A Universe of Our Own Terrors (Face the Raven)
List of ways companions have died on Doctor Who: asphyxiated in space, instantaneously aged to death by the Time Destroyer, spaceship crashed into Earth, a bird flew into her tits
It’s November 21st, 2015. Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” has unseated “Hello” at number one, with both “Love Yourself” and “What Do You Mean” also in the charts. Jess Glynne and One Direction are also newly in the top ten. In news, Storm Barney strikes Britain, knocking out thousands of people’s power, and not a ton else happens unless you find Bobby Jindal withdrawing from the 2016 presidential election interesting, which you probably shouldn’t.
While on television, the Doctor Who debut of Sarah Dollard. “What’s the most impressive debut of a Doctor Who writer” is a fairly entertaining parlor game. Harness has obvious cred, as does Mathieson. There’s a host of obvious one hit wonders to consider: Peter Ling, Andrew Smith, or Barbara Clegg. There are big classics like Terry Nation, Malcolm Hulke, or even Steven Moffat himself. Or you could go with an impishly perverse choice like Stephen Wyatt. But for the most part the debate’s plausible margin of error evaporates here. Face the Raven may not be the best first story anyone has ever written for Doctor Who, but it is the one in which the fact that it’s a debut is most impressive.
The biggest and most obvious thing to point out is the writing credit. “Sarah Dollard.” Not “Sarah Dollard and Steven Moffat.” In a period where Moffat is willing to take credit for even small contributions such as his work on The Caretaker, his absence here speaks volumes. Sure, we could be cynial and suggest that Moffat was simply aware of the bad optics of publicly rewriting what is only his second female writer, but if you look at the scene you’d most expect Moffat to need to intervene on, the pre-death scene, it doesn’t sound like him. He’d write it differently; there would be eminently quotable lines aching with cleverness. It’d be brilliant, of course, but it wouldn’t be this particular flavor of brilliance. This isn’t Moffat; this is a new voice being shoved out onto the biggest stage imaginable and giving it her absolute all.
What’s remarkable in all of this is the amount of confidence and trust placed in Dollard, who saw her “trap streets are real” pitch get both Me and the death of Clara added to it. In another era, this sort of layering of added requirements on a relatively green writer got you Time-Flight at best and The Twin Dilemma at worst. This is both an overstuffed banquet and an absolute lynchpin story that you’d expect to go to either a trusted veteran or someone like Phil Ford who was clearly just there to save Moffat the time of a first draft. Instead it goes to the rookie who, it must be stressed, hits it out of the park.
Let’s start with the big ticket item: the death of Clara. Dollard’s choice of tone for the buildup to this is impeccable. Clara is scared, uncertain, and left with no moves to make and no possibility of having control over the situation, but she remains incandescently herself, using her last minutes to their full advantage. Dollard does the obviously necessary thing of having the scene be about Clara; indeed, she angrily wrenches control of it away from the Doctor. It’s obviously not the case that a male writer would have made the mistake of having the scene be about the Doctor’s efforts to save Clara instead of about Clara’s furiously desperate stillness (and near-certain Moffat would have vetoed anyone foolish enough to), but it’s here that giving Dollard the job regardless of her experience starts to make sense. As an openly queer woman steeped in contemporary media and progressive criticism, she could be trusted to write this in a way that steered well clear of any fridging tropes. (Leaving aside whether Moffat continues that next episode, which we’ll get to.)
But making this about gender is pigeonholing. Yes, there are obvious reasons to have a woman write the big Clara death episode. But Dollard isn’t just “a woman,” or even “a queer progressive woman.” This becomes clear in her account of how she tackled the scene, starting from Clara’s line “Why shouldn’t I be so reckless? You’re reckless all the bloody time. Why can’t I be like you?” And it’s a great line—clearly rooted in who Clara is, and set up by things like the “don’t go native” conversation in Under the Lake, but also something that hasn’t been dealt with too heavily yet. And it makes sense, finding an answer to the question “why can’t Clara be the Doctor” that is at once persuasive and tragic. This is an important balance. The nature of the show means that Clara can’t be the Doctor; there’s always going to be some uncloseable gap around that. (Not even Romana could be the Doctor, after all.) So the question has to have a real answer. On the other hand, with Clara, more than perhaps any other companion, this gap feels cruel and unfair. Dollard’s choice of framings—“why can’t I be like you”—is brutally honest to both sides of the equation.
Let’s widen the frame slightly and deal with her actual death. Credit here has to go to Justin Molotnikov, as the scripted account of it is a relatively simple affair. But the tone it needs to hit is a subtle thing, and it rises to the occasion, simultaneously selling the moment as a massive and catastrophic tragedy and holding back just enough to get the audience to think “this can’t be it, can it?” This is complex, depending on selling a moment with slightly unwarranted conviction whilst not tipping into camp. The show is perversely aided here by Murray Gold, who sets such an absurd baseline for soaring emotional moments that the concept of overdoing it no longer really exists. But the mere fact that the show is insulated from going too far doesn’t make the balance automatic; in particular, it does nothing to ensure that the death not feel so climactically satisfying as to make it lackluster when it’s amended two episodes later. (Indeed, plenty of reasonable people have suggested it fails utterly at this.)
Ultimately, however, my argument would be that Clara’s death never feels right, and indeed that virtually nothing could have been done to sell it as the real ending. For all that killing companions off appeals to a certain type of fan it’s been at best a questionable call in series history, generally coming off as a fairly cynical move. In the contemporary series where branding mandates that being the companion is canonically the best thing ever, companion death is intrinsically unsatisfying. The standard companion narrative is now one of self-actualization; having that be fatal just doesn’t work.
But all of this is doubly true of Clara, whose arc has always been rooted in a process of making her vices into heroism. To end that by having her killed by her hubris is to undermine the entirety of her as a character; to say that she was wrong for wanting to be the Doctor. This is gross even before you take the still-gendered Doctor/companion relationship into account. If it’s a thing you want, frankly, reevaluate your life choices.
So Dollard gets an impossible brief and hits her marks so well you miss how hard it is. But the astonishing thing, given this, is that the revelation that Clara has screwed herself by taking the chronolock comes about twelve minutes from the end of the episode, meaning Clara’s death only occupies about a fourth of the actual story. There’s actually a whole other episode going on here. Actually, there are three. One of the most striking things about Dollard’s script is how deftly it plows through three concepts with no inherent relation: trap streets are real, alien refugee camp, and a murder mystery with no suspects.
