Monday, 30 November 2015

Face the Raven written by Sarah Dollard and directed by Justin Molotnikov

This story in a nutshell: Finally...time for an interesting companion.

Indefinable: Yes! The cunt is back! Forgive me language but I can't help but swear when the show I love abandons something that wasn't quite working - Capaldi as a middle aged rock star Doctor - and remembers what did work so well in the previous year. It will long be remembered that the twelfth Doctor is at his best when he is a moody git and when he has a massive chip on his shoulder about something. It's quite in a way that any incarnation of the Doctor should be at their most memorable when they are in pain but when you have an actor with the gravitas of Peter Capaldi then you need to utilise him to the full. And that isn't shoving an electric guitar in his hand and turning him into an ageing hipster, it is forcing the character to face some dark situations and deal with the emotional fallout. Fear the Raven is the transition period for number twelve, taking a blissfully happy Doctor and systematically tearing down his smile and leaving him hopeless. It actually applauded, what a sadist. I love the idea that when this Doctor is trying to be nice, you have to be worried. It's a portent of doom. You can almost understand why Clara thinks she can adopt the Doctor's style and absolute belief in his ability because she has seen him make the 'I am the Doctor and I defeat the monsters!' speech ad nauseum. Well she gets her last exposure to it here, as he charges off to save Rigsy. My favourite moment in Face the Raven came when Clara asks the Doctor if he can fix it and save her and he looks at her sadly and says no. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Laugh because Clara is doomed or cry because the Doctor is facing his worst demon - hopelessness. Ultimately the Doctor is responsible for saving the Time Lords and the Doctor is responsible for saving Ashildr and so when those two things come together and generate the downfall of Clara Oswald...he is ultimately responsible for the cause of her demise too. I wonder if he will ever come to that realisation and it will break him?

Impossible Girl: Well thank goodness she's gone. I've already seen next weeks episode and I can confirm what I always suspected, that this Doctor works extraordinarily well without her. Suddenly he's on another level and it's all because his happiness with Clara has been snuffed out. The biggest joke about Clara is that one of the most important of companions (insofar as she visited the Doctor as a child, she was there to convince him to act at one of the most important moments of his life and she splintered off throughout his life and saved him in countless ways) turned out to be one of the least memorable. Perhaps if less time had been spent weaving her into the Doctor's timeline so her impact would never be forgotten and more time had been spent giving her an actual personality and a believable backstory that served as a foundation to the character it might have been sad to say goodbye. But all I felt was relief. I said above that it was almost entirely the Doctor's fault that Clara was able to die but she had her own hand in her death too, of course. She is so arrogant that she believes that there isn't anything that she and the Doctor cannot cure. Even a black mark on her soul, a death warrant scrawled in blood. And when you think about it it was Clara herself that had the audacity to change the Doctor's mind about the fate of his own people. She was the one who pushed his buttons and emotionally manipulated him into saving them. So twice over she is responsible for putting herself in the ground...both times it was through her arrogance that she is right and the Doctor's apparent defeat is wrong. I really like that. What doesn't work for me is the inference that Clara has become some kind of proto-Doctor and this is her punishment for fulfilling that role. Anybody who denies that that is what is being said in Face the Raven, the Doctor directly admits as much in Heaven Sent. Whilst the idea that she has stepped up and taken on his role might bear fruit in series eight - especially in episodes such as Deep Breath (where she had to take the reins), Kill the Moon (where he decides to step out of the action at a pivotal moment), Flatline (where he was trapped in the TARDIS), In the Forest of the Night (where she forces him to leave) and Death in Heaven (where she actually takes his name and first billing in the titles) - it lacks any truth in series nine where she has taken a massive step back and fallen into the traditional companion role. If this was what they were building up to in her final season we needed to see far more evidence that she was taking stupid risks and following her Doctorly instincts in a dangerous way for the idea to feel like it has come to a natural conclusion in Face the Raven. But the simple truth is that, a few moments aside, Clara has become inessential again in her final year (removed completely from The Woman Who Lived, swapped for a more interesting version in the Zygon two parter and beyond bland in episodes such as Sleep No More). So as I said, had this episode come at the beginning of series nine, after her breakout season last year, it would have held more dramatic weight and been bourne out of the evidence of her actions. But at the tail of this season, it feels like an empty gesture at the end of a season that hasn't needed her. I still think she would have been better off bowing out at the end of Last Christmas. Always leave them wanting more, not desperate to get rid of you. What I do want to say in her favour though, despite the repeated mishandling of the character by the writers are the performances of Jenna Coleman. Clara might be faceless so that she can practically be moulded into a different character each week (her naiveté in the opening two parter this year doesn't square up at all with her confidence last year) but Coleman manages to bring a likeability to the role that means that whilst this companion never lit my world on fire she was at least amiable. Certainly her chemistry with Peter Capaldi is palpable and never is it more apparent than throughout Face the Raven. Clara hanging from the TARDIS over London and loving the danger of it is a beautifully realised scene (given how preposterous it is) but we needed to see more of that kind of material in order for her decision to take the death sentence from Rigsy to make sense. There is another mention of Jane Austen, another half-arsed indication that Clara might be bisexual. Since this is never explored or seen as something that requires further elucidation it is another potentially interesting side of Clara that we never get to engage with. Certainly the reference doesn't make her more interesting, which I think is the idea. Clara's reaction to the Doctor's rage at being unable to save her is the one emotional beat that rung true from her. She's ironed out all his rough edges since his regeneration (practically neutering him as a result) and here he stands on a precipice again, ready to dive back into anger and despair. She's terrified at the thought of his returning to that dangerous state and makes him promise not to exact revenge because of her stupid mistake. That is probably the most selfless thing Clara has ever done. Knowing that she is going to die and protecting her friend from himself rather than raging against her own fate. At her last breath though Clara is nothing like the Doctor. She just sort of gives up.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I guess you're just going to have to be brave...'
'Everything you're about to say, I already know.'

