7 December 2015

Doctor Who S9E12 "Hell Bent" review

Opening up in a vaguely familiar diner located in Nevada, "Hell Bent" sees The Doctor telling the story of his time on Gallifrey to a waitress that works there. To say any more about the way the story develops would be to spoil it, but as the season finale it should be obvious that "Hell Bent" seeks to tie together the various plot threads that have been set up throughout season nine.

My initial concern with "Hell Bent"was that I've never been a fan of Gallifrey, both the way it has been portrayed on screen and how much we actually know about it. The archaic science-fantasy culture may have been imaginative when Doctor Who first introduced it, but in 2015 it is easily amongst the most uninspired things that the show has to offer, and the first part of the episode struggles for it - watching The Doctor 'rebel' against his home planet was tedious at best, the whole thing imbued with the kind of writing that screams "Moffat trying to make The Doctor cool". Worst of all, nothing that The Doctor actually does here seems to matter to what the story actually wants to do, and I can't help but feel that the extended run time of "Hell Bent" ended up working against it, rather than for it.

Part of this comes from the fact that "Hell Bent" is over-reliant on back story that casual Doctor Who viewers like myself might not be familiar with. This is something that is difficult to talk about without roaming into spoiler-territory, but there are characters and concepts that play a fairly important part in "Hell Bent" that I didn't see the significance of while watching - it took a fair bit of research for me to really understand the significance of certain events in "Hell Bent", and I'm sure that I won't be the only one in that position. It's all well and good to expect people to be able to keep up when you are referencing things from seasons that first aired a few years ago, but expecting people to be able to understand what is happening when you are playing with characters and events first introduced to the show in the 1970's? That's too much, and again this is an area of "Hell Bent" that really didn't help it.

It's a different story entirely though when "Hell Bent" figures out what it is meant to be doing. Revisiting stories from earlier on in the season and concluding multiple character arcs, "Hell Bent" offers pretty much exactly what I am looking for in a season finale - resolution, and the kind that feel both natural and earned at that. It makes sense that these events would happen the way that they do for the most part, which isn't something that can always be said for Doctor Who, and in spite of my consistent frustration with the two-part nature of much of season nine I have to admit that the change does seemed to have helped the show overall, specifically in the way that it allowed events in the season finale to have a bigger impact than if we'd have spent less time exploring the characters involved.

Is "Hell Bent" as good an episode as "Heaven Sent"? No it isn't, but that's hardly a fair question - with "Heaven Sent" being one of the best episodes that Doctor Who has ever created, "Hell Bent" was never going to come out of that comparison well. Yet it is still a good episode of Doctor Who, one that manages to redeem itself nearly entirely after a somewhat uneven start thanks to some pretty great writing and the more than competent way that it concludes what may be one of the best seasons of Doctor Who to date. I've been a fairly vocal critic of this show in the past (as any regular readers may know), but even I'm excited to see where the show goes in it's tenth season now - and with the return of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor, I'm hopeful that the increased quality of season nine will continue into season ten and beyond. Here's to Doctor Who - a flawed piece of entertainment that never ceases to surprise.

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