Nevermore, the Shepherd's Boy Said.
Doctor Who's Face the Raven, Heaven Sent and Hell Bent Reviewed...


So, the production crew of Doctor Who’s ninth season threw us a curve ball. After leaving us wondering if we were getting six two-part episodes this year, they instead gave us four two-parters, a single-parter, and a finale three-parter. Sort of.

The three-part finale is kind of odd. It feels more like three separate stories tied together by a minimum of plot threads. Indeed, there’s a minimal feel to the story arc that each individual part takes on that it feels like three major events within a storyline, each expanded to a full episode for additional focus.

Part one, entitled Face the Raven (by Sarah Dollard) is the instigating chapter. Part two, entitled Heaven Sent (by Steven Moffat), expands the Doctor Who trope of being locked in a cell and then escaping (but what a cell! What an escape!). And part three, entitled Hell Bent (also by Moffat)… feels like two stories in one. First the Doctor resolves most of the plot threads that have been left dangling for the past three years, and then we’re given time to focus on the Doctor and Clara’s relationship — all in order to say a proper goodbye.

A full spoilery review can be found after the break. My apologies in advance: it’s long.

Okay, so my mother made a special request for me to explain the whole plot of this story, so here’s my take…

The Doctor and Clara are off having adventures when someone calls the TARDIS phone. It’s Rigsy, the up-and-coming street artist last seen in season eight’s Flatline. He has a disturbing mystery on his hands: he can’t remember last night, and there’s a strange tattoo on the back of his neck. It’s not what it looks like. No, really. For one thing: this tattoo is a number, and it’s actually counting down the minutes.

That revelation is enough to warm the Doctor up after his sulk at Clara giving out the TARDIS’s phone number. The tattoo can’t be counting down to anything good and, upon seeing it, the Doctor brings out his flash cards, to Clara’s horror. But they aren’t going down without a fight, so they retrace Rigsy’s steps, and find an alien Diagon Alley in amongst one of London’s chic shopping districts.

The secret alley turns out to be a refuge for aliens and other creatures left behind from previous invasions and other run ins with the Doctor or UNIT. The refuge is run by Ashildr (Me). Some of the monsters might be human hostile, but everybody knows that it’s in everybody’s interest that they stay under the radar, and Ashildr controls this with an iron fist in the form of a raven.

The raven is a “Quantum Shade”, and the countdown tattoo is a “Chronolock”. When the number reaches zero, the Quantum Shade can find you, anywhere in the universe (and likely any time in the universe) and kill you stone dead. There is no reprieve unless Ashildr says so, or unless the condemned find someone to accept the Chronolock on their behalf. Rigsy received the Chronolock after being seen standing next to a dead alien and being accused of her murder.


While the Doctor investigates to prove Rigsy’s innocence, Clara gets a clever idea. The Chronolock can be transferred to a willing recipient, and she has Ashildr’s personal assurance of safety, so perhaps she can take the Chronolock and cheat death? Rigsy, who has a newborn baby at home, reluctantly agrees, and the tattoo starts counting down on the back of Clara’s neck.

The Doctor, meanwhile, uncovers shenanigans. Turns out the alien Rigsy was accused of killing isn’t dead, but in a stasis chamber. The chamber, bizarrely, has a TARDIS keyhole, and the Doctor gets the distinct impression that his key can open it. Upon reflection, this should have been a big clue here about who’s behind all this. But before you can say, “It’s a trap!”, the Doctor uses his key, has it snatched from him, and has a teleport cuff locked onto his wrist. Finally, Ashildr arrives for the big reveal.

Yes, she set this whole mystery up to attract the Doctor. There is some suggestion that she was forced to do this. Some unseen element is mentioned, having threatened to expose her refuge to humanity, and the price for silence is trapping the Doctor, who they appear to want because of his knowledge of something called “the Hybrid”. Now that the Doctor is in custody, she goes to take the Chronolock off Rigsy, and is horrified to discover Clara’s deception. Unfortunately, it turns out that Clara has been too clever by half. The Chronolock was something that Ashildr negotiated with the Quantum Shade. She only had the ability to remove it if it stayed on Rigsy’s neck. Now that Clara has taken it, she’s broken the agreement. She’s going to die, and there’s nothing Ashildr, the Doctor or anybody can do about it.

