Discussing Doctor Who: Hell Bent


Doctor Who season 9 is finished. Who’s the hybrid? What happened to Clara? Is Me back? What about Missy? Is Gallifrey fallen? Did the Doctor finish his soup? Let’s talk “Hell Bent” with my friend Kevin Harvey, author of All You Want to Know About The Bible in Pop Culture.

Previously, we talked about “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar,” “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” “The Girl Who Died” and “The Woman Who Lived,” “The Zygon Invasion” and “The Zygon Inversion,” “Sleep No More,” “Face the Raven,” and “Heaven Sent.”

We’ll try to answer as many of those questions as possible as we wrap up the last episode of season 9. (We also hope you’ve enjoyed our Doctor Who discussions this season. We plan on giving a season review next week and breaking down the Christmas special as well.)

And with that season 9 of Doctor Who comes to an end. What did you think of “Hell Bent”?

Kevin: Let me first give a footnote that for some reason my DVR stopped recording during the final 20 minutes, so I couldn’t go back and take in everything again and more slowly. Thank goodness I was watching it live, so I at least saw it once. Otherwise I would’ve gone to the very end of time and space, just like the Doctor, in order to see how it all ended. So forgive me if I miss some key things in the final act.

That being said, my immediate thought on this episode was similar to the Lost finale: good for the heart, bad for the geek. By “geek” I mean those who couldn’t sleep all week because they were so excited to finally get an episode with the Doctor on his home planet of Gallifrey. How would his return be received? Would he be an enemy or friend? Would Missy or Daleks or Cybermen show up? This is going to be epic! they must have thought.

And we do get some nice moments on Gallifrey. Seeing him back in that barn. The townspeople serving him soup. The soldiers refusing to fight him. The Matrix. “Get off my planet.” But then the real purpose of the episode shows its face: saving Clara. And the second half of the episode is a more personal story, and much less epic. The Doctor can’t get away from Gallifrey quickly enough, because all he cares about is saving Clara.

The rest of the episode is what I called “good for the heart.” And it probably won’t surprise you, after twelve weeks of our discussions, that I’m all about the heart, and certainly all about saving Clara. So I’m good with this episode. It definitely was NOT what I was expecting, but I was pleasantly surprised with how it turned out.

Aaron: I’m not sure how to grade “Hell Bent” by itself. So much of it is wrapped up in the season itself (which I love). But this episode took a while to get going. The opening scene of Clara (which we’ll get to) was great, but then after that I thought the pacing was off until the Doctor reconnects with Clara.

So much of his interaction with the average (non Time Lord) Gallifrey residents seemed disconnected from the rest of the episode. I did love the nods toward previous episodes like the shed potentially being the one from “The Day of the Doctor” and “Listen.” But I felt much of that could have been condensed and we wouldn’t have missed much.

Once we see the Doctor’s plan take shape, things start moving and all the feels start showing. When Clara realizes the Doctor has been 4.5 billion years in a personal torture chamber merely to save her … the look on both their faces is perfect and poignant. But that is later topped by his desperately trying to remember Clara as he talks to her and her as she realizes how much he loves her, but he still can’t remember her (despite his claim).

You’re right that we all thought we were getting a space epic this week, but what we got was a love letter from the Doctor to his best friend. In the end, that was an almost perfect way to end this season.

The disjointed storytelling of this episode played with audience expectations and assumptions. What did you think when you first saw Clara in the diner?

Aaron: This episode reminded me, in a good way, of a Christopher Nolan film in the way it played around with the timeline. We meet “Clara” in the diner, but we aren’t sure if she’s the real Clara, one of the Clara’s from the Doctor’s time stream, or another figment of the Doctor’s imagination (thanks to the perfect set up last week). As it moves forward, we assume the Doctor has wiped her mind and she doesn’t realize just who she is having this conversation with in this (not so) random America diner.

In some ways, this episode destroyed the fourth wall more than the ones where the Doctor talked directly to the audience because this week the entire story played with audience expectations and fan theories in a way to enhance the story. The Doctor’s conversation with Me could have easily been our conversation last week discussing the theories of who the hybrid could have been.

Kevin: My instant thought was that this was one of the Claras that had been dispersed into the Doctor’s time stream back in “The Name of the Doctor.” And then, of course, I fell for the trick that this was the real Clara who had forgotten the Doctor. When will we learn? Why do we always fall for these tricks? The Doctor is almost always up to trickery in his plans, and so is Steven Moffat in his storytelling.

