[Review] - Doctor Who Series 9 Finale, Episodes 11 And 12, "Heaven Sent" And "Hell Bent"

I invite you to take a look at what I wrote in my last review of Doctor Who, at which time I went on at length about the qualities of the episode Face the Raven, and how it handled a very particular issue I thought quite well. I invite you to refresh yourself on my thoughts at this point, because these episodes did a complete job shitting on them as profusely as possible. Yes, these episodes remind us never to give Steven Moffat too much credit, because he can always find a way to disappoint us in the end. After a more uneven series then last year, Moffat returned to fail-form with a overwrought, over written finale that was too hung up on its own cleverness to even remotely approach a consideration of quality.

It was, sadly, the same story as it always seems to be. Moffat had a dozen half-ideas, and rather than pick one or two to fully flesh out and develop, he through the whole lot together, hoping that where one faltered, another could be stuffed in to provide narrative support. The end result is a blitzkrieg of concepts, with almost no substance, a lot of sensationalism, and a fanatical devotion to a character that had been striped of its dignity and relevance. And I'm getting very tired of being this disappointed in things I love.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that are an impressive bird.

Gallifrey. Gallifrey should have been enough. His home, his fear, his failure and his future. The thing he's been running from since the beginning, and the thing he's mourned since the return. Gallifrey used to be the place he avoided at all costs, but since 2005, its been the one place he can never return. Its been his boogeyman and his unicorn. His seventh ring of Hell and his personal Nirvana. Gallifrey should have been enough. Returning to Gallifrey, finding it again, coming to terms with what it means to go home should have been enough to warrant its own focus. This was a moment ten series in the making. For all the bad that the Time Lords have done, to step foot on that rusty soil again should have been an emotional hurricane for the Doctor. So, why in the hell wasn't it? Why was it turned into yet another opportunity for the Doctor to be a fucking superhero? If this series has been about the Doctor losing at every turn, why couldn't this have been about the Doctor winning? Why why why must the Doctor always be the smartest one in the room? Why, in a room of his equals, can't he have just been the guy who came home again, even if he did take the long way round?

I actually liked Heaven Sent. Quite liked it. While it has a lot of the coffee stains around the edges that is the warning sign that Moffat is letting the ideas get the better of him, the core concept remains sound, and works better after the reveal at that end, not in spite of it. Moffat's ideas tend to work best when coming from a small, focused place of simplicity. The Doctor is trapped in a castle, with no way out. That is a simple idea, and Moffat manages to keep it simple for most of the run time. Once he reveals the greater truth, it doesn't make the idea any more complex, it just serves a more complex idea. Missy spelled it out in episode two, the Doctor succeeds because he is always capable of finding a way out. His stubborn refusal to accept defeat is his defining characteristic, regardless of his regeneration. The scenario presented is therefore entirely reasonable. Given an infinity amount of time, and very little chance of cumulative failure, he would opt to slowly chip away at a wall over the course of billions of years rather than accept defeat.

Its in Hell Bent that things fall apart. Not at first though. At first, it seems like Gallifrey would be enough. And for the first, what was it, third of the episode, I was right along for the ride. Moffat remembered that Gallifrey is more than just Time Lords, it's people too. Adding in his sand-dusted humble origins actually serves the character well, as it informs his tendency to side with the small folk, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. In his youth, he was those things, eating his not-quite-tomato soup in the shadow of the citadel of the Time Lords. It also informs why he was never a very good Time Lord; he was always an outsider, never one of the true upper class, but an interloper in their midst and most likely to break their rules and go running off. This is good contribution, and a salvaged scrap of pre-TARDIS information that provides detail without explicitly describing origin. And had the episode been a class struggle, a political metaphor, or even just a celebration of the best and worst traits of the Time Lords, leading to a major shift in the status, and the Doctor's status as a persona non grata among them, then it might have been fantastic. Remember, he was their President throughout his Fourth and Fifth regenerations.

