For an episode that featured Galifrey, the end of time, and two TARDIS’, this Doctor Who finale was an oddly personal tale that brought to a close the Doctor’s time with Clara in a way that wasn’t (only) sad and bittersweet, like most companion departures, but was hopeful as well. Even though it’s a lesson learned a couple of times before, seeing the Doctor face the fact that he can’t break the rules and run away from the consequences, “Hellbent” was definitely an hour of Who with punch. Light on the timey-whimey tom foolery, but heavy on the heart, or hearts, on the above average Whovian.
“Taking the long way ’round” was the theme of the day, starting with the long-awaited arrival of the Doctor back on Galifrean soil. “The Day of the Doctor” seemed to set up an immediate future for the Doctor in finding and returning to Galifrey, his long lost home that took all 13 of his various incarnations to save. Then, in “Time of the Doctor,” our hero is saved by Galifrey in his hour of need, granting him more regenerations and thus defeating his enemies (and also, not coincidentally, saving Galifrey again).
After that, the Doctor didn’t seemed overly concerned about finding Galifrey. For people used to a more linear form of television, that might be frustrating, but Doctor Who is never about running to something, it’s not about the endgame, which, as we’re reminded in “Hellbent,” is the point, because the Doctor doesn’t like endings. So why else would the Doctor now find himself returning to Galifrey? A means to an end, of course. As the Doctor’s spent the season saving the day through increasing acts of impossibility, he finally goes too far this week by doing the impossible for his own selfish ends.
The selfish end in question is saving Clara, who you may recall died a few episodes ago. The Doctor manipulates the fear the leaders of Galifrey have of the “Hybrid,” in order to pluck Clara from the moment of her death promising some kind of insight. She arrives on Galifrey like a kind of zombie, trapped between two heart beats, but that kind of life-in-purgatory is no obstacle for the Doctor. Not only does he break the rules, he’s convinced that he can get away with it. After stealing a TARDIS (again), the Doctor takes zombie Clara to the end of time, telling her that the more distance they put between them and Galifrey, the more likely her heart will start again. But does he really believe that?
Regardless, at the end of time, the Doctor encounters another impossibility, Ashildr/Me. Naturally, as an immortal, she made to the end and watches from a reality bubble as all the stars die. She finds it beautiful, the Doctor finds it sad. But it’s through Ashildr that the Doctor comes to epiphany: he and Clara are the Hybrid, two people of one alike mind and disposition. The Time Lords were worried about a prophecy that they didn’t know was self-fulfilling, their fear of the Hybrid, created the Hybrid. But now the question is what to do about it?
Clara, of course, realizes that the Doctor knows more than he’s letting on and watches on the TARDIS’ screen as the Doctor and Ashildr converse. Clara knows she’s not right existence-wise speaking, and knows that the Doctor will need a swift kick to act. She convinces the Doctor that she’s pulled a switcheroo on the device that’s supposed to wipe her memory, it will now wipe his memory instead. What’s kind of a Mexican standoff, is really two friends negotiating a way to say goodbye. Clara knows it’s her time, she understands that this is her end, regardless of whether or not the Doctor can accept that, so she has to trick him into accepting it.
In a way, tricking the Doctor is Clara’s final step in becoming the Doctor. She’s absorbed all his traits including hopefulness, curiosity, and recklessness, and now she can pull the perfect misdirect. It’s the Doctor that get’s his mind erased, not Clara. How often is the Doctor really outsmarted? Despite his brazenness, his intelligence, and his sheer chutzpah, if there’s one thing that the Doctor can’t out do it’s a will stronger then his own, and in tricking him Clara proves she’s the Doctor’s equal. It’s a level few companions reach, and if they do, it’s a status that’s short-live (thinking of Donna Noble there).
The episode is bookended by the Doctor chilling out in an old American cafe in Nevada, telling his story to a waitress that looks like Clara, who naturally turns out to be Clara. Knowing that the Doctor is safe, she departs in her TARDIS with Ashildr, and for once, the companion leaves the Doctor behind and leaves on her own adventures, with her own companion. Clara knows that she has to get back to Galifrey so that they can return her to her timeline and her death, but in order to get there, she will take the long way ’round. You can’t outrun the inevitable, but you can put it off for a while. That’s another trait of the Doctor’s.
There was something poignant in the way Clara died, something in its suddenness and simplicity. It felt wrong that Steven Moffat would try and undo by bringing her back, but honestly, this end to the Clara story suits her best. The Impossible Girl gets an impossible send-off, a story that both ends and doesn’t end. As for the Doctor, he gets to keep Clara as a story. All stories are real, he observes, stories are what memories become when they’re forgotten. When the Doctor sees the portrait of Clara painted on the side of his TARDIS and a message inside that says “Run you clever boy, and be the Doctor,” he knows what’s real, and what he has to do next. Armed with a new sonic screwdriver and a renewed sense of purpose, the Doctor departs for parts unknown.
There were at times when this was an uneven season of Who, but “Hellbent” is one of those episodes that makes it all worthwhile, playing to the very best of what the series can do, and quite nearly stands alone as a well earned wrap up to the Clara days of the Doctor. Both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman put in great performances that paid off two years together as characters that weren’t just mentor or pupil, or father and daughter figures to one and other, but true compatriots that challenged each other, some times positively, and sometimes negatively.
Coleman will be missed, but it does leave the series an opportunity to do something as different with the companion role as it did bringing in Capaldi for the Doctor. Maybe next time we don’t go with the wide-eyed ingenue, maybe someone more worldly, or better still, maybe not somebody from modern England. In the meantime, we’ll have another adventure with River Song, a first for Doctor Twelve, and a presence we haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy for a while. The Doctor, of course, will return on Christmas Day.