Impossible Girl (Hell Bent)
|For the second episode running, the Doctor struggles to eat soup.|
It’s December 5th, 2015. Justin Bieber still has three songs in the top ten, with “Love Yourself” at number one. Wstrn, the Weeknd, and Grace featuring G-Eazy also chart, with Adele still in there too. In news, the United Nations Climate Change Conference convenes in Paris, beginning the process of the Paris accords. A terrorist attack in San Bernandino, California kills fourteen, while the UK begins air strikes in Syria following a parliamentary vote to authorize them.
On television, meanwhile, Moffat’s masterpiece. This is, I imagine, a rather more controversial claim than last week. Sure, Hell Bent had a 2% higher AI rating than Heaven Sent, which means that it’s objectively as good as Kill the Moon and Aliens of London, but I don’t actually think that joke needs a punchline. The consensus here is clear: Heaven Sent is a brilliant and emotional triumph, while Hell Bent is a hot mess. To an extent I can’t even argue with this. Hell Bent is unequivocally messy, and it has Jenna Coleman in that blue-grey sweater. But many of my favorite Doctor Who stories are messy. Heck, possibly all of my favorite Doctor Who stories are messy.
Hell Bent, of course, is exceptionally so; a story that positively revels in the number of unrealized parallels and allusions it has going on, constantly seeming like it wants to foreshadow things it in reality has no intention of paying off. Beyond that, there is a willfully perverse sense of importance here. This is a story that brings to Moffat’s post-Day of the Doctor Gallifrey arc to a close with little more than a shrug, resurrects Rassilon for the sake of kicking him out of the story at the sixteen minute mark, radically redoes our entire idea of what the Matrix is to provide a neat horror setting for ten minutes in the middle, and concludes the entire hybrid plot with a shrug and a hand-wave. For people who don’t like it when Moffat does things like this—and obviously there are a fair number of them—this borders on trolling. Certainly when Moffat’s structural tics are being deployed at this scale and on the back of such an imperiously confident run as the last eighteen episodes it’s easier to read this as a decisive pair of middle fingers to the haters than as mere incompetence.
For those of us who have bought into Moffat’s idiosyncrasies, however, this is something altogether different. Moffat doesn’t decline to pay something off out of laziness; he does it to make a point about whatever it is he pays off in its stead. And he’s consistent in how that bait and switch works: he promises a grandiose epic of manpain and then offers an intensely human story, typically but not always about women. Within this framework, the question of what the story of Clara’s death would end up focusing on was a non-question: it would focus on Clara.
I’ve sneered at those who think Clara’s death was an adequate end to her story before, but mostly in terms of its unworkability within early-21st century Doctor Who and in terms of the persistent vein of sexism that runs through anti-Clara discourse. But let’s also just acknowledge how poorly it would work for Clara herself to die in episode ten of the season after her long sequence of averted departures and quasi-deaths. To follow all of these with her dying mid-season in a minor misjudgment is a far more egregious anticlimax than leaving a couple of options open for exactly who or what the hybrid is; for anyone at all invested in Cara’s story—a story that, if one counts Asylum of the Daleks (and why shouldn’t one), has been running more than three years at this point, and by any measure longer than the “finding Gallifrey” plot—it would have been an insult.
And so Hell Bent is stubbornly, defiantly about Clara, which is to say a magnificent case of form following function. And more specifically, it becomes about Clara and the Doctor’s friendship, and about the idea of good people being bad for each other. This is hard, and rough territory. We don’t want to view Clara and the Doctor as bad for each other. It goes against the basic pleasure we’re primed to take in the show. But Hell Bent sells it with deft efficiency, setting up another cracked mirror between the Doctor’s relationship with Clara and his relationship with Missy, and going for the easy but effective shock of having the Doctor shoot the general. But its real triumph in this regard comes in the cloister scene, when the entirety of Heaven Sent becomes, in a moment of stunned horror for Clara, an act of mad, stupid, and pointless folly in which the Doctor takes her own notion of “duty of care” and does the most tragic thing imaginable with it, namely exactly what she’d have done. Moffat has called it the best scene in Heaven Sent, and he’s right. It’s utterly shorn of that episode’s self-congratulatory cleverness, instead serving as a simple, brutally human moment.
The most interesting aspect of this, however, is the recapitulation of Journey’s End and the Doctor’s non-consensual mindwipe of Donna, which is here presented as another example of the way in which the Doctor and Clara are bad for each other. Moffat’s intentionality here is fuzzy—I actually ended up in a polite argument with him on some mutual friend’s Facebook page about this in which he defended the Doctor’s mindwipe of Donna which concluded with a very him statement to the effect of “who among us hasn’t postponed important conversations in order to set up our ex with alternate versions of ourselves.” But regardless of intention, what ends up on the screen is both a scorching condemnation of the Doctor’s past conduct and a clear demonstration of why he can’t keep traveling with Clara.
