Doctor Who series 9: Face The Raven review

Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman excel at The Doctor and Clara in Face The Raven. Lots of spoilers ahead...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

9.10 Face The Raven

If the ongoing grumble this series of Doctor Who has been about Clara not really convincingly finding a place within it, Face The Raven doesn’t half give her a fitting farewell. I found Donna Noble’s departure close to heartbreaking, but what was particularly of note here, appreciating how few companions have been killed in the line of time-travelling duty, was that Clara ultimately knew it was coming.

Is Clara dead for good? Who knows. Doctor Who certainly has form in bringing back deceased characters, and it’s not as if there haven’t been other versions of her dotting around. But right here, right now, Clara is dead. It’s no secret that Jenna Coleman has left the show. It certainly feels final.

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“Go to the TARDIS. Pick up all my most annoying stuff”

Even if you’d avoided the build up, the quite spoiler-y trailers, Peter Capaldi on The Graham Norton Show and the disappointing game of ‘I’ve seen it wink wink’ that was doing the rounds on Twitter during the week, there were clues fairly early on in Face The Raven that Clara would be bidding farewell to Doctor Who this evening.

Take the start. The Doctor has, arguably, been without a companion for most of the series, with episodes kicking off with him traveling alone in cases, and seemingly picking Clara up en route. Here, the pair start an episode in the TARDIS together for the last time, both having clearly enjoyed their latest adventure. Not weighed down for a minute by their memories, simply loving traveling together.

Long-time Doctor Who fans will know that it’s a myth that companions don’t die in the show, although it’s rare. But it’s worth also noting that many who are left living aren’t always in a much happier place than when the TARDIS first picked them up. Had Clara left the show with her heart still beating, that would have surely been the case.

Yet it’s her building cockiness, confidence and almost-assuming of the Doctor role that’s built to this. One day, she was always going to overreach.

And that day was today.

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“He’s making an effort to be nice”

Several times throughout this particular series run, I’ve made note of Doctor Who’s confidence in putting away an action sequence in favour of people having a chat. I think it’s an important, intelligent feature of the show, and where it works particularly well is in the third act of a story. That when all the explosions are supposed to kick in, Doctor Who is increasingly at its stillest.

In the midst of a 45 minute episode, debut Who writer Sarah Dollard found space – without making it feel squeezed – for a slow, emotional, beautifully pitched farewell, whilst also not making that the exclusive focus of her story.

But still, we have to finish talking about that ending first. With superb audio accompaniment from Murray Gold (and it really was something special), as the episode clocked past the 35 minute mark, both Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi earnt every penny of their fee.

Just go back and rewatch it. Look how they act this sequence out, with Capaldi’s eyes instantly filled with sorrow as he sees what Clara’s done, and Coleman’s gradually changing as the realisation hits her. Never mind the excellent dialogue for a second: just watch them.

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What’s more, this wasn’t Adric, god bless his soul, pegging it to try and save Earth. This was Clara, ultimately knowing her death was coming. Facing it. Having to be brave, and hearing her fate flying towards her.

The material this series hasn’t always served Coleman well, but – as with The Zygon Inversion – when you give her something to work with, she makes it look effortless. It’s not, of course. Here’s a woman damaged by the death of Danny Pink, wanting to be the Doctor and follow his life, and realising that it’s killed her. With time to process that.

“You listen to me”, she says to the Doctor. “You’re going to be alone now, and you’re very bad at that”.

Sarah Dollard, take a bow.

“Whatever happens next, wherever she is sending you, I know what you’re capable of”. As do we all.

And when Capaldi replies “what’s the point of being a Doctor if I can’t cure you”, that’s when the hardest of hearts surely started to break. Clara knows that this can turn him into a monster now. She tells him. Remember that the Doctor was told in Into The Dalek that he’d make an excellent Dalek? We might be about to see the realisation (not literally) of that.

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Then the raven came.

