And so Doctor Who Series Nine found the doctor where no one thought possible, back on his home planet of Gallifrey. But true to form, the culmination of years of seeding and two sublimely produced episodes wasn’t really about the Doctor’s homecoming at all. As the audience might have expected, it was more about the companion and the return to a mysterious one word story arc…
Travelling to end of time itself, inspired by Hell Bent.
“Tell them I know what they did. And I’m on my way”
WITH THE INNOVATIONS AND MODERNISING OF DOCTOR WHO’S NEW SERIES CAME THE ARRIVAL OF THE ‘FINALE’. That just didn’t happen in the old days, when seasons of serials gave you a denouement-full of finale every four to six weeks on average, mostly once a month. It was almost coincidence when a season closed with a classic story – but then, no production team aimed for a sub-standard story, let alone one to end the year. But with the show’s return in 2015, the wise call to adapt the show to the recognised series format meant an inexorable rise to a finale from the start. It was unavoidable, even if it’s seldom presented itself in the same way over the past decade. But in becoming a series, following the standardised particularly developed by American networks, the emphasis, weight and propulsion simply had to fall towards the story that closed each year. This essay series has already looked at the structure and peaks that developed from reconstructing the show around a series format, and how Face the Raven broke expectation. But in a series of predominantly multiple part stories, that episode commenced a three-part finale. And once again, as the integral difference that marks a series out from a soap, they don’t come much heavier than the finale.
“At the end of everything, one must expect the company of immortals”
But yes, that build-up throughout each series’ 12 or 13 episodes has come in different forms. Since the show’s return, the emphasis has moved from slow series-long build-ups to full and even half-series finales. Under showrunner Russell T Davies, viewers could expect a resolution that pinned less on an arc than hanging references, strung through the series’ seemingly unconnected episodes like jigsaw pieces of missing bees and big, bad wolves, all stemming from light and romping season openers. Under his successor, Steven Moffat, the show’s seen the introduction of high concept first episodes and mid-series finales. Ever more pressure was piled on each year’s conclusion through arcs and interlinked stories of increasing complexity. Although that looked to have reached its peak during the show’s sixth series, that left heavy expectations for the series that followed. And unfortunately, pressure isn’t always the show’s greatest companion.
“Hope is a terrible thing on a scaffold”
There was a shift after the Eleventh Doctor’s second year in charge of the TARDIS key. After the complexity of the sixth series, series finales were more identifiable by their higher concepts and lower keys. Almost as though the glut of The Impossible Astronaut, A Good Man Goes to War, Let’s Kill Hitler and The Wedding of River Song during Series Six and had worn the format thin. In Series Seven, the half-series finale that bade farewell to the Ponds found a sombre piece in The Angels take Manhattan, despite its showbiz name. A half-series later, The Name of the Doctor stole the drooping crown of sober finales. During the build-up to the show’s 50th anniversary spectacular, audiences might not have expected a crawl through a huge graveyard and overgrown TARDIS tomb, hollow serial killers ruining séances, the Great Stupidity or the Eleventh Doctor weeping at his impending doom in suburbia.
And that approach didn’t fall on the Fields of Trenzalore. A year on and it was more of the same in the two-part conclusion of Series Eight. While Dark Water opened with the sudden and rather inexplicable death of Clara’s beau Danny Pink, it followed the Doctor and Clara pursuit to a maybe afterlife, before delving heavily into dark speculation about death and cremation. The extended finale that followed, the joyfully titled, Death in Heaven, wasn’t only miserable in name; a considerable portion of it was spent in a graveyard. It was a far cry from the bombast of previous series finales. While they were always tinged with tragedy and danger (and so they should be, with their frequent wrap parties for major characters) their gloom had never been so overwhelming.
