|Art by cardinalcapaldi|
Dollard for showrunner.
What is perhaps most striking about Face the Raven is its studious lack of flashiness. Especially given the extent to which the denouement involves the story nearly being swallowed whole by the season arc. By the end the episode is nearly as awash in references and metaplots as the start of The Magician’s Apprentice, and yet at no point does it lose sight of its underlying goal of being a fairly straightforward Doctor Who story in the “here is a cool premise, let’s explore it” tradition.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some obvious moments where Dollard’s story gets sacrificed to the needs of the season arc. In particular, the fact that Me’s benefactors have to go unnamed (though they’re obviously the Time Lords, right?) and the entire “what the hell is going on here” is offloaded to, at the very least, Heaven Sent and one suspects at least partially Hell Bent means that this all feels a bit messy. It’s a mystery, and yet it never quite feels like it comes to a solution. Particularly awkward is the fact that the Doctor seems to more or less arbitrarily remember the whole “burn their dead” thing when it’s convenient to move the plot along.
But crucially, Dollard handles each of her two briefs here well enough that the slight awkwardness of the transition between them is largely beside the point. The first chunk of the story, prior to the Doctor turning the key, is raw cleverness. Of particular note is the deftness with which Dollard ditches one premise for another. The trap street is clever, and very Doctor Who. Similar ideas exist in other media - Danny the Street in Doom Patrol and the Wandering Shop in Discworld spring to mind off the top of my head, and I’m sure your head will provide as well. But it’s also necessarily a setup to another kind of story, and the handoff to “alien refugee camp” is well-timed and well-executed.
Moreover, though, “alien refugee camp” is a flat-out astonishing premise. And “murdery mystery in an alien refugee camp” is an even better one. Indeed, its compression into a third of a single episode has to go down as one of the most ridiculously swift disposals of a promising premise in the history of the season, and one really wonders what on Earth was ever going to happen in the parallel world where we spent two weeks on Sleep No More. But even in its ultra-compressed form it works well, with the elements fitting together in a satisfying fashion that builds ominously while also giving the audience sufficient opportunities to feel clever.
As for the second chunk, what is there to say? Not for the first, but nearly for the last time Capaldi and Coleman are given astonishingly good material, and they do astonishing things with it. Notice the structural cleverness of it: the cliffhanger is identical to The Magician’s Apprentice: Clara’s dead and the Doctor’s trapped. Equally notably, the Doctor and Clara lose for the same reason: they tried to take care of someone, and made a reckless mistake.
But unlike The Magician’s Apprentice, it is a scene written around Clara. And it is a scene that revolves around who Clara is: a deeply flawed bossy control freak capable of acting with indescribable grace. She lied and manipulated her way to death, like she inevitably would eventually, just as the Doctor inevitably does every couple of seasons. “Why can’t I be like you,” she asks, and there is no good answer. Indeed, she is. She gets a death scene, just like he always does, and it is very much hers, with numerous facets that would not appear in the Doctor’s, or in Rigsy’s, or in Ashildir’s, or in Amy’s. “Let me be brave” is easily the equal of “I don’t want to go” or “you were fantastic, and you know what, so I was I,” or “Hey.” Her conversation with the Doctor, and the things she chooses to say to him and not let him say to her, are astonishing.
But perhaps the more important thing to say is that it feels like a death. The decision to parallel it explicitly and structurally with the old man’s death at the episode’s midpoint is very smart, helping make all of the emotional beats parallel ones from deaths in real life, which is to say, from terminal illness, which is blatantly what Clara has, only sped up to Doctor Who pacing.
It’s a big scene done exquisitely well, in much the same way that the hunt for the hidden street and the mystery in an alien refugee camp were done well. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen quite so concise a case made for “fuck yeah I can do Doctor Who well”, although its concision and sense of efficiency are boosted by the two parters that surround it. It’s the third major new writer debut under Moffat in two seasons, and it’s clear at this point that he’s going to leave the show’s writing pool in better shape than he found it.
Funny Quote From The #moffat hate Tag on Tumblr
“Why couldn’t clara have just started a space school with danny for disadvantaged young aliens?”