Face the Raven

Story No. 285 Let me be brave
Production Code Series 9, episode 10
Dates November 21, 2015

With Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Written by Sarah Dollard Directed by Justin Molotnikov
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: Riggsy contacts Clara because he wakes up with a tattoo on his neck... and it's counting down.


Stay With Me by Hugh Sturgess 1/4/20

This a lot of fun and a very strong debut from Sarah Dollard, though repeated viewings expose several big flaws and a rather awkward structure. But it feels different to the other episodes in Series 9 - though, given the diversity of stories this year, that's not so surprising. Before the series aired, Steven Moffat said that one of the things he liked about Dollard was that she, along with Jamie Mathieson, comes from a generation of writers for whom "Doctor Who the way it used to be" means David Tennant and Billie Piper. I think that's fascinating. The first bit of the series we really get to experience shapes how we think of the show thereafter. To pick an obvious example, The Zygon Invasion was clearly written by someone who watched the UNIT years. An another example is Mark Gatiss, whose work is always calling back to earlier, twentieth-century types of Doctor Who. What lasting impression would the Russell T Davies era leave on a writer? How would it shape what they thought of as "Doctor Who"?

This factoid is doubly interesting since Dollard, despite being an active member of online fandom, has written an episode that is not really like either the Davies or the Moffat era - or, for that matter, like any era of the show. It almost feels like an episode written by someone with only a dim folk-memory of the series or perhaps one who has never seen it at all.

This makes it thoroughly refreshing. It doesn't feel beholden to an engrained cultural ideal of "Who-ishness" the way other episodes do. Something like Mummy on the Orient Express plays out the way you expect a Doctor Who Agatha Christie ghost story to. That isn't a criticism - indeed, it's nearly inevitable - but it feels so much freer when we have something different. There's no lurking threat bearing down on the characters (indeed, not taking the quantum shade seriously is Clara's downfall), and there's no villain at all. The Doctor does things he hasn't in a very long time. The first third, in which he, Clara and Rigsy search for the trap street, feels wildly out of place because the Doctor hasn't had to painstakingly work things out for ages. Skipping stuff like that is one of neo-Who's chief structural innovations to compress itself into the forty-five minute format. That an author for whom forty-five minutes is the only format she's familiar with would put such a plot beat back in is interesting to say the least. The Doctor doesn't use the sonic screwdriver or the psychic paper, both elements closely identified with the series since 2005. Dollard is reaching back to an older form of the series; it's more like a Davison or even a Hartnell story than a Tennant or Smith episode.

Inevitably, given the last ten minutes, the episode tends to feel a little swallowed by the season arc, yet the story up to the revelation of Me's trap is crammed full of ideas. With remarkable deftness, Dollard keeps changing the kind of story she's telling, skimming through about three even before we get to the death of Clara. This is the most clear legacy of RTD in the script: the idea of Doctor Who as a mercilessly fast-paced show that leaps from concept to concept and genre to genre has become an assumed part of what the show does. The presence of the search for the trap street at all disguises how quickly it's resolved. The trap street then becomes an alien refugee camp, and five or so minutes later the story becomes a murder mystery. The episode rolls through these different structures so quickly there is little time to do anything but execute the most superficial details, yet each segment feels grounded and real.

This forward momentum carries the episode over its own flaws, since before we can really focus on a problem it's already gone. The problems become more obvious on repeated viewings. For instance, the decision of the Doctor and Clara to not talk to the most important person in any murder investigation - the family of the victim - is completely wrong. The Doctor seems to dismiss the thought that Anna's child has anything useful to tell them when he thinks the "boy" doesn't have psychic abilities - the notion that he might have important information apart from that doesn't occur to him. Had they gone straight to his house and found "he" was a girl, then the story would have been over immediately, so that's held back for later. Conversely, the Doctor seems to remember out of nowhere that the Januses burn their dead simply to propel the plot onto the next step. Most disappointingly, Rigsy, who was the critical character for most of the episode, loses all his lines and basically vanishes from the story at the climax.

