Doctor Who S09E10 “Face The Raven” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on BBC One, Saturdays
Writer: Sarah Dollard
Director: Justin Molotnikov
Essential Plot Points:
- Rigsy contacts the Doctor and Clara when he discovers that he has a mysterious tattoo on his neck that he can’t remember getting and which is counting down to zero. He also can’t remember what happened to him for great swathes of the day before.
- They discover a hidden street in London and a message on Risgy’s phone that called him there the previous day.
- The street turns out to be a refugee camp for aliens, including many of the Doctor’s old enemies, run my Mayor Me, aka, Ashildr.
- Rigsy is accused of having killed one of the aliens.
- The “tattoo” is a life sentence; when it reaches zero he’ll be killed by a force that’s manifesting itself as a raven, thanks to the street’s psychic worms who live in the lamps (they also make all the aliens appear human).
- Clara learns that the tattoo can be transferred from one person to another as long as the person receiving it is willing. As Ashildr gave the Doctor assurances that she would let no harm come to Clara, Clara accepts the tattoo from Rigsy, assuming the Mayor can save her.
- The Mayor can’t save her. Clara faces the raven.
- And it’s all been a trap set by Ashildr (under instruction from some mysterious “they”) to bring the Doctor here, clamp a teleportation device to his arm and send him (Time) Lord knows where.
Bye bye Clara. That was a fine way to bow out of the series. Though, to be honest, we don’t believe for a moment we’ve seen the last of Clara. Why? Because the episode was full of odd little moments that suggest there’s something bigger at play here:
- Why does the Doctor initially hesitate to swing into action when first clear Rigsy’s going to die?
- Why is the fact that Clara also appears to find another hidden street completely ignored?
- Why does the Doctor ask for Ashildr to guarantee him that Clara will be safe? It’s not an unreasonable request but it’s not a safeguard the Doctor would normally demand.
- The Doctor’s acknowledgment that Clara taking unnecessary risks is an “ongoing problem” seems especially pointed.
We could reading far too much into this, but there’s was a weird dream-like (even dream logic) quality to the whole episode that, yes, on one level suited the tone of this dark fantasy, but on another gives the impression that there’s a deeper story going on between the cracks. Has the audience been subjected to “misdirection circuit”?
But ignoring what’s not there, and concentrating on what is, “Face The Raven” is a hugely entertaining episode with a cruel twist at the end. In essence it’s just another one of those “enemy sets stupidly overelaborate trap for hero” stories that sci-fi loves so much (even Doctor Who has done it before in “Castrovalva” and “The Witch’s Familiar”) but it’s a really elegant example of the genre.
There’s some intriguing urban fantasy to kick things off, with the search for the hidden streets and the mystery of the counting-down tattoo. The street-searching montage with the Doctor’s voiceover works especially well. It’s perfect Doctor Who material; the bizarre in a recognisably mundane setting.
Then it all goes a bit Harry Potter. Not only do our heroes find themselves in Diagon Alley but they also apparently meet Fenrir Greyback…
This section is popping with wonderful visuals: psychic worms in the street lamps: monster cameos; two-faced aliens; and a death-dealing Raven. It’s rich, it’s sumptuous and it’s quintessentially New Who… so it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense either. But the whodunnit theme keeps proceedings rattling along and there are some lovely character moments, so you don’t stop to worry about the socio-political set-up of the place, or why, when the big reveal happens, Ashildr didn’t just slap the teleportation device on the Doctor when he was trapped on the cobbles on first entering the hidden street.
The final act features another one of those lengthy dialogue that have become the ninth series’ signature moments. This time it’s the between the Doctor and Clara, and it’s so much more than just a simple goodbye. It’s Clara saying, “I chanced my luck. I lost. I’m fine with this. Please don’t let my last memory of you be all revengey and hellfire.”
Okay, Clara’s a little too stoic and heroic; some lip trembling to make her less perfect would have been nice. But it remains a powerful, compelling scene. It’s just a shame the actual death falls a little flat with the Doctor hanging about in a doorway looking slightly embarrassed by the whole thing. This feels more like a result of lacklustre direction than the writing or acting.
And finally, another amazing cliffhanger in a series full of them.
A little light on actual substance, “Face The Raven” is less than the sum of its parts, but still adds up to something special.
The Good :
- Lovely dark fairytale feel.
- Lots of fun monster cameos.
- The idea of a street full of “illegal” aliens – we see what you did there.
- The whodunnit structure works well.
- Great exit for Clara (even if we’re not convinced this is the last we’ll see of her).
- Brilliant final line: “You’ll find it’s a very small universe when I’m angry with you.”
- The FX for the TARDIS’s recon flight over London are far, far better than any similar scenes we’ve seen before (and it’s just a great fun scene besides).
- The Diagon Alley sets are impressive.
- The final dialogue between Clara and the Doctor – especially, “Don’t be a warrior, promise me, be a Doctor” – is exquisite.
- The show’s first-ever post-credits scene is absolutely lovely.
- “You think a Cyberman fears a merciful death?” No, we think Cybermen don’t fear anything. They’re emotionless. (Well, as long as they’re not a converted old colleague of the Doctor’s…)
- The whole conceit of “Alien Refugee Street” doesn’t bear up to much close examination so let’s not closely examine it and just accept it exists.
- The young Janus never looks like a boy. The first time you see it you think, “Oh, a girl with two faces! Cool” It’s a bit of a surprise when the script informs us we were supposed to think it was a boy.
- The direction is slightly bland and rarely does the sets any favours. It’s functional, just not very stylish or impactful. It means Murray Gold’s music has to go into hyperdrive to try to make Clara’s “death” a bit more emotional.
- Was there a scene missing (or did we miss a really throwaway line) that explains how the Doctor made the leap from “mysterious tattoo” to “trap streets”?
And The Random:
- The drug Retcon was originally introduced in the first episode of Torchwood, “Everything Changes”.
- The Doctor’s prompt cards from “Under The Lake” make a reappearance. This time we see one that says, “I could be wrong. Let’s try it your way.”
- Trap streets also play a major part in China Mieville’s novel Kraken, while his short story “Reports of Certain Events in London” – which concerns sentient roads that mysteriously appear and disappear – also has some similarities to the early parts of “Face The Raven”.
- Clara says of Jane Austen, “She is the worst. I love her. Take that how you like.” This follows her comment in “The Magician’s Apprentice”: “Jane Austen: amazing writer, brilliant comic observer, and – strictly among ourselves – a phenomenal kisser.” Those two need to get a room!
- Did you notice the TARDIS style hexagons in the room where the final showdown takes place? We assume this is not a coincidence.
Review by Dave Golder