Hell Bent

A brilliant series draws to a close with a finale that’s a little light on spectacle compared to previous efforts, but focuses instead on mythology and character resolution. To both of these ends, Gallifrey is back, and in a way that adheres surprisingly closely to those heavy Time Lord stories of old. A gang of old fuddy duddies are plotting about what to do with the Doctor, who ends up overthrowing the High Council to become President and piss about with the Matrix. Reassuringly familiar to me now, thanks to this project.

Rassilon was back of course, in the guise of The Sarah Jane Adventures‘s Donald Sumpter. The Doctor’s total victory over him was perhaps as good as it got for him in this episode – the revenge he needed for his four and a half billion years of torture, without a single shot being fired. The same can’t be said for his rescue of Clara, as the Doctor guns down a fellow Time Lord in cold blood, which provides an on-screen precedent for male-to-female regenerations that you’d think would be enough to shut whinging manbabies on the internet up, but isn’t.

It’s definitely a shocking sight to see our hero do something so violent, but I don’t mind it, perhaps because what he’s been through is so extreme as to make his actions understandable, if not entirely justifiable. The revelation that his ordeal was part of the plan to get Clara back is a heartwarming touch – he didn’t spend billions of years punching a diamond wall because he had to, but because he chose to, for Clara.

Escaping in an old style TARDIS was obviously amazing, but the rest of the episode is very very talky, and it slightly fails to live up to the genius that came before it. I was never that excited by “the Hybrid” as a series arc, and that fact that it turned out to be merely a metaphor is a little underwhelming. I buy that the Doctor and Clara push each other to extremes, and that it might be dangerous for them to carry on as they have been, but not that dangerous that it’s worth all this fuss.

I think the diner scenes really helped disguise the lack of whelm on first broadcast, as they’re designed to keep you guessing. I remember assuming at first that Clara would be one of the leftover splinter Claras, until it became apparent that one of them had been memory-wiped. The twist that it’s him is a very good one, and the whole thing is a masterclass in misdirection.

It’s a sad way for this pairing to end – I didn’t like Clara at all for a long time, and I know that many people never changed their mind about her, but I really love her and Capaldi together. In retrospect, I feel slightly short changed that she missed quite a bit of her last series, but she left on a high. I love the idea of Clara and Ashildr going off on adventures for all eternity, through time and space in a flying diner. Can’t be long now til the Big Finish spin-off.

RATING: 8

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 8.56

  • Seasons/Series watched: 35 of 36
  • Stories watched: 262 of 276
  • Individual episodes watched: 825 of 840

And that rating confirms that this is my favourite new series so far. A great Doctor on top form, with a high proportion of absolutely classic stories. And blimey, I’m so close to the end now. One series and three Christmas specials. Just fifteen episodes. I can fit the remainder of the spreadsheet on my laptop screen. Blimey.

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The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar

Oh yes. To this day, I have no idea how they managed to keep Davros’s return so quiet. I was working when this first aired, so it was even more remarkable that I somehow avoided the spoiler until I’d got home. I remember gasping with shock and joy when the little boy identified himself, and it still made me grin from ear to ear this time. I love this story so much.

There’s so much going on at the start – a big bunch of snakes on a tour of the universe, planes stopping dead in the sky, Clara being summoned to UNIT by Kate – but it’s all just window-dressing for the main feature. The latter two also serve to reintroduce Missy, after a tiny gap of only one episode, but it’s a very welcome return. She’s on great form: mocking Clara for having a dead boyfriend, suggesting the Doctor may have once been a girl, being jealous about the Doctor having another arch enemy, and of course needlessly killing people for fun.

She works alarmingly well as a goodie too. It’s not the first time The Master’s been temporarily working with the Doctor and/or his companions, but it’s possibly the best example of him or her being able to do so without compromising their modus operandi. She’s still ruthless, murderous and untrustworthy, it’s just that she’s channelling it in the right direction for once. You can still have Clara tied up, threatened with a pointy stick and thrown down a twenty foot hole, which prevents Missy from ever feeling like she’s safe to be around.

(Sidenote – pronouns are a bloody nightmare when you’re trying to talk about multiple incarnations of the same Gallifreyan. It’s only going to get more confusing after this coming Christmas, but it’s a small price to pay.)

Meanwhile, the Doctor has changed too. He plays guitar now, which I very much approve of, and he’s capable of accepting hugs, and of being nice to Clara. It’s clearly a deliberate development from Capaldi’s first series – not so much that all the edges have been softened, but just a chance for him to show more aspects of his character. He’s just as cocky and full of swagger as the rest of the modern Doctors when he wants to be.

Not that this story wasn’t serious business. We’re on Skaro, with ALL the Daleks, and the first episode (seemingly) ends with Missy and Clara exterminated, the TARDIS destroyed, and the Doctor pointing a Dalek gun at a child. Yep, high stakes indeed. It doesn’t matter that all of these were later revealed to be deliberately misleading, as they made for a hugely impactful cliffhanger, plus we haven’t even got on to the main meat of the episode yet.

It’s all about the Doctor and Davros having a big old chat, and there a few things more appealing, especially when it’s Capaldi’s Doctor and Julian Bleach’s utterly superb Davros. This is an exercise in taking the hypothetical situations mentioned in Genesis, and testing the Doctor’s resolve when they’re suddenly less hypothetical. I was thinking about the “could you then kill that child?” question right from the start, but I wasn’t expecting the Tom footage to be played in. Davros seemingly records all his conversations with the Doctor, the big stalker.

The Doctor is also given the opportunity to play God, and to wipe the Daleks out completely, but of course he chooses not to – he still doesn’t have the right. Compassion is always the way, even with Davros, and the quiet, heartfelt moments between the two of them are among the best Davros scenes ever. He cries and he laughs. He opens his eyes. He asks if he’s a good man. It’s incredible drama.

