As the end of Series 9 approaches, it's not surprising that events on Doctor Who are beginning to build towards the finale. The overall direction and theme of the series has not been as clear this year as in other years, but there have been a few hints and they are starting to play out.
“Face the Raven” by Sarah Dollard begins the move towards the finale quite dramatically and even a little shockingly. It starts as a seemingly standard stand-alone adventure for the Doctor and Clara that then turns into something much different. It's a very good episode and very emotional. Unfortunately, it's let down—not by its own faults (mostly) but by the episodes that have come before it. They have failed to effectively bring the series to the point it reaches here. As a result, it's not quite as affecting as it could have been.
I am, of course, referring to Clara's death. As I've mentioned a few times in my reviews of this series' episodes, I have been really surprised by Clara's role—or rather, lack of role. For the most part, she has been sidelined this series. In the first few episodes, she has a few scenes here and there meant to showcase her growing recklessness, her attempts to be too much like the Doctor. There might be one or two such scenes per episode, and they generally feel rather forced and sometimes out of place. The rest of the time, Clara does very little in these early episodes. Then, in “The Woman Who Lived”, an otherwise excellent episode, Clara doesn't appear at all except in the closing scene (which does carry heavy foreshadowing of her eventual departure). The very next episode, Clara is replaced by a Zygon and so is absent again for almost the whole episode (even if we don't realise this until the end). Clara gets a brief moment to shine in “The Zygon Inversion” when she learns how to compete with her doppelgänger for control of her body, but then doesn't do much again until this episode, “Face the Raven”. Of course, there have been a few mentions of Clara's effect on the Doctor and we've seen his rage at the possibility of her dying, but really, those are Doctor moments, not Clara moments.
Clara has been a bit of a bizarre companion. In my head, she's almost three separate companions (not counting all those countless splinters of her, of course). Series 7 Clara was nothing more than a plot device. She had no consistent characterisation, and existed only as a mystery for the Doctor to solve. In Series 8, she gained a life of her own, a consistent personality, and an effective, moving story arc. In effect, she became a real character with strengths and flaws, a character you could sympathize with and care about. This second Clara's story ended in “Last Christmas”, an episode that was originally supposed to be Clara's final episode. The ending of that was rewritten at the last minute when Jenna Coleman decided to remain for another series. In Series 9, we've gotten the third Clara (and you might argue she first appeared in “The Day of the Doctor” and “The Time of the Doctor” between Series 7 and 8). This Clara is more of a “stock companion”. She follows the Doctor around and does companion-type things as the plot requires (particularly crying or looking sad when the plot requires her to soften the Doctor's anger), but doesn't really have a life of her own, apart from those occasional moments of recklessness. She's really a bit of a non-entity.
There's another reason that Clara's death affects me so little: I'm not sure I can trust that she'll actually stay dead. Why should I get upset if the character is just going to show up alive and well in a couple of episodes? It sounds kind of heartless to say that I hope she doesn't, but that's part of the nature of storytelling. If you want emotion, you have to follow through, and Steven Moffat has a habit of not doing that. In Moffat's time, death has come to have little meaning, something I've brought up in my reviews numerous times before. Characters frequently come back to life. The Doctor's daughter Jenny returns to life with no explanation (and although that story wasn't written by Moffat and was before he took over as showrunner, the resurrection was apparently at his request). River Song dies in the Library, but her mind is resurrected inside the computer. Rory dies multiple times. The other Jenny (Vastra's wife) dies and comes back to life twice in the very same episode! And then of course, all the Time Lords come back, too. Sure, it can be argued there that they never really died. We and the Doctor just thought they did. But the effect on the audience is the same. When death is just a minor annoyance that can be fixed relatively easily, it loses its power.
To be fair, things have been better since Series 8 (and there has been quite a lot more death in general). Apart from the Brigadier being resurrected as a self-aware Cyberman and the kind of work-around with Osgood, people who have died have generally stayed dead. Danny Pink is the most prominent example of this, and it's something I've been glad to see. As such, maybe Clara will stay dead. But until we know for sure, I just can't feel much for her death in “Face the Raven”, as I just can't get past the nagging feeling that Clara will come back in the finale. I suppose we'll find out in a couple of weeks.
But let's look at the episode on its own without the spectre of what's come before (and perhaps what will come next) because taken by itself, it is very good. It builds effectively towards Clara's death and uses Clara's recklessness to good effect. The actual moment of death is a bit drawn out and the repeated replays of her final, silent scream are not just unnecessary; they actually work against the emotionality of the moment. The episode also does something that is very common in television and movies: provides a countdown that actually takes longer to reach zero than the amount of time we're told. From the moment the Doctor runs past the Raven saying that they have ten minutes left, nearly twelve minutes unfold before Clara's actual death (admittedly, a small portion of that time is in slow motion). Two extra minutes may not seem like much, but a lot can happen in that time—and a lot does. It just serves to create that drawn-out feeling.
