Contains major, MAJOR spoilers. Do not read if you haven’t already seen the episode. You have been warned!
And so the moment that we knew was coming has finally arrived – just slightly earlier than we expected. At least, it was unexpected providing that you were able to avoid the tidal wave of spoilers that flooded the Internet in the days preceding the broadcast of “Face The Raven”, episode ten of the 12-part season nine of Doctor Who.
Actually I’d already had an inkling that it might happen by knowing something of the content of the final two-parter still to come, but it was quite extraordinary how the firewall of security around the show comprehensively broke down in the run-up to last Saturday – even to the point of the show’s star Peter Capaldi apparently letting slip on a national chat show the big dramatic twist lying at the end of this week’s story. The secret was so completely spoiled that I had even started thinking that maybe it was all a double bluff, a red herring designed to lead us into expecting one thing while delivering something else. So much so that I’d half-convinced myself that the ‘twist’ was going to be that Clara would escape her fate by standing and facing the raven, that confronting the fear with the mantra “Let Me Be Brave” might remove its power of death over the victim. But no, it was not to be.
To be honest, even now – several days after watching the episode – I’m still wondering whether that cavalcade of spoilers in the days leading up to the broadcast really weren’t some sort of intentional campaign of disinformation. Part of my thinking here goes back to the question “Are spoilers actually spoilers?” that we’ve tackled here on Taking The Short View before. Certainly a spoiler changes how you watch something and what you get out of it: instead of the brief shock of the actual moment, in this case you get 45 minutes of increasing tension and anxiety as the moment approaches and you’re hoping that you’ve been wrong all along. But that could be what the programme makers had been intending all along in this case, hence the possibility of intended leakage rather than accidental or malicious spoilers.
And I say this because in many ways, “Face The Raven” wouldn’t work at all – or would be significantly impaired – if it wasn’t for our foreknowledge of Clara’s fate. The entire episode is predicated on a countdown to someone’s death, and unless that is someone we know and care about in advance and believe is really in significant jeopardy then it’s not really going to have anything more than a passing or academic interest. It’s certainly not going to be sufficiently strong to serve as the coiled spring powering an entire episode.
The story does its best in this regard by recalling a character who had made a good and strong impression in a guest role 12 months ago, and it’s certainly nice to see Jovian Wade return as (former) street tagger Rigsy. His presence as the victim of the Chronolock – a tattoo counting down to the bearer’s death – immediately piques our interest but not perhaps enough to really put us on the edge of our seat. Cleverly though, the fact that he is a new father and also that he had been a de facto assistant to Clara’s locum Doctor in last year’s “Flatline” both prove to be important factors in Clara’s subsequent decision to protect him by putting herself in harm’s way on his behalf, just as the Doctor surely would for her. That move wouldn’t have felt nearly so credible if it she had done so for some new character not previously seen before. However in normal circumstances, even the transfer of that tattoo to Clara in Rigsy’s place wouldn’t be enough to truly crank up the tension because of course we all know that the regular stars aren’t going to die this week. Except in this case, we conversely know otherwise: the entire power of that moment and the episode as a whole rests on our meta-knowledge that Jenna Coleman is leaving the show. It’s for this reason alone that we immediately realise that this is the how and when of that moment and which means that our attention is tightly gripped for the rest of the episode.
Without all that ‘spoiler’ knowledge, however, the underlying basic episode loses a lot of its power. There’s a couple of lovely concepts floating about – the actual existence of trap streets (a genuine footnote of cartographic history as supplied in exposition by Clara) for one, and the Dickensian realisation of Raven Alley itself – even if strongly reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley – was a great one, gorgeously shot by director Justin Molotnikov in a couldn’t-be-more-different style from his maiden Doctor Who outing last week with the found footage “Sleep No More”. Presumably the theme of disguised aliens living among us undetected under a strictly enforced but uneasy truce is a deliberate echo of the issues raised in the recent Zygon two-parter, another example of how this season is being tightly constructed from a number of interlinking threads.
The episode also had a lot of fun giving us flashes of insight into the real identities of the seemingly-human inhabitants of the hidden trap street which included Cybermen, Judoon, Ice Warriors, Silurians, Sontarans and Ood. However once glimpsed there was absolutely no other use made of their presence, meaning that they became nothing more than amusing, teasing hood ornaments designed to briefly titillate fans and keep us from noticing that not all that much else was actually going on.
