• 27th November 2015 • Review by Dewi Evans •
“Face the Raven” is Series 9’s “Utopia”. The penultimate story of Doctor Who’s third season has a lot in common with the penultimate story of its ninth, not least the fact that some fans will be very irritated by the idea that they’re the ‘penultimate’ stories of their respective seasons. Both involve the return of a popular character from a previous season joining the Doctor and his companion as they try and help an isolated community of refugees – only to find that a far bigger threat has been awaiting them all along. The moment you realise that Clara is actually going to die hit this viewer just as hard as the moment when you realise the Professor has a very particular taste in pocket watches. Similarly, both episodes exist purely and simply to get to a particular scene. In Davies’s episode, it’s all about the reveal of who Derek Jacobi is actually playing. In “Face the Raven” it’s the final scene between the Doctor and Clara.
And there’s the rub. What you think about this episode will ultimately depend on how much you rated that final scene – and whether it makes up for the well-executed, but ultimately fairly run-of-the-mill lead-up. Personally, when the scene is this great, I think: yes, it totally does.
Even so, there’s plenty to enjoy in the episode even without the dramatic ending. Rigsy’s return to the show is very welcome and Jovian Wade’s performance is charming. Plus, his inclusion makes sense given the urban legend themed storyline and the visual link to last year’s “Flatline” in his worryingly-animated tattoo. Maisie Williams’s Me/Ashildr is also perhaps the strongest outing for the character to date. Neither an evil, embittered old woman in a child’s body, nor a fountain of compassion, she convinces as an immortal woman doing her best to cope with an impossible situation she never asked to have foisted on her. Her justification to the Doctor as to her involvement in the trap is nicely-articulated in pragmatic shades of grey. She reminds me of Lalla Ward’s President Romana in Big Finish’s plays – essentially harbouring everyone’s best interest at heart, but willing to make sacrifices for the greater good of those under her protection.
I suppose the episode isn’t without its flaws. Yes, Ashildr’s trap is waaaay too elaborate if you want to think of these things purely in terms of cold hard logic – indeed, the episode’s main debt to J.K. Rowling isn’t the Diagon Alley idea, but the fact that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has exactly the same plot hole. Plus, I suppose it could be argued that it does seem inordinately polite of the raven to sit patiently and wait for the Doctor and Clara to finish emoting before it pounces (but then again, who knows how a quantum shade thinks).
But let’s face it, this episode is all about that scene. And no matter what the merits or demerits of the rest of the episode might be, the most important thing about it is that it sets up one of the most remarkable scenes in the show’s history. On that basis alone I don’t hesitate to say that this is one of the absolute best episodes of the show’s entire fifty-year history – and just how brilliantly it ranges over, not just age-old questions of life, love and loss, but also about the ethos of Doctor Who itself, shouldn’t be underestimated.
“Clara. I’m not special. I’m nothing. But I’m less… breakable.”
Make no mistake, the Doctor’s attempt to get Ashildr to save Clara’s life is possibly the single greatest bit of acting by any actor to play the Doctor on TV thus far. While the words are, on the surface, those of a very dangerous man issuing a very serious threat, the eyes and something subtle in the intonation belie a man begging someone to help when they know very well that they can’t. Like any great acting performance you actually forget that this isn’t a real person, but an actor playing a role. Sarah Dollard’s sublime writing also helps of course. In classic Doctor Who style, even though the mechanics of the threat are pure sci-fi fantasy (a raven that’s actually a killer ghost from beyond time; or something) it still boils down to a situation which everyone will eventually have to face: the fact that someone you love has or will shortly die and that there’s nothing you can do about it. The specifics might be fantastical, but the significance for the characters is painfully familiar without ever seeming clichéd. In a miraculous fusion of perfect acting with nuanced writing, Capaldi ploughs devastatingly through the first three recognised stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining (I suspect depression and acceptance are to follow).
There’s a hilarious interview with former Who script editor Andrew Cartmel where he admits that he regrets allowing the Rezzies in the Season 24 story “Paradise Towers” to wield real knives, because once you introduce actual murder weapons into proceedings it stops being fantasy and ends up being ‘urban realism’. It’s literally the only time anyone’s ever accused “Paradise Towers” of urban realism, but the point about the line between fantasy and realism and when it’s OK to cross from one to the other is very prescient – although probably not in the way Cartmel is thinking of. During the Doctor and Clara’s final conversation, it’s as if fantasy pauses for a while, respectfully waiting, like the raven, until it’s the right time for it to re-enter the fray. Instead, things become, psychologically at least, very real. It is, in fact, one of the most brutally realistic summations I’ve ever seen of what grief feels like, condensed into a few short minutes of dialogue: “What’s the point in being a Doctor if I can’t cure you…. what about me?” “Everything you have to say, I already know.” This is not melodrama, or fantasy. This is a powerfully honest depiction of actual emotional states that people have actually felt; words which, I can guarantee you, real people, at the worst moments in their lives, have actually said. Add to that the idea that Clara’s decision to take Rigsy’s punishment is actually the fulfilment of a deeply-rooted death wish and you have Doctor Who going to some very dark places indeed.
“The Doctor is no longer in the room. You’ve just got this guy.”
With the Doctor (and the series) at its most painfully realistic, it falls to Clara to steer the Doctor (and the series) carefully back into the realms of heroic fantasy; to “die right”; to provide a story that can make the sheer fact of death and loss bearable, even satisfying: “You will not insult my memory. There will be no revenge. I will die, and no one else, here or anywhere, will suffer.” This, I think, is why Clara’s actual death scene is presented in such a mannered way – all slo-mo, special effects and soaring music. We’ve already had a scene where death has been presented as an emotionally real event, something whose consequences anyone who’s ever lost a loved one can empathise with – a confrontation with a tragedy whose essential meaninglessness is in direct proportion to the almost visceral pain it causes. In the next scene, though, it’s time for the series to get back to fiction, fantasy and illusion. The horror and despair of the Doctor’s reaction is still there in the background (looking on from behind, like the Doctor observing Clara’s death).
But in being absolutely adamant in her right to dictate the meaning, consequences and significance of her own demise, Clara is actually reminding the Doctor of his own commitment to finding meaning and hope in tragedy and chaos. Matt Smith’s Doctor once reminded us that “we’re all stories in the end”. But as Clara points out to the Doctor in her final moments, it’s more true to say that we all need to live as if we’re in a story – stories govern our lives and make the meaningless meaningful; just as the idea of magical trap streets is a brilliant metaphorical invitation to see beyond the humdrum “reality” and experience an aspect of the city you might not have considered before – an invitation to always see the mundane as extraordinary. So far, so Doctor Who. What’s so daring about this episode, however, is its message that we might have to force ourselves to imagine something extraordinary because the mundane is too horrific to look at.
This wasn’t Doctor Who‘s Neverwhere moment, nor its Harry Potter moment, nor its Rivers of London moment; it was its Life of Pi moment. That was me comparing “Face the Raven” to Booker Prize winning fiction. Because it really was that good.