The obvious thing is to take them in order, so let’s start with trap streets. There is a pleasingly old school quality to this: a cool fact that a lot of the audience won’t know that gets expanded into a classic portal to faerie image. This is not the never quite functional “Yeti in the loo” approach, but rather the related thing that Doctor Who has actually always done well, which is to make familiar spaces strange and mysterious. There’s an element of facilitating childhood play that has been relatively absent from the new series—one can imagine children excitedly searching for hidden streets, and probably finding some interesting things in their subsequent derivés. We talk a lot about Doctor Who as a social good, but these are dimensions that it’s mostly neglected over the past few years, and their return, even momentarily, is welcome.
The murder mystery with no suspects, on the other hand, is another tricky thing that Dollard navigates deftly. The famous instance of it is one of my longstanding favorite stories, The Rescue, which offers what I view as the legitimately astonishing twist that the man in the dodgy rubber suit is secretly a man in a dodgy rubber suit. Here, in a rare monster-free story (unless one counts the Raven itself, which seems strained), Dollard picks the more obvious trick of not having there be a murder at all. It’s a sly resolution that makes the thread work despite how little time can actually be devoted to it in the face of everything else in the episode, and gets us Letitia Wright in Doctor Who for good measure. (It’s a tragically minor part for an actress they’ll probably never afford again now that Marvel has made her famous, but at least they glue a fake face to the back of her head.)
Which leaves the alien refugee camp. This is obviously the beat of the story that is most overtly “political,” albeit in that scare-quoted way that dogs The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion. This is not to say that a positive and sympathetic depiction of refugees and the straight-faced but empathetic translation of the harsh reality of a refugee camp into frothy Doctor Who terms (“do you think a Cyberman fears a merciful death?”) is not politically valuable. But it’s the sort of thing alt-right blowhards dismiss as virtue signalling, and in this instance they wouldn’t entirely be wrong. There’s no substance per se to this thread; Face the Raven has nothing to say about refugees. They are simply a flavor to create the sensation of being political, as opposed to something the story is “about.” This is not valueless; marking where Doctor Who’s political sympathies lie is a worthwhile small ritual that, over time, serves to create a level of protection for the show and gravity that facilitates more meaningful decisions like, say, casting Jodie Whittaker. But make no mistake—the political aspects of the story that matter and carry weight are things like its unrefrigerated take on female death and its attempt at engaging with kids in the audience on a level beyond trying to turn them into future Big Finish customers. The refugee stuff, in the face of this, is merely a nice touch.
So all in all, a stunning debut from someone who is instantly clear as a major and era-defining talent. If this seems a strange descriptor for a writer with only two episodes to their name, we might think back to people like Ben Aaronovich, Christopher Bailey, or Donald Cotton. But in many regards it feels more helpful to look forward. Dollard, after all, is what the future looks like: a writer who came to the show with the new series and who is steeped in rhetoric of diversity and good representation. Certainly she resembles the values represented in the Chibnall era’s sales pitch. Even if she never comes back for another episode—and that would be a tragedy to be sure—Face the Raven marks the moment in the Moffat era where Doctor Who first felt like the future. There’s still loads of work to make it be the future, but at least the road there is clear. If that doesn’t count as a major writer, what does?
September 3, 2018 @ 9:24 am
Not much to add, I think: just that I really, really appreciated the multitude of premises in this episode and how skillfully they are connected – as in The Zygon Inv, this gives the episode a pleasant density of ideas. (My biggest problem with Thin Ice, by contrast, is that we find out very early on what kind of story it is and it turns out to be exactly that story.)
When it comes to Moffat’s involvement with the episode, about the only line I could point out to as coming from him is The Doctor’s “The Doctor isn’t here, you’re stuck with me!”, which calls back to his idea that the name of the Doctor is a promise that he sometimes manages to fulfill.
September 4, 2018 @ 1:33 am
True that “Thin Ice” is a simpler story, but after her first script required her to kill Clara and imprison the Doctor, I think Dollard relished the opportunity to go lighter.
September 4, 2018 @ 7:15 am
You’re probably right, and I always feel bad criticising Thin Ice, because it’s solid and there are a lot of great little flourishes… but it just didn’t do much for me.
September 3, 2018 @ 10:19 am
This story really is astonishingly rich and dense, isn’t it? Case in point: you didn’t have wordcount enough to discuss the “tattoo of a number that’s counting down” thing, which yes, isn’t an entire story’s worth of premise by a long shot, but is certainly the sort of thing that would have been a whip-smart Moffat gimmick in one of his earlier stories (it resembles Amy’s countdown in Flesh and Stone, which is also terribly effective). Then there’s the interesting way in which this episode feels like a concept from Torchwood’s first two seasons, admittedly much better executed – an eccentric space found amid the everyday streets we walk down. A comparison aided by the explicit reference to Torchwood in this story.
I’d add that, as well as all the marvellous stuff done here with Clara (both the serious character work and brilliant moments like “She’s the worst, I love her…take that how you like”), Dollard does great things with Rigsy. Yes, he’s inevitably not a huge part of the episode, especially in its latter half, but he’s such a perfect choice of character to include in a story about Clara becoming the Doctor, having a companion of her own to protect (and notably a companion who is inspired by her heroism and explicitly aspires to it), and just generally fitting Marlowe’s “o’erweening hero” stereotype. His trying to face his death nobly and Clara effectively saying “don’t be silly, I’ve got this” echoes the beat in Flatline where she uses her hair band to save the day instead of him having to sacrifice his life — but here of course it’s a bigger, riskier ask.
Thin Ice is a strong episode, to be sure, but as the above commenter suggests it doesn’t quite hit as many successful notes simultaneously as this one does. Still, a superb pair of episodes; the Moffat era’s great triptych of new writers is finally complete (I actually do rate Cottrell-Boyce, but he doesn’t strike me as somebody you could keep giving Doctor Who premises to in the way you could clearly keep hiring Harness, Mathieson, and Dollard).