But we’re at risk of undercomplicating a story that is, as we noted, in fact extremely messy. The final settling of accounts between Clara and the Doctor is the emotional anchor of Hell Bent, yes. But the story is all over the place—the final culmination of a season of cracked mirrors in which, in effect, all of the shards are strewn across the floor to form a mad kaleidoscope of almost-signification. (Although in point of fact, my favorite cracked mirror of the season is actually the parallel between Heaven Sent and Missy’s “consider the Doctor” speech in The Witch’s Familiar, both of which see him alone and running around a castle.) This may be a story about Clara, but the actual raw material of the story is a spaghetti of frustrated implications all of which are centered around the hybrid.
On one level, this is the moment where an accusation often levied against Moffat becomes impossible to avoid, which is that he’s obsessed with rewriting the show’s mythology to be about his ideas. Here, after all, he does the big no-no—the thing that even the most fanwanky of spinoff media has generally had the good sense not to do. He explains why the Doctor fled Gallifrey. And of course, the answer reveals why this is a bad idea. It’s hopelessly disappointing. He fled Gallifrey because of a prophecy he interpreted as meaning he might destroy it? Because he was half human on his mother’s side? There can’t be anyone for whom the experience of any Doctor Who episode is improved by this knowledge, Moffat frankly included. It’s an absurdly weird move made by a writer who surely must have known better than to try it, and whose judgment in this period is consistently far better than that. So what on earth is going on here?
Well, hang on, we know what the answer to that has to be: Clara is. So let’s try to rephrase the question into one to which “Clara” is a reasonable answer: why is the ancient prophecy of Gallifrey’s destruction at the hands of the hybrid rearing its head in the middle of the Doctor’s fourteenth regeneration? After all, it’s never alluded to prior to The Witch’s Familiar and is surely never getting mentioned again after Hell Bent. For all that this is positioned as a fundamental piece of Gallifreyan lore, it is in reality clearly just a lashed together season plot with no relevance outside these twelve episodes. And yet its nature demands that we accept it as an explanation for the entire series. So why does this half-assed explanation spring up at this moment in the Doctor’s life?
One possibility that can’t be entirely discarded is that it’s a retroactive causality. The Doctor and Clara’s relationship, having been brought into existence, now has consequences that stretch backwards and alter the reasons the Doctor left Gallifrey in the first place. This is both plausible and in some ways appealing, suggesting that the ancient lore of the series is in fact a floating signifier that adapts to whatever the current narrative needs are. Since this is in practice true, it’s always nice to find a way to make the actual metaphysics of the lore work that way.
But that’s a tidy answer to a messy question, and so vaguely unsatisfying for Hell Bent itself. Hell Bent requires that we find a more unkempt answer. Let’s try again, then, taking for granted that the hybrid really is on the Doctor’s mind as he’s dashing around with the Tribe of Gum. There’s clearly a sudden density of hybrid references in the Doctor’s life around this period. In The Witch’s Familiar Davros and Missy independently contrive to taunt him about the concept. Then he creates Me, who is in practice intimately linked to the concept and who, in point of fact, literally stands in the ruins of Gallifrey in her entrance. Then we get the echo of the hybrid in Osgood before the Time Lords opt to intervene in the Doctor’s life out of fear about this one specific prophecy. There’s really no way around the idea that Me is broadly correct about the hybrid: whatever it is, it has to do with Clara.
And yet Me’s theory that it’s the specific Clara/Doctor combination that’s dangerous remains hard to credit. Clara’s been around two seasons, after all. She’s interacted with the Time Lords at two distinct points of crisis before without the Cloister Wraiths going off at great length. And she reversed the ending of the Time War, literally preventing the War Doctor from standing in the ruins of Gallifrey. No, it’s got to be something specific to Clara in Series Nine.
The key and final clue, ironically, sits in Under the Lake/Before the Flood. After all, why ostentatiously introduce the idea of the bootstrap paradox, complete with a lecture to camera, if we’re not supposed to apply the idea to the season as a whole. So the hybrid has to be the thing the Time Lords bring about: Clara’s departure. After all, it fits perfectly. Clara can be argued to be a mixture of two races after her resurrection (and if you don’t like that you’ve got Me to iron that out). She threatens to unravel the web of time by her very existence. And the specific thing she’s seeking to heal is literally her heart. She’s headed to Gallifrey and is, by her own admission, the person who hates the Time Lords most in the entire universe. Surely nobody thinks that’s going to work out well for them.
So Clara, the girl who stole a TARDIS and ran away, becomes the thing the Doctor fled Gallifrey because of. And the woman who taught them that fear makes companions of us all. And the one who helped them pick their TARDIS. Indeed, for all that Moffat is accused of scribbling his own ideas over the mythology of the show, it’s really just Clara he does that with. Amy never alters the mythology of Gallifrey. Sure, she brings about River, but River’s impact on the Doctor’s life is pretty well-contained too, and her impact on Gallifrey is negligible. And Bill never comes close to any of this. No, it’s Clara who goes from “born to save the Doctor” to being the apparent telos of their entire existence. She’s the common link of Moffat’s barn trilogy. Every time the Doctor returns there, the reason turns out to be because Clara is about to have a massive impact on them.
