Well, it’s only taken me two solid years of hindsight, but I think I’ve finally figured out a way to make Hell Bent work a lot better!
At the end of Doctor Who series 9, I adored Heaven Sent, but thought its resolution in Hell Bent was the dampest of squibs. But the thing is, it’s the kind of misfire where I have nothing but sympathy and understanding for everyone involved. A Doctor Who showrunner is absolutely up against it at the best of times, and we can tell from Steven Moffat’s schedule that he was more miserable than usual while doing Hell Bent… It’s the end of the series, the deadlines are ganging up on you, your last script went surprisingly over budget so all you’ve got left in the till for this one is £2.50 and a bit of fluff, it’s time to make a traditional end-of-series-miracle out of no money and no time, oh and you won’t have time for a lot of rewrites because they’re shooting Christmas right after this one, so you’ve only got maybe five weeks after this to write another whole script from scratch… I’d be tearing my hair out!
Fortunately, hindsight is cheap. And with the luxury of all the time which Moffat and company didn’t have, I’ve been able to think of a few key changes which would have brought the same basic story across in a more effective way — and without breaking the budget, either!
I. The Matrix
The opening chunk of the story, with the Doctor making his stands in the wilds of outer Gallifrey, had a stark poetry to it which I admired… but whenever they cut to action in the Capitol I could hear the story creaking.
Now, I always knew part of that was simply my old-school-fan (and old-school-Who-novelist) perspective on the Time Lords; I’ve read, seen, and listened to a lot of tedious Gallifrey stories, and they hit a lot of the same notes over and over again. So when Hell Bent reaches the scene where Rassilon and his High Council are listening to the Cloister Bells and fretting over the latest predictions from the Matrix, my heart was already sinking.
(I really do think anyone doing a Gallifrey story is putting themselves behind the eight-ball — literally the first thing we found out about it is that the people there are cosmically dull. Even the few writers who’ve managed to come up with a take on the place which made it genuinely fascinating — Robert Holmes and Marc Platt among them — couldn’t catch that lightning in a bottle a second time.)
But I think this material would be hard going even for non-die-hard viewers who don’t have that level of overexposure. Because there’s a fundamental problem with all this stuff about the Hybrid, the Matrix, et cetera… none of it happens on-screen at all. It’s talk about a nebulous future threat, or talk about this awesome database of dead Time Lord minds which, on-screen, has to be represented by a couple of corridors, old monster props, and Time Lord extras on Segways… none of whom actually do anything to any of our main characters, or even talk to them. It’s almost emblematic of the inherent tedium of Gallifrey that the main thing people are worried about is that something at some point might actually happen.
Really this is the eternal challenge of bringing across something which is loaded with fannish backstory: how do you sell the impact of these ideas now, to people who neither know nor care about their previous appearances? Just talking solemnly about it isn’t enough. World Enough And Time is an example par excellance of how to give it impact; it takes plenty of story-space not just to show us the Mondasian Cybermen, but to build them up gradually, giving each note of their appearance a punch, so that instead of them just looking low-budget you’ve been led to think about why they look like humans under surgical gauze, and everything that makes the image harrowing. But what can we show the audience, which will give some of that impact to the Matrix and the Hybrid storyline?
When RTD wanted to dramatise Gallifrey facing a prediction of temporal doom, he gave us a mad Pythia-like priestess muttering and scrawling on a conference table in the void. That’s fairly awesome, that’s visual, it’s someone doing something that brings across both their oracular nature and the madness of the Time War. And the characters are presented with the prediction onscreen, and must immediately work out what to do about it. It’s present tense.
So how can we bring the Matrix and the Hybrid on-screen? How can we actually show the viewers a database of Time Lord ghosts, wraiths slaved to making predictions about the end of everything? How can we show them these dead minds?
We use Clara.
Consider the following restructure. Cut all the scenes about the Sliders patrolling the cloisters in the real world. In their place… instead of Clara walking through a glowing door into Gallifrey, we see her frozen in the moment on Trap Street and the Time Lords take her out, still frozen. And hook her unmoving body up to the Matrix terminals. They’re going to upload her mind and interrogate her there.
“There” is a surrealistic intercutting, with Clara in Trap Street, then the Cloisters, maybe her apartment or bits of set from Heaven Sent — all jumbled together for maximum nightmare effect. The Matrix ghosts swirling around her, trying to pull her into becoming one of them. Demanding that she tell them what she knows about the Hybrid, to add to their predictions. What Hybrid? She can’t get a coherent answer. But it’s relentless.
As far as Clara's concerned, she's dead and she’s in hell.
And the devils are demanding information that she doesn’t have.
It’s a reflection of Heaven Sent, but from a different angle — where the Doctor’s story was one of the long slow grind of grief, Clara’s is a peak moment of anxiety and a struggle to hold it together. Which reflects where she was before — Clara had summoned up all her courage to be brave for that one final moment, but now that moment is stretching on and on and she’s still trapped, she can’t escape her fate but it’s just being prolonged and she’s on the verge of losing it…
And then the Doctor arrives. This new harsh, emotionally raw Doctor. (Is it even him, or is it another Matrix illusion? Perhaps first do one, then the other, so Clara really doesn’t know what to believe.) He appears to have gone into the Matrix to hold back the Matrix wraiths, and gets them to coherently tell her about the prediction of the Hybrid — we get visuals of that too, showing us a crumbled Gallifrey and something in the future Cloisters.