Bit of a side point, but it’s relevant in the context of “exciting new Doctor Who writers” and “oh god I hope Dollard comes back one day”: how familiar are other Eruditorum readers with the Series 11 guest writers? I’m a fan of Malorie Blackman’s, but most of the others I don’t know so well, with the exception of Vinay Patel, whose BAFTA-winning “Murdered by my Father” was exceptional. Extremely tonally in keeping with the creator of Broadchurch, I’d have thought, but also so emotionally rich in a way that kept you watching even though you knew exactly what the end of the story was going to be. The big success lay in the father committing a monstrous act whilst being pretty far from a monstrous person throughout most of the storyline.
September 3, 2018 @ 1:11 pm
His trying to face his death nobly and Clara effectively saying “don’t be silly, I’ve got this” echoes the beat in Flatline where she uses her hair band to save the day instead of him having to sacrifice his life — but here of course it’s a bigger, riskier ask.
Picking up on the “cracked mirror” riff, that’s a parallel marked by major contrasts. In Flatline it’s all about the absurdity of Rigsy’s desired self-image of heroic romanticism and the bleakness of his underlying wish to die, with Clara as the voice of common sense and problem-solving practicality. Here it’s Clara who is drawn to self-destruction by chasing a heroic self-image, and by a highly metatextual confidence in her understanding of the story and her place in it – “don’t worry, I know all about how Doctor Who plots work, plus I’m a regular character – whatever I do, they’re hardly going to kill me!”. Obviously she turns out to be wrong about the former, but ultimately right about the latter.
September 3, 2018 @ 1:32 pm
What is the explicit reference to Torchwood in the story?
September 3, 2018 @ 1:37 pm
The use of the Retcon drug from Torchwood, to explain why Riggsy doesn’t remember his first visit to the Trap Street.
September 3, 2018 @ 11:21 am
I felt rather underwhelmed by this episode. “Trap streets are real” is a nice idea, but in the end we basically get “Diagon Alley with aliens”, and it’s difficult to see how things could have been much different from that. Having all the aliens disguised as humans seemed rather unjustified from an in-universe perspective. Yeah, presumably it was to do with budget and things, but I find it difficult to see a story as promoting diversity when all the refugees are forced to adopt a particular appearance in order to be accepted. It’s not the first time the Moffat series has inadvertently suggested that people only really count as people if they have an appearance you can relate to – the other major incident that comes to mind being the redesign of the Silurians, a more traditional appearance being rejected as “too alien”.
September 3, 2018 @ 12:40 pm
That’s a good point about appearance. The Zygons are another blatant case in their own way. I think I’m right in saying that, in both DOTD and the Zygo Inv, Zygons who look like Zygons only do violence and villainy. They are only sympathetic or nuanced when they look just like us. Which is even worse when combined with the Inv’s general assimilationist tendencies.
The new series overall has been very low on “people” without human-like faces. There are various emphatically non-humanoid (usually gargantuan) creatures for which you are meant to feel sympathy, but they tend to be “animals”, or at least don’t offer much by way of conversation. They have their point of view expressed for them by others, usually the Doctor. The biggest exception is probably the Ood, and even that comes only in Planet Of, as a sort of corrective mea culpa for the way they were treated on their first appearance.
I suppose to some extent it’s an unfortunate side-effect of technological/budgetary change – the new series can do complex blends of makeup and prosthetics where the old would just run up a load of masks (compare and contrast the cat people of New Earth and Gridlock with those of Survival, for starters!), and that potential has been seized upon enthusiastically, precisely because it means aliens can be made more easily “relatable”. That spares the audience from making an imaginative effort that could really be considered healthy exercise of the moral and emotional faculties.
In that connection, I suppose that behind the Ood, the Ice Warriors are about as non-human-looking as “people” get in the new series – an ironically progressive side-effect of Gatiss’s retro tendencies.
September 3, 2018 @ 12:44 pm
I suppose the suicidal partially-transformed Zygon is a partial exception, but I think he still has a basically human face, doesn’t he?
September 3, 2018 @ 2:13 pm
I think this ties in to the greater emphasis on character-based narrative in the new series, which makes a lack of facial expressions and body language more of a hindrance to just getting the story across, and the whole thing ties into the general neoliberalism thing, which demands people focus on “me, and people I know” instead of larger, more abstract or more prickly things. Note that for Planet Of the Ood, they feel the need to go to rather ludicrous lengths to make sure the audience will be sympathetic, with the brains in hands and the song thing.
September 4, 2018 @ 11:18 am
I see your point… but isn’t that going a bit far? In our world, many of us have to make an effort to empathize with people who are not like us… but they all still look human. It’s the variety of human, the details like skin color or eye shape, that we have a problem with. Perhaps showing human-looking aliens in DW not only makes them easier to empathize with, but can also teach the viewers that those who look “like me except for these weird details” are indeed “no different from me”?
(Granted, inhuman aliens might still help people to empathize with animals/plants but the show already codes some aliens as animals/plants in the show. Beside people, animals and plants, I don’t think we really have anyone else to empathize with in the real world, so that should cover the empathy lesson).
September 4, 2018 @ 2:10 pm
Doesn’t the same objection apply to all such training through fantastical analogy, though? Fictional aliens, whether human-faced or not, are generally more different from us than groups of humans are from one another, but that doesn’t stop the empathetic leap being useful exercise, and the more strenuous the exercise, the greater the potential benefit. I admit, however, that where people find it too hard to make the leap at all, any benefit is lost, so it becomes a bit of a precarious balance between the probability of having an impact and the potential extent of that impact if successful.
I also think that there are specific benefits-by-analogy available from encouraging people to relate to persons with whom we do not share as important a mechanism of emotional communication as the human face, especially at the moment. Emotionality and emotional demonstrativeness are going through a bout of being highly valorised, to the extent that a certain level of emotional display is represented at times as a criterion of true humanity. Hence there are particular social pitfalls around failure to relate to or recognise the shared humanity of people who do not present emotion in conspicuous and familiar ways.
Autism is not something I have any direct familiarity with, but autistic people are certainly subject to a lot of pernicious, dehumanising perceptions because they often don’t convey emotion in ways that other people are accustomed to. More controversially perhaps, I think there is also a pernicious tendency at present to represent men as “emotional cripples” who lack “full humanity” if they fail to perform emotion to a required standard of volubility. There is a distinct but related tendency to stigmatise women who smiliarly fall short of a certain threshold of emotionality, especially in relation to motherhood, as unwomanly or “unnatural”. So I think exercising faculties of imaginative openness towards the personhood of those whom we cannot “read” as readily as others has a social usefulness all of its own.