Return of the word
While to a certain extent Series Seven and Eight hid this shift to the morose between blockbuster split seasons, high concept specials and the advent of a new Doctor, there’s no doubt that Series Nine was more uplifting. Having left the recent complications of the Impossible Girl and War Doctor behind, it was a series happy to fall back on single word hints to propel inter-story mystery, even if it never quite realised the aim of letting the TARDIS crew run out into the universe to have fun. Part of that weight was lifted by that welcome return to the dripping arc, even slighter than the random excerpts of Missy that punctuated Series Eight. The hints dropped through Series Nine episodes weren’t as specific or pointed as the simple ‘Bad Wolf’ or ‘Torchwood’ references of the early years. But they nonetheless reminded of those first series, with all the nostalgic fun of fan theories and speculation that came with such a slight touch.
But those early series always found single words or phrases reach a definite and undeniable conclusion. Here there were multiple inferences. There was recurring exploration of immortality, the frequent Norse imagery, and the constant mention of Hybrids or a Hybrid. Although things were nominally less convoluted in Series Nine, it still posed an indecipherable puzzle.
“The database, they get filed”
The close of Series Six, the most complex and story-propelled year in the show’s history, was The Wedding of River Song. An episode to close an unbalanced series that was divisive and flawed as both a season finale and a key resolution episode. Part of that struggle came from its reliance on reset buttons and parallel universes just a year after Series Five’s The Big Bang had done the same. It also had to contend with the defiant and absolute death of the Doctor, a riddle that had built since the series opened with The Impossible Astronaut. Much of the series had pinned itself on that riddle. Situations were contrived and characters introduced to make the Doctor’s death as clear as the Utah sun, including the excellent Canton Everett Delaware III. When it came to the resolution, The Wedding of River Song opened with a universe schism resulting from River Song’s refusal to kill the Doctor and carry out the fixed point in time, and closed with the Doctor’s rather irritating deception. The old fixed point of time sleight of hand. Taking the shapeshifting, miniaturised spaceship Teselecta and incorporating the regenerative process was a step too far. But it scored well when checked against some of Anton Chekov’s sage advice.
“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”
… Said Anton Chekhov in a letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev in November 1889.
On more than one occasion did Anton Chekhov expand on that example of a gun, developing a dramatic principle that stripped the narrative of anything superfluous, as the above quote suggests, but also ensuring that a writer didn’t fail in keeping their promises. Its own kind of smoking gun, and Doctor Who’s full of those. When it came to the resolution of Series Six, a run overloaded with the story arcs of Amy Pond’s unusual pregnancy and the origin of River Song as well as the Doctor’s impending and absolute death, there was never an expectation that the Doctor wouldn’t cheat death – despite that accompanying ominous trails of the sonic screwdriver fading in a skeletal hand.
Chekhov’s gun is no tiny promise, it’s a fictional element that the audience is invited to invest in. The Doctor’s assassination was a prime example of that early in the proceedings, even if it was more than a casual invite. And while the resolution was somewhat cheated come the conclusion six months later, it was certainly confronted. The Doctor’s means of escape were even stitched into the mid-series premiere Let’s Kill Hitler, an episode that also finally introduced and set on course the River Song we’d already come to know. Dramatically, the seeds were well laid, and the investment paid off. Of course, there’s no reason why such elements can’t stretch longer or disappear from the screen for a considerable period of time. While the Eleventh Doctor brought more riddles than any previous incarnation, and solved many, he left one particular Gallifrey hanging in the corner of the console room…
“All Matrix prophecies concur…”
When the pointed horror of Heaven Sent finally led the Doctor back to Gallifrey, it was the culmination of a long plot line. One that had been brewing for years.
