The portents were there. Throughout this series, the Doctor had wondered what would become of Clara Oswald. Again and again he’d turned over in his mind how his life might be after her death. Our own reality had also flagged it up. We can’t ignore that. On September 18th, Jenna Coleman had gone on to BBC Radio 1 to confirm: “I have left the TARDIS. It’s happened.”
Yes, the portents were there… but not in this episode, surely? Which has none of the foreshadowing that’s normally considered appropriate. No loaded talk of a ‘storm coming’ or any suchlike.
Instead Sarah Dollard’s Face The Raven seems to have the shape of an enjoyably rackety tale. The kind of thing that’s there to bang around the screen entertainingly, and then leave us as it found us. Feeding into that impression is the vague taste that there’s something of the 1980s, early 1990s, in its brand of quirkiness and magic. Gaudy phrases like, “Quantum Shade”, “Lamp Worm” and “chronolock”. Murray Gold going all Mawdryn Undead on the musical score, with his waggling electric guitar. And, most of all, the visual allegory that this odd little bestiary of illegal aliens are, in Home Office terms, ‘illegal aliens’. It’s something that could have been drawn from one of the proto-political stories produced during Andrew Cartmel’s time on Doctor Who. “Name, species and case for asylum!” snaps the quixotically-named Mr Kabel. “You do know this is a refugee camp?” adds Mr Rump.
There’s a graphic-novel scope to that idea too, in the glimpses we get of crazy monsters (Kabel and Rump; a wolf man and a fish man), and when the raven takes flight, it’s easy to imagine it progressing in panels over a spread of pages.
But a more specific influence seems to be Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry’s 1996 BBC Two fantasy Neverwhere (featuring a brown-eyed Peter Capaldi as the Angel of Islington), which presented us with another Regency-esque view of a hidden London, peopled by oddballs and the dispossessed.
Add to all this the return of Rigsy and Ashildr, and a section of the story that revolves around the fact the Janus child Anahson is secretly an Anah, and that would seem plenty to be going on with. An adventure apportioned with more than enough to keep it busy, and modelled to play out as a Doctor Whodunnit, with our heroes working to release the street artist from his spurious murder charge. Except that’s not how it goes. As it winds to its terminus, Face The Raven reveals a trap street all of its own. It’s here that Clara is to die.
Even the practical steps taken towards this conclusion fail to prepare us. Clara’s scheme to take on Rigsy’s sentence does seem exactly as she says: “clever”. It’s ostensibly the hatching of a classic plot-switch, a way in which to hoist the villain by their own petard. Plus, Jenna Coleman, who communicates such concern in Clara’s micro-expressions when she overhears the young father on the phone to his baby and partner, persuasively sells it and you can understand why she would step into the fold. It’s also plausible that Rigsy would have confidence in her strategy. “So this is your life, just bouncing around time saving people?” he asks. In her ambition to be as reckless and brave as the Doctor, she’s managed to replicate something of his charisma. As she believes in the Time Lord, Rigsy now has faith in her. Of course it’s all going to work out.
Rewind back to the opening moments of the episode, and we’re presented with another take on this year’s recurrent gag of the Doctor and Clara thundering back into the TARDIS from yet another bonkers to-be-Big-Finished adventure. “I totally saved you from having to marry that giant sentient plant-thing!” she says. The duo’s shared enthusiasm for their exploits together has been nicely judged this series. They’re having the time of their lives, but they demonstrate that only in the most passing of terms. There’s nothing cloying here (CF. Rose to the Tenth Doctor: “Oh, I love this. Can I just say, travelling with you, I love it” – boke!). Equally dexterous is the way the show has also signalled that, in her hunger for such thrills, Clara’s revealed she’s actually an intensely damaged person. The section where she’s whooping in delight at being very nearly flung out of the police box while it hovers high over London is really disturbing. “She enjoyed that way too much,” observes Rigsy.
Is Clara unstable? Has she secretly been looking to lose her life? You could make an argument for that, particularly as, when she realises she is to be put to death, she admits, “Maybe this is what I’ve wanted.”
The convention in the rough and tumble world of Doctor Who is that all the crying has to be done by the time the end theme kicks in. That makes sense. It’s not practical for the show to carry remorse onwards, week after week. This is an adventure serial, not a treatise on loss, and even the Ponds had to KBO after their infant daughter was stolen from them a few series back. Sorrow was good for one episode, but then it was time to face the future. That seemed to be the case with Clara also, following Danny Pink’s death. But the brilliance about her story has been this gradual revelation that his loss has been eroding her soul, and that in observing the customs of both Doctor Who and the Doctor’s life, she’s exacerbated that process. All the running, the jumping, the risk-taking have been assumed in lieu of grief. She’s never had a chance to heal. Now her moment has come, her thoughts leap immediately to him: “If Danny Pink can do it so can I… Die right”.
It’s the saddest story the programme’s ever brought us, coming to its conclusion just when Clara seems to be at her brightest (on Jane Austen: “She is the worst, but I love her – take that as you like”), and more devout than ever in her belief in the Doctor. “We can fix this, can’t we?” she asks. “We always fix it.”
The last few minutes are stunning, both Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi bringing us the most affecting kind of tragedy: a stoic one. Quite rightly, this Doctor doesn’t shed a tear, but there’s a world – a universe, a whole reality – of pain behind his reddened eyes. He kisses her hand goodbye, a strange and fhttps://whoinreview.wordpress.com/wp-admin/media-new.phpormal farewell from a man who is both of those things. There’s also a bitter irony in the way she pleads, “Why can’t I be like you?” and then, moments on as she accepts her fate, he asks her, “What about me?” It’s as if their roles have switched and the Doctor’s now delivering the companion’s questions.
Clara’s actual departure is unusual. While both Amy Pond and Rose Tyler were disappeared from the series, rather than killed off, their loss was depicted as someone fading from view, with all the romantic intonations and feelings of longing that come with that. A beautiful final flourish. But the Coal Hill School teacher, who is rightly given the opportunity to first be brave, dies a bodily death. There’s a scream – thankfully mixed out of the soundtrack – and then a cold body. A corpse, with buckled legs. There’s nothing wistful or fantastical about that.
I have been a little disingenuous, though. I’m guessing that, like me, you probably did have an inkling beforehand that Clara was going to leave us tonight. Peter Capaldi blowing the gaff on The Graham Norton Show the evening before was maybe something of a pointer. And furthermore, you were also aware that this isn’t quite the end for her. Last month’s DWM cover hinted at that, at the very least. But I hope you were still as shocked as I was by how it went down. This has been a real jolt, one which has yanked the series onto a whole new track for its final two episodes.
“I was lost a long time ago,” says the Doctor as melancholy as we’ve ever seen him. And then he’s taken – who knows where?