Monday 23 November 2015

Face The Raven

After a thoroughly dismal episode last week, I was looking forward to something with a little more substance than the dreary, nonsensical lunacy offered up by Sleep No More. So, were my desires fulfilled, or was I left wanting?
The Doctor and Clara are busy concluding an unseen adventure, in which the Doctor is almost eaten, when, back aboard the safety of the Tardis. the telephone rings. Answering the phone, Clara hears the familiar voice of Rigsy, who has acquired a tattoo. He has no recollection of how, and, more worryingly, it appears to be counting down to zero. Making their way to London, the Doctor and Clara materialise in Rigsy’s flat, where they discover he is now a father. The Doctor seems particularly delighted at the sight of a new human life, and his attention to the infant is rather touching. Rigsy explains that he explains that he can't remember anything from the previous night.
Aboard the Tardis, the Doctor scans Rigsy, and proffers an explanation for his absent memory; he has been retconned, his prefrontal cortex is marinating in an amnesia drug, a concept which first made an appearance in the Torchwood episode ‘Everything Changes’,
The Doctor attempts to refer to his “hint” cards to offer Rigsy comfort, however unable to find an appropriate one, he states that there in “no nice way to say you're about to die.”
With 526 minutes to go, the Doctor realises that Rigsy, or “Local Knowledge” has been in contact with alien life, hidden somewhere in the streets of London. Clara elaborates that his idea resembles a “trap street”, a concept deployed by cartographers to prevent people plagiarising their work. The Doctor, lightening the situation, likens it to a whole street disappears with humanity assuming it's a copyright infringement.
The scenes in which the Doctor, Clara and Rigsy search for the hidden street are sufficiently entertaining, and Clara hanging from the Tardis is clearly an opportunity for Coleman to have a little fun with her character before departing the series.
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On finding the street, the group are met by the delightfully unpleasant “Rump”, and are asked to state their names, species and case for asylum; they have entered a refugee camp. Enter Ashildr, now posing as ‘Mayor Me’, who oversees a veritable rogues gallery of villains.  She explains that Rigsy, whom she suspects of murder, has been sentenced to death, by a “Quantum Shade”. Before proceeding any further, the Doctor insists that no harm should come to Clara, and Ashildr places her under her personal protection, with an absolute guarantee of safety.
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The visages of residents of the community (for want of a better word) appear to be human, although it is explained by Mayor Me that “Lurkworms” normalise everything people see, and to clarify the point, we are given a brief shot of an Ood repairing a Cyberman, as well as glimpses of a Sontaran, Ice Warrior and numerous unidentified alien life forms. The principle seems to be heavily borrowed from the concept of “perception filters”, which were used, most notably, during the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure.
Ashildr goes on to explain that she has brokered a truce with the assorted species inhabiting the “Trap Street”, and that, in 100 years, no violence had taken place until Rigsy unwittingly found his way in.
The victim of the supposed murder is a member of the dual-faced Janus species, Anah (interestingly, but doubtless coincidentally, Janus are the thorns Leela used to kill people). The female of the Janus species is psychic, with one face sees into the future, one into the past.
The trio watch, in horror, as Mayor Me sentences a man to death for stealing medical supplies. He carries the mark of the Quantum Shade which brings forth his death in the form of a Raven and Rump explains to Clara and Rigsy that only the Shades Master can remove the sentence, or the intended victim can pass it to someone else. Clara takes the Shade from Rigsy, safe in the knowledge that she is under Ashildr’s protection.
Meeting Anashon, a young female Janus, who, disguised in male attire for her own protection, is the daughter of the seemingly murdered, Anah, the Doctor probes her for information. However, as the events relate to the Doctor she is unable tell past from future but does state that Mayor Me couldn't simply ask him to arrive. He needed to be drawn in with a mystery to solve.
Clearly familiar with the Janus species, the Doctor is aware that they burn their dead. Anah, however,  is in a stasis pod, and it isn't long before the Doctor realises she is, in fact, alive. Her hoaxed death has been a ploy to lure the Doctor to the chamber in which she is being held, where a band is placed on the Doctor’s wrist. The Doctor, wrongly, assumes this is a ploy to relieve him of the Tardis, however the device upon his wrist is not a restraint, but a teleport. 
Ashildr intends to make good upon her word, and remove the Quantum Shade from Rigsy, however, the terms of contract shade have changed and Ashildr has been removed from the deal, thus sealing Clara’s fate.  In anger, the Doctor threatens to end Ashildr whilst Clara accepts her fate. In, perhaps, one of my favourite lines of the script, she tells the Doctor, “Your reign of terror will end with the sight if the first crying child.”
What follows is a beautifully impassioned speech between Clara and the Doctor, in which Clara, resigned to her fate, implores the Doctor not to let her death change him, guarding him “don't be a warrior. You will not insult my memory, no one else will suffer”. Making her way into the street,  Clara clearly doesn't want the Doctor to see her die, imploring him to “let me be brave”.
After warning Ashildr to “keep out of my way. It’s a very small universe when I'm angry with you”, the Doctor is relieved of his confession dial by Ashildr, and is teleported to.. well.. that is something which we will find out in due course..