In 2005, we met a Doctor who had sacrificed his own planet to end the most destructive war of all time-space. That first series could hardly move for casualties, and recent actions very much defined the Ninth Doctor’s all too short tenure. He was definitively the Last of the Time Lords. Five years and one incarnation on, even The End of Time couldn’t reclaim Gallifrey. That story heralded the demise of the Tenth Doctor as well as revealing Rassilon’s desperate final plan to save and elevate the Time Lords. As the giant sphere of Gallifrey arrived at Earth, it even sketched out an origin for the Master’s disturbed nature. Rassilon’s scheme provided a counter-point to the Dalek’s reality crushing plans of Series Four – both were species without perspective, to the point they would happily destroy reality as they knew it to ensure victory. And it was then, in saving the day, that the unstable Master returned to Gallifrey at those last seconds of the Time War he’d tried so hard to avoid; walking through the time lock that neatly divided Classic Series Who from New. It wasn’t until Day of the Doctor that the time lock was breached, confirmed through a throwaway line of the Tenth Doctor, and come the end, the survival of Gallifrey made fact.
Previously the New Series had seen the results of Dalek Caan jumping the time lock through sheer will to save Davros; at the cost of his sanity. The Doctor has been variously lulled by other red herrings over the last decade, such as the communication cube in The Doctor’s Wife. It was the Great Curator, the enigmatic custodian of the Under Gallery, who helped confirm the survival of Gallifrey at the close of the Day of the Doctor. Of all the incarnations who took part in the risky operation to save the planet, only the Eleventh and subsequently Twelfth Doctor knew his plan had worked… But much like the Eleventh Doctor’s rather pathetic tracking of Melody Pond during Series Six, he never seemed to take the hunt too seriously.
To be judiciously fair, the Eleventh Doctor did stand for millennia at Trenzalore in Gallifrey’s defence just one story later, earning the gift of a new regenerative cycle as a reward – something it seems unlikely that Rassilon sanctioned. At the time of the Eleventh Doctor’s death it’s certainly suggested that Gallifrey remained trapped in a pocket universe. That story proved it was for the safety of the universe. It was the Master’s reappearance in Series Eight, seemingly sacrificing an incarnation and shifting gender in escape, that marked the Time Lords’ return to the real universe. The Mistress even managed to pilfer Matrix technology on the way, although come the end of that year and her apparent vaporisation, the coordinates she passed on proved false. It could never have been that easy… Unless the Doctor was looking at the wrong point in time.
The Mistress’ apparent death might not have brought about the planet’s return, but come Series Nine the Doctor’s torture did. Gallifrey had returned, nestled near the end of time, hiding from the rest of the universe. There wouldn’t be a Trenzalore part two. But perhaps the most compelling reason for the Doctor’s delay was fear of what he would find. Even knowing he’d saved his planet, the Doctor had long been the sole voice that the Time Lords had been irreparably changed by the Great Time War – although that’s something that’s proved very difficult to visualise onscreen, from the Arcadia of The Last Day to the War Room of the Capitol. Fortunately Hell Bent reminded us that there’s one figure readymade to take the brunt of that change and the recent ordeals of the Doctor. Even though, as the General says, Rassilon was “a good man once”.
The Hybrid and other prophecies
“We needed to know. You had information about the Hybrid, a danger to all of us”
It’s the hook of a hitherto unheard prophecy that proved the catalyst for Gallifrey’s return. The Hybrid of two warrior races, early on we’re told the Time Lords and the Daleks were arrogant enough to presume it referred to them (“they would!”). Still, it was enough to rattle the nerves of Rassilon the Resurrected once he’d returned to his rightful universe. It’s a far cry from the High President we last saw, although there’s no suggestion that his regeneration has mellowed him. The compelling dread of the prophecy isn’t explained and the Time Lords may have found a better time to worry about it in the midst of the Great Time War… But what really doesn’t make sense is that the prophecy extended to a time before the Doctor, ergo well before first contact with the Daleks. Unless there is an intention to retcon the conflict between the two species.
