“Face the Raven” is an episode that will be most remembered for its climax, which brings a tragic end to the adventures of Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) with the Doctor (Peter Capaldi). But along the way, new writer Sarah Dollard shows that she’s a real find for the series, taking a mundane idea—the fake streets inserted by map makers into their products as copyright traps—and putting a very Doctor Who-ish spin on it, to come up with the idea of a Harry Potter-like secret world in the heart of London which acts as a refuge for a host of different aliens, hiding from the humans all around them. (There is a vague analogy to the current European refugee crisis, but unlike “The Zygon Invasion,” political references are very much in the background here.)
Dollard has the good fortune to be able to bring back a couple of memorable guest characters from previous episodes. Rigsy (Joivan Wade), who functioned almost as a companion to Clara in last season’s “Flatline,” kicks off the story by phoning Clara to ask her and the Doctor to investigate a tattoo he doesn’t remember getting—a tattoo which appears to be counting down to zero. Also returning is Ashildr (Maisie Williams), the young girl accidentally made immortal by the Doctor in “The Girl Who Died.” As the leader of the secret community, she controls the raven of the title—the instrument by which she keeps order on the street. When she places the countdown tattoo on a person and it reaches zero, the raven transforms into a black cloud which enters and kills the victim.
Although given a sci-fi gloss (the tattoo is called a “chronolock,” and the raven is a “quantum shade”), the use of the macabre bird as a harbinger of death makes the story more akin to a dark fairy tale. Director Justin Molotnikov, having been saddled last week with a stark, futuristic space station, seizes the opportunity to show off a rich, surreal environment, populated by almost Dickensian characters like Mr. Rump (Simon Paisley Day). Many familiar aliens make cameo appearances, but central to the story is a new variety, the Janus, which like the Roman god they’re named for, have two faces which can psychically see the past and the future.
Ashildr’s relationship with the Doctor, which was left in a very ambivalent state after “The Woman Who Lived,” becomes even more antagonistic when he learns she’s the one responsible for Rigsy’s peril. But her true objective was actually the Doctor himself: She has made a deal with some unknown group to deliver him to them, in exchange for protection for her community. Williams takes Ashildr on a journey from a strong leader, confidently exchanging banter with the Doctor, to guilt and dismay as she realizes her neat plan to trap the Doctor without causing permanent harm to anyone has gone awry, thanks to a single impulsive act by Clara.
The story is a tragedy in the literal sense, which means that Clara’s end comes about as a direct consequence of a flaw in her character: the recklessness that’s been growing during her time with the Doctor, shown clearly in the sequence where she’s laughing crazily while dangling from the TARDIS as it flies over London. Her proposal to take the chronolock from Rigsy is easy to see coming, but is justified by her believing that Ashildr’s promise of protection will save her, as well as her argument that Rigsy’s family needs him. She’s very much acting as the Doctor would, showing how her travels have changed and enriched her, but unfortunately she couldn’t foresee all the ramifications of her act, just as Ashildr couldn’t foresee that Clara would take the chronolock and so doom herself.
Some of the plotting mechanisms are a little too obvious in the way the story contrives to ensure Clara has no way out: For reasons that seem rather arbitrary, she can’t pass the death mark to someone else, and neither can Ashildr remove it now that its original victim no longer has it. But despite these nitpicks, the performances of Capaldi, Coleman, and Williams, combined with Murray Gold’s soaring music, make for a compelling climax, even if the scene leading to the death is slightly overstretched in an attempt to squeeze out every possible drop of feeling. But the height of emotion reached is extraordinary, as Clara realizes she’ll have to emulate Danny Pink’s heroic end in “Death in Heaven.” She has to talk the Doctor down from his furious threats to destroy Ashildr’s world, and then makes sure he won’t take revenge after her death, before bravely walking out to meet her fate.
This isn’t the last we’ll see of Clara, as she’ll be back (in some form, at least) for the season finale. But Coleman’s tenure as companion effectively ends here, after a performance that ranks highly among the many great performances she’s given over the last three years. In the final moments, the season arc plot comes to the forefront, as Ashildr takes the Doctor’s confession dial (last seen in the opening two-parter) on behalf of her mysterious associates. After what’s happened, she can only nod silently when he warns her to stay out of his way from now on (“You’ll find that it’s a very small universe when I’m angry with you”). It’s likely that this anger will drive him through the final two episodes of the season.
Next Week: The Doctor, now entirely on his own, has to keep going after Clara’s death, in “Heaven Sent.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: The Doctor has lost one of his companions in similar circumstances before, in the memorable 1982 story “Earthshock,” starring Peter Davison, with Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton, and Matthew Waterhouse.
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