The conflict runs strong with this pair.
Gears turn as a figure walks through a chamber. This figure flips a switch with bloody hands and collapses into dust as the Doctor materializes inside a teleporter chamber. He leaves the chamber with the weight of Clara’s death on his mind and analyzes the dusty remains. He vows to find those responsible and he won’t stop until he does.
He moves into a circular corridor and peers out of a window, realizing that he’s trapped in a castle tower. He’s only about a light-year from the trap street alley in London and he muses aloud about how he’ll determine his location by the stars. Further on, he finds a shovel and dirt. His anger continues to boil until he spots a couple of monitors with his image on them. From that, he determines that a hooded figure on the other side of the tower is watching him.
More than that, it is stalking him.
The Doctor runs but is trapped in a dead-end corridor by a locked door. He thinks that he’s met the creature before and uses a bit of telepathy to open the door. Unfortunately, a wall lies beyond and the creature reaches for the Doctor’s head. As the Doctor admits that he’s actually scared of dying, time stops and the castle shifts all around him. He slips past the creature and ends up in a bedroom where an aged portrait of Clara rests on the wall. The Doctor analyzes it with a loupe as the creature shambles into the room.
The Doctor finally recognizes the creature as a nightmare that he had about a dead, old woman he once met. She was covered in veils and flies swarmed around her body. He was haunted for years. Regardless, the Doctor deduces that this tower is a torture chamber tailor-made to his psyche, and he escapes the nightmare by diving out of a window. As he plunges into the mists, he admits again that he is scared of dying…
…and emerges into the TARDIS.
Okay, not exactly. It’s really a manifestation of his subconscious that he created to give himself more time to think. He’s also manifested an avatar of Clara that stands before the chalkboard with her back to him. The Doctor deduces that the tower is standing in the sea. He previously dropped his loupe to test the local gravity and broke the window to determine how far he would fall. He needed to know if he could survive. After all, “Rule One about being interrogated: you are the only irreplaceable person in the room. If they threaten you with death, show ’em who’s boss. Die faster.”
The Doctor plunges into the waters below. As he regains consciousness, the manifestation of the TARDIS comes back to life and the Clara avatar writes on the chalkboard:
- “Question 1 – What is this place?”
- “Question 2 – What did you say that made the creature stop?”
- “Question 3 – How are you going to WIN?”
The Doctor peers into the water below him and spots a field of skulls on the seabed. He returns to the surface and enters the colossal tower, eventually finding a room with a lit fireplace. It even has a set of his own clothes ready for him. He dresses and leaves the room. Next is a small room with hand-drawn arrows pointing inward to an octagonal shape. He muses with his mental Clara and ponders the creature’s movements and purpose before heading to an outside garden. There he finds a rectangular mound of dirt and a shovel, so he decides to dig.
An hour later, he has a hole but not much else. He turns at the sound of flies and finds a monitor. It shows the creature staring at a smooth surface. In reality, it is right behind the door to the garden. The Doctor wrestles with the creature and the door before wedging the shovel beneath the doorknob. The creature shuffles into the octagon room so the Doctor continues to dig.
Night falls as the Doctor finally hits something. He notes that the stars are wrong before looking at his prize. It is the missing octagonal floor tile and it contains the words “I AM IN 12”. The Doctor’s analysis is interrupted as the creature emerges from the dirt, having dug into the garden from the octagon room.
The Doctor takes refuge in his mental TARDIS again, this time realizing that he must tell truths – perhaps, confessions? – to escape the creature. The problem is that there are truths that the Doctor can never tell.
In the real world, the Doctor confesses that he didn’t leave Gallifrey because he was bored. Instead, it was because he was scared. The creature backs off and the tower shifts again, this time revealing that the castle is standing alone in the midst of an endless sea.
As time marches on, the Doctor begins to measure the creature’s pace. From one end of the castle to the other, he has 82 minutes of solitude to eat, sleep, and work. He tries to find Room 12, which is a task in itself since the castle jumbles its internal geography. The castle tidies up after itself and resets rooms to the condition they were in before the Doctor arrived.
The Doctor muses about the nature of heaven and hell – “Hell is just Heaven for bad people” – and eventually returns to the teleporter room. There he finds the word “BIRD” scrawled on the sand of the fallen figure before the castle sweeps it away. He wonders what he’s missing as he wanders the halls, eventually finding Room 12. He decides that it is both a trap and a lure, also putting together that the stars are all wrong for the time zone. If he didn’t know better, he would say that he’s moved 7000 years into the future.
