Doctor Who: 9.10 Face The Raven
As a rule of thumb, title characters leave Doctor Who in a series finale or Christmas special. The exception was Amy and Rory but even then The Angels Take Manhattan was a mini-series finale of sorts with the series seven split. So while we all knew that Jenna Coleman was leaving the show at the end of the series, to have her die - and in such a low key manner - three episodes before the end was completely unexpected. And utterly brilliant too.
Doctor Who has teased companions dying before, but Donna had her mind wiped and still lived happily ever after while Amy and Rory died together of old age in the past after a long life. For Clara, arguably one of the most important companions in the show's history, this was a sudden and tragic end, dying so pointlessly not at the hands of the series' big bad but by accidentally trying to play hero. It was beautifully and heart wrenching and will probably go down as one of the best companion exits in the show's history.
Assuming that Moffat doesn't undo this moment with a timey-wimey happy ending. Because Clara's loss should be felt not only in next week's Peter Capaldi solo adventure but in whatever dramatic events unfold in Hell Bent.
It will be a loss too because in Face The Raven Jenna Coleman delivered an outstanding final performance. From cocksure and gleeful in the beginning over their last frantic adventure that ended in the pre-title sequence, to hanging out of the TARDIS over the streets of London, whooping with joy even though she almost fell out and plunged to her death. This series has taken great care to reinforce the Doctor having a duty of care towards Clara and here it became all too apparent by here as her brazen attempt to play the hero - and play the Doctor - led to her death. Perhaps it should have been obvious; even Rigsy noticed her carefree approach to her own safety in the TARDIS and perhaps it would have been had it been the series nine finale. Again, we suspected this might happen, just not this soon.
But it was in Trap Street that Coleman really stepped up her game, playing the compassionate detective to help save her own 'companion' Rigsy from certain death and helping the Janus child reveal the truth of what she had seen in her visions. The truth was, Clara was a great Doctor for much of this episode, no more reckless that the Tenth of Eleventh Doctor at times but she wasn't clever enough. She was also like the Doctor in her death too; like a previous incarnation of the Time Lord going willingly to his death as she too faced the raven.
Her final moments with the Doctor were mesmerising, pulling him back from becoming the vengeful War Doctor she had encountered but remaining hero she had spent the last year building back up. Those phrase cards (making their appearance one more time), and her continued ability to be his moral compass all came to a head here as she pulled him back from the brink of darkness. In her last moments, Clara saved the Doctor one last time and that was beautiful thing.
As for the death itself, I realised with dread that the end was coming soon, that the Doctor wouldn't save her, the moment the Impossible Girl theme began to play. It was the rug being pulled out from under you moment and Coleman and Capaldi were at the top of their game. Within the magical setting, and accompanied by another wonderful score from Murray Gold, Clara's final muttering of “Let me be brave”, as the Doctor watched her from the doorway was heartbreaking. Is it the best companion departure in the show's history? Probably not but it is certainly high on the list and shouldn't be undone (like Rose's emotional ending).
And yes, I am aware of how much I have spent writing about Clara's end; it is a huge part of this episode and the show as a whole, but that doesn't take away from the fact that the rest of the episode was really good too. As I mentioned in my spoiler-free preview. new writer Sarah Dollard also emerges as the Jamie Mathieson of series nine, delivering a magical adventure that has been more than a little influenced by Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.
The idea of a secret alien sanctuary in the heart of London is a wonderful idea and the Trap Street setting was glorious to look at. (Another obvious influence here is Harry Potter's Diagon Alley). Aliens seeking respite from those that might harm them (the Doctor) disguised as humans, it added to an already great mystery; the chilling tattoo on Rigsy's neck that was counting down to his death. It has been said before that Doctor Who does historical stories so well because of the BBC's wealth of experience in period dramas. Well that was evident here; a Victorian-style street where every prop, every costume, every element of that set was intricately done. It was one of the best settings I have seen on television on years.
Ashildr / Me as the mayor of this sanctuary, living up up to her claim as the protector of the people the Doctor has left behind, was a nice touch. I had heard rumours that she might be in this episode and the trailers I found a little too spoilery (Clara's death included) but she was another cog in Dollard's finely crafted mystery. I loved the idea that she protected not the Doctor's former companions (as I previously guessed) but the aliens let behind by the many conflicts with the Doctor. We say an Ice Warrior, a Sontaran, even a Cyberman. About the only alien not seen was a Dalek but I can't imagine them seeking sanctuary somehow.
The raven referred to in the episode's title was a chilling creation too (very Edgar-Allen Poe) and the tattoo was an ingenious idea- and a great way to bring Rigsy back. It was fitting that Doctor Clara dying in the 'battle' was at the cost of saving her own companion and Joivan Wade brought great warmth to what easily could have been an irritating street-wise character. The fact that he had a girlfriend and baby too (I'm guessing Face The Raven takes place a few years after Flatline?) added to the drama and tension of the whole mystery.
“You’ll find that its a very small universe when I’m angry with you.”
Clara might have pulled the Doctor back from the brink of darkness but those words to Ashildr were cold indeed and Capaldi delivered his very best angry eyebrows before the trap she had set for him was unleashed and he was transported away. On top of the emotional death of Clara, this final twist was a thrilling cliff-hanger that topped off an already excellent episode. Throwing in the return of the confession dial and we had everything bar a new hybrid set up for the finale. It also now becomes clear why were are getting a Capaldi-only episode next week; if any of the actors playing the Doctor could carry this off, he can.
Even with all this written, there still feels so much more I want to discuss about this episode and that is the measure of a great story. We got drama, humour (the Doctor still had a number of zingy one liners), a fabulous mystery and a gut-wrenching ending. Face The Raven was for me the best episode of series nine so far. On a final note, was there anyone not moved by Rigsy final tribute to Clara at the end, spray painting TARDIS with flowers, her picture at the centre of the memorial. I couldn't think of a better image to remember her by...