Ambiguity in Doctor Who: “Hell Bent”

The character of the Doctor in the Steven Moffat era is a trickster. As the Matt Smith incarnation says, “Rule One: The Doctor lies.” In the Doctor Who episodes “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent,” the Doctor’s lie is critical to our literal understanding of events.

Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t watched these two episodes, you don’t want to hear what I’m about to say.

The narrative arc in Series 9 hinges on a monster known only as “the Hybrid.” The Hybrid, as prophesied, is a combination of two powerful warrior races that will either bring peace or fracture time itself. What is the Hybrid? And who knows its true nature?

Perhaps the Doctor knows. In the episode “Hell Bent,” he ends up in a torture chamber where he is repeatedly interrogated by a creature who kills him if he does not confess the truth. He makes two statements. The first is a confession, which means it must be true. The second is not a confession and may or may not be true.

True:

 

Long before the Time War, the Time Lords knew it was coming. Like a storm on the wind. There were many prophecies and many 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.

Possibly true:

Hello again. No more confessions, sorry. But I will tell you the truth. The Hybrid is a very dangerous secret. A very very dangerous secret. And it needs to be kept! So I’ll tell you nothing.

After escaping the torture chamber, he makes two more statements about the Hybrid.

He tells the Gallifreyans:

The Hybrid is not a half-Dalek, nothing is half-Dalek. The Daleks would never allow that. The Hybrid, destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins… is me.

That statement alone could mean two different people: “me, the Doctor” or Me, the woman that the Doctor immortalized. In fact, both “me’s” do end up standing in the ruins of Gallifrey.

But he later implies to Clara that he does not know the identity of the Hybrid, saying:

It doesn’t matter what the Hybrid is. It only matters that I convinced them that I knew. Otherwise they’d have kicked me out and I’d have nothing left to bargain with.

Finally, when he reaches the universe where he finds only the woman Me, she asks him about the Hybrid. He reiterates that he does not know and offers several theories, and then she offers an interpretation that he acknowledges is plausible.

Me suggests that the Hybrid is a combination of the Doctor and Clara, traveling the universe together. Her two pieces of evidence are the damage to time that he has wreaked in trying to save Clara, and the fact that Missy, “the lover of chaos,” brought Clara to him. He accepts this and allows himself to be separated from Clara.

As viewers, we are also asked to accept this interpretation of the Hybrid. And we do, but only because it’s the most recent one given. The Doctor does not know what the Hybrid is. In the torture chamber, he pretended to know so that he could ultimately escape and save Clara. He was motivated, then, by his love for his friend. A plot of epic proportions narrows itself down to a touching personal event.

But there’s another, deeper reading. In the torture chamber, the Doctor allowed himself to be killed billions of times rather than reveal the secret of the hybrid to Rassilon, the power-hungry President of the Time Lords. When he said the secret was too dangerous ever to be told, the Doctor was telling the truth.

It can get even scarier. The Doctor had three options in the torture chamber: tell the truth and theoretically escape, refuse to tell the truth and allow himself to die the final death, or follow an escape route that requires him to be killed and resurrected billions of times. He takes this last option so that he can save Clara.

Well, suppose the Hybrid is Clara herself. She’s been a Dalek — twice — and has in certain ways become the Doctor. She fits the exact wording of some of the prophecies, which is that the Hybrid is a Dalek/Time Lord combination. If Clara is the Hybrid, then the Doctor’s determination to save her is still personal, but the personal has become an epic struggle for the future of the universe.

That interpretation also changes the meaning of all Peter Capaldi’s interactions with Clara. At the end of “Flatline,” the first episode where Clara is shown explicitly becoming the Doctor (of sorts), Capaldi concerns himself largely with Clara’s moral development. This effort continues throughout Series 8 and 9 and culminates in “The Zygon Inversion” when she does help bring peace. Suppose he knew she was the Hybrid of prophecy, and he spent all that time helping her find the right path. It’s only one of many possibilities for the Hybrid, but I confess I like it best. It gives all the Doctor’s interactions a deeper layer of meaning. There’s more to the world than we can ever see.

Which lie did the Doctor tell? Did he know or not? Who is the Hybrid? Is it still out there, ready to fracture time or bring peace? It will probably always be a mystery. And that’s delicious.

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