This story in a nutshell: The Doctor has returned home and it's business as usual...
Indefinable: The saving grace of the series at the moment, Peter Capaldi is the shining beacon of quality that the show simply cannot topple. Although it is trying hard. Hell Bent is salvaged by the quality of its performances, Capaldi in particular really believes in the dodgy material he is being asked to sell and as a result it is at least half possible to buy into. He spends the first fifteen minutes of Hell Bent in silence (when words are often this incarnations weapon of choice) which is quietly unnerving and at least injects a level of unpredictability to the scenes that otherwise fail to ignite in any fashion. Whilst the acting is superb, I really don't buy into the characterisation that I am seeing here. The Doctor is suddenly a modern day rock hero on his planet who can turn the head of the army and stage a coup without uttering a word? He is willing to murder somebody in cold blood to prove a point? He's willing to break all the laws of time in order to save one life and risk the end of the universe that he has spent so long trying to protect...just so he doesn't have to be lonely? He's characterised as somebody unhinged, perhaps unsurprising in the wake of Heaven Sent but in a way that shows the character out of control and lacking any sound judgement. This is not the sort of Doctor I would want to travel in the TARDIS with. Irrational and overly emotional and dangerously out of control. Looking at his character as a whole, series nine has done some pretty loopy and unfortunate things with Capaldi's Doctor. Where series eight felt as though it had a plan for him and his relationship with Clara, this season has bent the character out of shape in very strange ways. To a point where even an actor of Capaldi's calibre has trouble convincing. His rant in the TARDIS about defying the fate of Clara at the expense of the was an especially troublesome moment for the actor because it felt like even he didn't believe what he was saying. We're supposed to buy into the fact that the Doctor can stage a coup on the strength of the fact that he won the Time War and saved the planet. I can buy into that. But I need a little more convincing than one line to cover how an entire planet can change it's allegiance on a sixpence. One line. Sheesh. You cannot make sweeping reforms like that and cover it with one line. It's all part of Moffat's (and Davies' before him) plan to immortalise the character, to mythologize him. But it's elevating him without context. I don't need you to keep telling me how amazing the Doctor is. I already know it. His 'Get of my planet' is one the worst lines since 'Clara, I'm not your boyfriend' and for exactly the same reason. It should never have been said. Arrogant prick. He's so unhinged by the climax that he is scaring the life out of even Clara. She is frightened at the lengths he might go to to protect her and she has to make steps to intervene. The sooner he moves on from all this, he better.
Impossible Girl: Clara is the perfect example of the law of diminishing returns. This is her fourth exit from the show (Kill the Moon, Death in Heaven, Face the Raven and Hell Bent) and with each successive attempt to prise his hands from her apron strings Moffat loses conviction more and more. She has become his Rose, a character he simply cannot say goodbye to and one that becomes more tedious as a result. I thought we had made a definitive farewell to the character when she looked the raven in the eye but I should have known better and despite the get out cause that she will ultimately return to that scene and meet her maker the show has effectively ducked out of its one brave decision in series nine and left her character available for possible return visits. Is two and a half seasons of this non-entity not enough? I better not tell you the sort of language I was wielding when Clara walked free of her death and wound up on Gallifrey. I'm the biggest cynic when it comes to Moffat's death-free universe but even I was convinced after Clara's mile long speech in Face the Raven that Moffat had finally decided to let somebody go. The reset here renders the previous episode pointless - the whole point of that Face the Raven was put her out of the way and now that has been unpicked what was he point of it? The Doctor loves Clara so much that he is willing to bring the universe to the brink of calamity? Is that something the show is really saying? Then he's even more dangerous than I suspected because she's really not worth it. Because it ditches any kind of epic narrative in favour of more Clara love I'm guessing that your reaction to Hell Bent entirely rests on your opinion of his latest companion. I'm sick to death of her so wasting a potentially riveting homecoming in favour of setting Clara free in the universe again is particularly tedious. Clara is a character that is drowning in the shows history - she was there at the moment when the Doctor left Gallifrey, she was there at pivotal moments throughout all of his lives, she was there when he saved Gallifrey from the Time War and she was there when he finally managed to set foot on his home planet again. She's almost like an anchor, preventing the show from setting sail into a creative furtive future. The only thing that salvages the fact that Clara returns for yet an even weaker conclusion is Jenna Coleman's sincere performance. For two and a half seasons she has fought against Clara's insipid characterisation. I don't think she succeeded but I lover a trier and she has at least managed to develop a fine rapport with Capaldi. They've just milked it for too long now.
Dreadful Dialogue: 'On pain of death no-one take a selfie!'
'Was I supposed to understand any of that?'
'Get out of that TARDIS and face me boy!' - what the hell was that line all about? Since when did the Sisterhood of Karn start threatening the Doctor?
'The universe is over - it doesn't have a say anymore! As of this moment I'm answerable to no-one!'