The Doctor, understandably, prepares to go all Oncoming Storm on Ashildr’s backside, but Clara intervenes. Showing almost superhuman levels of grace and compassion, she acknowledges that she’s been getting reckless. She’s grown a bit addicted to the TARDIS life and all its dangers, but she’s always known that she’s far more breakable than the Doctor, and this mortality is something that she has accepted. She orders the Doctor not to seek revenge, particularly on Ashildr. She warns him that he doesn’t do well when he’s on his own, and to watch that he doesn’t lose his humanity. After getting his promise that no one else will be harmed in consequence for what she’s done, she goes out to face the raven on her own, telling herself to face death bravely, as Danny Pink had done. The Doctor can’t stop himself, and he ends up watching as Clara dies.

Promise or not, the Doctor looks downright dangerous as he returns to Ashildr. He warns her to stay out of his way, and Ashildr activates the transporter. You have to think that whoever is waiting on the other side will have far more than they bargained for when the Doctor arrives.

But you’d be wrong. So very wrong.

Heaven Sent is not what you’d expect to follow Face the Raven. The Doctor arrives at the transporter’s destination, and there’s no arrogant captors and no answers waiting for him. He’s in a castle that’s almost empty, except for a slithering, thumping monster out of the Doctor’s nightmares that the Doctor can’t seem to stop. For a Doctor who looked so dangerous the episode before, seeing him so out of his depth is a shock. The people behind this trap must be very powerful indeed.

But slowly, the Doctor figures it out. The creature from his nightmares is stopped, temporarily, each time the Doctor confesses something from his soul. We learn that he is, in fact, afraid to die. We learn that the Doctor originally left Gallifrey not because he was bored, but because he was afraid. He also confesses that he knows the identity of “the Hybrid”, a being from two warrior races prophesied to destroy Gallifrey. Each time he confesses, the castle twists like a puzzle box, and more rooms open. The Doctor begins to wonder if he’s getting closer to getting out, or if he’s being led along by the nose.

But other mysteries loom. The Doctor knows he hasn’t travelled through time (he can feel it), and he knows the maximum distance the transporter can operate. Why are the stars so out of place that it looks like he’s 7,000 years out of time? What’s up with the thousands of skulls littering the sea floor around the castle?

When he finally gets to “Room 12” and spots a diamond wall twenty-feet thick, with the word “HOME” inside it, he realizes he’s one confession away from escape, and then he twigs on the truth.

Whoever has put him in this torture chamber wants to know the identity of the Hybrid. Unfortunately, the Doctor thinks this information is just too dangerous to give out. Either that, or he’s way too stubborn for his own good. If he doesn’t give this last confession, he dies. There is, however, an alternative. So, as his nightmare approaches, he begins punching the diamond wall, and telling a story by the Brother’s Grimm, only to be interrupted by the nightmare reaching him and searing him to death.

But the Doctor takes a long time to die. In extreme pain, and taking a day and a half to climb back to the transporter room, we learn his horrible plan. He was transported here. A copy of his scan is still in the transporter. All it needs is a bit of extra energy, and he can have the transporter produce a copy of himself (the process also incinerates the “original”). Unfortunately, that copy is doomed to perform the same actions as the one before, up to the point when everything clues in. That’s why the stars are 7,000 years out of alignment, and there are thousands upon thousands of skulls in his prison. All because the Doctor won’t give that last confession, and tries to punch his way through diamond instead. How many times can he keep doing this?

This is the Brothers Grimm story the Doctor tells his nightmare.

“Since you want me to tell you a story. The Brothers Grimm. Lovely fellas. They’re on my darts team. According to them, there’s this emperor, and he asks the shepherd’s boy, ‘How many seconds in eternity?’”

(dies several billion more times. Eventually gets to say…)

“The shepherd’s boy says, ‘There’s this mountain of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it, and an hour to go around it. Every hundred years, a little bird comes. It sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed.’”

“You must think that’s a hell of a long time. Personally, I think that’s a hell of a— {the wall breaks. The nightmare disintegrates into clockwork} Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.”

Heaven Sent is, in my mind, the best episode of this trilogy, and possibly the best episode of the Smith/Capaldi era. It shakes up the formula, putting the Doctor practically alone on his own stage for over fifty minutes. The mystery plays out, and its reveal is truly horrifying. But the resolution? I applauded. I straight up applauded the screen when the Doctor turned around and said, “Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird!” That was a crowning moment of awesome, to my mind. A culmination of Moffat’s sparking writing, the building mystery, Rachel Talalay’s taut direction, Peter Capaldi’s stellar acting, and Murray Gold’s tour-de-force score (which, it must be said, is riffing Beethoven’s 7th Symphony something fierce).

