There’s been a lot written about how Doctor Who under Steven Moffat handles women, and I’m not all that keen to reopen that can of worms. However, I think there is something to be said about the ultimate fate of Clara and Ashildr / Me in “Hell Bent.”
There’s no argument that Clara chose her destiny in “Face the Raven.” In fact, her death in many ways mirrors the choice of Amy Pond to allow the Angel to touch her and send her back to the past to be with Rory. Ultimately the tale of The Doctor’s female companions since 2009 has been the way in which they leave him despite his not wanting them to. Even reaching back to “Forest of the Dead” and the final death of River Song (a Moffat script), you see this theme in his writing. These companions love The Doctor, but in the end they have to exert control over their lives by removing his.
I don’t think this theme has ever been explored better than in “Hell Bent.” Plucked from the moment of her death and now a very real danger to the Web of Time, Clara continues to try and reassert to The Doctor that her fate was something she wrought. She chose to put herself in danger to save Rigsy. She gambled her wit against the plots of the Time Lords. She allowed her faith in Ashildr to protect her to endanger her. In a season obsessed with the idea that The Doctor should always at least save one person regardless of the consequences, the lesson here is, “You can’t save anyone from himself.”
Alive and at the end of the universe with The Doctor and Ashildr in a newly stolen Tardis (and you better believe I jumped up to see the classic Hartnell-era console room), Clara refuses to be The Doctor’s salvation. He had planned on erasing her memory as he did with Donna Noble, but Clara lays claim to them. They are hers. He has no right to take them away.
In the end, The Doctor and she agree to both hold the mind-eraser, and one of them will be randomly chosen. It turns out to be The Doctor, and Clara fades from his mind. There’s a really clever wrap-around story in which he meets her in a Nevada diner and tells her the story of his latest Gallifrey adventure, swearing that he will know Clara when he finds her again but not recognizing her right in front of him.
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He goes one way, off in his Tardis where Rigsy’s graffiti memorial to Clara disintegrates as the ship disappears. Clara and Ashildr know they have a date with the Time Lords to restore Clara to her death, but the two women decided there’s time for some time-travel stops on the way. It’s one of those typical Moffat endings. Everyone dies and everything ends, but there’s always something else on the other side.
Ashildr’s theory is that The Hybrid, the legendary creature fated to stand in the ruins of Gallifrey, was really the combination of The Doctor and his human companions all along. That’s been the tale of Doctor Who since day one. There’s the eternal, immortal Doctor and the people who tether him to reality. “Hell Bent” showed more than any other episode ever has that The Doctor can be the most terrifying person in all of creation. What keeps him from becoming like Rassilon, a paranoid, power-hungry dictator, is that he is always keenly aware of the short lives of other people. He can’t forget and be above it, because he takes it with him across space and time.
The hardest part of that is learning to let go of them. Tolkien called death “the gift of men” and said that men alone were truly free because they were able to leave the world and were not bound to it forever. Failure to accept that is The Doctor’s greatest weakness, and reminding him was Clara’s last gift. I can say without a doubt that this season explored stranger and more wonderful places than any has since the revival, but its greatest journey was through the hearts of The Doctor.