After seven years as head writer and showrunner of Doctor Who, there are a lot of contenders for the title of “Steven Moffat’s best episode” – more, given Moffat’s contributions under his predecessor Russell T Davies. Indeed, Steven Moffat has in fact written more Doctor Who than anyone else in the history of the programme; he’s got ardent critics and dedicated fans, and it’s perhaps fair to describe Moffat as one of the most contentious writers who’s ever worked on the series.
Largely, an opinion has formed that the quality of his work declined as time went on – that, as showrunner, Moffat never bested the episodes he wrote under Russell T Davies, and that the Peter Capaldi era was inferior to Matt Smith’s tenure as a result of this decline.
In fact, however, one of Steven Moffat’s best episodes was Hell Bent, Peter Capaldi’s second series finale. Often, it’s overlooked in favour of the episode immediately prior, Heaven Sent – a genuinely excellent hour of drama, quite unlike anything else in Doctor Who history and indeed on television in general. Nonetheless, compelling though Heaven Sent was, it’s got to be said: Hell Bent was better.
Much of it is typical of Moffat’s work, in keeping with his stylistic quirks and idiosyncrasies. At its heart, Hell Bent is a story built around subverting expectations, substituting one narrative for another: rather than a spaghetti Western by way of Gallifrey epic, it’s a piece of character drama, centred around the relationship between the Doctor and Clara. After a series built around the idea that these two characters – “a powerful and passionate Time Lord, and a young woman so very like him” – compliment and mirror one another, each amplifying the other’s strengths but also their flaws, Hell Bent culminates by showing just how destructive this partnership could be. Gallifrey isn’t the part of the story that matters – it’s the Doctor and his companion, the relationship at the heart of the show, just as it should be.
If the Peter Capaldi era of Doctor Who can be said to be about one thing, it’s the idea of identity – of what it means to be the Doctor. Hell Bent shows one of those times when the character falls short of that ideal, and the lengths he’s willing to go to from a place of desperation – and why it’s time for the Doctor and Clara to part ways.
That, of course, brings us to the other expectation being subverted with Hell Bent – just what happened to Clara?
Opening as the episode does, with the American frame story, is a clever conceit – a reveal akin to a puzzle box, playing upon the assumptions made by the audience at each stage of the story. Is this an echo of Clara, returning to the Impossible Girl arc that introduced her to the series? Has the Doctor erased Clara’s memories of him, much like he once did to Donna? Apparently so. Except…
That’s not the case, of course. Because Hell Bent isn’t just one of Steven Moffat’s best Doctor Who episodes, but the best companion exit since 2005 – something difficult to achieve for a character that had already left several times, but something Moffat pulled off with panache regardless. After an arc exploring the similarities between Clara and the Doctor, there was perhaps only one way it could go. It was never going to tear her down, or leave her solely in the companion box; Hell Bent built her up, finally making her “Clara Who”, and giving the character an exit that’s truly bigger on the inside, brimming with potential. There’s a poignancy to it, and a certain beauty too.
Again, it’s an emphatic statement about the chief thematic concern of Capaldi’s era – what does it mean to be the Doctor? Leaving Clara as a Doctor analogue in her own right was, of course, the only way it could end. In the wake of Peter Capaldi’s regeneration, this story takes on a further significance; with the Twelfth Doctor’s final words, advice to his future self, mirroring the advice he gave to Clara, it’s another clear affirmation of Clara’s status as a Doctor herself.
Ultimately, of course, the above only scratches the surface of what makes Hell Bent such a good episode. It’s a densely packed episode, with a lot going on – and each aspect contributes to the quality of the whole. From Rachel Talalay’s absolutely stellar direction, the shining performances of Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi, Murray Gold’s music, the sheer weight of the symbolism scattered across the episode and more besides – there’s surely only one conclusion to be made.
Hell Bent is Steven Moffat’s best episode of Doctor Who.
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