And, is there anything more satisfying than for the Doctor to step out of the portal, discover that he’s been in his confession dial all this time, and then to find that he’s finally arrived on Gallifrey. the long way around. The really long way around.

Hell Bent restores the Doctor as the Oncoming Storm. It would have to; after all, what else could possibly survive 4.5 billions of eroding a hole through diamond rather than give his captors what they want? He has some loose ends to tie up, first. If you will remember, in The End of Time, the Lord President is Rassilon, and he threatened to destroy Earth and relaunch the Time War to escape the Time Lock the Doctor put on events. Even after The Day of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor, when it was discovered that the Doctor froze Gallifrey in time rather than burnt it alive, and later when Clara released it to go… somewhere, Rassilon was probably still on Gallifrey, and something of an impediment to change.

The Time Lords have retreated to the far future — so far near the end of reality that there is no one left to threaten them (not even Utopia), but they’re still afraid of that Hybrid prophesy (possibly the Matrix started getting spooked again, which spooked them), so it was the High Council (or maybe Rassilon himself) that called for the Doctor, set up the trap in Ashildr’s refuge (remember the TARDIS key lock?), and shoved him inside his confession dial in order to extract the information they needed.

So, the Doctor’s out, and he’s ticked. He goes back to his people (tellingly, its the Sheboygan outcasts outside the city rather than the capitol itself) and waits. The Gallifreyan military comes to collect him, but are too afraid to fire a shot. The High Council comes to bow before him, but the Doctor is unmoved. He wants Rassilon. So Rassilon comes, and the Doctor pulls off a bloodless coup, by rallying his fellow Gallifreyans around him, and telling an aged Rassilon to get the sod off his planet.

It’s appropriate and satisfying that Rassilon is seen as an old man, here, and not played by Timothy Dalton as in The End of Time. There are few better illustrations of the puffed-up bully this character represents than his fall here. It speaks volumes that the Doctor did not need to fire a shot.

However, the Doctor has something extra nasty up his sleeve. Now that he’s named Lord President of Gallifrey, he ostensibly goes to help his people deal with the prophesy of the Hybrid — the confession he wouldn’t give, not because it was so dangerous but, as it turns out, because without it he wouldn’t have something to bargain with. Using this, and using his powers as president, he convinces his people to extract Clara out of time from the moment just before her death. A death from, it must be pointed out, a Quantum Shade that could kill you no matter where you are in the universe. Basically, the very definition of a Fixed Moment in Time That Must Not Be Changed Under Any Circumstances.

Remember The Impossible Astronaut and The Wedding of River Song from Season Six? Moffat wants you to, which is why Hell Bent opens at the very restaurant Rory and Amy meet the eleventh Doctor again after apparently having seen him die. The Time Lords clearly do not like the idea of extracting Clara from the moment of her death, and want to move quickly to get whatever information she has about the Hybrid so they can send her back toot-suite and let history take its course.

But of course Clara knows diddly squat about the Hybrid. It was all a trick by the Doctor to cheat death so blatantly, he might as well have been using a baseball bat. How bad is his idea? Clara opposes it. And when the Doctor steals a TARDIS and hauls Clara to the end of time in order to hide, Ashildr arrives to call him out on that, suggesting that this act is what makes the Doctor (and Clara!) the Hybrid of Time Lord philosophy.

As I said, I liked Heaven Sent the best of this trilogy, but I think that each episode is good in its own way. Face the Raven has a beautifully written death scene which culminates Clara’s character fantastically. Hell Bent ties up most of the loose ends the series has dangling, and shows the Doctor at his most dangerous. Hell Bent, however, is clearly one of these episodes that split fandom. I know many good fans who love it for its powerful yet understated finale, and I know others who feel that the episode undercuts Clara’s sacrifice and the revelations of the two episodes before, all while failing to deliver a proper visual of the danger of what the Doctor was trying to do.

I can understand the critics’ frustration over restoring Clara to life and undercutting her brilliant death scene, but I don’t quite agree with their assessment. Do the Doctor’s actions in Hell Bent negate the graceful sacrifice that Clara made at the end of Face the Raven? Yes, they do. Is it a bad thing? Yes, it is. However, it’s a bad thing within the context of the story, and that makes all the difference.

