'Hell Bent' on Story-telling
Steven Moffat’s finale to Series 9 of Doctor Who was possibly both a masterpiece and unintentionally revealing.
There are a few unwritten rules in my (unwritten) book about writing Doctor Who stories:
1. Don’t mention the Time Lords. The show was better before they came on the scene and every time they appear, they disappoint. (This is for fundamental reasons, not just an idle opinion on my part -but you’ll have to read How Stories Really Work for the theoretical background.)
2. Don’t refer too much to things within the mythology of the show. How much is ‘too much’? Well, any reference to something that has occurred within the framework of the show’s past, while probably guaranteed to excite old existing fans, is probably also guaranteed to alienate new ones, and will certainly make it harder for non-regulars to ‘jump on board the Tardis’. This gets harder as the show goes on past its fiftieth year: the uncharted realms of the future aren’t quite so uncharted when you have so much past to refer to.
3. Don’t tamper with the history or the internal psychology of the Doctor himself. That’s because the Doctor is an archetype. We know that Steven Moffat doesn’t think that the Doctor is ‘Gandalf in space’, but the truth is that the show tends to work better when he is, or when he reverts to something similar.
And there are probably other rules too. Not writing them down makes it harder to remember them. But Steven Moffat breaks every one of these rules in ‘Hell Bent’ -and, though in many ways he pulls it off, the reasons why I loved it might not be the reasons he thinks.
In true Ironic style, Moffat tends to treat his audience like pinballs, as the award-winning ‘Blink’ showed. Just when you think you are heading in one direction, whack! you’re not. In fact, in some episodes you get whacked so much you no longer know or care where you’re heading. This episode almost does that -loses you- but manages to pull you and everything else back into place by the end. It’s part of Moffat’s technique to mess with you and your expectations.
Moffat is the Ironic writer of Doctor Who, in the way that the writers of the 1960s and 70s were the Epic writers. My favourite Doctors, One and Two, would have adventures that followed a clear pattern: they’d arrive in the Tardis, encounter a situation, deal with the bad guys or the monsters, and then leave in the Tardis in typical linear Epic fashion. Very little was said about the Doctor himself. He didn’t demonstrate many superhuman powers, just cleverness and wit, but there was something about him that was magnetic. The Doctor was an archetype, plain and simple. Antagonists were obvious (you can’t get more obvious than a Dalek shouting ‘Exterminate!’) and companions followed pre-set moulds. However, this was in television’s youth, when Epics were still the mode; over the last fifty years, TV and our entire culture have become much more Ironic (they call it ’sophisticated’, but ‘Irony’ is more embracive and explicit).
It started to change with Jon Pertwee’s Doctor getting stranded on Earth, I suppose. Then the Daleks were de-constructed with an origin story in the Tom Baker era. Then after Sarah Jane left the show started to become more and more self-referential and self-reverential through the 80s until the Doctor became a caricature of himself and the show disappeared into its own time vortex. It wasn’t ‘fitting in’ anymore; the culture rejected it just as a body rejects an organism that it perceives as not part of itself any longer. In its own terms, its chameleon circuit really stopped functioning; it dematerialised.
To be reborn successfully, Who had to be much more Ironic and self-centred. The fact that its chameleon circuit was malfunctioning had to be a post-modern point. Time travel wasn’t just a way of creating adventures, it was a thing in itself. The Doctor was no longer the wise old man, guiding us through events -he had to be the focus of the show. Classic Who was about happenings and was audience-centric; New Who is all about emotions, how we feel about happenings, and was therefore companion-and-Doctor-centric.
In ‘Hell Bent’, just about everything follows the Ironic mode: time is messed with, narrative sequence is no longer linear (almost the entire episode is a flashback), an adventure is no longer an external event or set of events that we experience, it’s something that envelopes us, evoking emotion and involving psychology; the original Tardis hardly even appears. This is why plot-holes are less important in the modern era than they were in olden times. Moffat, Grand Master of the Ironic Doctor Who tale, handles it so masterfully that it works, even while there’s a hidden undercurrent in play that he might not be aware of.
Pinball strike one: we begin in Nevada, not Gallifrey where we expected to be after the previous story. Strike two: there’s Clara. She supposedly left two stories ago, dead. Strike three: does the Doctor not recognise her? Or she the Doctor? This isn’t going to be about a vendetta on Gallifrey then. It’s going to be about these two, the Doctor and the companion that we thought we’d just lost (in a terribly disappointing and frustrating way). I should have known better than to write about ‘Face the Raven’, furious as I was with what I saw (and still see) as poorly-handled characters and an inert setting. Moffat caught me out there by being too Ironic for me: in my day, when you saw a companion leave or be killed, that was what you saw. In the Moffat Age, I should have been much more suspicious.
Our first assumptions as viewers is that the Doctor has been searching for Clara, has located her but that, for some reason -presumably because she’s one of the Impossible Girl ‘splintered Claras’- she doesn’t recognise him. It’s a beautifully enigmatic introduction to the central story. It’s made heart-breaking at the end when we see that this is Clara, that she does recognise him and has actually planned the entire encounter. (And Coleman certainly can act, just as Moffat can write -it was wonderfully portrayed.)
In between these book-end moments which capture the real essence of the story, the Doctor does something he should never do, narratively speaking: he goes home. He shouldn’t go home not only because every appearance of the Time Lords has reduced their once-magnificent mystery and god-like presence (in ‘The War Games’, the only time they were handled properly) but also because to do so suffocates the mystery within the character of the Doctor too -and yet here he is, on Gallifrey.