Somewhat more substantial was the return of Maisie Williams in her third outing as Ashildr, the Viking villager who has lived so long that she continually loses her sense of self and becomes someone new each time. While that’s part of the basic concept of this character, “Face The Raven” was the first time that I felt the persona she inhabits this week (of the trap street’s mayor) had likely pre-existed as a standalone entirely different guest role and only retroactively converted back into the latest incarnation of Ashildr once that series arc had been worked up and introduced earlier in the series. Her sudden rise to a position of authority and with access to the powers of the Chronolock/Quantum Shade (which all felt distinctly more fairytale fantasy than science fiction, albeit more of a Gaiman hue than Rowling) simply felt a bit too jarring in a strict continuity sense for the original character of Ashildr that we’d come to know up to that point. Not that I’m complaining – making the mayor someone that we (and the Doctor) have a past history with elevates what would otherwise have been quite an anonymous part into someone much more interesting and robust, so if it was indeed done retrospectively then all credit to showrunner Steven Moffat and the production time for recognising the opportunity and acting upon it to give the episode a new layer.
Otherwise though “Face The Raven” was an unusually adult episode of Doctor Who – by which I don’t mean lots of sex, violence or bad language. Quite the reverse in fact. This was proper grown up stuff, quiet and serious, with a lot of talk and not a great deal of action. Even the putative investigation into Rigsy’s alleged crime that had seen him sentenced to death by a raven-shaped Quantum Shade never really kicks off with the kind of narrative shape or tension that it needs to become a “CSI: Trap Street”: the Doctor, Clara and Rigsy simply noodle around the place, meet a few of the residents, and then finally get steered to the place they were meant to end up at all along, at which point the episode finally kicks into life with the heart-rending final ten minute scene as the true situation becomes all too clear.
By this point, Rigsy’s purpose as bait is over and he has become merely a background extra, and a rather distracting one at that. He and the rescued mother/daughter pairing of Anah and Anahson stand around awkwardly in the background while Capaldi and Coleman act their hearts out in their final scene together. And it really is terrific stuff from them both, as well as from writer Sarah Dollard who comes to Doctor Who via stints on Neighbours, Being Human and The Game. She’s a good choice for this episode and specifically for this scene, bringing the sort of real emotional punch that Moffat himself often struggles to land, being much better and more comfortable writing the clever and cerebral than he is with the moments of raw emotion that Russell T Davies was always so good at. By delegating the writing of Clara’s last episode to Dollard, Moffat ensures that the final moments really do work extremely well. Clara’s growing realisation of the doomed reality of the situation is brilliantly played, matched only by the way she then spends her last minutes counselling the Doctor (“You’re going to be alone now, and you’re very bad at that”) and ordering him not to seek revenge on Ashildr or anyone else for what’s happening. Most of all, the way she walks out to face her fate trembling with fear and yet resolute and brave beyond measure is probably the most noble exit we’ve seen for any companion ever. It certainly beats Adric pouting because now he’ll never know if he was right.
Or is it Clara’s final exit? We’re back at the question of whether this is all one big disinformation campaign. It’s not like the show doesn’t have a track record under Moffat of killing off beloved characters only to then do a ‘Surprise!’ gotcha rollback for effect. There’s the many ‘Oh my god, they killed Kenny!” deaths of Rory Williams of course, but also brief forays into the afterlife for Amy, River Song, Jenny Flint, Strax and Petronella Osgood all of whom were then recalled to active duty. Is it any wonder that I’m thinking Clara will probably return in some sense at least before the end of the season? I just find it hard to think that Moffat would really entrust the final words of a character he created and been responsible for over the last three and a half years to another writer – a first timer on the show at that – without so much as a co-writing credit. His absence on “Face The Raven” seems pointedly significant.
