she gave her life for the Doctor, considered leaving, left in a huff, left out of heartbreak and died but-it-was-just-a-dream.  Just be frigging gone already.)  But if we absolutely must dig her up and carry on, fine: have the Doctor “rescue” Clara and attempt, futilely, to convince her to carry on living.  Convince himself, almost, that she isn’t on borrowed time.  And gradually she realises that’s exactly what’s happening and that this is an illusion; she realises that death is something that happened to her because of her actions, she’s ready to accept that and in time he will be too.  Then she’ll go back to (literally) Face The Raven, die just like we already saw, and the Doctor will go off into time and space having learned that everything has its time.  You could have the Doctor come to terms with his grief in person, literally talking to his dead friend, and then they could end it with a big audience cry, if you like that sort of thing.  None of this is even a stretch: it’s clearly where the story is going for the most part, with Clara saying she “doesn’t want this”.  But then again, she could also change her mind, grab a TARDIS and go off on adventures, having learned nothing.

Guess which one he picks.

Zipping to the end of the universe to shake off the Time Lords, who want Clara dead almost as much as I do, the Doctor meets Ashildr again.  (She remembers him and Clara perfectly, which is odd as two episodes ago she relied entirely on diary entries to remember past centuries, and now she’s millions of years older.)  With little else to do, she’s got a theory about the Hybrid (who hasn’t?): it was the Doctor and Clara all along!  If the Doctor keeps her out of her timeline, time and space will go phooey!  So the Doctor decides on a memory wipe.  Even he points out that the show has done this before, but this time there’s a twist, sort of: Clara fiddles with the memory-eraser so it’s the Doctor who forgets her.  Then she gets to zoom off with Ashildr – having apparently forgiven the immortal’s part in her own demise – going back to Gallifrey (and her death) “the long way round”.  Which means she can take as long as she bloody well likes, living (on death-pause) presumably forever until she decides otherwise.  Which is a pretty gigantic advantage over most of the other people in the universe, innit?  Incredibly, there are people who consider this a sad ending for Clara.  Jackpot, more like.

Face The Raven was, tediously, all about the Doctor, but via Clara: you can live by his example but you can’t be him, or you’ll get yourself killed.  Except for Clara, though, because she’s awesome?  So what was that episode about, now that the rug has been pulled out?  What are we saying about Clara, other than here is yet another Moffaty woman in the Doctor’s life who can get one over on him?  She doesn’t seem remotely bothered about the universe tearing itself apart.  Neither does he, to be fair, but what does that mean?  Hooray, they’re both a dick?  Does Clara’s super-fan-dabby-dozy spin-offy ending come at the expense of all life in the universe?  Not so spiffy now, is it?

After an entirely expected change of scenery in the opening seconds, there is admittedly some intrigue about an apparently amnesiac Doctor stumbling into a diner to meet an apparently amnesiac Clara; as the episode progresses, we wonder which one of them is playing dumb, and it’s well played by Capaldi and Coleman.  The Doctor sits there and relates his story (i.e. the episode), seemingly unable to recall Clara.  Except we’re seeing the episode as it unfolded – with Clara in it.  We can only assume he doesn’t specifically remember what she looks like, and you can’t really show that unless she’s got a bag on her head in all the flashbacks.  But is not being able to doodle her really that big a deal?  How is it even a memory wipe if, apart from that, he remembers everything they’ve done together?  What’s to stop him searching for her and causing the whole damn universe-in-peril problem anyway?  At the end, when the diner (which is actually Clara’s TARDIS) noisily dematerialises around him, why doesn’t he twig?  When he sees his own TARDIS at last, which has a whacking great mural of Clara on it, aka the woman he’s been talking to all afternoon… well, “tada” then, surely?  Ultimately, if him remembering her is so bad, why is Clara getting him to run through these events at all?  Sure, she wants to say goodbye and all that, but she’s running a mighty risk.  But then, is the universe in trouble now or not?

Come back, all is forgiven.
This all hinges on what you want from Clara, and what you consider a good ending.  If you want her zooming around Doctor Who land potentially having her own spin-off, no matter what, it’s probably a punch-the-air moment.  If you’re desperately sick of the show sticking its fingers in its ears whenever something warrants a consequence, worse luck.  Net result, Clara hasn’t learned anything and neither has Doctor Who.  Quite the opposite, with all that bollocks about Time Lord man flu, and the rest.

I’ve gone almost the entire review without discussing the other bits, like actors and action scenes, I guess because the episode’s focus is on all that character stuff (and throwing it in the bin).  So: it’s cool to have Gallifrey back, or it would be if they didn’t make it a huge anti-climax.  (Remember when the search for Gallifrey was a big deal?  I guess you can add Where The Smeg Is It Then to the list of big questions not worth waiting for.)  The “Cloisters”, an underground part of Gallifrey surrounding a database full of dead Time Lords, are suitably creepy at least.  In there are all the famous Who monsters, because um, but at least that’ll please the kids.  The best bit is the spooky soundscape.  (The “Wraiths”, aka faceless Time Lords zooming around on tracks, hover between eerie and hilarious.  Wheeeee!)

The guest cast seem pretty good on paper, with Clare Higgins returning as Ohila (one of the ladies on Karn in the first episode this series), pretty much just to scowl and tut.  Donald Sumpter makes a half-hearted Rassilon, now a daft old man shouting ineffectually, but he’s off to a bad start as the character doesn’t add up.  Peter Capaldi works his usual magic, only hampered by the bum notes in the script.  It’s much harder to separate Jenna Coleman from the absolute dog’s dinner they make of Clara’s departure.  And poor old Maisie Williams is handed yet another version of Ashildr, now with a decent memory.  Perhaps her personality changes as often as the Doctor’s face?  That hypothetical Clara/Ashildr spin-off is off to a rocky start; its heroes have had multiple episodes devoted to them but, through the magic of Moffat, still aren’t recognisably people.

And that’s the final irony of Clara.  For all the effort of telling us over and over that she’s the Doctor's equal, if not his superior, they’ve never once made her someone I can relate to or like on anything more than a superficial level, so she’s never been worth the effort.  So long. 

What else, er...  I’m glad Capaldi got his own screwdriver at last.  (And with a whole one year to show it off!)  He also gets to muck about with a guitar again, although having him play Clara’s “song” as literally the tune Murray Gold came up with is, though undeniably economical, also undeniably wank.  The Ye Olde TARDIS set is a beautiful treat, obviously.  But come on: if you want something substantially good to think about, go and watch the previous episode again.

Hell Bent mostly makes me tired.  It does the same old “big and small at the same time” combo as all of Moffat’s finales, and despite flashes of hope, it bungles them both; it delivers a bogus happy ending and in doing so, flushes away any hope of a point to this story.  Worst of all, that really comes as no surprise.  Something certainly needs to regenerate, and it’s not the Doctor.

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