Face The Raven
Series Nine, Episode Ten
Oh bugger, it’s nearly time for Series Ten! I’d better get caught up. I wonder why I stopped?
Oh all right, it wasn’t just that I was bored senseless by Sleep No More. (Slept quite well, thanks.) I was also not sure whether to review the finale in three chunks or all at once, and by the time I’d decided, they had started disappearing from iPlayer. So to recap: I reckon these episodes, though linked, are really separate beasts.
Beast #1: Face The Raven. In a series made up of two-parters – and Sleep No More, in case you nodded off – it’s a breath of fresh air to have something standalone. Sarah Dollard presents us with a tidy little plot: Rigsy (the loveable graffiti artist from Flatline) is back, sporting a sinister number tattoo that’s counting down. The Doctor takes a look and quickly realises Rigsy only has 500 minutes to live. Finding out why, and where he gained his tattoo, creates a natty and very Doctor Who-ey mystery, as the intrepid trio look for an invisible “trap street” in London. (As someone who routinely gets lost in London, this isn’t too far from my average trip.) The Doctor’s methods for finding it, such as counting your steps and looking for “glitches”, seem like just the sort of clever stuff kids can mimic after school. With, y’know, supervision. (“Hey look, I found a creepy alleyway!” might not end well otherwise.)
"Quick, Rigsy! Hide!"
Good thing he brought his hoodie, hat and magic shadow.
It’s only a pity the trap street is so easy to find. After a bit of character building with Clara, where she almost plummets out of the TARDIS but isn’t remotely worried about it because she no longer has any concept of danger, we’re in a mysterious part of London that looks uncannily like Diagon Alley. Or what with the slimmer budget, Neil Gaiman’s London Below. (I’ve yet to read Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers Of London books, or Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police books set in a shadowy London, but suffice to say Unseen Magical Bits Of London are ironically easy to find in fiction.) The street itself is still a lovely idea, with various alien life-forms hiding in peace, including certain familiar “monsters” who’ve sworn off violence. We don’t meet many of them, which is a bit annoying as I’d love to know how a Cyberman could change his ways. And the street really does look like a bunch of movie tourists will appear and take photos of it at any moment, only to get too close and break parts of it. But top marks for the concept.
Running the street is Me, or Ashildr. She’s older now, still looks the same, and relies on her diaries for ancient memories of things like the Doctor and Clara. She protests that she’s the good guy, keeping the street safe from the Doctor, but I’m not so sure given her actions later on. More on that soon.
Rigsy has been here before, been accused and found guilty of murder, and given a death sentence. He was sent home to say goodbye to his family, which seems merciful except that his memory was wiped, so he had no idea what had happened or that he was dying. (The Doctor points out that this doesn’t make any sense and, well, there’s no answer to that. Moving on?) The case against him isn’t exactly airtight either. As per Ashildr, “He was found over the body. My people were angry, I had to act.” Guess we can send Poirot home, then.
We soon find out that the laws of the street are absolute, and it’s the only way to maintain peace, but even so that’s a pretty good case against capital punishment, since being in the same street as a corpse is apparently enough to convict you. (He didn’t even pull out a blood-soaked knife!) However, suddenly benevolent (hmm), Ashildr shrugs and says the Doctor and Clara can talk to anyone they like if they think it will help prove his innocence. Off we go into the episode’s middle act.
Now, it’s very easy to pile on Sleep No More as the cause of my Series Nine forgetfulness, what with it being both boring and crap, but if I’m really honest there’s not much to this episode either. After the intriguing start, with its topographical mystery tour, and before the talking-point ending, there’s not a lot of middle. No one really has any information on what happened to the murder victim, and there isn’t any evidence that Rigsy did it, so there’s not a lot to investigate or do. He was convicted, so they have to make him not convicted before the episode ends.
Maybe it’s worth mentioning that Doctor Who is pretty bad at murder mysteries even at the best of times. They rely on logic and clues, but the world of Doctor Who means it’ll probably turn out that an alien wasp did it. Face The Raven doesn’t even get that far: the murder is (spoiler alert) not a murder at all, it’s merely a ruse to get the Doctor to the trap street (the trap street, AHEM) for reasons they’ll explain in another episode. All the Doctor, Clara and Rigsy do is figure out this is all about the Doctor (sigh), discuss how the death sentence works, and Clara figures out that she can transfer it to herself (and use Ashildr’s promised protection to weasel out of actually dying), hoping the Doctor will somehow sort it all out later. All of this works well as character development for Clara, whose hubris has been growing steadily more irritating (and dangerous etc.), but as the actual plot of an episode it’s very noticeably lacking. (There is a built-in excuse for this, i.e. they can pointlessly “investigate” all they want but they won’t realise what’s going on until it’s too late, and then the Doctor will have no choice but to volunteer for the trap. But that doesn’t add any more substance to the wait. They certainly don’t rescue Rigsy through cunning or guile: he would always have been let off the hook once they got to the final countdown, provided the Doctor obligingly stuck his head in the noose.)
