Brushing off the experimental disappointment of last week, “Face The Raven” sees the superlative ninth season of “Doctor Who” soaring back to the top of its game on black and deadly wings.
In a season which has already seen atmospheric homages to the eras of previous Doctors, “Face The Raven” tipped its hat to the grand tradition of one of the Doctor’s companions being accused of a crime in an alien world and forcing the Doctor to become a detective in order to save them. This being nu-Who, though, it was never going to be as straightforward as all that.
Called back to Earth by Rigsy, the Doctor and Clara set out to discover the mystery of his tattoo, a set of numbers on the back of his neck that are ominously counting down. They discover a hidden community of alien refugees living in the centre of London, under the leadership of their old friend Ashildr. But Rigsy’s tattoo was merely the bait, part of a larger game being played by the Doctor’s enemies. But their trap for the Doctor will exact a very high price indeed.
‘…there’s one thing you never put in a trap, if you’re smart, if you value your continued existence, if you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there’s one thing you never, ever put in a trap. Me.’ Words spoken by the 11th Doctor that Ashildr would have done well to remember although by the look on her face by the end of the episode, I suspect it was starting to dawn on her. It’s a tragic ‘Lando Calrissian’ moment for the immortal Viking maiden as her straightforward deal gets much worse all the time and no amount of prayer will stop it from being altered any further.
Clara’s growing recklessness has been a key theme throughout the season; her increasing willingness to risk her own life, a mimicry of what she believes the Doctor does, has eclipsed almost every other aspect of her character, apart from her ‘it’s-all-about-me’ attitude. Still, with two episodes of the season still to go, her abrupt and hubristic death is an unexpected sucker punch of the kind “Doctor Who” hasn’t really delivered since Adric was lost in “Earthshock”.
I’ve commented a few times this season on how over-powered Clara had become, every word, every moment a gnostic gem of wit or wisdom. She’d become the personification of RTD’s sonic screwdriver, blessed with very insight, ability or effect needed to help the Doctor out of whatever jam he was in She’d gone from The Impossible Girl to The Improbable Girl, bordering on the Infuriating Girl. But it was never Jenna Coleman’s fault, her performances were always terrific, bringing personality and sass to the expository functions and deus ex machinations Clara was forced to perform. However, in the hands of writer Sarah Dolland, nothing becomes Clara’s life like the leaving of it. Poetic, powerful and deeply moving – even to someone as ready to see the back of Clara as me – Coleman gives the performance of her Who life and it is sensational to watch. Capaldi is equally at the top of his game, packing as much emotion and drama as his “The Zygon Inversion” soliloquy but this time underplaying everything to allow Coleman to shine in the moment. We are spared Clara’s scream of pain thankfully, the soundtrack only ebbing in order to hear her exhale one last “Deep Breath” and it’s only once Clara’s gone does the mood really darken as Ashildr finds out just how far across the line she’s gone.
The brilliance of the dialogue and performances tide the episode over the plot holes and a narrative rushed in order to accommodate the setting up of the finale. This is definitely a setting and a mystery which would have benefited from being given room to breathe and grow over the course of a two part story – another reason to resent last week’s waste of time and energy.
The very studio-bound second half of the episode really evoked the eighties era of Classic “Doctor Who” and served the story well. It may have been conspicuously reminiscent of J K Rowling’s London (there are also shades of Sirius Black in Clara’s abrupt and ungilded death) but I still which there had been more time to investigate the various cobbled side streets and houses of this secret alien enclave.
And unexpectedly dark episode of “Doctor Who” – certainly darker than the conspicuous and distracting digital hoodie shadow given to Rigsy – with a downbeat ending setting up what looks like an epic series finale it’s only undermined only slightly by the fear that they’ll somehow undo or reverse Clara’s death through some annoying plot twist. The major thing, though, is that twice in two weeks, the Doctor has lost. Last week, it was only wounded pride as he retreated from the Le Verrier Space Station but this time he’s lost so much more. Clara, the TARDIS, his freedom. Who was Ashildr working for? Why do they want the Doctor and what for? The next two weeks have a lot to live up to, especially if they’re going to do this magnificent series justice.