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On the technical side of the story, the set design of the “Trap Street” is beautifully realised, and Murray Gold positively excels himself with the score. I've always been a fan of Gold, and whilst not much of a fan of Clara, I've always rather liked her theme music. The rearrangement to the slower, more mournful tones was beautifully understated, effective and complimented the episode perfectly.
I have to confess, on first viewing, I found the episode to be decidedly tepid, however a second viewing has changed my opinion considerably . The episode is certainly messy, disjointed and tries to cram in more than the 45 minute format comfortably allows, and the plot to capture the Doctor seems unnecessarily convoluted and contrived. Similarly, the notion that Cybermen, Sontarans, Ice Warriors and various other species are living in harmony, with husbands and wives seems decidedly far-fetched, even for Doctor Who.
On the positive side, it’s a pleasure to see Jovian Wade back as Rigsy, and nice to see his character maturing. He is an intensely likeable character, but above all, is wholly believable. That he has gone from a mild troublemaker to a family man feels like a natural progression. My only criticism with Rigsy's appearance in Face The Raven is that he felt somewhat underused. I have to confess to being less enamoured with Maisie Williams, who unlike Wade, suffers from overuse, not necessarily in this episode, but in the season as a whole. Three appearances, to date, feels rather excessive. I also have to confess to finding her acting decidedly average. Having never watched Game of Thrones, I am not in a position to comment on her overall abilities, but here I find her to be somewhat lacking. Her performance is, perhaps, one of the weaker aspects to the episode, and she lacks the experience and gravitas to portray someone who has endured such longevity.
The final scene between the Doctor and Clara is played perfectly by Capaldi and Coleman. Capaldi, in particular is able to convey an extraordinary range of emotion through facial expression alone/ My main issue with her death is that following the foreshadowing of doom, prevalent throughout the season, there had been much speculation that, perhaps, Clara was already dead, or that the Doctor had some foreknowledge of her imminent demise. Certainly the continual references heavily implied as much, so that when her death came, it felt strangely ordinary.
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Deaths in dramatic series have the most impact when they are least expected. I remember being profoundly affected by Adric's death in Earthshock, and, much as I found Danny Pink to be bland and tiresome, his death was so unexpected it did, at least, have some impact on the audience. The overarching constant of series nine has been the foreshadowing of Miss Oswald's demise, to the point it became tiresome. Whilst the scenes prior to her death were beautifully handled, her actual demise seemed slightly anticlimactic. Her recklessness, which has grown ever more present as the season has progressed, ultimately become her downfall, and her near-belief that she is the “Doctor Mark II”, though heroic, is oddly reassuring of her humanity and fragility.
It's fair to say I haven't been a fan of Clara. I don't hate her, neither do I like her. I've always maintained a detached indifference toward her, largely as I've found her character to be extremely difficult to relate to. It is, perhaps, a little odd, then, that her final season has seen my indifference fade somewhat, as she has become much more of a traditional companion. Once all the "Impossible Girl" nonsense is stripped away, and the tedious love story with Danny Plankton is over, she becomes much more bearable. None of this is, of course, any reflection on Jenna Coleman, who is a fine actor, and always works well with the scripts she is given. I think it fair to say she has not always been well written, hence the divided opinion of her character within Doctor Who fandom.
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The death of a companion is a rare thing, having only happened twice in the 52 year history of the series, discounting Big Finish audio stories, novels etc. With something so monumental, it is imperative that it is done properly, and for the most part, Sarah Dollard succeeds with Face The Raven. I had expected something a little more dramatic or preponderant, however Clara’s death is curiously understated, particularly given her significance to the series. In some ways, I think making her death “ordinary” makes it, to a degree, extraordinary. A reckless act of self-sacrifice is, perhaps, considerably more effective than a protracted, complex end to her tenure.
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Face The Raven is a strange episode to watch, and a hard one to review. For all it’s flaws, and believe me, there are plenty, it is a satisfying episode, and despite the somewhat reserved nature of her death, brings Clara’s story to a tidy conclusion. It also leaves open plenty of avenues which will, doubtless, be explored in the forthcoming finale. Despite his promises to Clara, the Doctor is angry, his hearts are broken, and the aftermath of her death is a tantalising prospect. I have a feeling that we are going to see some truly stellar acting from Capaldi in the forthcoming finale.
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(Publicity shot of the graffitied Tardis – Can you spot the Torchwood reference?)
And so, farewell, Clara. Love her, loathe her, or remain indifferent, there can be little doubt that she has made a significant impact on the series. And, regardless of the material given to her to work with, Jenna Coleman has performed admirably. I’ve maintained an odd relationship with Clara, and, given this season, it is one I think I will miss to a degree. Her pairing with Capaldi has been much convincing than her fawning relationship with the Eleventh Doctor, and it is rather ironic that she departs the series as a much more likeable, relatable companion than she presented through the majority of her time aboard the Tardis.
My initial reaction to Face the Raven felt as though this would be a low scoring episode. On reflection, and following two more viewings, it earns a very respectable 8.5/10.