I also wish the Doctor had tried a little bit harder to stop it. He begs (and threatens) Me to do something, but when she can't, he doesn't do anything more. It reminds me of the departure of Amy and Rory, where the Doctor just “knows” there's nothing he can do and the audience is just expected to believe him without seeing that it's true. No one ever actually tries to stop the quantum shade, so we, as the audience, never really get to see that its invincibility. The best we get is the old man trying to run from it. The Doctor has very little time, it's true, but if we at least saw him try something... After all, this Doctor believes he can do anything he wants, that he can break the rules, especially if it's to save people. It's apparently why he has this face. So maybe he could try using his sonic sunglasses to modify the stasis machine into some sort of force field, but then the Raven could just fly right through. Anything to help establish that the quantum shade can't be stopped. As it is, we have to rely on being told it can't be stopped. “Show; don't tell” is a generally accepted rule for a reason.
All that said, the good here does override the negative. The emotion in the moments leading up to Clara's death and the final moment itself is palpable. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman, in particular, give amazing performances, although Joivan Wade and Maisie Williams provide strong presences as well. Even though the Doctor doesn't do a lot physically, the emotion and anger in his face and eyes is enough to give anyone the chills. Capaldi has an incredible talent for conveying emotion in a single look. The Doctor's lines only add to the chilling anger: “The Doctor is no longer here.” “I was lost a long time ago.” But it's Clara's final words that top the emotional moment: “Let me be brave.”
I think there can be little doubt that Clara's death is ultimately the Doctor's fault. Sure, it is her mistake to transfer the quantum shade from Rigsy to herself—a symptom of her recklessness—but it's the Doctor who let her become the way she is. Even if Clara's development in this regard hasn't been particularly well-handled by the show, the clear intent is that she has become too much like the Doctor, but as the Doctor says, he is less breakable than she is. She simply can't be like him—not and survive as well. The Doctor bears a great deal of the responsibility here and I hope the remaining two episodes of the series do something with this.
It's also good to see Me again, although she seems like a bit of an after-thought in this episode. I get the impression she wasn't originally in it, but was added later to create continuity with the series' arc. As such, she seems to be playing a role that any other character could play. Still, it's a role that makes sense for Me and she does add a good extra dynamic to the story.
I've commented previously that the Doctor's characterisation has been rather inconsistent this series. This is certainly true, but in “Face the Raven” he is the most like his Series 8 self. He is even dressed the way he dressed in Series 8. As I really like the Series 8 Doctor, I am very glad to see him back here.
Moving away from the characters to the story itself, there are definite elements of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere in this story's Trap Street. Viewers will also, undoubtedly, see shades of Harry Potter in there as well. It works well as a concept in this story, and I like the idea of alien refugees having a secret place to hide. It answers the question of just what happens to any stragglers left behind after the Doctor defeats his foes. Clara naming it a “Trap Street” is also a great bit of foreshadowing of the trap she and the Doctor are about to walk into. It's let down visually however, as Trap Street looks a bit too much like a set rather than an actual street.
I do wonder why the Doctor decides to look for such a street in the first place. The Doctor has encountered evidence of aliens in London (or other Earth cities) before and not immediately gone looking for hidden streets. What makes him take that route on this occasion? It's not a major issue, and probably helps save time while avoiding some awkward exposition, but it is something that nags at me just a little.
Also, how does the Doctor know that the lock can only be open by the TARDIS key? For that matter, how does Me create such a lock in the first place? I suppose for that latter question, she was given it by whoever she made a deal with, but for the first question, the Doctor never tries any alternative. He just knows again. This episode does rely a fair bit on the Doctor just knowing things (that he needs to find a hidden street, that the quantum shade cannot be defeated, that the TARDIS key opens the lock), and I think that's a weakness in the story, albeit not a major one.
If there's a significant fault in “Face the Raven”, it's that the motivations for everything that is happening all come down to the Doctor yet again, despite this being a strong Clara episode. The villains who have made a deal with Me are specifically after the Doctor—leading into a finale that appears, again, to be all about the Doctor. It's a theme that has been too common in recent years.
Overall, though, “Face the Raven” is a very good episode. It provides a powerful and emotional end to Clara's travels in the TARDIS even if it has been let down by previous episodes not developing Clara well to this point. It's also an episode that will hopefully lead to consequences that the remaining two episodes of Series 9 will deal with. I eagerly await what is to come.