* There was an episode of Stargate Atlantis where the station was under siege and the camera appeared to be swinging around the exterior of the station in a dizzying, vertiginous fashion. It was quite an effect given that the city was rendered entirely in CGI. Heaven Sent achieves a similar effect on Gallifrey, offering us a guided tour of the citadel in a way that we have never experienced before. It's spectacular and visually arresting. But it reminds me of films like The Phantom Menace, the money being spent on how it looks to paper over the artistic faults. The scenes in the Council chamber are pure Phantom Menace. That's not a compliment.
* Moffat's obsession with America continues. And why not? Doctor Who doesn't have to remained tied to England all the time. Although given the many hops to the land of the free of late it is perhaps paying lip service to a continent that is far more receptive to Doctor Who than this one at the current time. It makes for a more interesting visual than the show landing in London again but there are plenty of places that Doctor Who hasn't gone still. At the moment it feels anchored between two geographical settings.
* The one turn of the plot that I really enjoyed (because I was hoodwinked) was the assumption I had that Clara was the one that had lost her memory, rather than the Doctor.
* A regeneration from a white man to a black woman. It's Moffat pushing buttons but he must have gotten such a vehement reaction from some quarters that it had to be worth it. Although the way to counter sexism in Doctor Who is not to reverse it onto men with lines like 'Dear God how do you cope with all that ego?'
A few character beats that rang true: Clara's reaction to the Doctor suffering four and a half billion years, Clara accepting that her time is up, the notion of the Doctor running away from his people again,
* The original TARDIS is beautifully recreated and looks wonderful on screen. I think that might be enough for some people to rate this as 10/10 on it's own. But it's another kiss to the past in an episode that is full of kisses to the past. It's the best one, it fills me with the same warmth as a close hug and warm porridge but it's indulgent all the same. What's interesting is how this console works so vividly in 2015...they could have returned to the original from 2005 and it would have worked.
* My favourite scene in the entire piece took me by surprise. A moment of poetry at the end of time with Ashildr, the girl who lived. Maisie Williams looking radiant and giving the sort of confident performance that I am used to her in Game of Thrones. Acting-wise, this is her strongest moment in the season. Gorgeously lit and with some thoughtful things to say, this is a little ocean of calm in a world of crassness.
* Despite the fact that I have been complaining about the electric guitar all season I have to say the Clara piece that the Doctor plays in the diner at the end of the episodes really touched me. It was the most impressive thing about that scene. Don't say I'm not changeable.
* I remember Russell T Davies discussing how he insisted on anchoring Doctor Who in reality, to ensure that the show kept one foot in the real world show that the audience had something that they could buy into. That they could relate to. He didn't want lots of stories set on dull planets that failed to connect to people. That's probably why he got rid of Gallifrey in the first place. And what a sound creative decision that was in my eyes. Gallifrey has only ever really worked in one story for me (The Deadly Assassin) and in that story it was perversely playing against type to produce another Hinchcliffe/Holmes horror/thriller pastiche. Otherwise it is simply a terrifically boring stock SF planet full of pompous characters spouting stilted dialogue involving a horrific amount of technobabble. Heaven Sent happily picks up that mantle and reminds us of why Gallifrey is such a tedious place to visit. Not even Capaldi's unnerving silence can reduce these scenes to anything above stock SF blandness. Simon turned to me halfway through the episode whilst the Doctor and Clara were poking around in the guts of the planet and talking nothing but continuity and technoshite and declared he had no idea what was going on, that he had no interest in what was going on and that he failed to see how anyone that was not a Doctor Who geek could be getting any enjoyment out of this. I can see his point. Setting up the return of Gallifrey was a massive deal, getting the Doctor back to his planet was a huge struggle...and this is the result? It tarnishes the era of the 12th Doctor in a spectacularly disappointing way. I wish this had been Moffat's swansong and in some ways I wish it had been Capaldi's too because I think it would have pushed the showrunner into making some more savvy creative choices with the Doctor's homeworld. Why wouldn't you re-imagine Gallifrey in your own image? Why would you stick with the same palette as The Invasion of Time? This could have been a savage, war torn land turned to madness...but instead it's vanilla Gallifrey restored to it's factory settings. I would have loved to have gone down into the bowels of the planet and seen obscene experiments being performed on all the races of the universe, the lengths that the Time Lords went to to try and defeat the Daleks. Something truly horrific and immoral that would question the Doctor's loyalty to his world.
* This is so laden with continuity, both from the past and the shows recent history, that it could be written by the love child of Gary Russell, David A. McIntee and Craig Hinton. It's obsessed with the shows history in a way that is detrimental to it's creative present. Why would Foxes Don't Stop Me Now be playing in an American Diner cum TARDIS? Because they thought it was cute. Why would the Doctor play Clara's theme on his electric guitar? Because they thought it would be cute. Both are utterly self indulgent and turn up in the first scene and tell you everything you need to know about the episode ahead. The Matrix, Rassilon, the Sisterhood of Karn, the Doctor returning to the scene of his near defeat in The Day of the Doctor, whistling the Doctor's theme (at least that was a fine innovation, very memorable and highlighting the western tone), the Chancellery Guard, the Matrix, the confession dial, Clara's death, a Dalek, Cyberman and Weeping Angel, Shobogans, 'four knocks', the original TARDIS console, Missy/the Master. Hilariously one fan on Gallifrey Base staunchly refused to admit that this episode did not pay lip service to the fans. Are you having a laugh. There's probably more I haven't mentioned. I'm saying there isn't a place for continuity, I'm just saying it shouldn't damage your chance of understanding if you aren't a fan. Series nine with Daleks, Davros, base under siege stories, Zygons and Time Lords has been obsessed with the past. Stop it.