September 4, 2018 @ 2:18 pm
To summarise glibly: people are not always “no different from me”. That doesn’t mean they’re lesser people, and that message matters too.
September 4, 2018 @ 2:21 pm
I suspect that the average person who isn’t all that bothered that we caused the death of a million plus people in Iraq, for instance, isn’t so much bothered by Iraqi skin colour or eye shape, they probably just never look at Iraqis in the first place. I think it’s about widening the channels though which you can feel empathy. I don’t really look at Iraqis either, or schistosomiasis victims etc. for that matter, I’m just capable of working from statistics, using my imagination, and decoupling my ethics from instinctive reactions.
Sex and Violins
September 3, 2018 @ 12:22 pm
The story does have an enormous conceptual density to it as well. It introduces a lot of ideas, the trap street itself, alien refugee camps, the quantum shade and chronolock, the Janus etc but it ends up shoving them into the background in favour of character moments. Its a very delicate trick, and quite an interesting structural one. Great essay though. Also I feel like theres an essay to be had about companions relationship to “being the Doctor” as it were, particularly given the notion of Romana kind of overshooting him as it were.
September 3, 2018 @ 1:32 pm
Regarding Clara’s putative hubris in wanting to be like the Doctor, and the Doctor’s own putative overreaching in rendering Me immortal, it’s surely significant that the Greek hybris is the source not only of our own “hubris” (with its somewhat mutated meaning) but also of another English word…
September 3, 2018 @ 2:19 pm
Inspired. Is there a word yet for trolling that’s so sophisticated it doesn’t count as trolling anymore? ;P
September 3, 2018 @ 2:48 pm
September 3, 2018 @ 1:45 pm
“There’s a host of obvious one hit wonders to consider: Peter Ling, Andrew Smith, or Barbara Clegg”
No love for Neil Gaiman?
September 3, 2018 @ 2:11 pm
Gaiman’s second effort might not be a hit, but it exists. Ling, Smith and Clegg only wrote one TV story each.
September 3, 2018 @ 2:16 pm
He’s not a one hit wonder, though. I mean, he is in the sense that he wrote one great episode – like all the others – but the distinction of the others is that it was also the only episode they wrote.
September 3, 2018 @ 7:32 pm
Ach, nadgers, I’d blotted “Nightmare in Silver” from my memory. Apologies, as you were.
October 19, 2018 @ 6:47 am
It still ought to be somewhere else in the list.
September 3, 2018 @ 2:28 pm
I could describe the achievement of the episode as taking a hook which could be tailor-made to alienate me, “this week, one of the characters who dies is someone we know, so that’s a lot more important and you have to care more, even if she’s probably going to be back in a couple of weeks”, and producing something I quite enjoyed watching. Mostly by being mostly about all those other things, I suppose.
September 3, 2018 @ 3:02 pm
I can understand people who feel that “Hell Bent” rendered Clara’s death in “Face the Raven” meaningless. Perhaps a better story would be one where Clara’s mistake almost, but doesn’t quite, kill her. That way she could learn that she’s more breakable than the Doctor – and perhaps find some sci-fi way to change that. I think I would have preffered that to her mistake simply being undone by the Doctor. That way “being like the Doctor” would become something one can aspire to.
September 3, 2018 @ 4:18 pm
I sympathise with what you’re saying; but part of the magic of the Face the Heaven Bent trilogy is that Clara gets to cheat narrative tyranny in a way that normally only the Doctor does (by regenerating or by hiding inside a robot suit version of himself or whatever other trick he has up his sleeve). Everything about her finding a better end to the story, triumphing over death, ascending / transcending this plane of being, flying away in a TARDIS, etc., is stuff that only really the Doctor gets to do. And Clara can’t become the Doctor unless she gets to do those things too.
September 4, 2018 @ 4:22 am
Resurrection is only meaningful when it follows genuine death.
This is, very much, an Easter story. Or rather, this episode is Good Friday. “Heaven Sent” is the despair of Holy Saturday – the one you care about is dead, and nothing can fix it, and things will never get better, even if you spend billions of years punching that wall. And then “Hell Bent” has the miracle of Resurrection, followed by Ascension.
If Clara doesn’t genuinely die here, then “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent” loose their meaning. Which means that they can’t take from the meaning of her death, here, because they rely entirely upon it.
September 4, 2018 @ 7:12 am
You’re right, of course. In a story I imagined “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent” would have to be very different.
September 4, 2018 @ 8:38 am
Unless you don’t care about the Christian Easter. In my worldview, resurrection is a thing which just never happens, doesn’t exist, and never means anything.
September 4, 2018 @ 12:28 pm
Presumably you have an issue with regeneration, then.
September 4, 2018 @ 12:38 pm
Less flippantly, though: I don’t think you have to believe in the Christian Easter to find this a powerful and involving narrative — I am reminded of Robert Shearman’s book “Tiny Deaths” whenever discussions of this sort happen. We all experience tragedies, severings, endings that resemble death throughout our lives. The end of a relationship triggers for many people a grieving process as though someone had died. Moving to a new place. The loss of old friends. Becoming a new person in a completely different part of the world. These are all, in their way, tiny deaths – and throughout our life they are accompanied by tiny resurrections. Rolling back the stone, blinking in the light, and beginning again. That the final death is ultimately final doesn’t make triumph against all those other deaths (not least times when people genuinely consider killing themselves) at least analogous to resurrection.
September 4, 2018 @ 12:40 pm
*not analogous to resurrection.
Like the Doctor in Blink, that last sentence got away from me slightly.
September 4, 2018 @ 3:11 pm
You don’t have to be Christian to be aware of the basic plots and tropes of Christian mythology.
I don’t know Dollard’s religion, but Moffat has been clear that he’s an atheist. That doesn’t mean he’s unaware of stories that are as much a part of Western culture as the Easter story is. On the contrary, it’s his job to know such stories, as part of knowing his audience, and the cultural tools and narratives he must work with and around.
September 4, 2018 @ 9:09 pm
Indeed. Doctor Who has been playing with religious iconography since, well, An Unearthly Child (Coburn wrote the Doctor as an analogue of Saint Paul, allegedly) – so much so that there’s a handbook of essays on the subject (Time And Relative Dimensions In Faith: Religion And Doctor Who), many of which are rather good.
