Gallifrey! We’ve seen glimpses of it here and there since the show’s revival. In the 50th Anniversary Special we got a bit more than a glimpse, and a promise of the Doctor’s home planet returning some day. Or, more to the point, to see the Doctor return to Gallifrey. At the end of Heaven Sent the Doctor manages to find his way back, even if it was the long way around.
But before we get to Gallifrey we find ourselves in Nevada, U.S.A. The Doctor’s hitting the road, guitar strapped to his side. He stops into a little rest stop on the side of the road where Clara Oswald is waiting tables. It’s nice to see Clara again, but this is Doctor Who, and tragedy is never far around the corner.
Back on Gallifrey the Doctor wanders the wastelands until he makes his way to the fateful farmhouse so central to his history. But the Time Lords know the Doctor has returned and Gallifrey’s cloister bells are sounding the alarm. Meanwhile the Doctor sees a familiar face. A kind old face that warns him of the danger he’s in from the Time Lords right before feeding him a home-cooked meal. A meal interrupted by the Time Lords. They’ve found him, and they demand he goes quietly.
We get a glimpse of life on Gallifrey, of the cast-like system dividing the normal Gallifreyans from the Time Lords. The Gallifreyans are peasant-folk, rather limited in technology and education. The Time Lords, in contrast, are clearly a ruling elite, if not totalitarian-esque in their supremacy over the lowly Gallifreyans. It’s a big piece of the puzzle that explains the Doctor’s motivations. His mistrust, even disgust of his people. He’s a Time Lord, but born lowly. This duality is central to the Doctor’s character, his morality, the guilt he carries, and the actions he takes throughout his lives.
When the Doctor confronts Rassilon, the Lord president of the Time Lord High Council, he takes a hard line. The Doctor demands the Time Lords leave “his” planet, even in the face of an order of execution. Rassilon was never a very nice individual, and he proves it again as he gives the order to kill the Doctor, but even the soldiers under his command protest harming the Doctor.
Back in Nevada the Doctor talks with not-Clara, telling her the tale of what happened when he returned home. The two speak as strangers, as Clara apparently doesn’t know who she is, or who she’s speaking with. But the Doctor uses her presence much like he did when she was alive, aboard the TARDIS; as a sounding board for something miraculous he just did. In fact, he’s telling her the story of his return to Gallifrey, so at least we know early on that he survives the trip. Of course, this all gets turned upside down later.
Back on Gallifrey there’s distension in the ranks as one soldier after another ignore the President’s order to fire, drop their weapon, and side with the Doctor. I’ve long speculated that when the Doctor returned to Gallifrey it would be to usher in a civil war, and it looks like things might be moving in that direction. The Doctor calls in reinforcements and suddenly Rassilon is unceremoniously deposed, leaving the Doctor in command of Gallifrey. This isn’t wholly unprecedented, since he already became the Lord President back in his 4th regeneration.
We learn that the confession device was actually designed as a way for dying Time Lords to upload their experiences–their confessions–to the Matrix. The Matrix is a computer database of the sum knowledge of all Time Lords. The Doctor once obtained all this knowledge when he became president. It will be interesting to see how the Matrix plays out in the future.
Things get interesting when the Doctor demands use of an “extraction chamber” to talk with “an old friend”. He uses it to reach out to Clara an instant before the Raven kills her, pulling her away from her death… for a moment at least. For at least a little while Clara is alive again. The Doctor told the Time Lords he had to retrieve Clara because she holds information about the Hybrid. Of course he has an ulterior motive. The rules say that the retrieval can only be used to delay death for a moment, but the Doctor is willing to risk everything to keep Clara alive. He is so desperate he even shoots and kills one of the Time Lords that would stop him. Even though he’ll regenerate, it’s a rather shocking move by the Doctor. As we’ve seen, a desperate, fearful Doctor is a dangerous thing.