The Good:

* Hidden streets in every city in the world that harbours aliens on the run and hiding from pain sight. It's something that would excite children and adults in equal measure. Kids because they can let their imaginations run riot as they walk the streets wondering if they are near an entrance to another world. And adults because they can get lost in the fantasy of why the aliens there and what has forced them to go into refuge. Doctor Who is one of those shows that can really thrill me with an idea alone (that springs from the classic series that was loaded with imagination and couldn't always go all the way to realising it...but the ideas were so exciting anyway) but in Face the Raven this idea is mooted, then sought and then brought to the screen with real splendour. There is a gentle feminine touch that runs all the way through Fear the Raven and it extends to the characterisation of the characters, the exploration of the ideas and the realisation of the setting. There is a gentleness to what hits the screen which contrasts brilliantly with the urgency of the situation and how the panic snowballs into terror come the conclusion.
* A tattoo that heralds the coming of the reaper (or the raven in this case) might not be an original idea (The Sarah Jane Adventures made the idea of alien scrawl on your arm terrifying in The Mark of the Berserker) but it is still a disturbing one. One that counts down the minutes until your death is the original element and it is enough to get Rigsy in a cold sweat and summon the Doctor.
* I enjoyed the Torchwood reference because there is not enough effort made to suggest that the spin offs that Russell T Davies created are still in existence. It was also a smart way to turn Rigsy's mark of death into a mystery, with disturbing flashbacks breaking through his amnesia and slowly drip feeding the audience information about his branding.
* Part of the fun of the hidden streets notion is the use of old monsters in disguise. Series nine might be a little continuity heavy in places (Daleks, Davros, Zygons and Time Lords all with their complex back stories) but this is a gentle way to tickle a fans taste buds without losing the wider audience. Judoon, Sontarans, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Silurians and Ood all feature.
* The Raven turning to black smoke and screaming as it comes for you, sweeping through the streets and stabbing you in the back, black smoke pouring from your mouth as you expire. It's one of the more disturbing means of dispatch the show has presented in many years.
* Who are these mysterious people that have done a deal with Ashildr to procure the Doctor? In the same way that Utopia kicked off a dramatic two part finale with something a little quieter (mind you I don't think anybody could call the final ten minutes of Utopia quiet, just the first half an hour), Face the Raven is all set up for the Heaven Sent/Hell Bent conclusion to series nine. It certainly generates a great deal of questions...and curiosity. I defy anybody to not want to know more and to not want to experience the fallout of Face the Raven. The show hasn't been left in a place this gripping since the climax of Kill the Moon last year.