Rigsy's plotline gets eaten by the lead-in to Heaven Sent, which makes all the stuff that's happened in the previous half-an-hour seem rather small and unimportant in comparison. However, the episode almost turns this to its advantage, since all that momentum that has carried the story from scene to scene suddenly stops when Clara reveals she has the chronolock. The very fact that Clara dies not in some glorious last stand or for anything important, but for basically arbitrary reasons she (and we) had no way of knowing beforehand is the whole point. The Doctor and Clara get out of scrapes like this all the time, which has made them, as the episode makes clear, reckless. It was an accident waiting to happen, and like most accidents it doesn't come foreshadowed; it just happens with sickening swiftness.

The New Series faces a problem with its companions, and that is that it has to go to enormous lengths to get rid of them. Paleo-Who had the advantages of an unsteerable TARDIS, which meant that once you left the Doctor he could never come back, and a rather utilitarian approach to character. Companions just decided to go. Once the Doctor could and did return to the same place and time regularly, and once the series started treating companions as agents in their own right, it became untenable that they'd ever want to leave the TARDIS. Tegan, in 1984's Resurrection of the Daleks, left because she had been so traumatised by the violence around her that she couldn't stand it anymore, which I guess is a kind of a solution, if you think having your character give up on the show in revulsion is a good idea.

The New Series, which puts such an emphasis on the liberatory and fun aspects of travel with the Doctor, has had to banish its companions to another universe, erase their memories against their will, trap them in the past and, with Clara, kill her definitively, then bring her back to life to tell the Doctor that keeping her around would destroy the universe. Companions have become like vampires, requiring enormous effort to finally stake down. This makes companion departures look like a punishment, that travel with the Doctor invites an inevitable sanction. Not a single proper New Series companion got an unambiguous happy ending, and only Martha left at a time of her choosing.

Nevertheless, this is the only New Series companion to actually, physically die (if we ignore the semi-retcon in Hell Bent), as opposed to the "lost in another universe", "loses her memory" or "lives a long and happy life before dying of old age" dying that we've seen before (also called "trolling the media and viewers"). It doesn't pull many punches. The repetition of shots and the use of slow-motion is normally done for something glorious or beautiful, but there's nothing glorious or beautiful about Clara's death. The only concession it makes is to mute out her agonised screams, evidently done based on a calculation of how distressing the scene could get away with being. That said, having it mirror the earlier death of the old man, even to the position of her arms outstretched, makes every step in the process awfully inevitable.

What is fantastic about Clara's death is how much she is in charge of it. It was her stupid decision to take the chronolock from Rigsy (a plot beat that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, though a good way to emphasise how acclimatised to reckless risk Clara has become). She makes the Doctor stop threatening Me. She orders him not to take revenge for her death. Even her final words to the Doctor are dismissing his request for her to stay with him and going to face the raven alone. This is written for Clara the bossy control freak, determined to perfectly execute and control her own accidental death. Equally, it echoes her Series 7 character, a woman seeking to live as a fairytale character.

This is fantastic material, and Capaldi and Coleman knock it out of the park. As usual, Capaldi is giving a supremely generous performance, realising whose scene it is and letting her get on with it. But he's also giving an incredibly clever, structured performance. His delivery of "stay with me" is done with tears in his eyes and a small smile on his face. It's not angry or pleading. It's a fascinating choice and it works brilliantly.

Capaldi and Coleman have developed such a rapport that the episode can almost rely on them nailing the scene, which could have come off as arbitrarily sudden. Nothing about the episode until this point has suggested it is at all consequential. Bringing back Rigsy, Clara's "companion" from a stand-alone Doctor-lite episode, in a late-season episode written by a first-time author, subtly encourages us to see it as an unimportant but charming filler, giving us a breather between the Zygon two-parter and the finale. Y'know, like Sleep No More. Suddenly changing gears so dramatically, and knowing that the actors will be able to pull it off, gives Face the Raven the status of a perfectly ordinary adventure that goes horribly wrong. It's a very strong debut for Dollard and manages to stand out even among the gems of Series 9.