“Ambitious” is a word I’ve already used to describe some of this season, characterised as it has been by a number of episodes which have tried to do big, bold things – some of which worked and some of which didn’t. Fitting then, that they saved the most “ambitious” episode for last, with the Doctor and the show defying the rules of time and space and modern tv audiences, even if, again, some of the big, bold things work beautifully and some don’t.
“Hell Bent” begins with the Doctor and that infernal guitar heading into a diner, where Clara – a character who’s had just as much screen time since she “died” as she did when she was alive – is a waitress, and proceeding to play her a song and tell her a story. Is it a dream? Is it a miracle?
As it turns out, it’s neither, but we have to go “the long way round” to find out, touching on a huge amount of the show’s Time War history as we do. It’s an episode obviously crafted with immense love and respect for Doctor Who lore but it does, I think, require a much longer relationship with the show than I’ve had to fully appreciate and understand much of it. As a relatively late guest to the Gallifrey party, I was more guessing than entirely comprehending two thirds of it.
Still, for all “Hell Bent” is about the Doctor’s earliest history, it’s also about his most recent, specifically his profound connection with Clara – someone so all-consumingly important to him, he’d tear down the universe and everything in it to bring her back.
There are other moments which resonate – the sequence where the firing squad make their stand with the Doctor is glorious – but it’s the last twenty minutes or so which work best; a long, heartbreaking goodbye, with an unexpected but desperately sad sting in the tale. It might not entirely make sense, but it’s still lovely and moving, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are wonderful, throughout, and for all I’m not keen on the 2015 fashion of killing then resurrecting characters (see exhibit 1 and exhibit 2), Clara deserved a much better farewell than “Face the Raven” and this episode gave her one. Even if, to my mind, being stuck in a box with the appalling Ashildr for eternity is worse than anything the Raven could come up with. At least this way, we might see Clara again. And even if we don’t, like she said, we have the songs and the stories. Aw.