I loved how they kept going back to the diner and reminding us that the Doctor was telling a story. Somehow all these events that went from Gallifrey to a new TARDIS to the very end of the world was going to end up at a diner in modern-day Nevada (one that I recognized well before the Doctor, by the way). Only in Doctor Who. You’re not going to find this kind of captivating storytelling on Heroes Reborn or Agents of SHIELD.

Speaking of telling stories, I will be really interested in rewatching this season on Netflix next year, to try and pick up all the ways stories were being told. Beginning in The Girl Who Died (but possibly sooner, since I wasn’t looking for it), there was a strong recurring theme about telling stories, and the power of a story. In “Hell Bent,” the Doctor says, “Every story ever told really happened. Stories are where memories go when they are forgotten.” What was Moffat telling us this season with all the emphasis on telling stories? I’m excited to binge-watch and form theories on this.

So Clara is alive and has essentially become a Doctor, complete with her own TARDIS, companion, and headed (eventually) to Gallifrey. Just how excited are you that her story is not done?

Kevin: I slept quite well Saturday night. Clara is alive! Honestly, I’m not sure if I could’ve thought of a better way to end her time on Doctor Who. I can absolutely forgive Moffat for rushing her death in one episode back in “Fear the Raven,” now that we know how her story ended up. Doesn’t this completely make sense based on what we’ve been discussing all season? Each week she was becoming more and more like the Doctor, and finally she died acting like him, and now she gets to adventure around in a broken TARDIS like him. With a companion to boot! Genius! She’s a hybrid, just as Me said she had become.

It may surprise you to hear me say this, but I’m perfectly fine if we never see Coleman reprise her role again. I know we saw Rose again after her time as the companion, but that was probably necessary, to give fans a bit more closure. We knew she was okay but we weren’t happy about it. But Clara is good, and I don’t think we need more. Plus, I bet many hardcore fans would absolutely revolt if Clara returned for a guest spot before Amy and Rory did. So we need to keep the geeks at bay here. Just let her go. (But bring Me back, please.)

Aaron: I’m glad you mention some of the other companions because it’s hard not to compare their final stories and the relationships with the Doctor. Part of me (the part that cannot forget how mishandled and directionless Clara was in the beginning) hates that Clara is the one who gets this ending.

Of all the companions — the clearly romantic relationship with Rose, the unrequited love of the powerful Martha, the needed friend and partner in crime of Donna, and the sibling relationship of Amy and her raggedy man — Clara is the one that would cause the Doctor to break all his rules? He would stand in the ruins of Gallifrey and risk all of time and space for the chance to bring her back?

If her previous seasons had been anything like this season, I would have no reservations. In her last run, her story was told flawlessly. The ending was the best companion split for the Doctor. It doesn’t feel forced upon the story or forced on the Doctor within the story. It feels like the natural progression of their relationship and their intermingled stories.

Bringing her back could spoil much of the poignancy of those final moments (though the same could be said of this entire episode that basically rewrites her death from “Face the Raven”), but after this week I trust Moffat with her character. And yes, Me should be a recurring character. But they both may end up like the Doctor’s daughter and be never seen from again.

Gallifrey is back, ending a story arc since the reboot, but it is only a means to an end for the Doctor. Did this undermine the home of the Time Lords too much?

Aaron: More than discount the sacrifice the Doctor made in the Time War and his quest to find Gallifrey, this episode demonstrated just how much he loved Clara. Everything else, even what he thought was his purpose, was unimportant when compared to bringing Clara back.

Having the Time Lords and the Doctor’s home planet back in play, but not the driving force of the show, can make for numerous interesting storylines in the future. Just from a story standpoint, it provided the perfect way to reintroduce them, but reduce just how much they can anchor the story with tedious political arguments about the workings of the planet’s government. (As an obvious example, see the Star Wars prequels.)

Kevin: Show some respect! We are mere days away from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and you’re bringing up trade federations and the viceroy? Come on!

As I mentioned already, I loved the personal story of this episode and that it wasn’t all geeked-out with Gallifrey-centric stuff. To me, that shows just how much the Doctor loves Clara. He waited 4.5 billion years to have a chance to save her! So of course he’s not going to get caught up in the homecoming parade and educating them on the Hybrid. All he cared about at this point was Clara—“saving the one,” as he learned he needed to still do back in “The Girl Who Died.”

So Gallifrey is there to be revisited at some point. But so is Missy. So is Devro. There is a ton to revisit in future seasons that this season touched on. And I think the plots will get grander. The story with Clara was extremely personal, and I loved it. But I feel some epic storylines brewing, especially now that Gallifrey is in play. 