September 4, 2018 @ 9:35 pm
Coburn wrote the Doctor as an analogue of Saint Paul, allegedly
Wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait what?!
September 4, 2018 @ 10:34 pm
From a Den of Geek article by one Nathan Paylor (who makes it clear in the article that he’s writing from a religious perspective and is thus not unbiased, but bear with him for a while):
‘Coburn was also a committed Roman Catholic. He was even a street preacher. His faith shaped the naming of certain characters (Ian Chesterton after the famous Catholic author, G.K. Chesterton), as well as the character of the Doctor himself. In DWM #467, his son Stef writes: “The character of the Doctor was based on [Anthony’s] cultural hero, (Christian missionary) St. Paul. Like the Doctor, St. Paul was supposedly a learned man. … Paul is a Roman citizen, in the same way the Doctor is a citizen of some other society”.’ Link: http://www.denofgeek.com/tv/doctor-who/32264/doctor-who-and-faith-bigger-on-the-inside
The same assertion is made by academic Andrew Crome in the aforementioned collection of essays. I don’t have that copy of DWM to hand (though someone else might?), but I’m inclined to believe it, not least because Coburn’s other script – The Masters of Luxor – is INCREDIBLY soaked in religious imagery, to the point it had the Doctor declare a belief in God IIRC. They tone this down significantly in the Big Finish version, but even toned down it’s really, really prominent.
September 5, 2018 @ 11:20 am
Thank you. I’m dubious – the parallels adduced seem pretty tenuous, and the original “design” of the character, as of the series, seems to have been an inextricably collaborative effort, while the citation does not spell out what foundation his son has for this assertion. Interesting though.
September 4, 2018 @ 10:51 pm
Yeah. That’s why I said ‘care’ instead of ‘know’.
September 4, 2018 @ 7:47 am
That is a very good point.
September 3, 2018 @ 7:23 pm
Maybe it would have been a better story, but a less Moffaty one, I think. It would be a transhumanist story of cheating death. And, as Face the Raven rightly says, you cannot cheat death. Moffat writes stories about grace (a term I’m borrowing from this site’s own Jane Campbell), and grace cannot be taken or achieved, only given, as a miraculous reward for the hero’s sacrifice. This is the same thing that happens to the Doctor when Amy remembers him in The Big Bang, or when Clara saves him in The Name of the Doctor (indeed, I would say that part of why The Wedding of Rivers Song fails is that the Doctor rescues himself, though I know there are other readings of what exactly goes down in that story, including Elizabeth’s).
And actually the Doctor saving Clara back creates a nice resonance and completes the arc of their friendship.
I know that this is all subjective and I cannot force anyone to like this narrative if they don’t want to. But I also think it’s worth saying that this is the story Moffat chooses to tell. Over and over. And I think at some point – certainly here, in the late period of his style, it has to be accepted as a feature, not a bug. Or at least that’s what I decided to do, and it made my viewing experience much more pleasant.
September 4, 2018 @ 7:33 am
I like this narrative. I really do. And you’re right about Moffat writing about grace. It’s just hard for me not to read grace as a deus-ex-machina solution which I don’t always enjoy. With Clara it’s different since it’s the Doctor who finds a way of saving her – he tends to do that. But I think I simply prefer stories where the happy ending is earned, not given. But yeah, in Moffat’s stories it’s definitely a feature, not a bug.
September 4, 2018 @ 7:39 am
“But I think I simply prefer stories where the happy ending is earned, not given”.
I can relate to that. This is, after all, the dominant narrative paradigm of our culture. We talk a lot about characters having agency and so forth.
(There is probably an analysis to be made of how that paradigm relates to capitalism nad having to work in order to justify one’s existence, but I’m just going to gesture vaguely in its direction. Maybe sometimes aesthetic preferences are just aesthetic preferences.)
September 3, 2018 @ 9:27 pm
If undoing a death makes it meaningless, (and I’m pretty supportive of this statement generally, the Moffat era pretending to kill characters when it’s not actually intending for them to stay dead is one of my biggest irritations with it,) then it should probably be the whole era and its twenty or thirty such moments you have an issue with, not just this particular one.
September 4, 2018 @ 7:25 am
I don’t have an issue with Clara’s death and resurrection (I love this whole arc) but I understand those who do. And yes, Clara’s final arc has the misfortune to happen after countless fake-out deaths on the show (and several fake endings to her story). It requires good will and some effort not to read “Hell Bent” as another disappointing “ha-you-thought-I-was-dead” cop-out. Had Clara’s ascend to Doctorhood been the first time we see a seemingly impossible resurrection happen on the show for some time, Clara’s story would’ve had much more impact. Alas.
In more general terms, I love DW as a show that’s about life, not death. I love the impossible solutions and miracles and grace. But it does make the “this time they’re REALLY DEAD” card much harder to play.
September 4, 2018 @ 7:28 am
But… Clara IS really dead. I understand that the non-chronological nature of this arc creates a shift in tone, so that it ends on a triumphant note of life. But it doesn’t change the end of the story. It just finds a way to fit some more in the available gaps.
In meta-terms, Clara’s life is saved by Big Finish. (Now there’s a tragedy.)
September 4, 2018 @ 7:41 am
I see where you’re coming from but my brain just can’t see Clara’s ending as a real death. The fact that she eventually dies means nothing; we all do. Death from natural causes (and I’d say dying because your death is a fixed point in time is akin to unpreventable natural death) is sad, but not tragic. In “Face the Raven” the show was aiming for tragic – “isn’t it horrible that she died so young, when she had so much promise and so much time ahead of her?”. When she dies after a life well lived, on her own terms, that’s an amazing story but not a tragic one. The tragic death IS reversed. Which, I think, is what some people have an issue with.
September 5, 2018 @ 6:40 pm
Perhaps a better story would be one where Clara’s mistake almost, but doesn’t quite, kill her.
You mean, perhaps, like getting converted against her will into a Cyberman, and that only being undone by her spaceship girlfriend?
September 6, 2018 @ 7:46 am
Eh, not really. Bill’s fate wasn’t a result of her desire to become like the Doctor and Heather was poorly set up.