To stave off the creature, the Doctor talks about the Hybrid. Long before the Time War, the Time Lords knew the cataclysmic war was coming. There were many prophecies and stories concerning it, including one that mentioned a creature called the Hybrid, who was half Dalek and half Time Lord, the ultimate warrior. The Doctor confesses that he knows that the Hybrid is real, that he knows where it is, and what it is. He confesses that he is afraid of it.
The creature backs off as the castle moves again, opening the way through Room 12. At the far end lies a semi-transparent wall with the word “HOME” written on it. It is the final obstacle, one which the Doctor presumes will take him to the TARDIS if he can get through twenty feet of Azbantium. Of course, the mineral is four hundred times tougher than diamond.
The Doctor’s internal Clara asks the three questions again and the Doctor wonders why he can’t just lose. It would be easy to simply confess the secret details of the Hybrid. The Clara avatar responds with one handwritten word: “NO!”
The Doctor replies that he remembers everything, and no matter what he does she’ll still be gone. The Clara avatar responds by talking to him, explaining that he is not the only person to lose someone. It’s the story of everybody, and to get over it and beat it, he has to move on. It’s time to get up and win.
The Doctor faces the creature, apologizing for his lack of further confessions. He offers the truth as he punches the wall: The Hybrid is a very dangerous secret that cannot be let free, so the Doctor will break out of this prison and confront his captors. He offers a story from the Brothers Grimm until the creature grabs his head. The creature vanishes and a severely burned Doctor takes refuge in his safe space again.
Time Lords always take forever to die, even when they are too injured to regenerate and every cell in the body tries to use every last reserve to save them. He muses that it will take about a day and a half to reach the top of the tower. There he reveals everything that he remembered, including that the castle was created specifically for him. He’s been here for a very, very long time.
The teleporter chamber is a hard drive that contains the Doctor’s image from 7000 years before. The dying Doctor is the power source, burning the old Doctor to make a new one. The Doctor’s body fades into oblivion, leaving only a skull behind as a new copy emerges from the chamber and vows vengeance for Clara’s death.
The cycle continues for centuries. Each time, the Doctor gets a little further into the Azbantium chamber as he continues to tell the tale of The Shepherd Boy. Over four billion years later, the Doctor lands the final punch in the wall. A bright light floods around him as the creature falls apart into a pile of gears. The Doctor steps into the light and lands on a desert world. The Azbantium tunnel collapses into an image of the castle and sea on the face of the Doctor’s confession dial.
A boy runs up to the Doctor and the Time Lord tells him to find someone important in the city beyond and deliver a message: He’s back, he knows what they did, and he’s on his way. He came the long way around.
The desert world is Gallifrey, and the Doctor finally reveals the secret of the prophecy. A Dalek would never allow a half-Dalek being to exist, and the Hybrid – the being destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins – is the Doctor himself.
In the Nevada desert, the Doctor walks into a diner with a guitar and is greeted by a waitress who looks remarkably like Clara Oswald. Oddly, the Doctor doesn’t recognize her. He has no money but offers to play for a drink. He also notes that the waitress is English and wonders how she got to the middle of nowhere Nevada. She tells him that it was magic.
The Doctor strums out a tune named Clara – itself the character’s theme by Murray Gold – and tells her the story of the woman behind the song.
On Gallifrey, the Doctor wanders the desert until he arrives at the barn where he nearly set off the Moment and discovered how to save his home. The same barn where he slept as a child. When he arrives, the Cloister bells sound in the Citadel. Rassilon advises a guard named Gastron to not approach the Cloister Wraiths contained within before speaking with Ohila of the Sisterhood of Karn. She has heard that the Doctor has returned home and she came to see the fireworks.
The Doctor enters the barn and encounters a woman who recognizes him. Despite her warning that Rassilon will kill him, he settles in for a bowl of soup with the locals as a military craft arrives. Gastron, the ship’s pilot, demands that the Doctor accompany him to the Citadel. Instead, the Doctor walks up to the ship and draws a line in the sand, standing in defiance of the Rassilon’s order. The civilians applaud.
The General decides to talk to the Doctor – Words are the Doctor’s weapons, the General muses, but when did they stop being theirs? – and the Doctor rebuffs him. The same happens when the High Council bows before the Doctor. It isn’t until Rassilon himself comes before him that the Doctor acts. After all, the Doctor doesn’t blame the Time Lords for the horrors of the Last Great Time War. He only blames Rassilon.
The Doctor walks up to Rassilon and ignores an offered handshake. Instead, he drops the confession dial at Rassilon’s feet and demands that the president gets off his planet. Rassilon tries to defend his actions, both those of the Time War and the Doctor’s incarceration, but finally orders the Doctor’s execution.