This isn’t because Moffat went back on a character’s death, but that the Doctor did, abusing his power, turning his back on his principles (“You can’t change history! Not one letter!”) and recklessly putting the universe at risk because of his own selfish desires. This bad thing is a good thing because it’s bad — and the Doctor’s done it. This is made even better because the Doctor is called out on how bad a thing it is, from the person he saved, no less.

More to the point, Clara accepted that her recklessness had consequences. That was the point of Face the Raven. The Doctor didn’t, and that’s what makes the Doctor’s actions so wrong in Hell Bent.

That, I appreciate. The Doctor has gone too far, and shown himself to be a flawed individual. Better yet, he comes to acknowledge it, and that stepping outside his own boundaries is what marks him (and Clara) in Ashildir’s eyes as “the Hybrid”.

As noted elsewhere, what is missing here is a visual sense of the consequences of the Doctor’s reckless actions. At the end of other series arcs, we saw the consequences of Bad Wolf. We met Torchwood. We saw the cracks in space-time, and we saw what happened when River didn’t shoot the Doctor at Lake Silencio.

Indeed, Moffat takes some effort to call out to the confrontation at Lake Silencio, where changing a fixed moment in time causes causality to collapse and all of time to happen all at once. The Wedding of River Song ably shows the audience what the stakes are. We never get that sense here. We see the universe end, but only because Ashildr happens to be watching. There is no visual sense of disaster. I’m filling in all of the blanks myself in support of Moffat’s script. At an intellectual level, I can appreciate the Doctor realizing “my goodness what have I done?” and Clara realizing “I’ve got to take this choice out of the Doctor’s hands; he’s not capable of making the right decision”, but with no visual cues, I can see why many in the audience are left wondering what the heck happened, and why.

On the other hand, hammering home the point that the Doctor’s actions make him the Hybrid would also detract from the poignancy of Clara’s choice to face the raven. If they do look out the window and see the universe collapsing because of what the Doctor has done, then Clara doesn’t really have a choice, and it’s her choice that’s important here.

Esoterically, she still doesn’t, but the lack of a visual hammer makes Clara’s decision to say “this is wrong. I’ve got to end this relationship before it gets even more destructive” stronger, because she makes it on its own merit rather than at the behest of overwhelming doom. Yes, Moffat nods to the fan fiction writers with an opening for the potential further adventures of Clara and Ashildr, but after calling back to Lake Silencio, and stating that time could be destroyed by Clara’s extraction from time, if we tune into the Christmas special and find the universe operating as normal, then we’ll know that Clara made the move, and of her own free will.

It’s also wonderfully and appropriately shocking to see how much of a loss the Doctor is at the end of all this. After seeing the Doctor become the Oncoming Storm, after seeing him punching his way through diamond to get to Gallifrey. After seeing him ending Rassilon’s reign without dropping a single pinprick of blood and yet risk the fate of the Universe itself, there is something quietly triumphant in seeing Clara take the final decision out of his hands and walk away. Clara has, and has always been, the season’s trump card. I’ve thought on numerous occasions that Jenna Coleman, while brilliant as Clara, should depart on the principle of “always leave them wanting more”. She had a perfect departure moment as an old woman in Last Christmas. In any other circumstance, her sacrifice in Face the Raven should have been the end all. But this departure is satisfying because it’s under her own power.

It’s a big risk to turn so much of the season on just three characters, two sets, and a lot of dialogue that’s going to go over a lot of people’s heads. If anybody thinks that Hell Bent is a failure, it’s easy to see why. However, I loved it. I appreciated it all the more because it wasn’t the big, bold shoot-em-up we’ve seen in seasons past, and I know that I’m not alone. So, clearly, Moffat got through to some people. I’m glad he took the risk.

And so we end one of the strongest seasons in the revival’s history. Honestly, I think I’d only rate the first season higher for overall quality. I’m especially satisfied because I feel that we’ve also been given several good endings, to Clara’s companionship, to several plot threads that weave all the way back to the revival’s start, and to Capaldi coming into his own. I’ve emerged refreshed and intrigued at what the Christmas special and the next season will bring. Truthfully, Moffat can go just about anywhere, and I’m excited to be along for the ride.


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