Sadly the only course of action to save Clara is to wipe her memory so the Time Lords can never find her. Much like the 10th Doctor did to Donna Noble to protector her, he plans to do the same to Clara. Donna is one of my favorite companions, and watching her memory wiped was nearly traumatizing. While it isn’t as strong a reaction this time, It’s still tragic that Clara Oswald, the Impossible Girl, the woman who met every incarnation and saved his lives scores over, could lose her memory of it all.
Clara learns how long the Doctor spent in the confession dial and it devastates her. She knows better than anyone what he’s like when he spends too long on his own. She hates that he did what they did to himself just for a chance to save her. She refuses to let him continue with his plan, and makes a confession of her own. She then takes a moment to berate the Time Lords for being generally hated throughout time and space, doing so to waste time as a decoy so the Doctor can sneak away, steal a TARDIS, and materialize around her. We actually get to see the console room of a un-doctored TARDIS. It’s something right out of the Classic era, and it’s fantastic!
But things aren’t so fantastic on board. Clara’s future is still uncertain, but the Doctor doesn’t care. He’ll run to the end of time if he has to, and that’s exactly where he’s headed. But he also has to do the memory wipe thing, and by now Clara suspects the Doctor’s plan isn’t a good one. She’s starting to think the Doctor has gone too far. The Time Lord Victorious rears his ugly head as he declares he’s answerable to no-one.
One last surprise unveils Me, or Ashildr, to the Doctor. Sitting in a reality bubble at the end of time and space, she’s been waiting for the Doctor to stop by. Ashildr plainly states for the Doctor that sometimes even he can’t change time. It’s a lesson he frequently ignores, but on occasion forces him to move on from tragedy. In their conversation the Doctor reveals that the Hybrid is Ashildr. At least that’s his opinion. But Ashildr brings up the fact that the Doctor might be the Hybrid since he’s born of Gallifrey but spends so much time on Earth. Why, she asks plainly? Is he half Time Lord, half Human?
In truth Ashildr doesn’t believe it to be the Doctor. Rather she implies the Hybrid might be a pair of individuals: the Doctor and Clara. Clara overhears all of this, even when the Doctor tells Ashildr he’s going to wipe Clara’s memory.
Clara can’t accept the Doctor risking time and space to save her. She fights for her death against the Doctor’s plea. She declares her past too important to be wiped. She is entitled to it, and she refuses to have it taken away. The Doctor comes to his senses in the face of her objection, but it doesn’t make it any easier. The Doctor knows he went too far. He decides that either Clara’s memory has to be wiped to saver her, or his memory of her has to be wiped so he’ll never again try to save her to the detriment of everyone else. In a 50/50 chance they both hold the memory wipe device and wish each other luck. In the end it looks like the Doctor’s luck isn’t so good.
He wakes up in the Nevada desert. With his memory jumbled, he’s alone, lost, and afraid. The episode ends with him talking to the girl at the counter. He remembers his adventures, everything he’s ever been or done, but there’s a gaping hole where Clara should be. He knows her name, but nothing else. It’s an amazing juxtaposition to having erased Donna’s memory of him and their adventures. The Doctor removed all memory of Clara so he would never go too far to save her again.
Hell Bent is about the Doctor coming to terms with a companions death in a way we’ve never seen. What’s truly amazing about this episode is how it brings close not only to Ashildr’s character, but to Clara as well. She’s still technically dead, but now trapped in a time bubble she is free to travel time and space with Ashildr in their very own TARDIS. This not only opens the door to both their returns, but leaves a gaping hole open for the Time Lords. Can they come through into normal reality now? Will they? Is the Doctor still in charge of Gallifrey?
Hell Bent is a thrilling adventure to cap off the best season of Doctor Who ever. This season Doctor Who finally became everything I’ve ever wanted, and it was a triumph in every way. Dark, threatening, tragic, and very integrated into the lore of the show. Hell Bent is the exclamation point on a declaration that Doctor Who has grown up, and get out of its way because it’s only going to get bigger from here.