22 November 2015

Doctor Who: Face the Raven


Clara's death has been suitably foreshadowed, writes Matt Michael, but it still 
makes for uncomfortable viewing.

At the beginning of this series, we were promised ’Same old, same old. Just the Doctor and Clara Oswald, in the TARDIS.’ As it approaches its end, those words suddenly seem hollow, in retrospect, as blithely arrogant as the tenth Doctor and Rose’s ‘stuff of legend’ inseparability.

The climax of Face the Raven is the point Series Nine has been inexorably travelling towards, which is why it’s pointless to really talk about without being explicit about the conclusion. Clara Oswald dies – and this time, it’s permanent. The episode doesn’t exist without that moment, and that’s both its strength and its weakness.

It’s a strength, because it lets writer Sarah Dollard steep the story with doom, from the tattoo counting down, sinisterly, towards zero, to the Raven’s first judgement on the old couple who broke the rules, to the scene where Clara takes the hex upon herself while the audience collectively shouts at the TV. It’s as effective as The Angels Take Manhattan or Logopolis at dragging us, like the unwilling victims of a hangman, towards an ending we can see coming.

It’s well known that several years ago, J.K. Rowling was approached to do Doctor Who, and Dollard seems to be channelling her style for a lot of this: the killing curse with its pitiless rules, that once cast, can only be ended with a life, and the secret streets hidden beside the Muggle thoroughfares, populated by fantastic beasts with their own laws and governments.

Justin Molotnikov’s direction picks up on this, and he makes the whole thing look like it could be happening on Knockturn Alley while Harry and Hermione are just round the corner buying some butterbeer. Moffat once talked about turning Doctor Who into a ‘dark fairy tale’. Face the Raven is a wholly successful realisation of that ambition.

But all this is talking around the point, which is killing off Clara. Dollard, and indeed Moffat, have followed all the rules of drama. It’s an earned death, foreshadowed since at least the start of the season, and arguably since Asylum of the Daleks back in 2012. Since Danny Pink died, Clara has become increasingly reckless, throwing herself into danger. In a couple of Chekov’s gun scenes, Dollard has Clara literally laughing in the face of death, right at the top of the episode, and again as she dangles by one foot high above London. Later, her logic for taking the curse from Rigsy, that sense of personal invulnerability and entitlement to be saved by the Doctor, makes perfect sense in light of her behaviour in the rest of the series.

But in following the rules so closely, I felt the episode became almost contrived. As we learn, the Raven plot is another of Ashildr’s plans - her having remembered nothing from the climax to The Woman Who Lived, which similarly went wrong in the execution. As such, perhaps this sense of contrivance is deliberate: a snare that tightens the harder the Doctor and Clara struggle against it. But if the objective really was just to teleport the Doctor and steal the TARDIS key, it’s up there with Blofeld’s most convoluted and error-prone schemes.

Things go wrong because Clara didn’t follow Ashildr’s rules, and her unwillingness to play the role Ashildr planned for her is her downfall. That fits with the theme of the hidden community governed by strict observance of the law. But it also fits with Clara’s wider failure to play the traditional companion role. She’s usurped the Doctor’s position more than once: playing the Good Cop despite the Doctor’s objections, naming the Sandmen, even taking over the opening credits at the end of last season. For these transgressions, for the woman stepping into the man’s role, Clara must be punished, and the sentence, as it has always been throughout history, is death.

Had Face the Raven not been written by a woman, this would be an easy accusation. As it is, I still feel deeply uncomfortable with the lesson Clara’s death teaches the audience. That scene has me squirming, not only because I feel an unpleasantly reactionary undertone to it, but also because I feel the show has been trying for the last 40 minutes to manipulate me into being moved. It doesn’t help that Clara’s final speech felt longer than the tenth Doctor’s farewell tour.

When companions have “died” previously, the moment has come like a gut punch – Donna, elevated beyond the wildest dreams of a temp from Chiswick, suddenly and brutally reset. Amy, finally choosing Rory over the Doctor. Most horrifically, Katarina knowing her whole life has been lived to save her god, the Doctor. All of those moments, equally foreshadowed, sprang from those stories. Clara’s death is the whole point of hers. Less of a gut punch, more death by a thousand cuts.

I think Coleman’s acted her death scene about five times now. And with two episodes to go, I’d be amazed if she isn’t back in one form or other, so I’ll reserve comment on Clara’s wider role this season until its end. I do hope, though, that the Doctor learned something from his angry exchanges with the Fisher King about ‘robbing people of their deaths’. In control to her last breath, Clara didn’t run, or weep, or beg for mercy. She faced the raven on her own terms. I love her for that.

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