* Donald Sumpter is a great actor. Like Maisie Williams his work on Game of Thrones was extraordinary. In a role that is both underwritten and overwritten (which is some feat), Sumpter is at sea trying to bring any kind of gravitas to Rassilon. He resorts to growling and chewing the scenery and the result is one of the least effective guest turns since the show returned in 2005. Timothy Dalton was vivid and terrifying in The End of Time, Sumpter follows that with a deflated performance.
* Why are the Sisterhood of Karn in this? What narrative purpose do they serve? Why are the Gallifreyan Outsiders all wearing normal clothes now? Why are the Time Lords hated? It's not like anybody even remembers them anymore.
* The Hybrid has to be the most half arsed arc that the series has ever kicked up. Again Moffat is trying to tie his storylines into the misty dawn of Doctor Who history to give it some kind of status but the fact that this awe inspiring Hybrid has never been mentioned before rather gives the impression that it has been made up on the fly and slotted in unconvincingly. Again Moffat promises a huge revelation and what transpires barely makes any sense. Is the Doctor the hybrid? Are the Doctor and Clara the hybrid? Is Ashildr? Do you really care? Is it relevant in any way? Does it have anything to do with the Time Lords and the Daleks? Was it all overblown pomp? Of course it was. It felt like the show was trying to cash in on the popularity of the Doctor/Donna concept. And failing. And that's not the only concept stolen from Journey's End.
* I hate how easy this episode is on the Doctor. Steven Moffat is trying so hard to maintain the status quo from Face the Raven (the death of a companion) and save his favourite creation (Clara) that he contrives a situation that allows both characters to walk away Scot free whilst pretending that the show has still done something brave. Clara is still going to die, she is existing in between her penultimate and last heartbeat but for all intents and purposes her adventures are going to go on and on in that moment for as long as the viewer (or Moffat) wants them to. I have been saying all year that the show has been afraid to make tough choices and this is probably the worst example, it's the most blatant example of chickenshitedness for many, many an episode. A bold show would murder off a character and move on. Doctor Who arranges a way for her to survive because people just don't die on this show anymore. And the whole idea of the Doctor not remembering Clara strikes me as a way of trying to capture the melancholy and unfairness of his situation with Donna in Journey's End...and it even chicken shits out of that by having the Doctor remember certain details about their adventures. Moffat could have been truly brave (like Davies) and erased their entire time together (but this time in the Doctor's mind) but instead he maintains the status quo in as neat a way as possible. I suppose at least it means the show can move on from her character now, once and for all. But I would have loved for the show to go for the gut with a knife, instead of waving it at the audience and then putting it away and letting everything continue as normal. Essentially this episode exists to complicatedly give Steven Moffat the chance to take the easy option. Thanks for that.
* I do like a happy ending. I do. But the Clara floating off in an American diner for adventures with Ashildr is her least compelling exit of the four. It's certainly the most idiotic. And it means Clara could come back again.
The Shallow Bit: Clara as the waitress. Phew. If she had to go out here, at least she looks wonderful.
Result: There were times during the shows hiatus in the wilderness years where it was being used as the product of wish fulfilment, turning it into really bad fan fiction and much of Hell Bent reeks of that kind of fannish discharge. Half Gallifrey porn, half shippers paradise and almost entirely wank. The build up to Hell Bent was extraordinary. It felt the show was going to say something huge about Gallifrey and it's future but ultimately all it had to say was the Doctor loves Clara and the show lacks guts. Which is not what I was expecting. What irritated my no end is that it takes the potential of Steven Moffat's personal finest achievement in his own era (The Day of the Doctor) and throws it away, it wastes the return of Gallifrey which should have been a spectacular event in favour of more obsession with the least interesting companion to have stepped out of NuWho. Clara has become Moffat's Rose, an unfortunate anchor in the series that he cannot toss away. There are moments of poetry in Hell Bent, some wonderful lines and the acting is first rate but so much of the episode is overblown, drawn out, clever clever and incomprehensible. I have no idea where it leaves the casual viewer because we're playing lip service to the fans again, the show having a very similar feel to the mid-eighties. What it desperately needs is a shot of originality and innovation. Doctor Who is leaning so heavily on the past now that it can only make tentative steps forward. It's in danger of disappearing up it's own arse crack completely. Heaven Sent proved the sort of rich furrow the show can plough once Clara was out of the way but as soon as she's back we're drowning in continuity again. Now she has moved on perhaps we can take a few risks and try some new things again. What's next then? Oh, River Song. Sincere performances (for the most part) are what salvage a few scenes but for me this was the weakest of the Steven Moffat finales because it exists for the show to lack balls in a season where the show has lacked balls: 3/10