As much as I want to see Clara (and Jenna Coleman) back, I’m also conflicted because that truly was an excellent final scene for the character and it would be a shame to see it cheapened by the sudden appearance of some big red reset button. I know some fans object to the way Clara’s exit came about because it was essentially pointless and meaningless – if she hadn’t intervened by taking on Rigsy’s Chronolock behind the Doctor’s back then all would have been well (the Doctor’s abduction notwithstanding) as Ashildr would have removed it herself, and Rigsy and Clara would have been free to leave trap street unharmed. It’s Clara’s reckless decision to act behind the Doctor’s back and without knowing the full consequences that is her undoing, and in this regard the episode completely delivers on all the signs and portents of the season about Clara becoming too heedless of her own safety and over-confident in her and the Doctor’s ability to cheat certain death. It’s surely no accident that early scenes in this week’s episode have her dangling out of the airborne Tardis like Matt Smith did in “The Eleventh Hour” and “The Day of the Doctor”, only in this case she’s loving every minute of it and is now more the Doctor than the Doctor is himself.
She’s even seen the Doctor take on a countdown curse on behalf of another in “Mummy on the Orient Express” and use it to resolve the situation, so why shouldn’t she do the same here? Of course the reason is – as the Doctor has been trying to tell her for most of season nine – because she’s not actually the Doctor and doesn’t have all the abilities of a Time Lord. She’s only human, and in “Face The Raven” this truth comes home to roost. Yes, her death may be ‘pointless’ in the sense that it’s not some epic sacrifice to save the universe, but surely it’s no less truly heroic than the Tenth Doctor’s decision to exchange his life (or at least, that incarnation) for that of Wilfred Mott in “The End of Time”. Ultimately all death (in fiction and in life) from anything other than contented old age can in large part be seen as ‘pointless’ and avoidable, and what really counts is how we face the moment when it comes. In this, Clara’s “Let Me Be Brave” is as good and as fitting as it gets, and the acknowledgement that this may be what she was seeking all along with her recklessness to reunite her with Danny Pink brings an unexpectedly fulfilling completeness and sense of continuity to the character that it’s often lacked through the many different series and story arcs that Moffat has needed her to work through.
Clara’s exit in “Face The Raven” is too good to be undone and so I suspect that really is it for the character, although Jenna Coleman will I’m sure be back in some capacity for the season finale “Hell Bent” after the Capaldi solo outing next week. After all, even Karan Gillan managed to show up again in “The Time of the Doctor” despite her character having been absolutely, definitely, not-coming-back-ever written out the year before, so I’m sure Moffat had something in mind here too that will allow him to get to write the final lines for Clara before we all move on.
Away from that climactic final scene (and a word of praise here for Murray Gold’s scoring of those final minutes which were superb, and which entirely made up for a rather intrusive sound/music mix early on in the episode which tended to trample all over what should have been quiet scenes) there was the problem of a lack of substance to the story as a whole, or any of the characters. “Face The Raven” ended up feeling very much a stepping stone, a neccessary transition between the season that had been building nicely up to this point, and the long-awaited gathering of all the threads and seeds that have been scattered in preparation for the climactic final two-parter. As a result, perhaps inevitably “Face the Raven” felt incomplete and slightly hollow because it brought very little to the table of its own but was instead required to fulfil a function within the season’s overarching storyline. If you strip the larger series business away you’re left with just the borrowed concept of Diagon/Raven Alley and not all that much more.
Make no mistake, “Face The Raven” does a much better job of delivering something from the scant available ingredients it was given than last year’s “In The Forest Of The Night,” which it reminded me of most and which coincidentally occupied the same slot in the 12-week run. Whereas this year’s episode was reinforced by Clara’s exit and a deadly trap being sprung on the Doctor, Frank Cottrell Boyce’s isolated standalone offering had been similarly big on some beautiful writing and visual poetry and lyricism without being bestowed the sinews of any series arc business which meant that it promptly collapsed under its own paper-thin weight. The production team (and/or showrunner) have clearly learned from that misstep and found a way to return to some of the same basic structure while not making the same mistakes, and ended up with something much stronger and more fulfilling as a result – even if the weaknesses in the underlying structure are still there if you poke around with any vigour.
In fact perhaps that is the most significant lesson you can take away from “Fear The Raven” – the story of just how good and improved season nine of Doctor Who has been, that even one of the intrinsically flimsiest outings of the year should be head and shoulders so impressively strong and compelling that it would shine bright in any other year.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Doctor Who continues in the UK on BBC One on Saturday evenings. Episodes are available for a month after broadcast on the BBC iPlayer.
Advance notice: Once again, next weekend is liable to be somewhat work-heavy moments which means a review of “Heaven Sent” is likely to be later in appearing than usual, and probably shorter too. Apologies in advance to anyone who feels even the slightest frisson of disappointment at this news!