BBC One, Saturday 21st November 2015
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Joivan Wade, Maisie Williams, Robin Soans, Simon Paisley Day, Angela Clerkin, Caroline Boulton / Written by Sarah Dollard /Directed by Justin Molotnikov / Reviewed by Sean Alexander
“Let me be brave. Let me be brave.”
Like London buses, you wait ages for female Doctor Who writers to come along then two come along at once. But unlike Catherine Tregenna, debut scribe Sarah Dollard didn’t cut her teeth on Who stablemate Torchwood, but rather Merlin, Being Human and…Neighbours? But hey, since Doctor Who returned in 2005 it has more or less adopted the soap template of putting character before plot, emotion over drama. And there’s no end of both of those in ‘Face the Raven’.
BIG SPOILERS PAST THE BREAK..
Yes, for those who somehow avoided all the thinly veiled subtexts and a week’s worth of BBC rhetoric (by, perhaps, hiding in a nuclear bunker or house-sharing with Ed Miliband), this is ‘the one where Clara dies’ (to use that subtitling of every episode of Friends.) And I for one am not happy. Not, I hasten to add, because a character whose shelf life appeared to have already been reached a year ago before that last-minute change of heart has finally (?) been written out. And not because I’ve been a huge advocate of the character that Jenna Coleman has played for the best part of the last three years. As anyone who’s followed John’s blog this last year and a bit would be aware, my views on the Impossible Girl took something of a rethink once paired with an older, less user-friendly Doctor after a debut of largely playing a cypher opposite Matt Smith. Jenna Coleman was superb last series, and has remained so this except it’s become all too plain that much of the events thus far seen on screen were written in her originally planned absence. Where last season’s duality of teaching and romance on Earth and life as the Doctor’s bezzie created a thematically satisfying arc for both her and the narrative as a whole, too many times this year has Clara been reduced to the status of peril monkey; separated on an almost weekly basis from the Doctor and seemingly suffering a form of PTSD risk addiction as compensation for the loss of Danny Pink. Coleman herself seems not to have let such sidelining exasperate her, and in the case of ‘The Zygon Invasion/Inversion’ even created a malevolently menacing mirror to Clara in the form of duplicate Bonnie. You could of course read into that a carefully planned character arc where the increased distancing from the mother hen cloak of Capaldi’s Doctor and the character’s uninhibited sense of her own mortality had all been carefully planned. But the truth is both Jenna Coleman and Clara weren’t meant to be in series nine, and had indeed already been given a fitting and satisfying exit which may or may not have allowed for future returns.
Anyway, back to that reason I’m not happy. Okay, Doctor Who has skirted pretty damn close to having its first major crisis of its 21st century incarnation this year. Left to bridge the graveyard slot between Strictly and the perennial presence of Casualty it has struggled to find an audience (and no, those time-shifted figures and iPlayer viewings aren’t compensating either). 4 million viewers when an hour before more than 10 were happily seduced by sequins and salsas does not befit one of the ‘crown jewels’ in the BBC’s drama armoury. And while the show’s profile and stature within the corporation remain healthy, questions will have been asked of Steven Moffat and the current team. Wrong timeslot, certainly, but there also remains a distinctive sense that – ten years back on TV – Doctor Who has become a little stale. Even the pre-publicity for the show chose to emphasise the ‘same old, same old’ attractions of series past, and the lack of a hook in terms of either new Doctor or new companion (which every series - bar Matt Smith’s sophomore year - has promised in some way, shape or form) certainly seems to have left the marketing department twiddling their collective thumbs when trying to fill magazine covers and billboards this term. Anyway, that reason I’m not happy again: if the ratings aren’t great you need to get your product out there, more than ever, and the cost this time seems to have been the potential depth-charge that Clara’s brutal and sudden exit last night would have otherwise delivered. Yes, it’s emotional. Yes, it’s beautifully (under)played by Capaldi and Coleman. But how much better would it have frazzled the senses if the BBC Facebook page and Twitter feed hadn’t been running GOODBYE CLARA! memes a week before…? And for that I blame the decision to sacrifice anticipation and mystery on the alter of shameless viewer capture. This year Doctor Who really has become a victim of its own success, and last night its culminated failure to live up to years gone by of appointment television status robbed it of this year’s sucker punch.
