Face the Raven
Written by Sarah Dollard
Reviewed byTony Fyler
Series 9 of Doctor Who has been an outstanding collection of stories, probably the most consistently high-quality run of stories in New Who to date. The Davros epic double seems like such a long time ago now, but go back and watch it again and marvel at the power and the confidence involved in launching a series with a story like that. The Fisher King double was a brilliant example of the base under siege, done with a modernity of pace and not one creepy adversary but two. The Ashildr ‘two-parter’ divides fans, but then these days, to be fair, what doesn’t? My call on it would be that it was a half and half affair, with the Viking half saved from simple comedy by the impact of the action on the Doctor, and the second half was rather lightweight. Then came the Zygons – oh my word, the Zygons, bringing a Classic alien species right up to date, while delivering a parable of war, and that speech. The Sandmen had some serious potential, but seemed to be an idea squandered by stylistic production choices.
And now there’s Face The Raven.
There are many metrics you can use to choose the ‘best’ episode of a series. Ballsiness, satire, scares, real life lessons etc. On one metric or another, most episodes this series could be judged ‘the best.’
Sarah Dollard takes a really good one with Face The Raven – Sheer, imaginative intensity and freshness. Yes, yes, there’s the whole Diagon Alley thing, and yes, look, there’s part three of the Ashildr story, but in terms of how you get into the story, how it progresses and builds, and how it pays off its premise, Face The Raven is a story that you’ll watch, and rewatch, and rewatch again, unashamedly because it delivers all the way along the line.
Tattoos that count down – oh hell yes, it takes a really imaginative mind to come up with that. Tattoos that move might be thought of by almost anyone worth their scriptwriting salt, but to turn a moving tattoo into a threat, a sentence and a countdown takes an impressive amount of inspiration. The process by which our heroes found the
was well treated – good and scientific-sounding, and not a pinch of floo powder
in evidence. Lightworms that normalize what you see to fit in with your expectations
– bang, of all the possible solutions to this question, Dollard delivered above
and beyond the expectation of most science fiction and fantasy, helping Who
stand out from the crowd. And from there, the logic held up all the way – the
only way you can have all these species in the same place is to have a
zero-tolerance policy for rule-breakers (Anyone else wonder how a Cyberman came
to be there? And how a Sontaran lived with himself, hiding away far from the
front?). From there you get the idea of the ultimate sanction – a quantum
shade. Beautiful, and demonstrated for us on a poor old geezer, to let us know
exactly what was coming, and to be prepared for it.
Clara’s choice to take the chronolock from Riggsy was perfectly judged for her character – courageous, kind, madly impulsive, and thinking she has a handle on everything in the universe, including the fallout of the Doctor’s reaction.
The idea of the Janus and her ‘death’ being nothing but a trap to get the Doctor to come and do as he’s told made perfect sense the moment it was revealed – again, Dollard building her plot with both imaginative flair and reason. And the ending goes through all the stages of grief that we need as fans to say our goodbyes to Clara. She took the chronolock from Riggsy thinking it was the kind thing to do, and it was, it was the Clara thing to do. But she always expected to be able to have it removed. When the universe turns out to be harder and more inescapable than she imagined though, ultimately, it’s Clara who’s the brave one. She’s known the Doctor longer than most companions, and she knows what losing her will do to him, so Clara follows the Danny Pink path and turns to face the raven, having heard the Doctor threaten to tear the universe apart and bring it down on Ashildr’s head, and having made him promise not to become a monster, not to take retribution for her death. Clara’s parting speech is almost the answer to the Doctor’s speech in The Zygon Inversion – where he demands that people not go to war, not fire that first shot because they don’t know who will scream and burn, she demands of him that when she’s dead, when things have escalated and he is hurt and screaming behind his eyes and wanting to hit everyone and everything and especially those who made him feel that impossible loss, the loss he’d change the universe to avoid…that he do nothing. That he be the Doctor, not the monster she knows he could become. Clara’s is the voice of the victim, speaking to the bereaved. Don’t kill in my name. Take the pain for me, don’t push that pain back on others, don’t make others feel the way you feel – not in my name.
And with that, Clara Oswald, the Impossible Girl goes to face her raven, the death she took to save an innocent and his family.
The Doctor promising Ashildr that the universe is very small when he’s angry with her is proof that the monster is still inside him, and that for all Clara’s orders to him, the rage and the pain will drive him to be at least a little of the monster the Time Lord is capable of before Series 9 is done. The reaction is a natural one – pain drives us all to the most appalling actions. But the Doctor’s only hope after Clara has faced her raven is that her example – her kindness and her bravery – stand a chance of bringing him back from the brink he will face before our Doctor is lost forever. The Impossible Girl was created to save the Doctor, by any means possible. It’s down to her, in the way she faced her death and the order she gave him not to retaliate for it, to save him one last time.