The Bad:
* Rigsy certainly wasn't an terrible character in Flatline but I wouldn't go as far to say that he deserved a second showing. There were certainly far more worthy candidates in series eight that could have been brought back but they don't feature in the right time period to make this story work. I was at a convention recently that featured Jamie Matheson and he admitted that there was a lot of character work in Flatline that didn't make it to the screen because of time constraints (funny because it felt like one of the best character pieces of the season) which included a scene where Rigsy and Fenton bonded over a mobile phone because neither of them had anyone to call when the going got tough. It would have been an extraordinary moment (and one that would have without doubt have made the cut had Davies been in charge - he was all character character character) and probably sold him as a character for me. I'm not saying that this wasn't a decent airing for the character because Dollard manages to give him a brand new lease of life that occurred after the events of Flatline and a life that means he needs to survive the events of Face the Raven to get back to. It makes him surviving important in a way it wasn't in Flatline (beyond being a nice guy). My point here is that although Rigsy is well handled, I still wouldn't say he is the most memorable of characters or one that it was necessary to bring back...
* ...which brings me to Ashildr. A character who conceptually it was well worth bringing back but who was so neutered and misrepresented in The Woman Who Lived that it left me associating her with the taste of bile crawling up my throat and into my mouth. A combination of Maisie Williams' flat performance (a shock after her joyful turn in The Girl Who Died) and some underwritten characterisation pushed the immortal Ashildr into the league of least memorable guest characters. It was astonishing because the idea of an immortal of the Doctor's making causing trouble throughout history was a vigorous central idea for an episode but the translation of that idea was lost to tedious pondering over the idea of immortality itself. The trouble with the return of Ashildr and Rigsy is that they didn't excite me. Quite the reverse in fact. But the upside of that is that both characters managed to surprise me in Face the Raven...not because they were suddenly vivid and alive (although Ashildr benefits greatly from her return here) but because a great deal of damage limitation has been achieved and it leaves both characters in a better position for return visits after this. I certainly would like to see Ashildr back after the dramatic events of the climax and how it leaves her and the Doctor. That does excite me.
* Essentially Face the Raven is designed to remove Clara from the series in as turbulent a way as possible for the Doctor. In a way that leaves him helpless to stop her from croaking it and out for revenge. But in order to reach that point it utilities a mystery (what did Rigsy do to earn the mark of death?) which dominates the first half and rather gets forgotten about in the second half. The answers never match the potency of the mystery as presented and the episode becomes entirely focussed on Clara making you wonder what all the fuss was about in the first place. Like I said, it was basically a stepping stone to pushing Clara on her way.
* Death takes forever in Doctor Who these days. Eccleston's Doctor making a bit of splash about the fact that he was leaving in The Parting of the Ways was fine because he was introducing a new generation of kids to the concept of regeneration. Tennant took an age to snuff it but then he was wrapping up an entire era of the show so the self indulgent whirlwind tour of everything that made it special was forgivable. Come Matt Smith's exit and we're actual pausing to destroy an entire Dalek army and making speeches. And now Clara, hardly a companion that deserves such attention, spends over five minutes preparing the Doctor for her death before walking out on the streets and meeting her maker. It goes on forever. At this rate by the time Capaldi leaves we will need an entire episode of him giving a monologue on death before he explodes into the next Doctor. Death used to be shocking, quick and gutsy on Doctor Who. Now it is the most ponderous of experience. In terms of being brave, Clara facing the raven is the show showing it's audience that death can be faced with your head held high. In terms of being dramatic, running away from the raven would have been far more effective. It depends which way you fall on the matter.