September 3, 2018 @ 7:00 pm
To assume here that Clara’s death is final, canonical, is to accept that the Clara-haters have been right all along. Who is she, a mortal, a human – worse, a girl to dare think she could be The Doctor? Of course she must be smacked down for her hubris, put in her place. It is right and fitting that she die for this, the uppity [expletive deleted].
In this view, Hell Bent is a betrayal because it leaves her without her punishment; instead of putting the [expletive deleted] in her place for daring to think she could be The Doctor, instead, she is transformed into a timeless being with an unusual heartbeat, given a TARDIS with a malfunctioning Chameleon circuit, a companion, and sent out into space and time on the run from the Time Lords.
And who’d want to watch a show like that?
September 3, 2018 @ 10:31 pm
This is a very interesting episode, but it also seems that there is something screaming within it waiting to break out that almost blurs out everything else: Cardiff and Torchwood.
As someone pointed out, there is a direct reference to Torchwood in the retcon dialogue. I guess we are supposed to understand that Me did indeed eventually meet up with Jack and learned some of his tricks. Another reference was the “perception filter”, which was first mentioned in the Torchwood Pilot, before graduating to DW (it is called something else here, but it’s the same thing). Interestingly, the idea that the perception filter hides something that is just “in the corner of your eye” is also from the Torchwood Pilot, and this ended up both in The Eleventh Hour and in Sleep No More.
But there is a structural similarity between the “work” of Torchwood and this episode. As someone else said, it is the idea of the strange lurking in the corners of a city, and Sandifer even used the word “faerie” in the article, which was so common in her articles about Torchwood episodes.
This is an episode about staying behind, remaining, and taking care of the “flotsam and jetsam” of the universe, which was literally the premise of Torchwood. And of course, nothing remains more than an immortal, which is the other obvious connection between Face the Raven and Torchwood. At times, it feels like this is the script for a Davies-era Torchwood episode in which the Doctor would be allowed to appear: the Doctor shows up to a mysterious corner of a city where aliens have ended up for some reason, they resent him for always leaving a mess behind, and are helped by the ruthless management of an immortal. This immortal has some “unfinished business” with the Doctor, etc. etc.
What about the fact that Clara’s decision to risk her life for Rigsy is apparently based on his fatherhood? The cynicism the episode brings when it implies it was the wrong choice and the wrong reason seems to repeat the critique of reproductive futurism in Children of Earth.
The curtain that the episode throws over this similarity is the London setting: this has nothing to do with the Rift, the episode seems to say. There is no astronomical, timey-wimey reason for the Trap Street to be in London (as the reason for Torchwood 3 to be in Cardiff), but simply the fact that London is a major city. Rigsy now lives in London, but there is no mention of that fact that he used to live in Bristol. The episode seems to insist that we forget that other episodes have been and can be set in Britain outside of London.
But then what does this episode do? Feature Cardiff the most openly ever since Boom Town. Not even The Unquiet Dead, which is actually set in Cardiff, is so obviously Cardiff.
I literally have to remind myself constantly that we are in London when I watch it. The TARDIS flying over London always jolts me, especially after they land next to the Cardiff University Main Building and actually walk around inside it. And then after that they walk around the Hayes and the Trap Street in on Westgate Street. Whenever I walk past, I always mention it to someone: “oh, here’s the Trap Street”. The whole episode just screams Cardiff. You can see the iconic Central Library. They show the logos of St David’s Centre AND St David’s Hall. They even filmed inside the arcades! You can see the world-famous Spiller Records! (They do put some London “stuff” around, like a London Bus poster on a bus stop and fake traffic signs near the Trap Street pointing to places in London.)
(Also, I wonder how this aspect related to the policy that must have existed throughout the whole BBC Wales Doctor Who of never allowing any Welsh writing to show. It must be difficult! They probably put fake signs around precisely to block Welsh signage.)
In short, there is an irrepressible Torchwood/JackHarkness scream wanting to get out of this episode and they just make it all the more obvious by setting it so obviously in Cardiff.
To me, this episode will not only be the episode where Clara died, but the one where she died by the means of the convoluted rules of a quantum bird in a an episode that was supposed to be set in Cardiff.
September 4, 2018 @ 7:26 am
“What about the fact that Clara’s decision to risk her life for Rigsy is apparently based on his fatherhood? The cynicism the episode brings when it implies it was the wrong choice and the wrong reason seems to repeat the critique of reproductive futurism in Children of Earth”.
How does the episode imply that? I’ll say upfront that I’m going to need more convincing than the fact that Clara ends up dying, because that would, I think, implicitly criticise almost every finale resolution of the Davies/Gardner era.
Actually, I think the whole triptych comments on the D/G era interestingly. One of the philosophical points that was made time and time again then was that doing the right thing will usually come at a terrible cost (the regeneration of the Ninth Doctor, Rose and Ten getting separated, Donna almost dying/getting her memories erased), but it’s still the right thing to do. Face the Raven brings that narrative to it’s logical endpoint with Clara dying (all the events mentioned earlier serving as almost-but-not-quite deaths, sometimes even framed that way, c.f. Rose’s opening monologue in Army of Ghosts), but then the Moffat narrative reasserts itself over the course of the next two episodes, so that Clara’s sacrifice is ultimately rewarded (though not erased, which I think is worth emphasising in the face of all the people who think that Clara’s death is “cheapened” or “invalidated” by Hell Bent; I think those people vastly overstate their case).
September 4, 2018 @ 8:38 am
The whole thing about sacrifice is interesting though, because Clara doesn’t intend to sacrifice her life for Rigsy – she takes the tattoo because she doesn’t think the rules apply to her and that Me will just let her off, only to discover that death is a constant that no-one can escape. So she does the right thing, but for the wrong reason (initially at least)
September 4, 2018 @ 9:08 am
“she died by the means of the convoluted rules of a quantum bird”
I actually found the rules of the bird very clear in the first form they were stated, with mentions of quantum locks or whatever later on arguable muddying that picture: the raven can be either revoked or transferred, so there is a mechanism for pardoning people or of someone else stepping to save them, so some sort of (punitive) justice is still served, but with a possibility of grace. It cannot, however, be cheated: if it could be revoked regardless of whether it was transferred, there would be potential of abusing the system, where Person A puts the raven on Person B, but then Person C, who’s close to A and wants to save B, could take on the raven and force Person A to revoke it through emotional blackmail. So the rules of the raven are designed to prevent something like that happening. You can get the pardon or someone else can take your place, but those are the only two options you get.