The Doctor stops his story to ask the waitress for a drink. When he picks up again, every shot from the firing squad has gone wide. Each soldier drops his weapon as they express their respect for the war hero who saved Gallifrey. Rassilon raises his gauntlet and asks just how many regenerations they granted him back on Trenzalore. After all, he has all night to work through them. His vengeance is cut short as reinforcements arrive and the General joins his soldiers at the Doctor’s side.
Later, in the Citadel, the General explains to the Doctor that Gallifrey was returned to the universe at the extreme end of the time continuum. It was a safety measure for the Time Lords since the Doctor never confirmed that it was safe for Gallifrey to return to the moment in which it disappeared. Since the end of time is so near, anyone who is banished doesn’t have far to go before reaching the edge of the universe. Nevertheless, the Doctor exiles the entire High Council.
The Doctor visits the Cloister Chambers and chats with Ohila about the confession dial. It was meant to purify a dying Time Lord’s soul so that they could be uploaded to the Matrix without regrets. Instead, Rassilon configured the Doctor’s as a torture chamber. Returning to the High Council chambers, the Doctor discusses the prophecy of the Hybrid with Ohila and the General, exposing the information that Rassilon feared.
The Doctor asks for the use of an extraction chamber so he can visit an old friend. He uses it to remove Clara from the moment of her death. The Doctor and the General explain where they are and coach Clara through the last moment of her life. Her functions are a reflex but her heart no longer beats, a phenomenon that scares her. Despite the need to return her to her death, the Doctor punches the General and takes his sidearm. Clara is shocked but the Doctor asks how many regenerations the General has left.
The Doctor shoots the General and then asks for a human-compatible neural block before he and Clara run. The General, meanwhile, regenerates into a dark-skinned woman. Ohila arrives and presumes that the Doctor has run straight into the most dangerous place he could think of.
They end up in the Cloisters, and Clara is introduced to the Cloister Wraiths. The Wraiths are the firewall to keep foreign entities out of the Matrix by trapping them in the Cloisters, preventing them from ever leaving. The room is full of Cybermen, Daleks, and Weeping Angels, but the Doctor knows of a secret way out. He knows this path through a maintenance hatch because he heard of a boy who was lost there and told a secret by the Wraiths. The last anyone heard of the boy, he stole the moon and the president’s wife.
That boy, of course, was the Doctor.
As the General and Ohila search for the Doctor and Clara, the Doctor explains that Clara’s death was engineered by the Time Lords. The coup he staged on Gallifrey was in the service of finding the technology to resurrect her. He pretended to know about the Hybrid just for that. The General and Ohila arrive and demand that the Doctor and Clara surrender. Clara asks how long the Doctor was trapped in the confession dial, and while it was 4.5 billion years, the General reveals that the truth could have released him sooner.
The General and Ohila were part of the deception.
Clara demands to know why the Doctor would put himself through hell for her, then takes the time to say all the things that need to be said. She calls Ohila and the General monsters and refuses to divulge what she told the Doctor. While she engages them, the Doctor escapes and steals a TARDIS before materializing it around Clara. They run away, but the Doctor is stunned to realize that Clara hasn’t been freed of the quantum shade‘s chronolock or her death state. Ohila’s warning that saving Clara echoes in the console room, but the Doctor is sure that the damage to the universe will be minimal. The Doctor decides to take Clara to the very end of the universe, declaring that he’s answerable to no one.
Four knocks sound at the TARDIS door. The Doctor exits alone to find Me, the last being in existence in a small universe. She’s been staying alive by using a reality bubble on the Cloisters, watching the universe die around her. She explains that Clara’s death was her own doing, not the Doctor’s and not Me’s. She also asks to learn the secret of the Hybrid, which the Wraith told the Doctor as a boy. He speculates that she is the Hybrid, born of humanity and the Mire. She speculates that the Doctor could be half-human, but he laughs at her.
Me presents another theory: The Hybrid is not one person, but rather two true companions who will go to extremes for the sake of each other. A powerful and compassionate Time Lord and a human who serves as a guiding conscience. As Clara watches on the TARDIS monitor, the Doctor explains that he will wipe Clara’s memory of him to prevent the Time Lords from tracking her before dropping her off somewhere to live her life.
Clara throws a wrinkle in the plan by reversing the polarity of the neural blocker and taking charge of her own future. The Doctor wonders if she could do that as he realizes that their adventure has to end. They choose to activate the neural blocker together and let fate decide.