We have long talked about Doctor Who’s basic approach being to find a bad story and tell a better one. And so it’s inevitable that eventually it would do this to itself. It’s not that the Doctor is anything less than great. But he is a Time Lord, with all the privilege that entails—privilege that Ohilia explicitly calls out in one of the greatest deleted lines in series history, in which the Doctor announces that he’s reassigned the High Council to being janitors, to which Ohilia responds, “Interesting. Only a true aristocrat considers honest work a punishment. So far your Presidency is distressingly typical.” This in an episode that namechecks the Shabogans and makes it entirely explicit that the Time Lords grand abilities have come at zero benefit for the commoners outside the walls of their citadel. The limitations of his background have never been so clear.
And on the other hand, an ordinary girl who wanted to see the world but was afraid to move past page one, but who learned to be brave. Who became a teacher, and then even more than that. Who scrawled herself like graffiti all over the very mythos of the universe, then stole immortality and a TARDIS and ran away to have adventures. In the final shot of Hell Bent, when the police box and the diner are flying in opposite directions, if you don’t want the narrative to follow the diner, just a little bit, then I don’t know what to tell you. Peter Capaldi is, at the time of writing, still my favorite Doctor ever, but I’d trade a third season with him for the adventures of Jenna Coleman and Maisie Williams, immortal space lesbians in a heartbeat.
Last episode marked the moment where it was clearly time for Moffat to walk away from the show. But here, in an odd and deliciously perverse way, he one-ups his own untoppable episode. That was only the peak that he could never surpass as a writer, his William Gull moment where he sinks, exhausted, into his coach and mutters “the Chibnall era… I have delivered it.” But Hell Bent marks a peak that Doctor Who itself can never top; a moment when it goes one way and should clearly, blatantly have gone the other. Never mind the degree to which any additional Moffat stories after this arc are superfluous; any other Doctor Who stories are. It’s Clara’s show now; she’s just graciously permitting the Doctor to continue appearing in it.
September 17, 2018 @ 10:07 am
‘Honest work’ is definitely a punishment.
September 17, 2018 @ 10:59 am
Yes, I can’t share the enthusiasm for that line. Ironically, it sounds like something only an aristocrat would say – the romanticising of the dignity of labour by someone who has never been stuck in a shit job and knows they never will be. One can only imagine her reaction if the Doctor replied, “I’m glad you said that, because your Tardis leaves in five minutes. Enjoy the galleys.”
September 17, 2018 @ 1:02 pm
Of course, it also seems unsustainable from the point of view of actual history. For instance, while the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution no doubt came from the more privileged strata of Chinese Communist society, surely one could hardly call them aristocrats.
September 20, 2018 @ 2:57 pm
Work is something that needs to be done. Treating work as a punishment, imposing it on others, is an aristocrat’s act of exploitation. But that isn’t addressed by romanticizing “honest work.”
The trick is to take work that is unpleasant and punishing, and mitigate the undesirable parts, rather than using it to punish.
“When the revolution comes, we’ll make the aristocrats be janitors” devalues the necessary work done by janitors, and ignores the skills and dedication needed to do the job well.
Work isn’t romantic, but it is necessary, and while work doesn’t give dignity, the people doing it deserve and have the right to demand that they be treated with dignity and respect.
September 17, 2018 @ 10:10 am
So much yes. All of the yes. All of it. Everything in the diner is some of the most finely balanced, carefully emotionally wraught stuff either from Steven Moffat or from Doctor Who.
That’s a great line from Ohila, real shame it was cut.
I love the way the moon and the President’s daughter thing canonizes “when he was a little girl”, another lovely echo of the opening two parter, alongside both running around castles and venturing into gothic underbellies of oppressive empires. For those whom the idea annoys, I guess it’s handwaveable as the Master’s internalized misogyny again (“the snivelling crybaby from Listen, what a girl”) – but yuck. Why would you. Clearly the Doctor was a girl once, and gender on Gallifrey is as fluid as we are led to believe in “World Enough and Time”.
September 18, 2018 @ 10:39 am
My handwave is simple:
The Time Lords seem to be able to give out new regenerations quite easily. Maybe Time Lords give out extra lives to those who regenerate in the academy. So the Doctor in Listen regenerated at some point (maybe in a Matrix-related mishap) into a girl then regenerated again into William Hartnell, and those first two regenerations were replaced when the Time Lord turned 50.
Maybe simple was the wrong word.
September 18, 2018 @ 11:59 am
You forgot the bit about jumping into the loom. (Sorry, I’ll get my coat).
September 17, 2018 @ 10:25 am
This is bloody brilliant, El. It perfectly encapsulates everything I adore about Hell Bent, and it made me grin as hard as the episode did when it first became obvious that Clara was going to have the transcendent and mythic ending I’d always hoped for.
Clara Oswald is something truly special. People can complain all they want about her being too significant, but that could never lessen how incredible it is to see a woman redefining narrative roles in a show where those are so clearly defined by gender, and rolling out the carpet for a woman to take on the role of the Doctor. And then as a personal bonus, it’s a character who is so important to me, who I relate to so much it sometimes feels like it’s me on screen.