September 4, 2018 @ 9:51 am
For what it’s worth, I found the rules confusing as well. The way of cheating the system you describe is sound but the episode never explored that possibility and so I didn’t think of it. The “no pardon after the death is transferred” rule seemed artificial and forced to me. I didn’t mind it since it made for a great story but still. And since Me looks like someone who can easily deal with being blackmailed, I don’t think the exploit you mentioned could have worked anyway…
September 4, 2018 @ 1:38 pm
I could be wrong, as I don’t remember exactly how the mechanism was described in the episode – but one explanation is that there is no such thing as a Removal as such, but only a Transferral which can only be activated once.
In this interpretation, Me doesn’t remove the tattoo, but just attempts to transfer it to herself – which nullifies it because she is immortal and thus cannot be marked for death.
September 4, 2018 @ 2:01 pm
Ashildr says (when she still thinks Rigsy has the tattoo): “Rigsy, come here, I’ll remove your chronolock,” so I think it is possible to remove it, but only if it wasn’t transferred.
September 5, 2018 @ 7:41 am
I wish Me had just said that explicitly in the episode when explaining to Clara why she can’t remove the chronolock from her. “It’s impossible to remove once transferred” is much clearer to me than the vague “I promised it a soul and only I can break that contract. When you took it from him, you changed the terms. You cut me out of the deal”.
September 4, 2018 @ 7:55 pm
My problem is that the Raven is openly said to be a tool to punish and uphold the law. Mayor Me says that’s the reason why it is needed, why it is such a harsh punishment, and why it is so effective (impossible to escape). It’s all about controlling the residents’ behaviour. But there can be no fair punishment if one can be punished for another’s crime. The whole system would quickly implode.
September 5, 2018 @ 7:43 am
I guess when your punishment for most offences is death you don’t really have to worry about being just or fair. Me is simply a dictator and people obey because they fear her.
September 4, 2018 @ 8:31 am
Face the Raven is a story that has a lot of mixed emotions in me.
There’s the good – I love the idea of the deadly magic raven that is unstoppable and kills you by flying into you. That’s the sort of fantasy idea that gives kids nightmares and is a really strong image to boot.
There’s the middling – I felt at the time that the trap street stuff was really uninspired and just trying too hard to directly copy stuff done before.
And then there’s the bad – what Hell Bent does to this episode, basically rendering it null and void.
What I’m trying to say is that Hell Bent is a complete mess that messes up Race the Raven and Heaven Sent with its awfulness, but that’s not a fault of Clara or the politics or the ideas, but because Moffat just fumbled it horribly. That’s a discussion for a few weeks time though. I don’t think it’s possible to view Face The Raven on its own merits without the shadow of Hell Bent looming over it.
I’m not sure why people are saying Clara’s death is a punishment for not ‘knowing her place’. I think the story makes clear it’s a punishment for trying to cheat. The narrative is very clear that if you have the tattoo the scary magic raven will kill you – Clara goes through the motions of being a self-sacrificing hero, but with the intention of cheating fate and so not actually being that heroic. It’s not noble to take on a burden if you’re just going to dump the burden the moment you turn round the corner and are out of sight. I took that as the entire point of the episode, and then she must face up to that (And uh, face the raven, which is the embodiment of that responsibility!). Of course Hell Bent says “no actually you can just escape that ok”
A bigger issue is WHY Rigsy has to die in the first place, which I never thought was particularly well explained.
September 4, 2018 @ 9:58 am
” It’s not noble to take on a burden if you’re just going to dump the burden the moment you turn round the corner and are out of sight.”
When was this episode (or Clara’s arc, or “Doctor Who”) ever about being noble? The Doctor is not noble – he saves people however he can, especially by bending and breaking the rules. He says as much when regenerating from 11 to 12. He cheats all the time. There’s no reason why Clara can’t cheat as well.
Clara never wanted or tried to be a self-sacrificing hero. She just wanted to be like the Doctor. Saving people and enjoying adventures.
September 4, 2018 @ 11:01 am
“He says as much when regenerating from 11 to 12”
He says as much – going as far as to actually use the words “cheat(ing) death” when regenerating from 9 to 10.
September 9, 2018 @ 8:40 am
That raises an important point. It seems to me that the answer to the question of “why can’t [Clara] be like [the Doctor]?” is “Well, you can, but when your luck runs out, as mine has twelve times so far, you don’t regenerate. You just die.”
September 12, 2018 @ 2:47 pm
Yeah. Which is clearly good enough for her since it doesn’t stop her from pursuing her goal. And 12 instances of really bad luck in over 2000 years is not bad as far as odds to beat go.
September 4, 2018 @ 12:11 pm
Well, he was sentenced to death for murdering one of the residents of Trap Street, but as was explained in the episode, this was actually part of Me’s plan to reel in the Doctor.
September 4, 2018 @ 12:13 pm
It strikes me that what Me’s doing here is a version of what Rassmussen was doing in Sleep No More: constructing a Doctor Who story for their own purposes. Rassmussen’s is more obvious because of the format, but Me’s is just as much an attempt to build a box around the Doctor out of familiar parts.
Perhaps also notably, both attempts work. It’s two significant failures in a row for the Doctor, as two antagonists use his own genre against him, albeit one more fundamentally than the other.
September 4, 2018 @ 12:32 pm
Ooooh, nice observation! I’m tempted to say that the reason for this is Clara – she outgrew her role as a companion and is about to shake the very foundations of the show with her ascension. No wonder the Doctor finds it harder than usual to dominate the narrative. But since “Sleep No More” doesn’t do anything interesting with Clara, this is probably a tad too far-fetched.
September 4, 2018 @ 1:02 pm
Isn’t Sleep No More about using a different genre (found-footage horror), and the medium of television itself, rather than the genre norms of Doctor Who? (Apart from anything else, Rasmussen/Morpheus, unlike Me, doesn’t know about the Doctor and how he operates.)
Though I suppose there is at least one norm of Doctor Who that does work against him in Sleep No More, namely its tendency not to make sense, which makes it harder to tell whether the apparently nonsensical shift in the infection mechanism from an electronic signal to eye-grit spores is actually untrue or just the usual sort of nonsense. But I don’t think that’s deliberate on the monster’s part.