Result: Ominous, with a great sense of location and some gorgeous touches that make the overall experience a memorable one. There is a sumptuous visual element to Face the Raven that lends it a lot of presence and the way the episode starts to prickle like sweat on your back that you just cannot reach is expertly handled. The things that didn't quite work for me were Clara's death itself (don't pop on this site if you don't want to read spoilers) and the importance of the return of Ashildr and Rigsy, one of whom was a character that bombed earlier this season and the other who was a faceless element of last years strongest story. Fortunately they are both given much better treatment this time around and emerge as much stronger characters as a result. I thought the whole notion of the hidden streets was really imaginative and finding it was brought to the screen with panache, the first ten minutes are some of the most entertaining of the season as a result. And when we get there the use of old monsters in an unusual way was cleverly handled and the concept of the alien bolthole opens up storytelling possibilities for the future. I would love to see this idea used again. Clara is the most troublesome feature, just as she has been for much of the last two and a half years worth of Doctor Who. Her death winds up being as awkward and as vanilla as her life. She just sort of gives up on the Doctor's say so and walks straight into the arms of the reaper. But not before making half a dozen speeches whilst a crow that should have reached her in ten seconds stops off for lunch. Seriously...death is such a rare thing on Doctor Who now and it goes on forever (before being undone). It should have been short, sharp and unexpected rather than a ponderous and clock watching experience. When you are shouting 'just die already!' at the screen you have lost the emotional connection with the moment somehow. But then it is very hard to have much of a connection with a piece of pure cardboard. I'm being tough but in essence I am astonished how a character that had the ability to be hugely impacting wound up being as forgettable as she did (and not because the actress in the role isn't up to scratch). Clara is the ultimate vanilla companion, the average yard stick that all the others can be judged by. The build up to her death is far more impressive than the moment itself, that feeling that you cannot outrun the raven. Unsurprisingly the most interesting thing about her death is the fallout and where it leaves the Doctor, not the loss of the character itself. It's Capaldi that sells the moment (although I have to be honest Coleman is no slouch either) and his restrained rage after he has lost his best friend is a sight to see and leaves the show in an exciting, turbulent place for the future. What I think gloriously apt about Clara's death is that I have been harping on about how irritatingly clever clever and smug the character has been pitched and ultimately it is her own ego that brings her down. That's hilarious: 8/10


ali said...

Don't start breakdancing yet, Joe. Because I suspect this ep is set before s.9 -- which would explain his sudden change in dress & behavior. He'll be back to spitting rhymes and jamming to "Disco Inferno" before you know it. (Although I'm less certain of this having now watched Heaven Sent.)

Oh, and Clara's back, too. Was there really any doubt?

Anonymous said...

I appreciated having Rigsy back. He was one of the few guest stars last season who managed to come across with any personality (despite minimal lines). And I liked the way he vibed with Clara. I truly feel that she is suffering from the incredible like of characterization and attention to emotion that has been a low priority throughout Steven Moffat's run. I do think she would have done better with the few times Amy Pond was meant to show emotion. Just my opinion. I did enjoy the Raven. And I agree with you about Peter Capaldi being on in the next episode. I look forward to see how you felt about the music on that episode.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you about Capaldi's characterization, the rock star with a mid-life crisis doesn't work and it's embarassing. As a Season 22 Sixie fan, I enjoy a grumpy and spiky Doctor,the cards that show him how to be nice it's a bit exaggerated but I enjoy the idea.

Clara... you know, I really cried when Lucie Miller dien in the audios, she was one of my faves alongside Donna (I consider the audios as equally valid as the TV series) and also cried with Donna's ending. Clara's death left me...cold. I feel the same as you with her, sh'e all complicated plots and fireworks and few substance. Gosh, I felt more sorry for Adelaide's fate in The Waters of Mars and Chantho in Utopia than Clara's (I have been rewatching the New Series from the beginning this year and still cry with RTD, and rewatching his era makes me even more tiresomely nostalgic)

I just hope the new companion brings a bit more of emotion and substance

Unknown said...

