Doctor Who – Season 9 Episode 10
“Face the Raven”
Doctor Who takes the story back to modern day London with a hidden street and the culmination of events that have been set up all season.
As episodes go it starts out seeming fairly average. The Doctor and Clara are summoned by someone who needs their help and subsequently get to work trying to figure out a way to solve the problem. The man who summons them is Rigsy from last season’s “Flatline” and the problem he has is around him having acquired a tattoo of numbers on the back of his neck that is counting down.
It doesn’t take long for the Doctor to figure out that the numbers are counting down to his inevitable death and that they signify minutes. In a nice touch the Doctor tries to find the proper card to show sympathy but as he rightly points out, there’s no nice way to tell someone they’re going to die.
Rigsy has a lot to live for as he has a partner and a child to think about so death is not something that he wants to happen to him due to the people counting on him. The stakes would be high enough if that weren’t the case but the newborn baby is a good motivator for the Doctor to try and do something about it.
I really enjoyed the scenes of them trying to find the “Trap Street” as they were a lot of fun to watch. It allowed Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman to show the lighter side of the Doctor and Clara as they tried to puzzle out where the place might be. The episode doesn’t do a great job of establishing why the Doctor would immediately come to this conclusion but I was willing enough to just go with it given that further exposition as to how the Doctor decides that this is the thing to look for would have been a waste of time. The episode was fairly stuffed with content as it is without clouding it with more exposition. Clara’s random knowledge of how Cartographers used to do things was amusing. That girl must be handy in a pub quiz.
The Trap Street itself is an interesting idea. Doctor Who has always had the element of things hiding in plain sight. Obvious examples include the TARDIS and the Doctor who appears human but definitely isn’t. The aliens inhabiting this street serve as another reminder of that as they hide among humans without actually being human. Parallels can be again drawn to the current refugee situation but the episode doesn’t beat us over the head with that theme. It simply shows people of different races living in relative peace as they fear what might happen to them if they are discovered. It’s a powerful enough showing just to keep things simple like that and not dwell on the issue.
Having Ashildr in the middle of all of this is a nice idea that rings true of her promise when she last appeared when she stated that she was going to clean up after the Doctor once he was done and had left behind some collateral damage. Having so many different aliens in one place who need sanctuary after something the Doctor has done is a nice idea as it allows certain enemies to be given a layer of vulnerability that they wouldn’t have otherwise. The most notable example was seeing a Cyberman in a state of disrepair that completely removes any menace from it in a way that works well for the episode.
The major theme in the episode is that of responsibility. The Doctor is at least partially responsible for everyone in this street which of course includes Ashildr who has undergone further memory issues since their last encounter. Her only memory of Clara is through reading her journals and she initially doesn’t remember the Doctor at all beyond what she knows anecdotally.
Not a lot of time in the episode is spent dealing with this idea but I like the fact that Ashildr’s morals become more questionable as time goes on. The later in her personal timeline that we see her the more willing she is to cross a line. In this case it is for the best of intentions as she really wants to keep the people in the street safe which -as far as she is concerned- means sentencing anyone who breaks the rules to death. It might seem like a harsh punishment but it also provides a powerful motivator for the most violent races to behave themselves. This is at the point where they are most vulnerable anyway so the desire to stay alive means that they will follow the rules.
The theme of responsibility carries itself to Clara who casually assumes Rigsy’s death sentence without really considering the ramifications of it. Clara talks to the Doctor at the start of the episode about taking risks as if it’s something that they just do. It’s reasonable to assume that Clara thinks she will always be saved at the last minute by the Doctor so she will view risks as being somewhat meaningless. While traveling with the Doctor she has survived a lot that most people wouldn’t so it makes sense that she would have a really cavalier approach to taking risks.
This is especially evident when she convinces Rigsy to pass on the death sentence to her by outlining the plan as she expects it to go. It all seems perfectly reasonable as in normal episodes it might go a lot like that but this isn’t really a normal episode. There are clues scattered throughout such as a lack of explanation of the rules of the situation they are in. The rules definitely exist but they aren’t spelled out early on which means that they surprise the Doctor and Clara as much as they do the audience. It’s a clever way to keep the audience guessing as to how things might work out.
I found the revelation that there is nothing that can be done for Clara to be really powerful. The way that her expression changes when her assumptions prove incorrect is flawlessly performed by Jenna Coleman and the resulting discussions as she accepts the inevitability of her fate are equally excellent.
She goes through the five stages of grief in the space of a couple of minutes. Some of them are subtle but the most important in the context of this episode are denial and acceptance with a little bit of bargaining. The bargaining mostly comes from her asking if the Doctor can sort this out. The denial is more around her assumptions that there would be an easy fix to her assuming this death sentence.
Once she accepts what is going to happen to her she turns to thinking of others and orders the Doctor to not use her death as a motivator for vengeance. She even says that to do so would be insulting her memory. Clara knows how fine a moral line the Doctor tows every day and that he often needs someone to remind him not to cross it. She has fulfilled that role for a long time now and wants him to remember her influence even when she isn’t around. Rigsy is also ordered not to feel guilty about her death as it was entirely her choice which had nothing to do with him.