September 4, 2018 @ 2:09 pm
It’s true that Sleep No More is a foray into a different kind of genre for Doctor Who, but that’s not especially challenging in itself. The TARDIS lands in different genres all the time, from historical adventures to murder mysteries. It’s the fact the villain is in control of the narrative.
There’s differences in the specifics – as you say, Rassmussen doesn’t know about the Doctor, and it’s not a trap for him like Me makes. But it’s the same process at a different level of narrative. Me’s making a compelling story for the Doctor within the reality of the story. Rassmusen is creating compelling for us about the Doctor. It could be coincidence, but it does help these two episodes feel more cohesive, like two sides of a narrative coin.
September 4, 2018 @ 2:35 pm
“It’s true that Sleep No More is a foray into a different kind of genre for Doctor Who, but that’s not especially challenging in itself.”
Except for the fact that found footage means that the medium itself is embedded within the story and therefore susceptible to manipulation. As I mentioned last week, this gives Rasmussen an advantage over the Doctor, because he’s not manipulating the narrative (as the Doctor tends to do), but is one level higher, and so catches the Doctor off-guard.
Other than that, it’s a neat parallel between SNM and FtR.
September 5, 2018 @ 3:26 pm
You’re quite right. I just meant the Thing about about Sleep No More wasn’t ‘the Doctor and Clara landing in a different genre that week’ because that ‘landing in a different genre’ is one of the tried and true Doctor Who stories. It’s the specifics of that genre and how the story plays with them that make it stand out.
September 5, 2018 @ 7:32 pm
Oh, yes, I fully agree with that.
September 5, 2018 @ 4:58 am
I can’t see Bill’s death and magical resurrection as anything other but Clara’s death and magical resurrection but done right.
Clara dies by some weird sci-fi technobabble.
Bill has a wacking great hole blasted in her chest.
Clara is resurrected by another bit of weird sci-fi technobabble.
Bill is resurrected by hack surgeons who graft bits of prosthesis onto her and turn into the first cyberman against her will
The action of the final story is the Doctor resurrecting Clara out of guilt while he bullies a bunch of men in funny hats and dressing gowns and then has a bitchy argument with an immortal teenager.
The action of Bill’s final story is her and the Doctor selflessly sacrificing themselves to defend a group of alien villagers. Just because it’s the right thing to do.
Clara zaps the Doctor with a wackadoodle so he only half remembers ever meeting her for some contrived sci-fi reason. They depart awkwardly.
Bill and the Doctor depart with each mourning the other, left cruelly ignorant of their mutual survival. The happy ending exists solely as a bittersweet treat for the audience with the actual cast left dealing with the full emotional weight of their permanent separation. Meanwhile Bill goes on to journey the universe with her soul mate from her first episode, having grown through her experiences with the Doctor and having clearly become something more by her travels.
September 5, 2018 @ 5:05 am
In my head I can’t help but imagine Bill and Clara meeting in on some alien planet and Clara feeling a bit cheated she ended up the doomed time-zombie while Bill got the water-powers and the puddly soulmate.
September 5, 2018 @ 7:26 am
I can’t help but notice you’ve omitted Bill being resurrected by a bit of weird sci-fi technobabble in the form of Puddle!Heather.
I also have to say, your whole approach seems awfully reducitve, boiling down their stories to materialist plot mechanics. I feel like in this approach 90% of Doctor Who can be dismissed as just a bit of weird sci-fi technobabble. I’d much rather look at what their stories, their deaths and resurrections mean, than criticise the plot mechanics through which the writer achieves their goals.
September 5, 2018 @ 3:51 pm
The point isn’t the profusion of sc-fi technobabble. The point is that Bill’s death and resurrection had much more emotional resonance and genuine consequence. Her resurrection by Heather isn’t even even coded as any sort of technobabble, it’s a genuine miracle. A miracle that only the audience is privvied to experience, as if it almost happens entirely outside the narrative context of the show.
September 5, 2018 @ 7:49 pm
There’s still plenty I disagree with here in terms of the resonance and meaning of Clara’s final stories and her death, but I can accept this framing. Emotional resonance is a subjective thing to a large extent and if this doesn’t work for you, that’s okay.
I agree that Bill’s departure is the right version of Clara’s in one aspect: it features an on-screen same-gender kiss and actual canon space girlfriend.
September 5, 2018 @ 8:17 am
You don’t have to like Series 9 finale but treating it this unfairly is just petty. Your preference for certain kinds of technobabble (like magical blasters that remove half of your chest but still leave you alive or magical surgeons who can just fix that damage with magical prosthesis) doesn’t automatically invalidate other kinds.
As for the emotional content of both stories – again, I can’t force you to like a story you so strongly dislike (and I wouldn’t try anyway). But claiming that the Doctor resurrected Clara out of guilt is simply not true, and summarizing the conversation with Me as “bitchy argument with an immortal teenager” shows so much ill will that I frankly don’t even want to explore this argument.
Also, what mx_mond said.
September 7, 2018 @ 8:31 am
I think in fairness the point is that it’s not that both are equally fantastic, it’s that one maps more clearly to our experiences, the other doesn’t. (Like, we know what guns do and we know what surgery does, and whilst Bill’s resurrection was a bit THE POWER OF LOVE, the mechanics were set up in the season opener and we know what love is.
Both death-and-resurrections in series 9 and 10 were basically magical but I think series 10 had a lot more of a solid ruleset behind it, 9 felt more ‘make it up as we go along’. There was no real feeling (to me at least) of any sort of invocation
September 9, 2018 @ 8:48 am
I may have more to say about this in a few weeks, but what I find compelling about the comparison between Clara and Bill was not just how they were resurrected but also their deaths which led up to it. Clara ultimately “died” because of her own actions, and the Doctor risked the universe to give her some additional life because of his “duty of care.” Bill, OTOH, died because Mr. “Duty of Care” pressured her into acting as Missy’s reluctant companion despite her clear discomfort with the whole scenario. And in the end, her resurrection depended on a Heather Ex Machina to save her from what was quite arguably a fate worse than death.
September 7, 2018 @ 1:30 pm
I don’t know if it plays the same way in Britain, but there is the racial justice issue of the Black guy being framed by the authorities for a crime he didn’t commit – a crime that didn’t actually happen.
And he’s going to be killed for it – the analogy to Black Lives Matter is practically screaming.