Then Clara dropped.

And then it all changed.

One observation: what makes this particularly work for me, and what makes it all the more heartbreaking, is that the relationship between Capaldi’s Doctor and Clara has never been about romance. It’s been about the Doctor needing Clara, and Clara wanting to be the Doctor. That they care for each other, they’re both brilliant and lonely, and they both make each other better. But no more. A spellbinding ending to their story.

“You’ve been ret-conned”

Yet even the 35 minutes beforehand had me interested. At first I thought we were going to get a tattoo-based version of The Power Of Three (an episode I greatly enjoyed), as the returning Rigsy (from Flatline) calls the TARDIS’ increasingly busy phone system to report that a tattoo on the back of his neck is counting down.

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Rigsy – welcome back Joivan Wade – now has a child, but he’s clearly also got this tattoo. That tattoo is not good news, and the Doctor swiftly concludes that aliens are hiding in London again. The Doctor is, of course, correct.

Here, then, is the initial mystery that, on another day, may have fuelled an episode in its entirety. If we were back in the four-part story days, the search for the trap street would have comfortably eaten up part one. It’s a lovely idea for an episode, a street that’s hidden, that can’t be found on regulation London maps.

Naturally, there’s some sci-fi babble – a misdirection circuit in this instance – to explain it. And Clara gets to do one last tour of London, this time dangling from a TARDIS. “She enjoyed that way too much”, notes Rigsy. “It’s an ongoing problem”, forewarns the Doctor. Breadcrumbs to the finale were not in short supply.

But still: just that core idea of a missing street had me intrigued. You could argue that Doctor Who inadvertently tips its hat to The Wire here in having a street effectively outside of the laws of the city in which it’s located – as Ashildr – Maisie Williams – reappears.

Another quick aside here: it’s a shame that her return was revealed weeks ago. I do accept that’s part and parcel of the modern spoiler culture, and indeed, we ran the story ourselves on this site. Yet I think most of us knew she was coming, and might her return have been even better had we not?

Still, Ashildr is behind the idea of a street where people can hide out, on the assumption that they confirm to a code. Several sign up, and there’s nerdy fun in seeing the Judoon, a cyberman, a Sontaran, an Ood and a few others sharing the place. No wonder it’s described as “the most dangerous street in London”.

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Certainly Ashildr’s role going forward in Doctor Who is going to be intriguing. Peter Capaldi – in his slightly-spoiler Graham Norton interview – dodged the question as to whether she would be his companion going forward, although Steven Moffat has also suggested we’re going to get an entirely new character. Either way, she’s clearly the focus of the Doctor’s rage, anger and guilt for the foreseeable future.

“I guarantee the safety of Clara Oswald. She will be under my personal protection. That is absolute”

A harsh thought, then, and one with ramifications. The Doctor, effectively, killed Clara. The Doctor gave her the belief that she could get out of any corner. That she could take on everything in the world and live. In Face The Raven, she did that, and in Face The Raven, she lost.

We thus get the instant rage of Capaldi’s Doctor, another spine-tingling piece of dialogue aimed at Ashildr. But the truth is – as the Doctor will surely realise –this one is on him. He put, as he frequently does, a companion in the line of fire. And unlike something like The Caves Of Androzani, he couldn’t take the proverbial bullet for them.

What’s perhaps even more spine-tingling: there are still two episodes left. The demise or departure of a companion is generally ample to round off a series on a dramatic high. But what on earth has this excellent series of Doctor Who got in store for its final 120 minutes? And just where is that confession dial going to fit in?

Applaud drama like this, folks. Applaud the production values. Applaud the writing, the direction, the performances. And applaud the fact that Doctor Who series 9 has bristled with a confidence and a determination to show people just what family drama can do. Even if you didn’t warm to Face The Raven – and I  thought it was really something very special – you can’t doubt that we got 45 minutes where ideas and ambition were all left on the screen.

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