Doctor Who Face the Raven review: a pedestrian dramatic cul-de-sac with a poignant dead end

The Doctor, Clara and Rigsy are ensnared by Ashildr. One of them will die. Spoilers ahead!

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★★★  Adieu, Clara Oswald! It seems a lifetime since Jenna Coleman debuted in Doctor Who, when she surfaced by surprise in Asylum of the Daleks, became the Impossible Girl and was still using the girlish hyphenation “-Louise”. She’s served the programme well over three or more years and has become an indispensable ally for the Time Lord.

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During her time, the dynamic in the Tardis drifted far from the lovey-dovey Doctor/Rose set-up and the “let’s have a quickie” impulse of early Amy/Doctor and reverted to the reliable old-school formula of the Time Lord travelling with his best friend. Best friends are for keeps, that special bond that will outlast fleeting romances, even marriages to other people. Besties: till death us do part. That’s what makes the Doctor and Clara’s parting poignant. It had to be thus. 

This year, it became obvious that her recklessness would lead to her demise. Clara’s readiness to help a relatively unimportant friend (Rigsy) whose life is threatened, her sense of invincibility and blind faith in the Doctor’s ability to solve everything are her downfall. And she accepts it with dignity and stoicism – dying alone, arms outstretched, while the Time Lord watches from afar, impotent.

But after all the scrapes they’ve been in, what befalls Clara in Face the Raven is unmomentous, unspectacular; the stakes are small. Couldn’t she have died saving the universe?

Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi perform her farewell with conviction, all the more effective for their restraint. Several young viewers I know will be inconsolable. (I’ve warned their parents.) I didn’t shed one tear. I will miss Clara/Jenna but am ready for a shake-up; it’s time for a gear change in what Steven Moffat terms the “co-leads”.

After a spate of non- or apparent deaths in recent years, it is, in a way, good to say: no, key characters do die in Doctor Who, even beloved companions such as Clara. But is Clara dead? This being the Whoniverse, it may not be quite the last we’ve seen of her… Just look at the striking cover of the latest Doctor Who Magazine. It’s what you might call a “dead giveaway”. There’s Jenna dolled up as a waitress in an American diner – a scene yet to appear on screen. 

Writer Sarah Dollard is a new hiring to Doctor Who and acquits herself adequately. I like the concept of a mysterious tattoo that counts down to its owner’s death. It gets silly when the tattoo is said to be transferable and can be transferred only once. I enjoy anything that mythologises ravens or crows, remarkably intelligent but sinister creatures. (They had an enigmatic presence in my favourite Tom Baker story, The Stones of Blood in 1978.)

There’s an exhilarating police box ride over central London with Clara fearlessly hanging over the threshold, scanning the streets below… In a steal from Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, we have a hidden cobbled street in London into which Muggles might stumble and which gives refuge to aliens and reprobates…

But with all this going on – even the turning-point ending that Dollard has been gifted – Face the Raven is, at best, pedestrian. It’s mostly dull and uninvolving. Her Raven Alley is a dramatic cul-de-sac.

The street residents bore. I don’t understand why, in the safety of this ghetto, they need to pose as human. I cannot imagine why an emotion-free Cyberman, of all creatures, would be hiding as part of a married couple and then run – with fear – when facing death. That’s not been thought through.

I’m pleased to see Joivan Wade return as Rigsy from last year’s excellent Flatline. He’s put down the graffiti spray can and become a responsible father. But, at the end, the narrative leaves him in mid-air; perhaps his story isn’t over yet. We also catch up with Ashildr, or Mayor Me as she now styles herself. She makes for a lightweight villainess, and it’s peculiar that she claims not to recognise Clara. If we accept that her memory has failed after a millennium, why did she stalk Clara recently to photobomb a snap on her smartphone?

Why is she helping refugees in this hidden street? How did she acquire her powers over life and death, and technology such as the chronolock? If you’ve avoided major spoilers, you’ll also be left wondering: whom is she working for? On whose behalf has she ensnared the Doctor? Time will tell… This isn’t the last we’ll see of Ashildr.

And where does the Doctor go from here? Who are his foes? A two-part finale awaits. I’ve seen rough cuts of both episodes. No 11, Heaven Sent, a 55-minute one-hander for Peter Capaldi, is an extraordinary piece of television. You may never see the Time Lord in quite the same light again. And Hell Bent, the final episode, is out of this world…

Every story since 1963 reviewed in RT’s Doctor Who Story Guide

Series nine reviews: 

Episode one: The Magician’s Apprentice ★★★★★

Episode two: The Witch’s Familiar  ★★★★★

Episode three: Under the Lake ★★★

Episode four: Before the Flood ★★★

Episode five: The Girl Who Died ★★★★★

Episode six: The Woman Who Lived ★★★★

Episode seven: The Zygon Invasion ★★★★

Episode eight: The Zygon Inversion ★★★★★

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Episode nine: Sleep No More ★★★★★