Season 9, Episode 10 “Face The Raven”
Directed by Justin Molotnikov
Written by Sarah Dollard
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Joivan Wade, Maisie Williams BBC America
Air date: Saturday, November 21, 2015
WARNING: SPOILERS for Seasons 8 & 9 of Doctor Who…
This week on Doctor Who, Episode 9.10 “Face The Raven,” we finally start to see the end of the season in the distance. To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, we can say that now is not the end, but it is, in one sense, the end of the beginning and, in another, the beginning of the end. Both concern one piece of business that must be dealt with: the departure of Clara Oswald, the Impossible Girl. One actress sets that end in motion, and another brings it to its conclusion. Along the way, both discover that while they aspire to be with the Doctor or like the Doctor, there is price to pay whenever someone who is not the Doctor acts as the Doctor does. That’s a powerful idea, but it gets lost in an episode that was merely good and not great.
The biggest single reason the episode loses its way is its final dramatic punch: Clara Oswald dies. That’s not unique in the history of Doctor Who, but it is pretty rare. No, it’s the fact that Clara finally and irrevocably dies that is the big statement. She is the most introduced and departed character in the entire history of Doctor Who. While one corner of my mind was saddened by this turn of events, another part was whispering “finally, something we can’t undo.”
It’s been a long run since Jenna-Louise Coleman (as she was billed then) first appeared as some form of the character in “Asylum Of The Daleks” in September 2012 and then re-appeared as another version in the 2012 Christmas special “The Snowmen.” In the intervening time, she was one of two companions to appear in the “50th Anniversary Special.” She bridged the change from Matt Smith as the Doctor to Peter Capaldi. In addition to her two appearances as a slightly different version of the companion she would become, we also get to see her depart the show three times. Clearly, the final departure is in “Face The Raven” this week. Showrunner Steven Moffat has also said in multiple interviews that he wrote her out twice in Season 8, first at the end of “Death In Heaven” and then again during the 2014 Christmas Special “Last Christmas.”
In the intervening time, Clara seemed to be whatever the writers of the show needed her to be rather speaking with a clear, consistent voice. Though she is established as a woman with a strong, independent streak in her first two appearances, she starts out as a companion in much the same way as Amy, Donna, and Rose before her: as a young woman seemingly in a life that is going nowhere particularly good or bad, and taking its time to get there. She begins as a nanny for the children of friends, who the Doctor stops from being uploaded by a proxy of the Great Intelligence. As if to give her something to do out of that experience, the writers give her computer skills… which she promptly never uses again.
She then follows the Doctor on a series of adventures, at the end of which, she sacrifices herself to save the Doctor from the Great Intelligence by jumping into his time stream, seemingly bringing her to an end. That doesn’t happen because the Doctor jumps into his own time stream with seemingly few side effects, to rescue her… and the Great Intelligence is never heard from again.
Eventually, she becomes a teacher at Coal Hill School. She almost leaves the Doctor when she can’t handle the fact that he’s regenerated, even though she’s been exposed to his entire time stream. She starts dating another teacher at the school, and keeps her life with Doctor hidden from him to create dramatic tension… until he dies and is turned into a Cyberman. She leaves the Doctor out of disgust, but changes her mind and takes up with him again when he reappears.
Her character has not been all bad. She was an effective foil for the Doctor at several points, and was allowed to drive the plot of the show in ways that no companion had ever done. Coleman was also capable and likable in the role, which allowed her to (mostly) carry it off in spite of what the writers handed her week to week.
Still, her time on the show was more than a little confusing. That confusion dulls the dramatic payoff of departure now. Other than a Companion, who was she really? She only seemed to be whoever was necessary to meet the dramatic needs of an episode or seasonal arc.
Yet, I have to give it to writer Sarah Dollard for trying to write an interesting send-off. She creates a pocket Universe, a sort of Whovian Diagon Alley, in the middle of London, and tries to inject three Doctors (one real, two pretenders) into that world. The first pretender is Clara, who feels that she’s learned enough from her time with Doctor that she can do what she pleases, much as the Doctor seems to do. That right there, along with another very contemporary reference to the looming fear of refugees and displaced persons thanks to recent events, should be very fertile dramatic ground.
If that isn’t enough, Maisie Williams returns as Me/Ashildr and tries to be the Doctor for that pocket Universe. To some degree, she succeeds. She brings order, and a certain kind of peace. She brokers power. She even takes on a title, the Mayor, that reflects the Doctor’s own. She’s still a poor reflection. She’s immortal, but can’t remember much of her own history. She both craves and loathes the Doctor’s attention. Her peace in the refugee camp is petty and political. Her title is that of the local elected bureaucrat, with the potential for corruption and the compromise that entails.
The premise should work better than it does. The camp is an incongruous collection of alien species both new and old that seems designed more for visual appeal than consistent internal logic. There is a refugee Cyberman? How does that work exactly? The same goes for the refugee Sontarans. Strax is fascinating as a comedic one-off, but multiple refugees of a cloned warrior race? It all just stretches credulity. Thankfully, the actual species of the inhabitants of the camp is left to the imagination most of the time, and so we don’t get too bogged down.
Time also works against life in the camp. Since life on the inside is inherently political and to some degree a corrupted peace in the name of order, it would be nice to explore those workings at some depth. One hour of screen time is just not enough to do that.
No, this episode is longer more on promise than excellence. The Diagon Alley trick is a pleasant one. It also allows Clara to go down swinging. It just doesn’t quite there though. This is light years better than what we saw last week, but again, it isn’t the elegy for Clara Oswald that we could have hoped for.