(And if anyone is hoping for the timeline where the show goes the other way, keep you eyes on @ClaraOswaldTUA on twitter, where that story is being written by a bunch of people who feel the same way as I do about Clara)
September 17, 2018 @ 10:30 am
I remarked under the Face the Raven entry that Clara getting a potential infinity of stories in that gap before her death is representative of Big Finish, but of course the more charitable reading is that her story is continued by people like you, who love and appreciate the character, and who can tell stories about her that maybe wouldn’t be possible under an official license.
Which is all to say that I look forward to the Untold Adventures and I’m glad they exist.
September 17, 2018 @ 10:37 am
in a heartbeat
September 17, 2018 @ 11:03 am
Wonderful post, my favourite of the Capaldi run thus far. I can’t help but like the implication that Clara and Me may eventually fly back towards the Time Lords with the intention of wiping them off the face of the cosmos.
Could Clara Who be considered an ’emanation’ of Doctor Who?
September 17, 2018 @ 11:03 am
This is a really interesting analysis. I actually love how Hell Bent subverts the entire historical narrative of Doctor Who to being about a woman who steals a TARDIS from Gallifrey and runs away. Probably a somewhat unpopular idea, but I’ve always thought the idea of basically just creating a new character who is at the very least the equal of the Doctor (Say, Clara), who stands on her own merits and having her run around having her own adventures is a far more interesting, inspiring and appealing idea than the prospect of a female Doctor (certainly one being penned by Chibnall). Which is not to say I’m against the idea of a female Doctor in terms of its significance and what that represents in terms with of the broader picture, just that I’m less than the inspired by how I imagine the actual execution of it will work out in practice.
I enjoyed last weeks post where you discussed Heaven Sent as the functional end of the Moffat era of Doctor Who, which it undoubtedly is, Hell Bent stands on its own merits, as it isn’t so much Doctor Who as ‘Clara Who’ which is a line Moffat even squeezes in. Therefore, I can only agree with your sentiments that I would have actually much preferred Doctor Who just to end at this point and just watch an entirely new show about Clara and Me, than sit through season 10 and beyond.
September 17, 2018 @ 12:28 pm
This theory is amazing. I wish “Hell Bent” actually explicitely used it. The story you tell in this (great) essay is even better than the one I saw on screen, and I loved that one to bits.
September 17, 2018 @ 12:45 pm
And that should read “explicitly”, of course.
September 17, 2018 @ 12:55 pm
So, it’s all about fixing the wrong directions the show took since returning in 2005 without time lords and with Eccleston from the North?
It’s a nice idea, but I’d be a lot happier with it if Clara wasn’t human. (Particularly of the contemporary British variety.) One of the things I liked about DW right from the beginning was that, where its most obvious points of comparison like Star Trek and Babylon 5 used humans as Americans and other species as foreign nations, and the lead character would always be human, Doctor Who had a nonhuman lead, (even an entirely nonhuman TARDIS for a while,) and Earth was just where a lot of stories happened to be set, (from an in-universe point of view,) rather than a place of universal importance. So having no humans in the narrative until the TARDIS lands in 1963 is something I’m quite attached to for anti-nationalist reasons, to the extent that I care about continuity in the first place.
Still. It’s interesting that if you look at the nonhuman female companions, Romana and Nyssa clearly have something of the aristocratic to them, and Susan might have it retroactively too. Some sort of limitation of deviations from the heroic norm? “Heroes are generally high-status white cis het neurotypical male humans from this country. You can change one or two of these things, but don’t change too many”?
September 17, 2018 @ 1:05 pm
I think it’s more like “important people are generally high-status white cis het neurotypical male humans from this country and everyone else should just serve them”. So obviously a hero – an important person – should be a member of that group as well.
As for Clara, at least she’s not an aristocrat by any measure. Sure, she’s still white, relatively well-off and privileged but next season we get a POC as an immortal space-travelling hero who used to serve chips so perhaps we’re slowly getting there.
September 17, 2018 @ 1:20 pm
I liked the blue-grey sweater…
September 17, 2018 @ 1:36 pm
Unless I’m misreading, it sounds like El does too… 😉
September 17, 2018 @ 2:42 pm
I think this works even better than it seems, because of the implications if someone tries to wriggle away by limiting the “damage” to this season. Clara has previously been established as intertwined with all of the Doctor’s history, including his choice of TARDIS when first fleeing Gallifrey. And the Doctor, in turn, is entwined with the rest of the Time Lords as epicly and inseparably as Omega and moreso than Rassilon.
But let’s wiggle a bit and try to claim that instead of being central, Clara matters because of her effect on the Doctor (and let’s set aside the lesson started at least since Day of the Doctor that “Doctor” is a role, not a person). What, precisely, changes in the Doctor as a result of Clara? Is it accurate to say he learns to become a “carer” given his past history? Well, that’s the trouble: Clara rewrites his whole past history, so we’d have to think about the character across the entire series and think again about the “hybrid.”
