Ah, distinctly I remember
it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember
wrought its ghost upon the floor
Eagerly I wished the morrow,
vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—
sorrow for the lost Lenore
For the rare and radiant maiden
whom the angels named Lenore
Nameless here for evermore.
We have a clear Edgar Allan Poe inspiration here, and that should give us a clue about what is going to happen for the rest of the series, because his poem The Raven is about a lost love and then a “tapping at my chamber door”…
The other clue of course is that this is Clara’s departure from the series, but is not actually the final episode, and on past form Steven Moffat doesn’t like to kill people off and then leave them dead, so there are pretty clear hints that there will be a twist in this tale. In fact, there has been a strong theme of resurrection running throughout this series. So I don’t know if everyone thought that we would assume it is going to get reversed somehow and that therefore gave them a free pass to go really nasty with it, but Clara’s death goes beyond what is acceptable for a family show. We are already long past the point where the Moffat vision of Doctor Who has rejected younger viewers, and the viewing figures were telling the tale of that. I wouldn’t want a young child to watch this. And the sad thing is it was so unnecessary.
Clara faces death with dignity, and up until that point the episode is handling the difficult thing it has to do brilliantly. There is realism without being gratuitous, cleverly running through the five stages of grief for the Doctor and Clara:
- No. This, this isn’t happening. This can’t be happening.
- The Doctor is no longer here! You are stuck with me. And I will end you, and everything you love.
- You will save Clara, and you will do it now, or I will rain hell on you for the rest of time.
- What’s the point of being a Doctor if I can’t cure you?
- I was lost a long time ago. She was saving you. I’ll do my best, but I strongly advise you to keep out of my way. You’ll find that it’s a very small universe when I’m angry with you.
…and the ultimate expression of his acceptance, with the Doctor taking Clara’s advice and not taking revenge on Ashildr. This could possibly all be very helpful for children watching who have lost a loved one, and perhaps recognise reactions such as the anger the Doctor expresses in particular. But then we have the actual moment of death itself, and here’s where the episode comes off the rails, because it shows Clara wracked with pain at the moment of her death. And that really is gratuitous and nasty. It’s completely unnecessary. We could have seen her facing death with dignity and then killed in an instant. It didn’t have to be lingering and painful, which serves no purpose other than to upset the viewers, bearing in mind this is the death of one of the longest-serving and popular companions we have ever had. Rubbing salt into the wound is the position she adopts, a cruel echo of the Doctor’s usual regeneration pose (which in itself borrows from the image of the crucifixion). This is our wannabe Doctor, who went too far, started behaving like the Doctor and assumed she could buy time by putting her life on the line, but it backfired on her just as the Doctor feared it would. She faces death as if she is going to be resurrected, and then falls dead to the floor. This was the companion who thought she was indestructible and tried to be the Doctor, and then paid the price. Thematically interesting. Cynically directed, complete with slow-motion lingering on her painful death.
And that’s all a great shame, because it taints an otherwise excellent episode, with lots of interesting stuff going on.
To start superficially (but with good reason), one of the posters in the trap street is written in a language from Star Wars. I’m no Star Wars fan, but apparently if you pause at that point and you are enough of a fan to be able to translate it, you will find that it reads “Delorean” (it’s obviously one of those ridiculous, lazy sci-fi languages that are the same as English but just substitute different characters for the letters of the alphabet). So it is a cheeky Back to the Future reference, hidden in a cheeky Star Wars reference, hidden in plain sight in a Doctor Who episode. The reason I use this as the first thing I mention when talking about the good qualities of the episode is that it is actually a perfect metaphor for the episode itself, which is beautifully layered by writer Sarah Dollard.
We move down through the layers seamlessly as the episode progresses. Some of this is also thanks to the direction and design. Dollard apparently didn’t want a Harry Potter vibe with the trap street, but in the end it turned out to be more than a little reminiscent of Diagon Alley, and then we find out that it is a refugee camp. So we have a political commentary within a magical street within a sci-fi mystery, hidden in plain sight. And the real life idea of “trap streets”, created for a fairly mundane reason, translates across perfectly to what is basically a sci-fi approach to the supernatural. This is Number 13 by MR James, scaled up from a room to a street. None of it quite hits the mark to perfection: we have a creepy idea that is never quite a scary as it could be, and a political commentary that is fairly half-hearted.
I love the little coda at the end though. Last year I was lucky enough to meet up with my co-writer for this blog at the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff, about a month before it sadly closed down. The TARDIS with Clara’s portrait painted on it was there, and it really is a beautiful piece of work. A thing of beauty in the dying days of a wonderful exhibition. Beauty in sadness.
