Well now. That’s more like it.
You know what the difference is between a good mystery and a bad mystery? I mean a mystery story here, not just mysteries abstractly. A good mystery is honest. When you reach the end, you should be able to look back and see how you got there: you should be able to take all the pieces you were given and put them together yourself. A bad mystery is dishonest. When you get to the end, you don’t have all the pieces, and some of the ones you have are wrong. A good mystery is a lot like a game of Mornington Crescent. The self-evidently exact right moment for the big reveal at the climax of a mystery is one second before the audience figures it out. You don’t have to worry about that in a bad mystery, because it’s literally impossible to figure it out ahead. Oh, I mean, you could just shoot in the dark and get it. Or you could get it by knowing that it’s going to be the guy who it always is in this kind of story. But you can’t actually derive the answer from what was presented. A bad mystery lies. It turns to the camera and tells you a big old whopper to your face: when the killer is alone he says something aloud that’s part of his false alibi not to mislead anyone in the story, but to mislead you. The detective turns his back to the camera when he inspects the key piece of evidence. Scooby-Doo is not a good mystery (But no big. It’s very good in other ways). You don’t really want to figure it out too early, but once you know the answer, you should feel like you could have figured it out.
I don’t feel like Stephen Moffat has been writing good mysteries. I feel like every plot twist for years has either been far too obvious or entirely out of nowhere. He’s been dishonest, spending whole seasons seemingly shouting “THIS IS IMPORTANT WANT THIS OBSESS OVER THIS” only to have the “twist” be “HA HA I FOOLED YOU, IT WASN’T IMPORTANT AFTER ALL! YOU ARE DUMB FOR CARING!”
And then there’s Hell Bent.
So let’s get the small things out of the way:
- Clara affecting an ex-pat accent in the diner scenes.
- Is it just me, or did The Woman (the unnamed caretaker of the barn) have kinda a Mrs. Garrett vibe?
- The shadow of the gunship retreating as the Doctor walks toward it.
- The ninth Doctor’s theme reinterpreted as if by Ennio Morricone.
- When the guard join the Doctor, they do not raise their weapons in his defense. They throw them down instead.
- Which is particularly important given what comes next.
- So Timothy Dalton is entirely the wrong sort of actor to play Rassilon as he appears in this episode, but still, going from Timothy Dalton to Donald Sumpter has got to be one of history’s great downgrades.
- The Time Lords keep zombies in their basement. Good people do not keep zombies in their basement.
- There’s a big unanswered, and honestly unasked question of “Why is this coming up now?” Why did the Time Lords suddenly decide that this whole “Hybrid” thing was suddenly a big and imminent enough deal that they’d torture the Doctor for half the age of the universe over it? All we ever get is “Rassilon grew afraid.”
- I think it is a real problem the extent to which this episode minimizes Missy: she’s not actually in it, when this is the episode that finally reveals what was behind her giving Clara the Doctor’s number.
- Not that there is any room for her in the plot.
- Can we please not have any CGI space-diners any more? At least not until they fire their CGI artists and hire someone competent. Because that is a wonderful idea that I do not want to see defiled by the shit CG this show keeps doing.
- Speaking of things can we please not have, “Next season is about how the universe is collapsing due to the Doctor’s fucking around with the web of time.” Let’s not have that. Please. If you’re going to recycle stuff from Big Finish, make it something clever like “…ish”.
But that’s all beside the point. And you know what else is beside the point? That the whole thing is a parallel for the Doctor-Donna arc back in season 4: that the gestalt of the Doctor and his companion becomes an entity in its own right of terrifying power, able to save or doom the universe, ultimately ending in a rejection of the tenth Doctor’s solution of erasing Donna’s memory.
It’s also beside the point that the framing scenes are clearly set up to imply to us that the Doctor is telling this story to a mind-wiped Clara (Or, sure, a Clara-Fragment a la “Name of the Doctor”, except that there has been no indication that any of those are left and the whole balance of everything since that point has been “And now that is over and done with”), and the last-second twist that she actually knows and is playing dumb, while he doesn’t actually recognize her.
And it is even beside the point that Clara’s story ends with her, now quasi-immortal herself, running off in a stolen (Classic-style, no less) TARDIS with Me, heading to Gallifrey “the long way ’round.” Of course that is how the story of the “Doctoring” of Clara ends. How else could it?
No. Because, for all everyone has said about the “Doctoring” of Clara, of Clara becoming a mirror for the Doctor, of her eventually dying because she wanted to “be like him”, the thing that, as far as I know, no one has commented on all season long is this:
Season 9 isn’t the story of the Doctoring of Clara. It’s the story of the unDoctoring of the Doctor. It’s so damned clear now. Right from the start, all of a sudden, the Doctor’s dropped his sonic screwdriver, he’s started wearing sunglasses, playing guitar, he’s dropped the “magician” outfit for T-shirts. He hugs. And remember everything I said last week? The Doctor, the man who solves problems by being clever, is incredibly dense, takes all episode to work out the incredibly obvious, and the man who can’t stand to sit still solves his problem by spending four billion years punching it.
All of this culminating, as, of course, it must, with this man, the man who never would, picking up a gun and shooting the general in the chest.
So in the end, there’s your real reversal of the Doctor-Donna plot: the Doctor loses his memories of Clara and stops being The Hybrid, and puts on the velvety coat and puts away the sunglasses and gets a new screwdriver and goes back to being The Doctor.
I didn’t even really like the second half of this episode. And yet, I haven’t felt this good about an episode of Doctor Who in two years, six months and eighteen days.