“One so loves fireworks”
God-like on their first appearance in The War Games, entropied by beureacrcy by the time of the Fourth Doctor, Gallifreyan superstition has risen during prolonged conflict. Although, it’s not exactly new. Time Lords used myth and fairy tale to carry warnings just like other species. Whether it’s ancient creatures like the Fendahl or their own past mistakes, like the nursery rhymes explaining the Death Zone that was first seen in 1983’s The Five Doctors. The truth behind their ancient founders Omega and Rassilon had fallen to myth to such an extent during the Classic Series that their great technology fell into ritual insignificance (as exposed in 1976’s The Deadly Assassin). But for all the superstition that surrounds these advanced ‘gods’ – their legendary nemeses were the Great Vampires, a flipside to the immortality that Time Lords craved who fell to folklore in most civilisations – aligning prophecy and their Lordship of Time is problematic.
God and monsters
“The database, they get filed”
For one, the Time Lords have access to all space and time, guarded only by the entropy of their civilisation and fastidious rules. There shouldn’t be much unchronicled let alone out of their vision. Their civilisation is the epitome of science advanced enough to appear as magic. In their interventionist days we saw the effect of that as they became Promethean gods to the Minyans rediscovered in 1978’s Underworld.
But during The End of Time we saw a Visionary sat on the High Council table, discerning, interpreting and sketching prophecies that Rassilon thought strong enough to act on. That would appear a believable step into dangerous ill reason in the last desperate last days of the war were it not for the revelation in Hell Bent that the Matrix itself has prophetic abilities, guarded by the underexplored Cloister Wraiths. This how simple things were back in The End of Time by comparison. When the Doctor could snarl, “You never saw what was born… The war turned into Hell” and the Master reply, “But he’s the President… Kill him and Gallifrey could be yours”
It’s important to consider where this new talk of Hybrid sits in Gallifreyan myth. Rassilon, now self-proclaimed the Redeemer and the Resurrected, clearly fell to the dark side of Time Lord nature long ago – a dedication that was beyond regenerative change. It’s an argument we see the Doctor winning, but the toppled Lord President clearly took the prophecy very seriously. And in his proclamations, he became one of the Series continual riffs on Christianity. In this, the self-proclaimed Resurrected was obsessed with a prophecy that could well have predicted the coming of a messiah. While the episode puts together a few candidates, in Christianity, Christ could have fitted the loose definition, all the more powerfully mixing the known and unknown, the divine and the mortal.
Fortunately, there was something to latch on to in this myth. Firstly, Rassilon was correct to trust in the Visionary at The End of Time. And then, that Visionary recalled the Sisterhood of Karn who were duly present and presumed inhabitants of Gallifrey near the real end of time. A mystic and inextricably linked matriarchal society, Virgin’s New Adventures spun their myth out draw back on their origin as the original high caste of Gallifrey. Their presence as immortals in this adventure wasn’t a mistake. Although it was entirely superfluous to the plot, their inherent mysticism managed to bridge this prophetic gap.
The Long Way Round
“Long before the Time War, the Time Lords knew it was coming, like a storm on the wind. There were many prophecies and stories, legends before the fact. One of them was about a creature called the Hybrid. Half Dalek, half Time Lord, the ultimate warrior. But whose side would it be on? Would it bring peace or destruction? Was it real, or a fantasy? I confess, I know the Hybrid is real. I know where it is, and what it is. I confess, I’m afraid.”
Like a storm on the wind, eh? A great deal of Hell Bent played on references to the shows history and the idea of myth.
It was thanks to the reputation of the War Doctor that the Twelfth Doctor managed his silent coup of Gallifrey. The Doctor’s childhood escape from the Cloisters is related as a myth and it’s convenient for the Doctor to treat it as such. Much of the episode reinterprets his original escape from Gallifrey. That’s the original journey he took “the long way round”. But it doesn’t signal a new start for him, despite the finale refreshing with velvet jacket and new sonic screwdriver in the midst of the rebooting TARDIS.
“I was a completely different person in those days. Eccentric, a bit mad, rude to people.”