And here’s where it gets interesting. Across the entire show, the protagonist is a person who turns out to be non-human, but that isn’t quite right. In the single story without a companion (setting aside the last one), Earth and humanity leave a massive stamp, from the word “framed” (“an Earth expression”) to the horrorscape of the Matrix (unless Gallifrey had its own samurai and World War One). And of course they do. The Doctor brings Earth and humanity with him whenever he comes to Gallifrey. He is the hybrid in that sense, a child of two worlds. And in that regard, Moffat gives what I found to be a satisfying explanation to the Doctor’s flight–he believed himself to be the hybrid that would one day destroy Gallifrey–as well as reiterating the “I destroyed Gallifrey” account he retconned with Clara’s help. Because of course the Doctor is running away from himself. That’s implicit in almost every story Moffat has a hand in. And of course he’s wrong to do so, and yet right to do so at the same time.
But, if the Doctor is the hybrid in this sense, then his hybridity is two-fold. Firstly, it’s with humanity (“half-human;” Moffat salvages a clunker of a concept from Eight), but secondly, it’s gender hybridity (“on my mother’s side”). The potentially creepy explanation of why this old Gallifreyan runs around with young human women gets reinscribed, in precisely the way that the Doctor-Donna explored: who the Doctor is in conjunction with his companions (the majority of whom are women). Which, along one axis, returns us to the Doctor-Clara and the Clara–Doctor. Along the other axis, it leaves us with an innately gender-fluid character who has been (by choice or otherwise) heretofore male while being hybridized with human women. Of course the next incarnation will be a woman. Of course.
Not time enough to delve into the full implication, but I want to add this thought: the Time Lords, as we have seen them, are so overwhelmingly male that the Sisterhood can stand in balance with them even long after we’ve met Romana, Rodin, and Flavia (even after Missy). I am remindred of the oddity that isn’t in Milton’s Paradise Lost, where we’re told angels can assume male or female form, but can see that all of the unfallen angels choose to be male. That’s ultimately what Clara (and Moffat) have broken in Doctor Who… and it’s about time.
September 17, 2018 @ 2:47 pm
(That should be “reminded” at the end, and “oddity that isn’t” should probably have been “odd thing that isn’t odd” so as not to imply that something in Paradise Lost isn’t in it.)
September 17, 2018 @ 6:40 pm
Just as a note, the Doctor did bring World War I (and possibly Samurai) to Gallifrey – in The War Games the Time Lords would have had at least the World War One zone to handle, and it wouldn’t have been out of place for there to have been a zone that had the Samurai. It’s entirely possible the Time Lords picked it up from that, or at least Chancellor Goth did.
I imagine the Celestial Intervention Agency were paying attention to Earth ever since the Doctor landed there, and certainly after they stuck the Doctor on Earth during the UNIT years. (Probably they were also keeping tabs on Professor Chronotis now and then.)
September 17, 2018 @ 5:53 pm
This is a beautiful essay, but I’m always shocked that people never mention the Hybrid prophecy did come true via the interpretation suggested by the episode. Together, the Doctor and Clara meet all three checkpoints. They unravel the web of time in bringing Clara back. They chill with Ashildr in the ruins of Gallifrey at the end there. And the Doctor certainly destroys a billion, billion hearts in Heaven Sent.
It’s not just that the episode is determined to lack of resolution. It’s that the biggest point of the conclict wasn’t really such a big deal after all, but the legacy of Clara’s relationship with the Doctor is.
As such, I can’t even call the episode messy. To me, it’s got razor-sharp focus on what it states, and what it tells but hides, and why it does that.
September 17, 2018 @ 8:53 pm
“So Clara, the girl who stole a TARDIS and ran away, becomes the thing the Doctor fled Gallifrey because of.”
What is going on with this sentence? Is this some kind of bootstrap syntax?
September 18, 2018 @ 7:21 am
Seems fine to me. But maybe you’ll find it clearer if written this way: “So Clara, the girl who stole a TARDIS and ran away, becomes the thing which caused the Doctor to flee Gallifrey.”
September 18, 2018 @ 7:37 am
I like the idea of bootstrap syntax. The sentence as a kind of eternally repeating ouroboros. Get rid of the “so”, and you’re there – ‘Clara, who stole a TARDIS and ran away, becomes the thing the Doctor fled Gallifrey because of Clara, who…’
September 18, 2018 @ 10:18 am
Yes, it sounded so obviously clunky, that I thought Sandifer had played around with the syntax intentionally to match the weird temporality.
September 18, 2018 @ 8:07 am
“Never mind the degree to which any additional Moffat stories after this arc are superfluous; any other Doctor Who stories are. It’s Clara’s show now; she’s just graciously permitting the Doctor to continue appearing in it.”
I think there’s a pretty clear way to solve this. Along with the mysteries of the Hybrid prophecy and the “since he was a little girl” line.
Clara Oswald is the Other.
Looking forward to seeing Jodie Whittaker as the Fourteenth Clara next month.