But that’s as much as I want to spend denigrating last night’s episode. For Sarah Dollard has delivered a beautiful and bittersweet piece of Doctor Who that somehow manages to make fresh monsters out of everyday sights (hard to believe the show had never made a breed of bird malevolent before in over 52 years) whilst delivering some prescient subtext about aliens (once again) hiding in plain sight on the streets of the nation’s capital. Cartographers up and down the country no doubt gave a collective ‘whoop’ at the mention of Trap Streets, but Dollard’s strength in depicting a microcosmic society in which aliens live a tenuous peace disguised as humans comes not only from its echoes with the recent Zygon gambit, but from the ever topical hot potato of immigration and refugees. And at this point I am of course obliged to cite the similarities (not to mention copyright-straining homages) between this premise and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.
Another trope Dollard executes with time-honoured tradition is the ticking clock scenario (most recently utilised by Jamie Mathieson in last year’s ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’). Like the best of conceits it’s simple and effective, giving the episode a ‘real-time’ aesthetic that (surprisingly) the show has barely aped on occasion before (as well as ‘Mummy…’ only Chris Chibnall’s ‘42’ springs readily to mind). Also nice to see Joivan Wade capitalise on his impressive ‘Flatline’ debut as wall-scrawler Rigsy, here given a much clearer motivation than community service by relocating him to London and enhancing his lot with the added responsibility of a partner and baby. Which is of course the McGuffin of the story, the thematic trap that lures first Clara and then the Doctor into events from which only one will walk (transport?) away. And while her decision to relieve Rigsy of his deathmark may smack of further beating of the risk-addicted Clara drum, it’s somehow poignant that a decision she makes based on a solemn promise made to protect her is in fact unravelled by the modern loophole of simply not checking the terms and conditions of the agreement before signing.
And what exactly are we to make of Ashildir/Me/the Mayor’s role in these matters. Time clearly has continued to be cruel since she last crossed paths with the Doctor in 1651. The woman who lived now negotiates a tenuous peace treaty that maintains the anonymity of both aliens and the unalike (both of whom she must feel more than just empathy for) between the cracks of London’s high streets; and yet still her focus on the Doctor seems to override any philanthropic instinct that remains in her time-wearied conscience. And she seems to know the Time Lord wisely, if not well: luring first Clara and by extension him into the trap of Trap Street, into a society where being human is tantamount to guilt and concerns with social stability override any commonly held sense of justice. In a place where laws are absolute, kangaroo courts hold sway. And not for the first time does curiosity prove to be the Doctor’s downfall…
Who are the bargainers with whom Ashildir has signed a pact, at the express understanding that her society on Trap Street will remain undetected? The knee-jerk impulse of the seasoned fan is to suggest Daleks, but I fear someone is playing a far longer game here; one that goes right back to the End of Time, perhaps. But faced as he is of having no Clara and no TARDIS, is it really a wise move to put this particular baby in the box? Clara’s deathbed speech, pleading for him to spill not one drop of blood in her memory, may hold for now. But what moral choices await a Doctor now more alone and angrier in a universe than ever before? Clara has accepted her fundamental role in her own downfall, but will the Doctor too? ‘Face the Raven’ has many merits, but most of all is its simple demonstration of human weakness: Rigsy divulges himself of a death sentence because he wants to see his child again, the Doctor loses the TARDIS key and his freedom in order reveal the lie of Rigsy’s trumped-up murder charge, and Clara pays the piper for thinking she can be the Doctor once too often. Compassion and consequences are sewn through series nine as thematic DNA, and with two episodes to go perhaps the full cost has yet to be tallied for the Doctor’s decision to rescue Davros from the minefield, or act like God by bringing Ashildir back from the point of no return.
The time has come at last to hear the Doctor’s final confession.
Next Time: The Long Dark Night of the Doctor