There’s some of that at the end of Face the Raven. But not quite enough. RP
The view from across the pond:
Last night my mother-in-law made a traditional Irish meal for dinner: Shephard’s Pie. Delicious! She’s an amazing cook! And it got me thinking about restaurants; we don’t have a good place nearby to get Irish food. But we do have Mexican, Chinese, Greek, Italian, Indian; a veritable cornucopia to choose from. Like TV, depending on what you’re in the mood for will determine where you go. With TV, the big difference is the genre. You want comedy, you can watch The Orville; a bit of mystery can give you Sherlock, fantasy: Game of Thrones and for science fiction, nothing beats Babylon 5 for my money. Why not Doctor Who? I’m coming to that. See, like restaurants, you can go to some that have a mix, like most of the aforementioned places have American fare for the kids who won’t try new things, which similarly, you can try Comedy/Sci-fi with Red Dwarf or Dirk Gently. Or action/comedy might put you down for a few episodes of Psych. But it’s almost unheard of to go somewhere that caters to all food styles, and equally, you can’t easily market a television show that can be everything at once. With one possible exception: Doctor Who.
For Doctor Who, just over the last week of our Junkyard blog, we’ve looked at the political thriller (The Deadly Assassin), fairy tale (The Keeper of Traken), found footage (Sleep No More) and now a Harry Potter mashup with Face the Raven, complete with Trap street filling in for Diagon Alley! Depending on what mood strikes you, Doctor Who has an episode to sate the desire! So it’s not strictly science fiction; it’s a bit of everything. And that’s adventurous, often good, but sometimes… you leave with a bitter taste.
Face the Raven is a Clara story. It attempts to explain why Clara has deteriorated so badly since her start with Matt Smith. It seems the death of Danny Pink deeply affected her and made her reckless. The Doctor’s “duty of care” was not strong enough for him to leave her behind even though it’s really what she needed. Instead he feeds her need for self-destruction and then gets angry when it happens. Clara tries to be the Doctor again by trying to cheat her way out of a contract; just proof that the idea of what the Doctor represents is grossly misunderstood by her (and the writer). We could turn a blind eye to her self-destructive ways based on the trauma of Danny’s death and never having time to properly mourn it, but that doesn’t take away from the writers insistence on things like loving Jane Austen and again leaving that open to audience interpretation of how Clara means she loves her. It’s another attempt at humor in favor of creating a solid character.
Rigsy is back after his last outing in Doctor Who’s Flatline, now suffering from memory loss, a murder accusation and a countdown tattoo. This last is an interesting concept heavily steeped in Harry Potter-style Magic. Who doesn’t love a good countdown? The Diagon Alley wannabe is a bit of a letdown and, not to sound like a broken record, makes little sense. Visually, the human overlay to hide the various alien races is a great idea but fails on two major levels. First, the images they show are very clearly repeat villains – I’m talking the Sontaran specifically. Contrary to the horribly racist remark that all of the same species look alike, they actually do not. They look very different, so when one is clearly using the same face as another, it stands out. Second, the races represented include Sontaran and Cyberman. The latter is especially difficult to swallow as this Cyberman is going to act like a regular person. It’s not what Cybermen do; simple as that. It seems the writer, Sarah Dollard, ignored what was behind the human cloak. It’s like she was writing for the human screen instead of the creature that was supposedly hiding behind it! Which doesn’t jive with what we know of the species, …unless none of them were real and the whole thing was a trap, like the street!
“It’s a trap!!”
Which leads us to the other problem with all of season 9. It lingers under the shadow of “the hybrid”; a mystery that is suddenly on everyone’s mind but never mattered before or since. It is so devastating a secret, and clearly such a threat, that Rassilon the Old Whiner (gone are the days of Rassilon the Awesome), would work with a woman who is potentially the hybrid herself and use her to set up a trap, and then wait 4.5 billion years to solve the riddle which clearly wasn’t that big a threat to begin with or it would have done something during those 4.5 billion years! The creatively titled Mayor Me (…not) doesn’t see the issue with this even though she’s known the Doctor saved her life and many others throughout time. I don’t know; I think it’s supposed to show that the Doctor ruined her life in some way by not letting her die and now continues to do her wrong by forcing her to live. (Damned kindness!) This leads to the Doctor threatening “Me” (or as I still call her, Ashildr) and it’s a terrifying verbal assault full of sound and fury… that signifies nothing. Unlike Eccleston, who threatens Daleks, the most deadly race in all of existence, and then comes through on his threat, Capaldi’s Doctor is left impotent to do anything against Ashildr. Clara’s reminder to him not to be angry that she destroyed herself by making poor life choices effectively stays the Doctor’s hand and he does… nothing. Instead he relives the exact same day to prove to the universe that he had a duty of care and he’s damned repentant. But more on that tomorrow…
Clara’s death was unfortunately a long time coming and should have happened with Last Christmas, giving a beautiful wrap-up to a friendship that had outlived its practicality. Instead, we went on for a self-destructive season with Clara, where she wanted planets to save and explosions that just destroyed both the companion and something of the Doctor in the process. The Raven was an odd way to bring about her death, but it needed to happen to bring in a companion that would actually be filled with awe at the wonders the Doctor had to show her. But even that was to be delayed for a heartbeat longer… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Heaven Sent