Of course, it turns out to all be a trap. It’s slightly having your cake and eating it to play out the scenario of a humble, humanised Davros, and then reveal that he was faking it, but I don’t really care – I love those scenes anyway, and the fact that the Doctor was wise to it all along seems to save it, in some sort of double negative situation. And there’s so much brilliant stuff that I’ve not mentioned – the Doctor nicking Davros’s chair, the sewers, the in-universe explanation for why the Daleks say “exterminate” over and over. A phenomenal start to the series.

One last thing to note, as it illustrates just how long this project’s been going. This episode hadn’t aired when I started, and so when I came to write up the Daleks’ first appearance in the second serial, I speculated that a companion getting inside an empty Dalek casing is something that would never happen these days. As Paul Hayes pointed out in the comments after this aired: how wrong I was.

RATING: 10

The Doctor’s Meditation

Just a little one today, or rather two little ones – I’m smushing together both the Prologue to Series 9 and The Doctor’s Meditation, which is also a prologue to Series 9, but is long enough to get its own entry, whereas strictly speaking the actual Prologue is more like an episode-specific prequel, which don’t get their own entries. They’re both part of the same thing anyway, and in fact it later becomes clear that they both take place within the events of the opening episode.

One leads directly into the other too – after the Doctor pops over to Karn to hand over what we’ll later realise is a confession dial, he says he’s off to “meditate on a rock somewhere”, and it turns out that rock is Earth. His procrastination in order to avoid said meditation is brilliant. I love grumpy Capaldi, but people forget he can also do playful and silly just as well as any of his predecessors. It’s weird that he’s seemingly travelling without Clara though, after such a big deal was made of their reunion at Christmas.

Both pieces hinge on the Doctor talking cryptically about having to visit an old enemy, and it does such a good job of making you assume he’s talking about Missy that it took me a couple of minutes to remember that there’s another old enemy in the first story. I think Series 9 might be my favourite of the modern era, and I’m really looking forward to watching it again.

RATING: 7

The Night of the Doctor

I’ll never forget the sheer joy when this appeared out of nowhere one nondescript weekday lunchtime. We didn’t even know a minisode was coming, let alone who was in it. I received an email with a link and the words “HOLY FUCK”, so I sat and watched at my desk. I let out an audible high-pitched yelp when McGann appeared. “Probably not the one you were expecting”. Damn right.

It’s amazing how far things developed in the eight years between the show coming back and the 50th. From a complete fresh start with no more than fleeting references to the past, to putting together a short film starring a one-off Doctor from seventeen years ago, in a sort-of-sequel to a serial from the seventies. As if that wasn’t enough, they also reel off a list of Big Finish companions, seemingly for the sole purpose of instigating tedious arguments about canon. It’s pure fanwank, but what better time to indulge?

The aim is to fill in all the blanks ahead of the main special, but it does so much more than that, managing to fit in a surprising amount of story and character into a short running time. There’s a great economy to the storytelling. Just from subverting the normal reaction to the TARDIS, we’re told everything we need to know about the impact of the Time War. I had no idea who the Sisterhood of Karn were at the time, but the concept is easy to grasp – they’ve got magic potions that influence a regeneration, and that works even if you don’t know there’s a back-reference there.

Paul McGann is brilliant. Again, he gets a lot to do in a short space of time, with his comedy stuff about getting bored and needing knitting being the highlight. It remains a great shame that his Doctor was so short-lived, but what a wonderful thing it is for him to have had one last chance to shine, right in the heart of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations, and for us to finally see his regeneration.

The glimpse of a reflected Hurt is very well done, and it struck me at the time that they used a photo of him as a much younger man. Given how he looked by the end of the Time War, and how Matt Smith’s Doctor titted about for two hundred years without ever looking a day older, how long must the Time War have been for the War Doctor? Poor sod.

RATING: 9

The Brain of Morbius

Ah, so that’s who the Sisterhood of Karn are! I was beginning to wonder. I’d gotten the gist from their recent appearances, but not the specifics. As usual, I’m glad to learn that there’s at least a vague scientific explanation for their magical powers – a lot of things in the Who universe only really make sense if you’ve seen their origins. I was amused to note that they were complete shits for the majority of the serial, before they came good and decided to be The Doctor’s mates.

They’re just one of a number of brilliantly-realised ideas that make yet another proper classic, to add to the staggering number that the Fourth Doctor has had already. I loved the Frankenstein elements to this story, and the always-reliable Philip Madoc was having the time of his life in the mad scientist role. Also a big fan of the monobrowed, hooks-for-hands Lurch equivalent.

And then Morbius himself was gradually introduced into the story, which progressed at pace that left me desperate to just mainline the whole serial in one go. Just expertly put together, and much like with Pyramids of Mars, it doesn’t make any sense as to how this can be the case when Robert Holmes had to completely rewrite it at the last minute. Maybe they should have made him work like that all the time.

It was also quite a grim and harrowing tale. We care so much about Sarah Jane at this stage, and seeing her being blinded, tied up and then enslaved is somewhat emotionally involving. Not to mention the borderline sexually assaults from Lurchio. I can see why Mary Whitehouse was affronted by this one, and as usual, I fail to see how that can be a bad thing.

The one thing I’m not comfortable with, however, is The Doctor straight up killing Solon. I’m not sure what his plan was, if his intention was to murder the person keeping him captive, whilst still being captive. I assumed that he was knocking up a gas that would make the laboratory uninhabitable, but in a harmless way, so that Solon would have to come down and get at the gas. That would have been far more Doctorish than just poisoning the fucker.

RATING: 9