Moffat has shown us time and time again that he doesn't have the spine, or any other anatomical area you might choose to reference, to kill off characters in a painful way. Virtually everyone who dies comes back, unless they're very minor canon fodder characters, and in the three incidents that he has killed major characters he has tried to soften the blow as much as possible. (having them accept it or live a full life in the past or be stored to a hard drive in space...I think that one was him, yes?)

That said, I must acknowledge there are people out there who still call Clara their favourite companion, and this episode did a good job of both celebrating the things half the fandom love about her whilst also finally forcing her to pay for her flaws. It rather reminded me of Earthshock in that respect. A diplomatic death episode from a writer too scared of losing his fandom to consider a "game of thrones" death.

Ernesto Guevara said...

Overall, I'd like to rewatch Clara's run all over again, just to see how inconsistent they were in writing her. When she was good she was really good, her problem overall was her bravery. Leela was brave, but this was made up for in that her bravery seemed foolhardy. Rose was brave, but didn't brag about it or come across as really smug all the time. Ace was brave, but was believable. Clara acted like she was the Doctor, and what delighted me about this episode was how the show nodded to this aspect of her character and killed her with it. Wouldn't call it hilarious now, Joe, but self-criticism in action. I did like Clara, always have. She was no Adric, but Amy was superior, as was probably every other companion in NuWho. I started to give up on consistency with the character when they resurrected her in Name of the Doctor, which made no sense in and of itself. Clara can survive but the Great Intelligence can't? She's lived thousands of different lives all similar, but yet different. I mean, Oswin and Victorian Clara were nothing like each other. Modern Clara didn't need to exist, Victorian Clara would have been a much better companion, I think Moffat probably didn't want to have a companion outside of modernity, which I find odd considering some of the most popular companions are from the past or aliens e.g. Jamie, Romana, Charley. Victorian Clara felt more believable than modern Clara, whereas in The Bells of Saint John, as much as I enjoyed it, she's forced in her similarities to her other selves, which in fairness to Coleman, she did a damn good job with, juggling these characters.

Though I've always analysed Doctor Who from a sort of postcolonial/feminist/Marxist etc. perspective, and Clara does seem to be a conscious middle finger to some of the subtle patriarchy in Doctor Who, it's a nuisance in a show to have the hero upstaged by the sidekick. It's good once in a while, particularly in say a printed serial or novel where actors don't constrain continuity, where we've had say, Batman and Robin for decades, to see Robin come out of his shell. Clara was pushing it now to be quite frank, Moffat even acknowledged it, how she thought it was the Clara Show. I liked how he took her down a peg this series however, except Sleep No More, in which she's not Clara, she is insert companion here. Clara should have travelled with the Doctor not tagged along for a bank holiday weekend or something. She had a boyfriend last series, so bring him with, don't just keep going back!!! Honestly Moffat needs to give up on that and restore normality on the companion front. Looking forward to next series, really think Capaldi should have had a fresh companion this series, as he needs something new to work with.

Anonymous said...

What bugs me about t'he New Series companions is that they are all from 21st century England (or Scotland). It buggers me the lack of imagination, in the Classic series you had companions from the past, from the future, from other planets... Apart from those (then) contemporary. But now is ALL contemporary
I dont think the New companions are superior to the Classic ones, at least , in my book, in no way are Amy, Clara or Rose superior to Barbara, Jamie, Sarah Jane or Leela

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Joe, is there something you're not telling us?

Aside from the fact that you've apparently moved to Washington, that is.

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David Pirtle said...

I liked this episode, but I didn't think it was as good as you rated it. I'm glad it wasn't Clara's last outing, though from what I remember of your review of Hell Bent, you don't agree with that sentiment, to say the very least...