1 comment:

cdogzilla said...

I thought understated approach worked quite well for Clara's death, and that Coleman and Capaldi worked together beautifully in it. The key thing for me was that we had been set up to half-expect the Doctor would be mad with grief and the would be in a vengeful mood after. Not that his mood isn't, but it looks like he's going follow Clara's final order to him. That subversion of the Revenge Fantasy was powerful and necessary. I'd been reading speculation that this is where the Doctor would become the Valeyard and I think it would have a been a terrible may to bring that about. Clara got to be a teacher, teaching the Doctor to be a good man, at the end, and her death, as a result, meant something more than driving a vengeance plot. That lesson, about being brave in the face of death -- not just in the sense of maintaining your dignity -- and working for your life being something worthy of being honored, of teaching a lesson that will outlast you so the world the future has a better chance of being more just because of your example ... that's a tremendously powerful message that is well-suited to a calm, rational approach rather than emotional histrionics and cheap sentiment.

Not all the rest of it worked so well. Maisie, who had been so good in her previous portrayals of Ashildr/Me didn't sell the idea she had the force of character to broker the extraordinary truce that held that refugee camp together. The Janus heads didn't come across very well on screen, looked more old HHGTTG than I was comfortable with :P And the mechanics of murder mystery Me set up to lure the Doctor into her trap don't exactly have Christie-like precision.

Flawed on the whole, but it delivered, exceptionally well, where it really mattered. Can you imagine if that were 11 travelling with Amy and the same scenario had been set up how that scene would have played? I feel very fortunate to have Capaldi as the Doctor, and to have had Jenna Coleman for as long as we did ... their talent, to my mind, has never failed the material, even when the material has let them down at times.