In the end, Clara succeeded. The Doctor’s memories of her are erased, and as he falls asleep he says that she needs to run like hell. She should never be cruel and never be cowardly, and if she ever is, she should always make amends. He asks for one last smile as he tells her that everything is okay – he broke every rule he had and became the Hybrid – before he finally loses consciousness.
The Doctor wakes up in Nevada where a man has been told by Clara to look after him. The story brings him to the diner where he admits that he remembers adventures with Clara and talking with her in the Cloisters, but he can’t remember what she looks like or what the very important message was. The Doctor does remember visiting the diner with Amy and Rory, however, he doesn’t know where his TARDIS is.
Clara suggests that lost memories become stories and songs when they’re forgotten, then walks into the back room as the Doctor continues playing his song. The diner is revealed to be the stolen TARDIS as it dematerializes around the Doctor. As Clara and Me travel the universe as a pair of adventuring immortals, returning to Gallifrey the long way around, the Doctor finds his TARDIS parked in the desert with Rigsy’s memorial painted upon it.
The Doctor admires the artwork and steps into the TARDIS. The ship welcomes him home. As he puts his guitar away, he sees a message from Clara on the blackboard – “Run you clever boy, and be a Doctor” – and receives a new sonic screwdriver from the TARDIS.
He dons his coat and sets a course. The memorial burns away, leaving no trace of Clara except a diner flying through space and time.
This pair, while designed as one cohesive story, is an exercise in the love it/hate it dichotomy. Let me explain.
First, I find Heaven Sent to be an amazing tour de force for Peter Capaldi. He explores this hour-long mystery on his own and carries the whole episode with aplomb. This is the prime example of his craft as an actor and artist. The story itself is also well-crafted, orbiting around the rather short tale that is featured as the Doctor punches through the crystal wall. The Shepherd Boy contains the key elements of inspiration for Steven Moffat’s script, from the drops in the sea and the stars in the sky to the little bird who sharpens his beak on the diamond mountain until the first second of eternity is over. It does so well to remind us of the story threads from this series of episodes and lay the path toward resolution.
But then we come to Hell Bent. The great parts are the return to Gallifrey, the circumstances of its return to our universe, and the sheer hubris of the Time Lords (and their associates) placed square in the spotlight. I love seeing the resolution of The Day of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor, I love the Doctor’s realization in the face of Gallifreyan ignobility that he can never truly go home again, and I love stories where the Doctor realizes that he can go too far on his own, but I absolutely despise this ending for Clara’s journey.
This is Steven Moffat’s inability to simply let characters go on full display. It was exercised before when Amy and Rory couldn’t just leave the show but instead had to be written into a semi-nonsensical temporal paradox. It was exercised again in Last Christmas where Clara’s story threads were tied off in a beautiful tearjerker of a farewell that ended in a terrible coda. And here we are again, after a series where Clara’s pride and arrogance play out in a classic action-reaction arc, presented with a series ender that completely neuters the finale by reversing the consequences. It leaves the resolution dangling by shunting a fan-favorite companion into a state where they (presumably) can never be seen again outside of quick cameos. It’s Donna Noble all over, like Steven Moffat learned the wrong lesson from Russell T Davies.
It’s a hard calculation because the stories this time around have been fun adventures with powerful messages, but the resolution feels hollow.
Or, in the case of the whole Hybrid thread, incomplete and half-hearted. I get the impression that Steven Moffat had no idea what to do with it outside of a clever spark of inspiration. It ends up here are a muddled mess with no solid resolution.
Some other interesting notes that I made include the newfound ability for the Doctor to telepathically commune with inanimate objects, the ability for Time Lords to change gender (previously noted in The Curse of Fatal Death, The Doctor’s Wife, The Night of the Doctor, and Dark Water) and skin color during regeneration, and the relative ease with which other Time Lords recover from regenerations (like Romana in Destiny of the Daleks), marking the Doctor’s traumatic regenerations as fairly unique in comparison. I was happy to see the return of the classic TARDIS console room and over the moon about Clara’s beautiful theme becoming actual in-universe diegetic music.
Also, Jackson, Nevada doesn’t exist. The closest this episode’s wide spot in the road comes to reality is the Jackson Mountain range in the state’s northwest region. I grew up in the western United States, so I had no choice but to look into that one.
Heaven Sent alone is an easy top score while Hell Bent falls well below average due to Clara’s departure. Together, they balance somewhere above the average. As is tradition around these parts, I round up for optimism’s sake, but it’s almost a stretch this time.
Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Husbands of River Song
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.