As Doctor Who season finales go, this week’s “Hell Bent” was as Moffat as they come. Steven Moffat managed to unravel another death in the most improbable of ways, and he took a circuitous 4.5 billion year route to get there. While the arc falls apart logically, the episode was undeniably a rousing, emotional success. Moffat has a gift for emotional manipulation, and he’s not above bending, breaking or irreparably shattering the rules to achieve that hysterical, sentimental high.
He pulled it off admirably in “Hell Bent,” but at what cost? Clara cheated death again — kind of — but in doing so, the Doctor’s actions are threatening to tear the universe apart. He has an immortal human and a companion stuck interminably between last two heart beats (not living, but not dead) riding around space and time in another TARDIS, this one shaped like something straight out of Hitchhiker’s Guide, which means that — theoretically — Clara could do some real damage to the future in spite of her death being a fixed point in time. Will the Doctor ultimately suffer the consequences or will Moffat abort that arc and push on, like he has so many other arcs? (Orson Pink?)
Still, for every broken rule, there was a clever gimmick. No one could’ve guessed when the Doctor walked into a diner in Nevada that Clara was playing him. Nor could we have guessed that Moffat would pull a reverse Donna and remove all of the Doctor’s memories of Clara (which, presumably, also meant removing 4.5 billion years of memories in the confession dial), and most of us never would’ve guessed that Ashildr was waiting for the Doctor at the end of the time.
It was cool, and sweet, and poignant, and — as Moffat had hoped — a little devastating. Clara was able to maintain her memories of the Doctor, but the Doctor will never know the Impossible Girl. He’ll just have a story — and a song — made up of forgotten memories. Clara gets her hope, but the Doctor is robbed of any knowledge of the companion that sacrificed the most for him, and that managed to save all eleven incarnations of him. Will he even recognize the other echoes of her he runs across in the future?
It was beautifully bittersweet.
But, again, at what cost?
Look: My time with Doctor Who only goes back to Eccleston, but it seems to me that Moffat has broken nearly every hard and fast rule that the series has created for the Doctor. I think it’s part of why my interest in the series has waned — I love Peter Capaldi, and Clara is my favorite companion of the series and make no mistake, to the extent that this episode succeeded, it was largely as a result of Capadli and Coleman’s excellent performances — but Moffat has Ryan Murphy’d the series. The stakes don’t mean as much because the dead don’t stay dead, and we’ve lost our perspective on time. Amy waited 36 years for the Doctor; Rory waited 1,894 years for Amy; the Doctor punched through a diamond wall for 4.5 billion years, and Ashildr — immortal but not un-killable — managed to survive until the very end of time. Not even Captain Jack could pull that off, and he was unkillable.
It just feels like with each successive season, Doctor Who drifts further away from what it once was. The Doctor was once a Lonely God, the last of the Time Lords. But we’ve seen the Daleks too many times. The Master returns every other season. Even Gallifrey has gone from being destroyed in the Time War to existing in a pocket universe to somehow finding its way back into our universe, as the Doctor explained casually in a throwaway sentence. The series seems so far away from the girl in the shop that once brought us all together.
The Who characters are as strong as they’ve ever been, but the mythology is a mess. There are crossing time streams, paradoxes on top of paradoxes, multiple dimensions (one of which has a clone Doctor), and companions living for God knows how long between heartbeats. And the driving force for this entire season — the hybrid — WAS A MACGUFFIN. It meant nothing. The entire sideshow in Gallifrey was little more than a diversion.
When Moffat came aboard, the man apparently also fired his continuity supervisor. He doesn’t give a shit. The man can write a hell of a Doctor Who episode, and he certainly knows how to cast the show, but when it comes to stringing arcs together, he uses spit and duct tape. His only through line is an emotional one, and while I’m as sentimental as anyone, in the world of sci-fi, that just doesn’t cut it.