You can even get the Matrix wraiths confronting the Doctor directly about his past, rather than having the Doctor just tell tales of his old encounter with them. Again, cut out the third-party narration, have them talk about it to each others' faces.
But of course what the Doctor is really there for, is to get Clara out. Back into her body, breaking the time bubble, and out of the clutches of the Time Lords. And we’re back on track. (Though again we can lose the beats in the “real” Cloisters, having covered them while escaping from the Matrix; we'll have covered all the same pages of story beats, just in a different setting. The Doctor and Clara can go straight from the extraction chamber to stealing a TARDIS from the workshop set, which the crew already has left over from Name of the Doctor.)
Seen from the inside, the Matrix experience becomes harrowing, and the stakes more immediate. It’s not just that they’re on the run, the Doctor and Clara are already in a bad place.
And the beauty of this approach is, it can be done without blowing the budget. The Matrix action can be realised using sets and props you already have. The only extra cost would be a voice artist or two to give voice to the wraiths; maybe an extra day or so on the shooting schedule because of the use of multiple sets rather than just the Cloisters. The Hybrid prediction can be shown with a single CG shot built around the “destroyed” model of the Capitol dome already created for Day of the Doctor, followed by shots of the ruined Cloister set from later in the episode with something shadowy walking ominously towards the armchair…
II. The End Of The Universe
Anyway. Once the Doctor and Clara flee Gallifrey, we’re into the next difficult chunk of the script: twenty-five solid minutes which are basically just continuous dialogue between three people in different combinations, in two or three different rooms. This is where you can really hear the last couple of coins clinking in the budget jar. My heart really went out to Rachel Talalay, when it comes to working out how to keep this much talking visually interesting!
And here… Again, I think the action could be brought much more in focus by dramatising the threat of the Hybrid in the present tense. How? Well, we’re eventually told that the Hybrid is the combination of the Doctor and Clara, acting together, and that the Hybrid eventually stands in the ruins of Gallifrey… but they never actually do this together.
Rather than parking Clara in the TARDIS for the scene with Me, they should face Me together. They land on the future Gallifrey, see the destruction... and conclude that the as-yet-unseen Me has caused it. They close in on Me, treating her as the threat, trying to take her down somehow. (Perhaps they have to break into the time bubble she’s using to sustain herself.) But in the process they demonstrate through their actions the recklessness and the way they egg each other on which Me then calls them on.
Ideally, what they’re doing at that moment should actually be shortening the remaining life of the universe, even that close to the end. With Me being the one pointing out that the destruction they've seen around themselves is not her doing, it's just the natural end of things... but what they're doing is making it worse.
If we actually see Clara and the Doctor acting in this completely unchecked way together, as opposed to just the Doctor going off the deep end, that shows why they’re a danger to the universe, without having to rely on vague “and you could trash the web of time” threats.
(Perhaps there could even be an implication that the universe is only ending so soon in the first place because of the Doctor interfering with the structure of time, by saving Clara… and that the collapse will keep working its way backwards from here. If I were taking a completely free hand with the story, I’d suggest that the universe is directly falling apart now because the Doctor is bending the web of time to breaking point by keeping Clara alive… but I doubt Steven would go for that, since the final script seems to want to want to give Clara as much still-alive wriggle room as he can manage.)
Anyway, the knock-on effect of having Clara present in those scenes means that when she realises the Doctor wants to wipe her memory… she needs to run back to the TARDIS, lock the door (just long enough to delay him), and pull her stunt with the neruoblock. Then we’re back onto the script as it stood, though at least with a little more onscreen dramatic action along the way.
III. The Coda
And then the finale… here’s the only bit where I’d really like them to actually change the underlying point of a scene rather than the details of its unfolding.
Again, for me, the whole story seems to be leading thematically to the idea that Clara has to go back to her resting place now. Given the whole theme of hubris running throughout series 9 — first her hubris which got her killed, than the Doctor’s in trying to bring her back — the only satisfying ending would be for both Clara and the Doctor to accept their fates. The Doctor accepts his; she talks a good game about having accepted hers… but then she decides to put it off, take a detour and have fun for an indefinitely long time, despite her continued existence apparently threatening the very stability of the web of time. And despite the repeated warnings throughout the series such far about the dangers of two time travellers egging each other on, and specifically the dangers of two quasi-immortals doing so with no human anchor… this is supposed to be an okay note to leave Clara’s story on?
So if I could have my way… just lose the last couple of pages of Clara’s material. She disappears in the other TARDIS with Me, to go back where she came from. It’s less upbeat, but it’s more right. But the thing is, I recognise that this is a case of me trying to tell my preferred story — as opposed to the other two sections above, which were me trying to come up with refinements that would sharpen Steven Moffat’s story.
And even without that fix, strengthening the journey along the way would go a long way to giving the episode more resonance. As it stands, there's such a gap between its epic ambitions and its thin-stretched realisation... even these small, achievable shifts in emphasis could have helped it pull off its aims that much better!