The Doctor has played the long way round sacrifice before. Jokerside’s exploration of the Tenth Doctor’s obsession with celebrity historicals showed a neat cycle between his early and later tales, often open to taking the long way round. That’s a self-sacrifice of unknown severity to Time Lords, effectively immortal as they are, “barring accidents”. In Hell Bent, the act of taking the long way round become a statement of fact and anger before it became the method of Clara’s rescue. Still, the episode was at pains to point out that the Doctor’s journey had been very long, over 4 billion years long, which simply doesn’t add up in context of Heaven Sent’s numbers. But the stakes were high.
“It doesn’t matter what the Hybrid is, it only mattered that I convinced them that I knew”
Earlier, the expulsion of Rassilon that took up the first act was a mere formality. The Doctor’s singular aim on claiming the Presidency was to use the Time Lord’s advanced technology to rescue his friend. During that odd Western opening on the desolate sands of Gallifrey, with Murray Gold picking up the strains he left at the end of Heaven Sent, the Doctor does a passable impression of the Man with No Name, but there is little of the supernatural or mysticism that crept into some Westerns like High Plains Drifter (1973).
Immortality wasn’t proved to be the curse that much of the series suggested at all. That another red herring. And immortality was soon buried in the mounting references. They were everywhere and scatter gun. Why have a knock, when you can have the ominous four. Why have a reverse trick, without saying that the polarity’s been reversed. The bookends and asides in a very familiar diner in America added dripping meta. From the Foxes sung Don’t Stop Me Now – last heard when the Doctor and Clara were on a goodbye excursion, to the Clara? theme that the Doctor plays on his guitar, sloping off into almost the trains of David Bowie’s Rock n’ Roll Suicide as Clara heads off to reveal of course that the diner’s the stolen TARDIS.
But it was that self-reference that really broke the indisputable fact behind the Hybrid and denied the gun at the end of the arc.
Signs and portents, guns and Hybrids
“We’re at the end of the universe, give or take a star system”
It was that myth of the Hybrid that emerged as the series arc. There is no doubt as to the identity of the Hybrid. The Doctor’s entendre at the end of Heaven Sent confirms it. “The Hybrid’s me” he says. Prophesised as sitting in the ruin of Gallifrey at the end of time – a thought that should have given the time Lords some hope during difficult times – it’s the Lady Me, Ashildr, we see sat at the end of time, the last immortal, in the ruins of the cloisters of Gallifrey. But come that meeting, and the Doctor’s trip to the future apparently just to meet the Hybrid Hell Bent pulls the rug.
Ashildr, an unlikely, damageable choice for last of the immortals, doesn’t threaten the universe… The Doctor does. At the time, the odd idea that the companion and Time Lord can form some difficult fulfilment of the Hybrid is mooted. Even more fan-teasing is the suggestion that the Doctor’s half human are all mooted. First derided in 1996, that. While Ashildr fulfilled one part of the prophecy, the Doctor and Clara fulfilled both, standing in the ruins of the Cloisters while also risking the universe. It was an odd choice to pin the threat to deliberate opaqueness.
And so the series build-up wasn’t fulfilled. Hung up early in the run, explored and entwined with the episodes, that gun hanging on the wall wasn’t used come the final act. All that talk of a monster deserved one. It needed one. But that wasn’t the point.
In enforcing that time and heavy, heavy sacrifice, entwined with myth and grave secrets, Hell Bent was very much in the mould of The Name of the Doctor. A bleak adventure that had little intention of answering the question the previous episodes had set up.
Although the Hybrid was the hook in leading the Doctor to take another long way round, come the end, it wasn’t about the Hybrid at all. It was all about Clara having a long way round of its own, having inherited a mantle from the Doctor. Through an inversion of Donna Noble’s fate in Series Four, the Doctor passes over his mantra while his memory fades.
“It doesn’t matter what the Hybrid is, it only mattered that I convinced them that I knew”
The Hybrid was sacrificed for happy endings all round. True to the New Series, it ended up being all about the companion. One. Or maybe two…
Jokerside’s Series Nine’s essays are over. Although a certain wife will return at Christmas, bringing a bonus long-read with her…