I have to say that I didn’t expect Clara to die while two episodes of the season still remain but I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t turn up somewhere before the end. Death isn’t necessarily a barrier to returning in this show as we have seen before so even if she isn’t resurrected then I suspect that there will be an appearance of some sort.
Doctor Who has treated emotional moments like this by laying on the melodramatic side of the loss a little too heavily but I was impressed by how understated it all was. The tears were kept to a minimum and the score was appropriately understated. I was actually reminded of David Tennant’s exit with a more subtly melancholic exploration of the person that is leaving and the influence they have had.
Of course this was a lot more subdued as it was only a single scene but it was beautifully done. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman sold the emotion of the situation perfectly as the inevitability of these two friends parting ways set in for both of them. Capaldi said more in his facial expressions than could ever be expressed by words. It was clear that he was holding back anger in order to abide by Clara’s wishes and it seems that it is going to take a lot of willpower on his part to not become vengeful.
He mentions to Ashildr that she is no longer dealing with the Doctor and will bring unspeakable terrors to her if she doesn’t save Clara. It isn’t entirely Ashildr’s fault but that doesn’t matter for a vengeful Time Lord. I like that the idea of the Doctor becoming something else when he decides to compromise his principles is brought back but it’s definitely something for long term watchers of the show as they know what that can lead to. Being the Impossible Girl means that Clara knows that better than anyone so she is the perfect person to bring him back from that before he compromises himself.
The real question posed by this episode is whether or not this is a fitting exit for Clara. I would say it is because the stakes aren’t universe ending but she meets her end by helping one human being. Her death is selfless and comes from a place of kindness which absolutely feels totally in character for her. I have criticised Doctor Who for relying on stakes being too high while the emotional impact of it all is left in the dust but having a character die without universe ending stakes in the background makes it all the more powerful. It’s beautiful in its simplicity and the fact that she sacrificed herself with knowing it initially shows just how willing she is to put her life on the line for anyone. It’s a dignified exit and Clara’s reaction to it feels right.
Despite accepting Clara’s last wish to not become vengeful, the Doctor does say to Ashildr that the universe will seem really small when he’s angry with her. It’s a beautifully delivered threat that is chilling to listen to.
One thing that didn’t quite work is revealing that there was some sort of elaborate plan to trap the Doctor. It feels like it was tacked on at the end but I concede that this still needs to play out so maybe it’ll make sense once it does.
A moving exit for Clara in an episode with a reasonably simple story to make the character stories more powerful.
The early parts of the episode feel a bit like a typical Doctor Who episode with a problem that needs to be solved and an investigation of that problem but it proves notably different as the characters discover the rules of the situation gradually which makes the reveal of Clara’s fate more of a surprise when it comes.
I really enjoyed the scenes of the Doctor and Clara working to find the Trap Street as they were a lot of fun. It was cool to see them trying to figure out where this might be. The fact that the Doctor came to the conclusion that they were looking for this specific thing isn’t fully explained but more exposition on it would have been a waste of time that was definitely better spent elsewhere.
The Trap Street itself is an interesting idea as it continues the idea of hiding things in plains sight that Doctor Who has always had with the TARDIS and the Doctor himself. A hidden street of aliens who are afraid of what might happen when they are discovered references the current refugee situation in away that doesn’t beat the audience over the head with the idea.
Having Ashildr in the middle of this is a nice idea as it reinforces her plan to tidy up after the Doctor once he leaves collateral damage in his wake. Her memory situation has gotten worse as she only knows Clara through entries in her journal and the Doctor is only someone she remembers anecdotally. Not much is made of this but it’s a reminder of the consequences associated with being around the Doctor. I also like that she becomes more morally questionable the longer she lives.
The major theme of the episode is responsibility as the Doctor is at least partially responsible for every alien in the street. This responsibility extends to Clara who casually accepts Rigsy’s death sentence while assuming that a particular set of circumstances will take place. It makes sense as she has survived more than she should have so assuming that it would happen again is perfectly reasonable.
Once her fate is sealed, Clara goes through the five stages of grief with an emphasis on denial and acceptance. Clara very quickly thinks of others and orders the Doctor not to become vengeful as she knows that that is like and doesn’t want that to happen. She even mentions that to avenge her would be an insult to her memory. Similarly she tells Rigsy not to feel guilty over her death as it was completely her choice and she stands by it.
It was an appropriate exit for Clara as she did so to help another person without the false nobility associated with saving the universe. She died helping someone on a fairly typical adventure for her and the Doctor and meets her end with dignity. The subdued nature of the whole thing makes it feel more powerful as a result.
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are excellent in their final scenes together. Capaldi says more with his facial expressions than words ever could and it’s clear that the Doctor is going to have some trouble honouring her order. His chilling threat to Ashildr is a clear example of that.
One thing that didn’t quite work is the reveal of the elaborate plan to trap the Doctor. This still has to play out but it feels as if it comes from nowhere.