There’s no need to begin with talk of the first two acts here, when the last 10 minutes of “Face the Raven” are what most folks are currently concerned with, so let’s cut to the chase: Clara’s dead, which, unless you pay very close attention to internet scuttlebutt, no doubt came as a huge surprise. After all, in the modern era, companion exits tend to happen at the end of a season, accompanied by much fanfare (the Ponds were an exception, but even they departed at the close of a half-season). As a means of shocking the audience, what was done here was highly effective, but as a fitting finish to the near three-season run of Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald? Not so much. Her passing was little more than a slip-up of an accident, surrounded by strong dialogue and ripe emotion. Given the handling of the scene, the show certainly wants us to believe that this is the end of Clara’s story, but it feels unfinished — as though we’ve come to the end of a long sentence, but there’s no punctuation at the close.
Would Steven Moffat really pass off scripting duties for a companion exit to a freshman Who writer? The episode doesn’t even feature a “and Steven Moffat” writing credit which has become so prevalent over the past two seasons, when major character arcs are addressed within non-Moffat penned episodes. Doctor Who killing off Clara after killing off the love of her life last season is bleak. There must be a happier ending to this story. I’m on record (a few recaps ago) as disbelieving the show would kill her off. Now that I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I have to believe there’s more to the end of her story than this particular note of finality. Is it possible that we could yet see the return of the Nethersphere? Could Clara Oswald and Danny Pink yet have a happy ending in some sort of computer program afterlife? And if you follow behind-the-scenes talk in-between watching episodes, what of the publicity photos that grace the various covers of Doctor Who Magazine #493? This can’t have been “it” for Clara. There has to be more to this. Or am I just in a serious state of denial?
Having fretted over all of that, let’s move on to the episode itself. The Doctor and Clara are in post-adventure bliss when Rigsy (Joivan Wade) rings the TARDIS phone in a panic. As soon as the blue box can get the time travelers there, the trio are reunited, and Rigsy shows them the tattoo on the back of his neck — it’s a number seemingly counting down to one. Further, the young father (it is always interesting to see how life simply goes on for normal people on this show) has no memory of the previous day, and his phone is cracked and missing data. After a TARDIS scan, the Doctor discovers not only that Rigsy has been Retconned, but also that his death is imminent.
Soon enough the idea of hidden or “Trap” streets is introduced. In a recent interview with “Raven” scribe Sarah Dollard, she’s asked whether the concept was influenced by Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. Being only a peripheral Potter fan, this hadn’t occurred to me, however the whole idea of a hidden society within the foundations of London is highly reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (which also starred Peter Capaldi), and the notion of sympathetic aliens and monsters hiding from the rest of the world feels equally influenced by Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, or rather his book, Cabal. One reason I gave “Face the Raven” three stars is because it didn’t feel as layered or as rich as either of those concepts — as if this was the “lite” version of something smarter and stronger. There’s so much crammed into this hour (and yet paradoxically never quite enough), one wishes the story could have been fleshed out into a two-parter. But alas, we instead suffered through “Sleep No More” last week.
Pushing 1,200, if I’ve done my math right, Ashildr (Maisie Williams), now going by Madam Mayor Me, is more devious and twisted than ever, lording over this hidden hamlet of alien refugees. (Could a story about refugees possibly have been timelier?) Though the script never puts an entirely fine point on it, it’s not a leap to assume that most of these creatures (including Sontarans, Cybermen, Ood, and Judoon) are stuck on Earth due to various actions and machinations perpetrated by the Doctor throughout history. It seems benevolent enough on the part of Me, but the plot thickens when she reveals Rigsy’s death sentence, called a Chronolock, has been placed on him due to a murder he allegedly committed. Well of course Rigsy didn’t kill anyone, and as the tale unfolds it becomes clear he’s been framed. After a number of hoops jumped through, it turns out the culprit is Me, who’s operating at the behest of someone who wants the Doctor, as well as the mysterious confession dial introduced back in the Davros two-parter.
But I have got ahead of myself. Before Me’s dastardly plot is revealed, Clara discovers the Chronolock can be passed on, at which point “Face the Raven” feels positively leaden with exposition leading to more questions. Why would one be able to pass the Chronolock on to someone else? Why would the master of the Chronolock not be able to remove it once it’s passed on? What exactly is the QuantumShade? What actually happens to someone who faces the Raven? The entire scenario was a real head-scratcher, riddled with vagueness, and felt as if all of these rules were quickly implemented for one reason only: So the script could quickly and efficiently kill off Clara.
The final minutes of the episode play out in near–real time, as the Chronolock counts down to Clara’s death. The material between Capaldi and Coleman is beautifully played, and Clara faces death with a fearless bravery not seen in any other companion since, well, since Adric probably. (But then companions are always facing death on this show, even though they almost never die.) This recap could easily finish off with a full transcript of everything said between the two old friends. It’s drenched in heart-wrenching emotion and rock-like strength. Make no mistake — it’s heavy and sad and moving and punches most of the right buttons, and if it’s all of those things, why does it feel so incomplete? Ultimately “Face the Raven” is a story that proposes so many questions it can’t help but feel unfinished at the close.
Odds and ends
- Ace bits: “Local Knowledge” is a great nickname; the return of the flash cards; the good cop/bad cop line; again, implication that Clara and Jane Austen are perhaps romantically involved; the Doctor’s menacing threat to Me at the close.
- Naff bits: The old man who faced the Raven prior to Clara was a Cyberman, yet seemed awfully emotional for a tin soldier; if the worms placed things within a context of understanding, why wouldn’t the Doctor and Clara — both seasoned vets with all the universe has to offer — have seen things as they really are?; the numerous jumps cuts used to accentuate Clara’s death were entirely unnecessary.
- Simon Paisley Williams, who played Rump, previously played the Steward way back in season one’s “The End of the World,” right at the beginning of new Who.
- Why does Me take the confession dial, rather than letting the Doctor take it with him?
- What happened to Clara’s body? We see the Doctor come in from outside in the street, but we don’t see what happened to her physical form. He didn’t even come in and demand that she be given a proper burial.
- If Rigsy was given a memory wipe after the credits rolled, then he’ll have no memory of any of this, and could very well again call the TARDIS phone in an emergency, at a later time, assuming that Clara is alive and well.
- So, Time Lords — yes, no, maybe?