Besides a new sonic screwdriver, what does the Doctor take away from this season? How is he different moving forward?

Kevin: Well, it would appear that the sonic shades are coming to an end this Christmas, but one thing I’m hoping is not just a season-long fad is his willingness to “save the one.” How would the Doctor handle things on the Orient Express now that he supposedly values each and every single life? Obviously he won’t be revisiting that exact story from last season, but when something similar happens, will he be so willing to offer up people’s lives if it helps the greater good? I’m hoping not.

Before “Hell Bent” I would’ve said that there’s no way he’s going to get as attached to another companion as he was with Clara. He wouldn’t let that happen again. But now? He may have forgotten Clara, but he hasn’t forgotten the ability to love someone so unconditionally and sacrificially as he did her. So that love to give to someone is inside of him, and since he doesn’t remember Clara, he can’t remind himself of the dangers of loving someone like that. So I would not be surprised to see him get so caught up in another companion as he did Clara.

Aaron: Think back to season 8 and the Twelfth Doctor’s first real adventure with Clara (after their introduction in “Deep Breath”). He asks Clara a simple question that apparently haunted him, “Am I a good man?” Season 9 answers that question definitively. Yes, the Doctor is a good man. He just needs help realizing it and inspiration in living it out.

There are so many large dangling threads from the season finale that were intentionally overshadowed by Clara that next season could be nothing more than addressing all those issues raised. I severely doubt that is the case, but we have enough new story possibilities and revisiting old friends (like Missy and Me) that the Doctor could be busy for numerous episodes.

Favorite quotes from this week?

Aaron: There were several lines and moments this week that made the show stronger. It provided a nice contrast from the stark, bare episode last week (which was excellent in its own way).

“Stories are where memories go when they’re forgotten.” — the Doctor

“On pain of death, no one take a selfie.” — the Doctor

“Exterminate … me.” — a Dalek trapped in the Cloister. That could almost get lost in this episode, but man that was gut wrenching to watch.

After arguing if seeing the stars die is beautiful or sad, Ashildr deduces the truth about the Doctor. “No, it’s both. But that’s not something you would understand. You don’t like endings.”

Kevin: I too found the Dalek’s plea for extermination gut-wrenching. When it comes right down to it, we don’t wish that kind of eternal suffering on anyone, even our worst enemies, do we? And also…

“You’re willing to risk all of time and space because you miss her.”—Ashildr to the Doctor

“You’re quick!” (Clara) “Time machine. I backed up a bit” (The Doctor)

“We’re on Gallifrey. ‘Death’ is Time Lord for ‘man flu.’”

“What’s his plan?”
“I think he’s finishing his soup.”

What spiritual takeaways did you notice from the episode?

Kevin: I have to keep going back to the willingness to save just one. And in this case, that “one” is Clara. The Doctor went through 4.5 billion years in hell just to have a chance to save her. Think on that! As Jesus shared through his parables concerning the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son, “the one” is just as important to him as “the many.” There was nothing off the table for what he was willing to go through to save even just one.

And with Clara, saving her meant doing so at the very end of her life, which is similar to how Jesus saved the thief on the cross, as well as many others since then who have turned to him late in life. Until we take that last breath, until our heart beats for the very last time, as with Clara, we can still be saved. But the key difference is, of course, with Jesus we will be saved for eternity. With Clara, she will only be alive as long as she stays away from Gallifrey.

Aaron: Not only do we see the Doctor going to great lengths to save “the one,” we see the impact one person (Clara, in this instance) can have on the Doctor. Even though she is just an average schoolteacher in the eyes of the world, she carries great significance and has made a timeless impact on all of time and space. We do ourselves and others a disservice by forgetting our and their God-given potential.

But there is also power in story. As you brought up earlier, story is such a huge theme of the entire season and this episode it was not exception. The Doctor’s line about memories we’ve forgotten becoming stories reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ one true Myth of the dying Christ come to save us. Other stories and concepts may reflect this picture, but they do so because of the brilliance of the true story.

For more about Kevin, he blogs at BibleInPopCulture.com, where he talks about the intersection of faith and culture, and you can catch him on Twitter at @PopCultureKevin.

Join us next time when Kevin and I discuss the Doctor Who Christmas special: “The Husbands of River Song.” Here are some previews to keep you company until then.


  1. You didn’t mention “cocktails with Moses”. Do you think that they would ever feature Moses (or any other Biblical character, for that matter) in a Doctor Who story?

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.