At least it goes somewhere. The time has come for Clara to bite off more than she can chew, and in her over-confidence she has sentenced herself – entirely pointlessly – to death. She brought this on herself by trying to act like the Doctor, and there’s nothing she or anyone else can do about it. For once, death takes its toll. That doesn’t happen much in this iteration of Doctor Who, and it’s treated with solemnity here, as the Doctor (beautifully understated) asks her to stay with him while it happens, after raging at Ashildr to fix it or else. Irritatingly sure of herself to the end, Clara wrests control of the situation away from everyone, tells Rigsy to shut up, tells the Doctor she knows what he’s going to say and does what she wants anyway. Urgh. I’d be lying if I said I was sad to see her go. Her bulletproof overconfidence may be deliberate lately, what with her revealing the Doctor’s intentions to Ashildr without clearing it with him first, and giving away the TARDIS phone number without asking, but god she’s annoying anyway.
"Oh no, not again!"
(This will be hilarious if I actually remember to review The Snowmen...)
Buuuut... while it’s temping to view Clara’s (still bloodless and gentle) death as the show finally holding itself to account, for a companion who never needed the Doctor anyway, or for far too long treating death like a glib inconvenience you can wish away, this still doesn’t actually work. Face The Raven is Episode 10 of 12. It ends with a To Be Continued. It’s not even the first time Clara has “died”. (Even ignoring Oswin Oswald and Victorian Clara, this is at least her third time on the deathy-go-round.) And it’s Doctor Who under Steven Moffat. I mean... seriously, if you looked at this and thought “Oh, bye Clara, see you never,” then welcome to Doctor Who, since this is obviously your first episode. What kind of concussion does one need to believe this? People actually cried at this?! (And spoiler alert: it works even less well in hindsight.) While the plot ultimately revolves around the Doctor, the actual episode, all beginning, checking-of-watch and end is really about Clara paying the piper; since we all know she probably won’t have to, what’s it for? A murder mystery with neither a murder nor a mystery? Not one that it resolves, at any rate.
Hey, it’s not egregious or anything. The few people we meet in the trap street are suitably scared and engrossing, arguably including the one with an unconvincing plastic face stuck to the back of her head. They could all do with more development just as we could do with more answers, but considering Hallard originally wrote the episode sans Clara death, it might be fair to assume they originally got it. The deathly raven special effect is pretty neat. And Peter Capaldi, unsurprisingly, works wonders: the last ten minutes see him ping-pong between heartbreak and fury, and you’ll probably rewatch it a few times. There’s also some nice little moments, and even some fun banter with Clara. “Can I not be the good cop?” “Doctor, we’ve discussed this. Your face?” “Oh yeah.” It is disappointing that the episode turns out to be all about the Doctor, as every series must be these days; Face The Raven seemed like it might be a nice, self-contained little mystery at first, but no, it’s yet more rampant obsessing over the Doctor, in case you had forgotten the laughable prospect of his impending death, again. For better or worse, Clara just falls in the cross-hairs.
Crucial yet somewhat oblivious to all this is Ashildr, who I’m less keen on this time. Maisie Williams had a good excuse to show off between The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived: she added centuries to her character and it was chilling and sad. She’s become a bit of a different person here, ruling her own little kingdom with an iron fist (or throne, heh), and it’s not really clear how she should play it. She spars with the Doctor at first, then lets them all get on with their “investigation,” and when her trap is rumbled and Clara mucks it up she’s honestly mortified and all with the puppy eyes. Yeah, but “I never meant for anyone to get hurt” doesn’t really fly when all you wanted was to summon the Doctor (and send him to his probable doom anyway), and you used a trumped-up death sentence to do it. Wasn’t it quite likely someone would get hurt? Especially since she mind-wiped her chosen patsy, who might never have called the Doctor at all and just stunk up his flat in a few days. And speaking of people getting hurt, the entire street is up in arms about a human murdering one of their own. How are they going to take the revelation that Ashildr faked the whole thing? The “victim” probably has some choice words on the subject.
Ehhh. Face The Raven is passable enough, with a few neat ideas and some good acting. Also it ends on an intriguing note, with the Doctor teleporting off to who knows where. But it is still a lot less than the sum of its parts, and not just because there’s two more to go.