I’ve been pressed for time the last couple of weeks and have not really had time to blog, but I wanted to post a few thoughts about Heaven Sent and Hell Bent.
Heaven Sent is easily my favourite new Who episode. It might be my favourite Doctor Who episode ever, except that I’m terribly indecisive and that comparing episodes from different eras can feel like comparing apples with oranges. It’s a quadruple triumph: for Peter Capaldi (perhaps most of all), for Steven Moffat, for director Rachel Talalay and for incidental music composer Murray Gold. I’ve been critical of Gold in the past, especially for the bombastic scores that accompanied a lot of David Tennant’s stories, but here he is more subtle and genuinely moving. In particular, The Shepherd’s Boy, the piece that accompanies the montage of the Doctor being in the confession dial for millennia, is brilliant. Moreover, the cumulative effect of these four talents is greater than the sum of their parts. There’s a haunting beauty in this story not really found in any other story except Warriors’ Gate (with which it shares some similarities and one key difference – the former story is about winning if you “do nothing” whereas here victory comes from doing one small thing over and over and over again).
What I admire most about the episode is the way it spotlights the Doctor’s heroism, his determination to just keep going despite everything and do the right thing, despite the most terrible psychological and physical tortures imaginable. In that respect it’s like one of my other favourite stories, The Caves of Androzani and obliquely like a third, The War Games (which pushes the Doctor until he actually breaks – by the middle of episode ten he’s given up fighting the Time Lords despite Jamie and Zoe’s determination to escape, surely the reason the Time Lords of The War Games seem more powerful than in subsequent stories). While some fans admire the programme’s politics, I prefer episodes that focus on the Doctor’s morality in a more personal, less abstract and ideological way. Here, more than anywhere else, we see the Doctor as the man who is never cruel or cowardly, never gives up and never gives in (admittedly we don’t see “never cruel” so much).
Hell Bent is a more complex and uneven episode. It’s true that I generally prefer chamber pieces to epics, but Hell Bent seems inferior to its predecessor even when taking that into account. Perhaps it gives away too much about the Doctor’s childhood (without really giving away very much at all) or perhaps it’s the confusion about the Hybrid, which, despite being trailed extensively this season (without ever having been mentioned before) ultimately doesn’t amount to much more than a hint that the Doctor might genuinely be half-human after all and the implication that the Doctor may have made a terrible mistake in making Ashildr immortal, which we already knew from The Woman Who Lived and Face the Raven. Plus the end of the universe setting might clash with Listen; I wouldn’t usually quibble over continuity like that, but it was only broadcast a year earlier, although you can probably handwave it away.
But the real problem is that the Doctor is cruel here. His swift dismissal of Rassilon and the High Council of Time Lords is justified, but his shooting of the General is less so. For all he says that death is just “man flu” on Gallifrey, that’s not how it is generally presented and the sequence here just seems to be there to further establish gender fluidity in the Time Lords rather than to carry any real weight. We see the Doctor’s love for Clara here, but it seems to come at the cost of his sense of responsibility. He has a duty of care to Clara, but risks destroying space and time as a result. He seems unbalanced. Still, this is an intentional decision on the part of Moffat and Capaldi, to show just how much he loves Clara, but his memory wipe seems like a justified punishment as well as a a way of getting Clara out of the series and to reset the Doctor’s character to factory settings.
Still, this is not to detract from a pacey and epic story that ably ties up the loose ends from Heaven Sent and takes the Doctor’s character even further than its predecessor.