Doctor Who: Hell Bent

Posted on December 06, 2015

Picture shows: Peter Capaldi as the DoctorPin

Okay, you got us that time, Steven Moffat.

When Clara died, we had a hard time working up any emotion over it, because, as we noted at the time, her death – and several other story aspects over the course of this season – had an extremely unresolved feeling to it. We knew the other shoe hadn’t dropped yet on her departure from the series and thus felt that what should have been an emotional turn of events simply felt like a narrative bridge. On one side of the bridge was the long-established idea that Clara was becoming too much like the Doctor in her thinking and, we were told time and time again, that was a bad thing. The bridge was her “death.” On the other side of the bridge?

Doctor Clara. For really-reals.

Girlfriend didn’t get a pat on the head and a Doctor doll to play with when she got lonely. She didn’t walk out of the TARDIS on her own because she realized the Doctor was bad for her. She didn’t have all her experiences wiped from her memory in an attempt to save her from an evolution she couldn’t handle. And she didn’t get lost in the mists of time, forever outside the Doctor’s reach. No, those were the fates of the previous four companions and Steven Moffat, in a wholly unexpected twist, made Clara’s exit a commentary on all those other companion exists. She didn’t get a booby prize Doctor-lite for her troubles, like Rose did. She got a full-fledged TARDIS to call her own. She didn’t walk out of a life she loved because her relationship with the man who introduced it to her had grown a little toxic to her, the way Martha did. She simply ditched him and continued her adventures without him. When it came time to wipe her mind in order to save her, as with Donna’s exit, she said “To hell with THAT” and wiped the Doctor’s mind instead. And she didn’t get lost in the mists of time and forever out of the Doctor’s reach, like Amy did. Instead, she gleefully leapt into the mists of time with a “SEEYA!” and a grin. In other words, unlike the previous four companions, Clara had full agency and control over her own leaving. You could argue that Martha did too, but she left that TARDIS very reluctantly because she loved the adventuring. And sure, we saw her later working for UNIT and Torchwood, just as we assume Rose is off saving Earth 2 and Amy and Rory somehow managed to have adventures in 1930s New York. But Clara is the Impossible Girl who got it all. After her departure, the only thing she lost was the Doctor himself. All of time and space remain as open to her as they ever were. It was, in our opinion, the very best companion exit of the new series and possibly the best in the entire history of the show.

Now, if one wants to take the uncharitable and anti-Moffat point of view on this, one could roll one’s eyes and point out that Moffat Mary-Sue’d the hell out of Clara’s character pretty much from her introduction and all the way through her arc. By making her exit from the series so triumphant, he’s just giving us more of the same “THE GREATEST COMPANION EVER” crap he’s been foisting on us ever since he coined the term “The Impossible Girl.” And honestly, we can’t even argue with that take. Moffat always did love Clara more than the audience seemed to. And if you want to take the long (and slightly petulant) view, it does seem kind of unfair that so many other companions (virtually all of them) had to return to a life of normalcy and obscurity while Clara gets to graduate to full Time Lord (or as close as a human can get). Sarah Jane Smith isn’t turning over in her grave, she’s clawing furiously at it from inside in rage.

But times change and how we look at the (mostly female) companions of the Doctor has changed as well. DW has always been a series that tended to condescend to its female characters, even up to the present day. It’s not so much the lovely parting gifts that make Clara’s exit so notable, it’s the total agency over her fate. We’ve noted a couple of times this season that Moffat seemed to be making a concerted effort to address the sexism charges against his work in prior seasons. Not only did he give us our first onscreen gender-flipped Time Lord with Missy, but he stacked this season to the rafters with bold, adventurous, complicated women, from Kate Stewart to Osgood to Ashildr. And none of them were treated like appendages or condescended to like slow children. These women drove the action and challenged the Doctor. We don’t think it’s a coincidence that time was taken out of this entirely overstuffed season finale just to show a Time Lord regenerating from a man to a woman. For all the talk of Steven Moffat having issues with women (and we still think it’s true that you can find those issues in prior seasons), he’s done pretty much everything in his power to lay the groundwork for Doctor Who to showcase its first female Doctor.

Other things happened this episode, of course. And while we think it may have been asking a bit much of the audience to accept the return of Gallifrey, the defeat of Rassilon and the Doctor effectively mounting a coup of the planet’s ruling body all as mere setup for the payoff of Clara’s exit, we can’t deny it was all handled fairly well, even if it happened a bit too quickly to process. If nothing else, Gallifrey stands at the end of this season, ready to continue to be a thorn in the Doctor’s side when future writers decided to play with it again. It’s a good setup for the next season.

And even as we acknowledge how and why one might have problems with how Clara’s exit was treated (or how it was treated as so much more important than the return of Gallifrey), we have to admire the thematic consistency of it. Groundwork for this exit has been laid going back well over a year, when we started hearing how much Clara was becoming like the Doctor and how ominous a thing that was. Kudos must be paid to Moffat, because we don’t think we encountered one person online who looked at all that foreshadowing and figured out what the end game would be. We all figured she’d die from cockiness  – and Moffat trolled us into thinking that’s exactly what happened – but instead, her fate was much more literal. She really did become just like the Doctor, stealing a TARDIS and running away, a functional immortal with all of Gallifrey on her tail and a companion at her side. Maybe she didn’t deserve it, but we like to think somewhere in the recesses of her mind, Donna Noble is doing fist pumps and urging Clara to keep on running.


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