September 18, 2018 @ 11:25 am
… and her blue-grey sweater was woven on the Looms.
September 18, 2018 @ 10:31 am
“This is a story that brings to Moffat’s post-Day of the Doctor Gallifrey arc to a close with little more than a shrug, resurrects Rassilon for the sake of kicking him out of the story at the sixteen minute mark, radically redoes our entire idea of what the Matrix is to provide a neat horror setting for ten minutes in the middle, and concludes the entire hybrid plot with a shrug and a hand-wave. For people who don’t like it when Moffat does things like this—and obviously there are a fair number of them—this borders on trolling.”
I think it crosses that border several times, laughing the whole time. As much as I loved “Hell Bent” and the story it told, I can kinda understand those who felt it was the straw that broke the camel’s back when it comes to fulfilling viewer expectations. Moffat’s way of delaying answers annoyed me at times (mostly in “The Wedding of River Song”) but usually I enjoyed it – it was anticipatory storytelling at its best. But anticipatory storytelling only works if the viewers believe they will eventually get an answer. Around the time of “The Time of the Doctor” it became clear that Moffat has switched from delaying answers to giving unsatisfactory ones. And then, in “Hell Bent”, to just not giving a definitive answer at all.
I understand why he did it. The narrative substitution, abandoning a bad story and telling a better one, all that jazz. And for me, it mostly worked. But my God, it’s so frustrating to be encouraged to ask questions about stories and then to be told that they never mattered in the first place. What’s so wrong with giving the viewers at least some satisfaction? Would this story have suffered if we got one definitive answer about the Hybrid’s identity: the Doctor-Clara relationship?
September 18, 2018 @ 10:56 am
The thing about the hybrid plotline, was it never seemed to be anything anyone wanted in the first place. Maybe I’m speaking for myself but I never saw anyone be enthused by all the “DUM DUM DUM THE HYBRID!!!” talk, nor was anyone going “YESSSS THEY’RE GONNA MAKE THE DOCTOR HALF HUMAN FINALLY YESSS!”. It was just another ‘thing’.
And… Moffat seems to be critiquing the whole ‘season arc plot’ with the underwhelming resolution, but he’s already done that once (Wedding of River Song) and, well… it’s a problem that he created. You can’t set up a problem and then criticise it, because it’s a problem that you’ve created (sure there were season arcs in RTD era Who but not to the extent of the Moffat era. Like the entire mess with the Divergent Universe arc in Big Finish and the amnesia arc in the BBC books, the showrunner forgets that the way to move the show on and write good original stories unbound by arcs and the weight of history isn’t to go on a long journey examining the past in meta-detail, but just, you know, write good stories.
September 18, 2018 @ 12:54 pm
You can’t set up a problem and then criticise it, because it’s a problem that you’ve created
Steven Moffat: “Watch me. Repeatedly and at length.”
September 18, 2018 @ 1:58 pm
I mean… I can understand Moffat in this case. It’s not like he has this grand masterplan for his Who; he’s just writing stories, learning from his mistakes and reacting to them while writing new stories. Which sometimes involves commenting on your own stories. When you grow as a creator, it’s sometimes not enough to just abandon the old ways and start going in the new direction (although that happens too) – you want to show the world what you’ve learned, or perhaps even help others learn it too. Using your next work to examine your past mistakes and move past them in the text is a good way of achieving that goal.
I’m not saying that’s Moffat’s reasoning but that’s how it works for me, so make of that what you will.
September 18, 2018 @ 2:26 pm
I mean you can do that, but I’d question the wisdom of doing it in length and in the public forum of a Doctor Who season finale. I’d also question whether the writer of the season opener (the first episode of which was astonishingly messy and self-indulgent) had suddenly matured so quickly that his astonishingly messy and self-indulgent finale was somehow a reaction and meta-commentary on this.
There are bits and moments in Hell-Bent that are nice, but as a story it’s just a mess. I guess whether you like it depends on your priorities. I see the bit with the General as a microcosm of that – half the fandom love it because it shows a time lord regenerating and changing genders, the other half hates it because it has the Doctor shoot someone for no other reason than Moffat wanting a scene of a character regenerating and changing genders and couldn’t think of a way of doing that which didn’t require the Doctor to be gunning someone down. (I still don’t understand why he had to shoot the General, it’s baffling). The entire story is like that.
It feels like Moffat’s later Sherlock stories – stories that are built up for several key moments, but without much care or thought for the plot, and entirely about the characters rather than a story. Character drama is all well and fine, but it feels so self-indulgent for yet another season of Doctor Who to be really insular and about the Doctor rather than an exciting adventure. Season 10 just about cracked it though.
September 18, 2018 @ 2:55 pm
The point of the general was, as I suggest in the post, to have a concrete moment of the Doctor going too far. And having decided to have a regeneration, Moffat decided to gender and race-bend it as well.
September 18, 2018 @ 3:52 pm
Strictly speaking, the General’s race wasn’t specified in the script; so the choice of T’Nia Miller just happened to be down to Andy Pryor.
