|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.
- Clara, of course, has always been capable of reverse regeneration: the part changes, but not the actor.
- The accusation of “fridging” is of course in the air. Let us not forget that refrigeration is an essential part of the late capitalist food industry, and that it’s bad enough when your sewers are revolting. More seriously, yes, they’ve fridged Clara for the second, sorry, no, third, wait, fourth time this season. They’ve certainly done an excellent job of teaching the audience how to watch the death of Clara. Who doesn’t want to do a good death scene though. Can’t wait to see what they do with Coleman in Hell Bent. I’m sure it will be astonishingly good.
- Put another way, Clara’s fridging is not the end of Clara’s story, which inherently undercuts the “to motivate the male hero” aspect of it, which is not so much a criticism of grieving men as plot points
- Some of you are still going to say “fridging” in the comments, and I will judge you for it.
- No, what this actually is, and it’s here you really see the particular genius of Sarah Dollard, is already made into a gifset. The absence of Clara’s scream is an astonishingly careful decision – a conscious thought about exactly how horrifying they could make the moment. That it takes the form of contemporary fandom while it does this is breathtaking.
- Dollard’s Tumblr reveals her as a Hannibal fan, by the way, which is reason enough to make her showrunner.
- I’m slightly uncertain about Maisie Williams’s performance, particularly in the denouement, although it’s not helped by the fact that they’re blatantly editing around the fact that they only had her on set for part of the shooting of that scene. All the same, she seems ever so slightly out of her depth trying to add “Doctor Who villain” to the list of things Ashildir/Me can be in a way that even remotely stands up to everything else going on. Which, let’s face it, is not exactly a hard place to be out of your depth no matter how good an actor you are.
- Lovely appearance, on the other hand, from Letitia Wright, who anchored Russell T Davies’s second best script of the year, the second episode of Banana. Hurrah for Andy Pryor, who remains a ridiculous casting wizard.
- Speaking of Davies, Clara’s death is everything Donna’s is not in Journey’s End, which is to say on her own terms, with her wishes respected by the Doctor, and it’s by miles a more beautiful scene for it. The Doctor being forced to go off on another adventure has never been so deliciously cruel.
- I thought the politics of the refugee camp were intelligently handled. Instead of using it to make any sort of commentary on the real-world situations it obviously parallels – and its parallels are, like those of The Zygon Inversion, more acute right now than it could have realized – it focuses on the intensity of the concept. A refugee camp is somewhere that Ashildir’s Draconian justice (and someone should really do the “no, it’s really Draconinan – this is from the 26th century” joke with a piece of alien justice tech someday) makes sense, to hold together a desperate situation comprised of desperate people. It’s an intelligent look at what an alien refugee camp in Doctor Who would be.
- If the cliffhanger is a reprise of Magician’s Apprentice, note that the premise of next week’s is a reprise of Missy’s story at the start of The Witch’s Familiar, right down to the castle. All of which said, if Moffat’s finale has impact, it’s because he’s standing on the shoulders of giants with Clara’s death scene.
- Looks like the Morpheus infection got totally dropped, though, which makes this a depressingly incoherent two-parter.
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?”
- The Zygon Inversion
- Face the Raven
- The Zygon Invasion
- The Girl Who Died
- The Magician’s Apprentice
- Sleep No More
- The Woman Who Lived
- The Witch’s Familiar
- Under the Lake
- Before the Flood
- The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion
- The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived
- The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar
- Sleep No More/Face the Raven
- Under the Lake/Before the Flood