But then Moffat started getting ideas. And any semblance of this being a story about what it means to go home after not being able to do so disappeared with a frankly lazy expulsion of Rassilon. then this episode became about Moffat wanting to eat his cake, while also keeping it and loving it and calling it George. It was about the Hybrid, the sort of stupid idea that has no foundations, has had no illusions, and betrays the fact that it was a go-nowhere idea to give the baddies a bit of pointed intent and give the heroes a vague threat to cower from. It was about Me, a character who keep reappearing despite the fact that Moffat can't settle on what she's meant to represent, and in the end is just a convenient exposition tool. It was about Cloister Wraiths and prophecies (seven hells, how I hate the lazy, spineless cliche of prophecy). It was about the Sisterhood of Karn being there for no good reason. But mostly it was about Clara, and Steven Moffat being too in love with his own ideas that he's willing to shoot himself in the foot, and then tangle himself up in technobabble in order to try to preserve some dignity despite having none left after undoing the beautiful exist that the character already received.

Maybe it is fitting that Clara left the show in the same manner in which she entered it: a shameless Mary Sue character. Clara was created for the worst reason: to make her relevant not just to a Doctor, but to all the Doctors. It was Moffat's attempt to contribute an element to the show that had an effect on the entire legacy of the series. She was poking around inside the Doctor's timeline from the very beginning. She was gifted with a sense of destiny, of nonspecific purpose, that she was integral to the Doctor's survival. The TARDIS didn't like her, and she cared about children and then all of that was forgotten about. Swept aside and never mentioned again. And now, he goes to extra ordinary means to undo her lovely death, then has to lacquer the back third of the episode in half baked and empty excuses as to why she can't stay it the TARDIS. Oh, it will unravel the Web of Time, she might be the Hybrid, she's caught between heart beats. She had a perfectly good excuse for not being able to travel with him any more, and that's because she was dead in a trap street two episodes back. With dignity and purpose. Instead, because Moffat can't let her go, like he couldn't with Amy, like Davis couldn't with Donna or Rose, because Clara is special in way that was never made apparent to anyone outside of Moffat's own internal logic, she gets to live forever, ageless between heart beats, and she gets a TARDIS of her very own too? If her dying as a sacrifice was her emulating the Doctor in the best way, her getting to fly off in a TARDIS, immortal and with a companion is her emulating the Doctor in the worst. Seriously, the whole thing felt like reading fanfic.

Like the Silence before her, and the Weeping Angels before that, and River Song before that, Clara suffered the worst fate Moffat is capable of: over use and unnecessary definition. His tendency is to take a good idea, and think it into absurdity and ineffectiveness. Everything gets taken just one extra degree too far. He creates these Big Uncertainties, then when it comes time to fill them in, he can never seem to come up with an idea that matches the effectiveness of uncertainty. But then, as time goes on, he just keeps adding details that don't make a damned bit of sense, and eventually he hits a point where he throws in an detail that was obviously just here to give the current threat some illusion of importance. I'll use the Silence as a parallel for the tech help line phone number Clara got back when she first joined the show. At first, the Silence were a menacing race of memory wiping monsters. Really, they didn't need to be anything more than that. Then they became weapons for a war brewing against the Doctor. And then, in the end, they were fancy space-priests for a Church we'd never heard of before and will likely never hear from again. Clara at first got the number from the lady at the shop. then it was revealed that they lady in question was Missy, manipulating the Doctor. Here, he felt the need to tie that number to the notion of the Hybrid, a stunted plot diversion invented for these episodes as another contortion to explain why Clara couldn't stay with the Doctor.

So, Clara is gone now, finally and maybe for good (though she has a stubborn habit of not staying gone). The Doctor erases his memory of her, which is a cop out of massive proportions, and is kind of a shitty thing to do to the audience, because it undermines the emotional effectiveness of the time they spent together and of all the consequences their travels begot. And it in no way addresses the fact that a shit tonne of other characters met, and still remember her, and would reasonably inquiry after her when next they see the Doctor. But he goes on travelling, and Moffat goes on running things, and next series we'll get another companion, likely a feisty young woman from 21st century London with a thirst for adventure. The show is nearly 53 years old. It has had 33 series completed, plus a host of specials. It's been nearly 11 years since it returned from hiatus. This is a show that lasts, and it lasts by doing things differently, and interestingly. This last episode was neither, and it endemic of the way things have been. I have no doubt that the series will continue for some time, and that there will be much to love about it as it does. There was much to love about this series. And there will always be rough patches. But the surest way to irrelevancy is to keep doing things the same way. The show historically has three opportune times to fundamentally change the way things are done: when a new showrunner takes over, when the Doctor regenerates, and when new companions join the TARDIS. Now is one of those times. But will anything actually change?
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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