September 18, 2018 @ 11:46 am
The problem I always have with “narrative substitution” is that I generally already know that the “bad story” bit of it is bad, which means all these things just spend half, if not most of their time just being needlessly bad. When the show is trying to convince me to care what the hybrid is, or to admire Rory for blowing up cybermen to punctuate a question or whatever, it’s just being bad television and I recognise it as such.
If you know what things make good stories, just tell nothing but good stories.
September 18, 2018 @ 12:47 pm
Hmmm… doesn’t this rather ignore the lesson learning potential of such works of fiction? Not for you specifically, because you and the other fine folks here are literate and media savvy and are steeped in SF tropes, but imagining it from the point of view of a child watching, just for a second… a child who has not consumed or analysed as much media as we have… it is to be hoped they might come for the blowing up Cybermen and stay for the dressing down of the Doctor, if you follow me. It’s worth doing if children are in the process discovering that lots of stories we might think we like, or are culturally valuable or significant, are in fact toxic or problematic or need better endings. Will every child realise this at the time? No, of course not – many will only do so retrospectively or on rewatching with older eyes. But that still makes it worth doing, I think.
I get that “this thing would work for children but misses its mark otherwise” is not necessarily a compelling-sounding defence, but it’s certainly the type of defence it’s fair to wheel out in the case of Doctor Who once in a while.
September 18, 2018 @ 1:14 pm
That all presumes this sort of structure is a requirement to teach those lessons. Which might be true, I’m no expert, but I don’t see any particular reason to believe is the case currently.
September 18, 2018 @ 4:44 pm
Sure, it’s not easily provable or anything, but doesn’t “epic where the Doctor goes back to fight the Time Lords” strike you as more likely to invite a 10 year old boy to watch than “it’s about the Doctor and Clara and their feelings for each other”? The latter is the much more interesting story, but the former is how you hook them in.
September 18, 2018 @ 8:11 pm
My first thought would be a story in which the Doctor fights time lords (but in a good way which doesn’t need to be substituted, let’s say it ends with the shabogans freeing themselves and there are no thoughts of revenge to be seen), AND we look at the Doctor and Clara and their feelings for each other, nicely intermeshed. Instead of the big change being a disappointment to those 10 year old boys, they get to start off enjoying half of the story’s content, and grow into enjoying the other half as they mature.
September 18, 2018 @ 2:38 pm
I’d agree (and encourage!) that stories have a function, but they still need to work as stories on their own level. You can have the most amazing of social messages to impart, but if you build it around Michael Bay’s Transformers films then all anyone will see is the mess.
September 18, 2018 @ 4:46 pm
Oh, agreed. We simply differ on Hell Bent being several cuts above Transformers, then 😉
September 18, 2018 @ 1:21 pm
Typically Moffat’s substitutions move away from stories that are recognizable as appealing marketing copy. In this case, “the Doctor finally returns on Gallifrey seeking vengeance for Clara.” Which sounds really exciting to a non-trivial portion of the audience. Like, it’s unappealingly gun to me and I know Moffat well enough to know up front that it’s going to be undermined, but I completely get why that nominally appeals to people.
September 18, 2018 @ 2:31 pm
I suppose a bigger question is “why are the Time Lords even in it?” Why does the Gallifrey stuff have to be wrapped up, what does reintroducing them now mean, and why? I mean sure, it relates to the hybrid prophecy, but it’s not a /real/ prophecy, and they didn’t have to go in that direction.
Like it or not, the return of the Time Lords does have a massive weight to the audience, especially after Day and Time of the Doctor (and again, those are stories Moffat wrote, it’s not like he’s having to react to another writer’s vision). I don’t know what it means though – if he thinks it is wrong for Who to base itself so heavily around the Time Lords as a concept, why does he then make the end of series 9 so heavily around the Time Lords as a concept. He’s the head writer, he can just write new stuff without having to take the old stuff round the back of the chemical sheds with a shotgun.
September 19, 2018 @ 7:26 am
My worry about the prospect of the Time Lords returning was that it would be a moment of glory for the Doctor with him being hailed as a hero. What Hell Bent accomplishes is instantly complicate the situation between the Doctor and the Time Lords. He saved them because it was the right thing to do, but they’re still assholes who treat him as errand boy. That’s a more interesting status quo than him being celebrated.
September 19, 2018 @ 4:20 pm
I think this misunderstands the premise of misunderstands the premise of “switching a bad story for a good story”, and deconstructive storytelling in general. When a story seeks to deconstruct the genre/ type of story it apes, it’s not simply saying “this type of storytelling is bad”, it’s saying “here’s why this type of storytelling is well loved, but here are the problems inherent in this genre, that we should begin to change”. In the first act of “Hell Bent”, Moffat doesn’t tell a bad Gallifreyan Western centred on the Doctor’s angst – he tells a pretty compelling and entertaining one. Then he proceeds to explore why the themes inherent in that genre of story are problematic. You can’t tell a story about self destructive manpain and the importance of focussing on the women who are the objects of that manpain without first establishing what that manpain is.