Brushing over the narrative loose-end of the fact that the Time Lords are supposed to be frozen in a single moment in time in some kind of pocket universe -the crux of the 50th anniversary special- Moffat undoes his own work (See? Plot-holes don’t matter, it’s not about plot) and places them more or less at liberty, but hiding at the end of the universe. Are they afraid? Or are they self-aware enough to recognise the monster in them, that Clara points out to them in a later scene, and so they hide themselves in the shadows as all monsters do? It doesn’t matter, this is an Irony. Even the once-vaunted (and once celebrity-acted by Timothy Dalton) antagonist, Rassilon the Redeemer and Resurrected, formerly semi-divine in status, is rapidly and anti-climactically shipped out of frame without much fuss.
In typical Ironic fashion, it’s the Doctor himself who we are led to believe might be the antagonist. He doesn’t even speak until about ten minutes after the opening credits, he’s so angry. We’re not sure we know him quite so well any more, after his four and a half billion years in some kind of virtual torture chamber. He could be the Hybrid (though it would be typically Moffat if the final phrase of last week’s ‘Heaven Sent’ wasn’t ‘The Hybrid is me’, but ‘The Hybrid is Me’ as we see hinted at in the scenes with Ashildr.) And then he does another thing he should never do, in terms of referring to his own history as a character -he returns to the barn dwelling of his youth, the same set from last year’s ‘Listen’ (is it the same barn where, as the War Doctor, he set out to detonate the Moment? Is it the Alpha and Omega barn?) where he meets someone who can only have been his nanny or whatever the Gallifreyan equivalent is, suggesting perhaps that we are to think of the Time Lords in the same way as we think of the English aristocracy, with the Doctor as the rebel.
He’s a rebel hero, though, in this Ironic context: lauded and almost worshipped by the Outsiders and the military caste combined, he simply draws a line in the dirt with his heel and takes control with an authority determined by ethics, his saviour status and the presence that goes with surviving billions of years of torture. This is Nelson Mandela to the Nth power, returning to Pretoria to become president of the republic.
There are weaknesses: ‘the Hybrid’ was clearly a contrived plot element designed to instill a sense of menace, but it never really works. Just because Davros mentioned it in the first two-parter of this series doesn’t make it scary. When it’s revealed that the Time Lords trapped and killed the Doctor over and over again in order to try to get the Hybrid’s name from him, one is left thinking that there must have been an easier way of doing it and this is just invented nonsense that doesn’t hang together. But that isn’t the point, as it might have been were this an Epic story -as it’s Irony, it’s not about ‘good guys and bad guys’ or what they do as much as it is about the inner psychology of the lead characters. Clara’s ‘extraction’ and resulting shock when she finds out what the Doctor has done as a result are more significant than that he has done it. Wising up to Moffat the Irony king, we should spot as audience members that the Hybrid is another of Moffat’s throwaway plot devices rather than an actual thing we needed to worry about.
So the Doctor repeats his own history by stealing a Tardis from Gallifrey again -a replica, it seems, of the Type 40 he allegedly stole in the first place. This was and is a big thrill for long-term fans (me included) as that original control room is re-created with so much attention to detail (including the buzzing internal doors) -but again, we’re watching an Irony, so we know that it doesn’t matter, it’s not actually the ‘real’ one. What matters is what happens inside it, just as in an Irony what matters is what happens inside people: this is where the Doctor and Clara get to say a proper (and properly emotional) goodbye. It’s well done.
But that white control room setting is a hint of something that Moffat may be unconsciously trying to do throughout this episode, and which he has perhaps been attempting to do all along in his time as show-runner: it’s a precursor of the drive towards ‘re-setting’ Doctor Who into an Epic mode. That’s why soon we see Clara flying off to ‘have adventures’ in an original Tardis as the real Impossible Girl, living with no pulse between heartbeats; that’s why we see the Doctor, at the end of the story, snap his fingers to close his own Tardis’s doors and regain a sonic screwdriver, ready for adventures of his own. He’s re-booted once again as ‘Gandalf in space’, whether Moffat acknowledges that or not.
The whole episode is underpinned by a craving for the lost Epics of yesteryear.
Will Moffat change his pinball style and be able to tell linear Epic stories without too much emotion, focusing on events and being careful to avoid plot discrepancies (because they’re more important in Epics)? Will modern audiences accept the action-packed world of Epics, or will they be looking for Ironic, character-driven sub-texts throughout? Or will the whole set-up collapse back into inward-looking, self-referential, subjectively emotional tales that risk being caught in the event horizons of their own huge plot holes?
A return of Epics would mean parking the Time Lords permanently at the end of Time, never to be seen again; it would mean opening the doors of the Tardis to new adventures rather than reinventing or trying to add introverting significance to old ones; and it would mean an emphasis on what was happening to the Doctor and his companions, rather than on the character of the Doctor himself. The absence of both Time Lords and internal musings about the Doctor’s innermost feelings, along with the lack of referral to the past, would create a huge, mysterious, open and exciting playing field in which so many powerful stories could be told, inviting the whole world in. Doctor Who could become a leader in television story-telling again, rather than a clever piece of niche marketing.
The Tardis, and the show, may be bigger inside than out, but from outside it just looks like a little box with lights in.
Is the world ready for Epics again?