Monday, 23 November 2015

Blimey. Where to start on this one?

Let’s skip right to the big talking point: Clara’s dead (but is she?).

From a writer new to Doctor Who, the final ten minutes of Sarah Dollard’s Face the Raven are a magnificent piece of character writing, perhaps Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman’s best scene together. It’s a proper, emotionally hefty death, with increasing terror as you realise there’s no way out for Clara, balanced with her bravery and bossiness to the last minute. It’s surprisingly dark for Doctor Who, particularly when she ruminates that “maybe this is what I wanted”, but wisely refrains from lingering on the depressing points and allows Clara to bid farewell by offering a last piece of advice to the Doctor – she knows more than any companion what he can become when he’s angry and reminds him not to be that man again. Her death may have been inevitable given her increasingly Doctor-esque thrillseeking tendency, but despite her flaws, she bows out gracefully, healing others to the last minute. Just like the Doctor, in any of his incarnations, would.

I have two concerns about Clara’s death, and neither of them are criticisms of this episode. They’re about the past and the future.

The past: this character arc of Clara’s dangerous thrillseeking has been brought up sporadically across series nine (and the end of series eight), but it’s been inconsistent, and, as I pointed out last week, she’s found herself sidelined in too many episodes this series. While there are some good moments early on in Face the Raven in which the Doctor worries about Clara getting herself into danger, her downfall would be more effective had it been more consistently planted, and had she done more in the preceding episode than have a nap.

The future: surely Steven Moffat’s too egotistic to let a companion be written out in an episode not written by him, and it does seem like Jenna Coleman will be back in some form or another in the finale. Moffat tried to have his cake and eat it with Amy Pond’s exit by making it a 'death' but having her still be alive in a past the Doctor can’t go to, and ended up with an over-convoluted, ludicrous mess. Please, Steven, let a death be a death. Something small like the Doctor visiting a past Clara or one of her fractures (from series seven) could work.

But while this was clearly Clara’s story, it was also good to see Rigsy and Me again, two returning characters who slotted very neatly into Dollard’s story. Rigsy first appeared as Clara’s ‘companion’ when she took on the role of the Doctor last year, so it’s appropriate for it to be him she sacrifices herself for in the culmination of that arc. It was interesting to see how cleaning up the Doctor’s messes on Earth had led Me to a position of authority among its alien refugees, thus showing another side to her – at points seeming like the episode’s villain but ultimately acting out of concern for the lost and vulnerable under her protection. Capaldi and Coleman are deservedly getting a lot of praise for those final scenes, but for me, the moment when I realised Clara’s fucked was Williams’ look of horror upon realising the chronolock had been switched, followed by the reveal that she’d planned everything intricately so that no one would die, and Clara’s ballsed it up – the antagonist turned helpless ally, and the moment that says “mystery plot over, time for a death scene – ready the tissues”.

Minor nitpick #1: the Doctor insists on referring to Me as Ashildr. That’s not her name and hasn’t been for centuries. Get it right, Doctor.

And I haven’t even got into the concept of the episode’s plot yet, which is odd, because it’s a fantastic one. An alien refugee camp hidden among the streets of London is such a Doctor Who idea, ripe with potential stories. It’s a setting in which I want to spend more time, with every lovely little detail setting the mind racing  (How did the two Judoon end up here? Why the need for medical rationing? Why is there no Torchwood Blowfish? They always use the Torchwood Blowfish!). Wonderful set design from Michael Pickwoad and his team, too – if Neverwhere were made for TV today, it wouldn’t go wrong in taking inspiration from this.

The murder mystery plot is very nicely structured, letting us explore the street and feeling sufficiently substantial, and yet concise enough to allow the Clara-centric scenes room to breathe. Plus there’s the initial search for the trap street, for which Dollard has come up with clever ways for the Doctor and team to search, rather than relying on technobabble or the Doctor’s existing knowledge – “If you see something unusual or notable, dismiss it, just keep walking. But if there’s a bit of London so unremarkable you don’t even think about it, stop. You could very well be standing right outside a trap street” is a remarkable, magical line. I hope you all had fun looking out for trap streets in the past few days. I have.

Minor nitpick #2: After scanning Rigsy in the TARDIS, the Doctor jumps to the conclusion that he must have been to a trap street rather abruptly – I’m not sure what his logic was there.

It’s remarkable that I can be so praising of an episode that breaks that golden rule of Doctor Who – the Doctor loses! Sure, he finds the truth behind the ‘murder’, and he does technically achieve his goal of saving Rigsy, but the chronolock still claims its victim, and he’s hopelessly sent away as captive of whoever’s behind all this. In many respects, the episode this most resembles is 2007’s Utopia, which also starts as a seemingly ordinary episode but takes a shocking twist towards the end that leaves the Doctor in big trouble and heads into a final two-parter. I really love Utopia, but Face the Raven pulls off that trick as well as Russell T Davies did, if not better – the shock ending is strong in both, but this has a fantastic world and engrossing investigation story to boot.

All in all, the only negatives I can find are, count them, two nitpicks.  An astonishingly good Who debut from Dollard.

I’m going to put Face the Raven below the Zygon episodes in my series ranking because, though I had more criticisms of those, not much can live up to their political ballsiness or Capaldi’s Doctor-defining rage. But there’s a fascinating pattern emerging – of the ten episodes so far, the bottom five in my list are from writers who’ve written Who several times before, while the top five are from writers who’ve joined the team in the past two years. Doctor Who is a show that thrives on change, and the one big success of the Capaldi years so far, other than P-Caps himself, is that so many good episodes have come from the new blood.

  1. The Zygon Inversion
  2. The Zygon Invasion
  3. Face the Raven
  4. The Girl Who Died
  5. The Woman Who Lived
  6. The Witch’s Familiar
  7. Under the Lake
  8. The Magician’s Apprentice
  9. Before the Flood
  10. Sleep No More


Post a Comment