September 20, 2018 @ 4:10 pm
Surely, if the viewer enjoys the bad thing, they already know why the bad thing is well loved so don’t need to be told, and if they don’t enjoy the bad thing, they already know the bad thing is bad, so they don’t even need to be watching.
Creating a “pretty compelling and entertaining” Gallifreyan Western centred on the Doctor’s angst is superfluous for viewers who already want to see a Gallifreyan Western centred on the Doctor’s angst, and it just plain fails for people like me who think there is no such thing as a pretty compelling and entertaining Gallifreyan Western centred on the Doctor’s angst.
(Though deconstructions aren’t necessarily hostile to the thing they’re deconstructing.)
September 19, 2018 @ 7:40 am
But Moffat does offer some satisfaction. There are always answers and when a multiple choice is offered, you can usually tell which one is the correct one. In the Empty Hearse you can tell that Anderson’s explanation is the real one, even if they poke fun at it. In Hell Bent, the whole story revolves around the Doctor and Clara, so obviously the resolution to the hybrid arc has to be them as well.
What I think the viewers take issue with as that the emphasis is not on those answers. They would only feel validated if the Doctor looked at Clara, the music in the background reaching a crescendo before falling silent, and said: “The Hybrid… is you and me, Clara”. And that’s what Moffat refuses to give them, saying instead: “Oh yeah, that’s what that was about, but now I’ll show you the thing that really matters”. Which usually is character drama.
September 19, 2018 @ 7:56 am
You’re right, those are very good points. But my point still stands. I personally care about both plots and characters and when one of these elements is pushed to the margins by the other, I’m always left a bit disappointed. Because usually you can do both.
(“Hell Bent” has a great plot and is satisfying for me, with the multiple answers to the Hybrid question only a minor annoyance. But I remember being extremely frustrated with all the handwaves in “The Time of the Doctor” regarding seasons-long plot points.)
September 18, 2018 @ 12:04 pm
“Watch us hang on shoulders as tall as gold as
Feely hand and finger around all we
And look to see if we care if he is heaven sent or
Hell bent but WE WILL PRAISE HIM
WE WILL PRAISE HIM ALL AWAY
Praise him all away
My arms chancing and you will no way
Live long enough to repay me
I praise you anyway always”
from Sing To God
September 19, 2018 @ 7:51 pm
“For people who don’t like it when Moffat does things like this—and obviously there are a fair number of them—this borders on trolling.”
…Speaking of which, here’s the definitive post on why Clara Is Best Companion, in terms which look not unlike a working definition of Mary-Sue.
(I’m not criticising, it is excellent trolling and I’ve always been ambivalent-to-positive on Clara anyway [and not convinced there’s anything inherently wrong with Mary-Sues]. But it did remind me of two conversations with my sister, who is quite decisively not. The first being when I quoted one of your earlier posts on the subject to her, and got a reply along the lines of “I understand that. I just hate it.” And the second being when I described the plot of this episode to her — since she’d bailed after “Into the Dalek” — while mentally counting down to the exact moment she would say “Oh, for God’s sake!”)
March 21, 2019 @ 11:20 am
Long time reader, first time poster. First, I want to stress how much of a fan I am of your writing, and I have been reading your blog posts daily in my spare time, and have enjoyed them greatly.
However, I just feel compelled to mention this, not out of spite, but because of how strongly I feel about this episode. Basically, in your question, “if you don’t want the narrative to follow the diner,” the answer for me is, without question, in instinct, a resounding no.
Its an episode that is filled with intent but whose skill and actual showcase is poor, at best. Its shoddily written, perpetually buying time for no reason other than to extend the proceedings, which would’ve worked at 45 minutes anyway. Its a genuinely boring episode, and I am disappoited that you’ve liked it so much – and in reverse, disliked the comparatively genius Under the Lake two-parter.
I don’t want to go in a long-winded reasoning here, since I doubt I could phrase my objections as well as you have. But I don’t believe for a second on almost anything you said about this episode. Your love and fondness for Clara has seemingly clouded your better judgment, and given this poor showcase of Moffat’s writing a pass when it shouldn’t have. This should’ve been a condemnation of Moffat’s worst instincts as a writer, in very much the same way Heaven Sent was a showcase of his enduring creativity. I’m not a Moffat hater like a lot are, but this isn’t his best hour, not by a long, long shot.
So in conclusion, I have disagreed with several of your posts before (most notably Talons of Weng-Chiang) but I did, and still do, find your writing passionate, insightful and just plain entertaining to read through every day. But this is the first time I’ve felt strongly enough to actually post a response in your blog. Its too bad, but then again, I don’t dismiss your right to claim your opinion, so don’t take it as a condemnation of your efforts, please.
Finally, I just want to stress how I’m looking forward to your series 10 posts, and maybe a look at Sixie’s final hour by way of Big Finish, some day? Always hoping.
March 26, 2019 @ 5:15 pm
While it isn’t my absolute favorite Moffat story (though it’s up there), I think that Hell Bent might actually be his best 😉