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Monday, 3 October 2016

Doctor Who 9-10: Face the Raven

Episode:823|Serial:260|Writer:Sarah Dollard|Air Date:21-Nov-2015

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures I've reached the antepenultimate episode of Doctor Who's series 9, Face the Raven.

Here's a few facts about it: it's the third episode of series 9 with 'the' in the title, it's the third episode from the end of the series, it has three words in its name, it's an anagram of 'cafe van three', and I can't think of anything more interesting to write here.

Oh, there is one thing worth mentioning about it: the episode was written by Sarah Dollard (as you can see in the picture above), which means that series 9 is the first series in Doctor Who's entire history to have two female writers contributing scripts! It also had two female directors by the end, but that's very slightly less unprecedented.

Alright, now I'm going to go and comment on everything that happens in the episode, going scene by scene for maximum SPOILERS, and I may even spoil earlier episodes too. Everything that aired after it is safe though.

The episode begins with Clara and the Doctor jogging into the TARDIS looking a bit dishevelled after their latest (off screen) adventure. They apparently just got themselves banned from the second most beautiful garden in all of time and space, but looking outside the door it seems more likely that they're parked on the surface of the sun.

Clara's even more pleased with herself than usual after saving the Doctor from having to marry a plant, but her self-congratulation is interrupted by the TARDIS phone (which has been wired up to the console instead of the outside of the door at last). Don't answer it Clara, the music's saying that it's scary!

Oh it's just Rigsy, Clara's own companion from Flatline! They're annoyed with him for calling at first as the phone's only for emergencies (like they're too busy to chat to an old friend), but it turns out that he's in trouble! He's got sinister tattoo problems; a three digit number appeared on his neck last night and it's counting down every minute.

537 minutes left.


The two drop by his flat and discover that he's been doing well lately and he even has a kid now. Well he was doing well, until he woke up today with a foreboding neck clock realising he couldn't remember yesterday.

The Doctor puts Rigsy under a scanning field I've never seen before and then goes straight for the tactful phrases cards from Under the Lake (making a surprise reappearance). Unfortunately there's no reassuring way to tell someone that the number on the back of their neck is counting down to their inevitable doom.

Meanwhile Clara's scanned his phone, determining that someone's wiped the last day from it, just like someone wiped the last day from his brain with an amnesia drug. It's great that she's a companion who actually understands how to operate some of this Time Lord tech now. The two of them have become a proper science adventure team!

526 minutes left.

That’s a bloody good looking shot of the TARDIS over London. Well it doesn't look entirely right, but then floating police boxes never do.

Whatever happened to Rigsy yesterday happened in London, so first they hit the British Library to check the maps and now they're doing a bit of aerial surveillance to locate areas of weirdness, or areas of tedious normality to be more precise. They’re looking for a street cloaked by the same perception filter trick that the TARDIS uses to stay relatively unnoticed in plain sight (or the sky).

It seems like that the TARDIS would have cameras they could use for this, but instead Clara's hanging out the door wearing the endlessly handy sonic sunglasses. You'd think that'd be dangerous, but Clara thinks it's awesome, especially when she nearly falls out. She's not just reckless, she's downright fearless at this point, and that's not a good thing when everything's always trying to kill her. Also that TARDIS really does need maintenance if it can't even hover properly without struggling.

The Doctor lets Rigsy take the wheel for a bit here, which is a nice touch. It's like handing the controls over to the audience. He also lets him know that Clara's excessive fearlessness is a problem he's aware of.

After 3 minutes of episode time spent wandering the streets of London, the three of them finally find what they're after: a street in plain sight that no one ever sees. It's Rigsy who notices it first though, when he distracted by a flashback to yesterday.

He remembers being there before, and seeing a woman lying dead.

50 minutes left on the clock.

The three of them step inside and are almost immediately caught by an energy field that traps them standing on the spot.

They're met by two aliens, one a fair bit more convincing looking than the other, but we only see their true forms for a moment though before they glitch back to looking human. Turns out that the street is a refugee camp, and the aliens assume at first that the three of them must be here seeking sanctuary.

Rigsy remembers seeing them before, but fortunately they don't recognise him as he's got his hood up this time.

Who is this complete stranger standing with the Doctor? Could it be the person we stuck a tattoo on yesterday? Nah, that guy had a face! This creature on the other hand is a being made of pure shadow, his head a featureless void!

Somehow I'm getting the feeling that they may have enhanced the shadow in post production as it looks just a little bit entirely fake. Then again they are on a fake street set right now so the lighting may just be weird.

Soon someone of authority comes over to speak to them... and it's their immortal Viking friend Ashildr!

Though she's going by the name of Mayor Me these days. This comes as a bit of a surprise to the Doctor, who'd lost track of her after a few centuries. It's hard to find someone hiding in a street that doesn't want to be found though.

They want her to help them to find the person who inflicted the tattoo on Rigsy and she's able to tell them who it was right away. It was her! She inflicted a death sentence on him for his crime, then wiped his memory of what he'd done to protect the street.

But they didn't exactly do a thorough investigation, so the Doctor's going to stick around and see if he can figure out what really happened before the tattoo counts down to zero, but first he makes Mayor Me guarantee Clara's safety. Not something he typically does, but then Clara's been worrying him lately.

This well crafted anachronistic set is a 'trap street', supposedly a fake road drawn onto a map to catch out people trying to copy it, but in truth something much more... sinister.

Mayor Me explains that this is the most dangerous street in London, for the Doctor anyway. Everyone on it is an alien living in disguise as a human and several of them have been his enemies.

This reveal would've probably had more effect if the Doctor wasn't already friends with a Sontaran, a Silurian and potentially a Zygon. He was even getting on quite well with a decapitated Cyberman and a renegade Dalek and I'm sure he's saved the Master a number of times. A community full of his enemies living together peacefully and leaving humanity alone is likely not a scary concept to him.

Rigsy on the other hand has got reason to fill his pants as they keep yelling "murderer" at him.

Hey Clara's found the eponymous raven in a cage on the street!

The Doctor's curious about the cloaking device that keeps the street hidden and makes everyone look human, so Me explains it's actually due to telepathic lurkworms living in the lamp posts. It's created biologically, so I guess the computer glitch effect when the telepathy momentarily fails must be the characters seeing exactly what they'd expect a glitch in the system to look like due to, uh... telepathy.

Basically you can't trust your eyes on this street at all, unless you're in pain or distress, or otherwise distracted.

Here's Rigsy's supposed victim, a two-faced Janus (like the Roman god). Once face sees into the future, one into the past (like the Roman god). Not well enough to see this coming though. She was apparently killed by being knocked to the cobblestones, but they really don't know for sure. Rigsy was there and someone had to be blamed to calm people down.

But Rigsy was called here at 6 am by a number from a mystery phone, so it's very much seeming like he's been set up by the true murderer.

41 minutes left.

Unfortunately the investigation has to be delayed as someone else's execution is due. Commit any crime here and you face the raven when your tattoo time is up. This guy stole medical rations to save his wife and now she wants to save him by taking the chronolock tattoo from him and facing his fate, but he won't let her.

So the chronolock on his neck tickes down to zero, the raven leaves its cage, and he runs.

And now he's dead, killed by the raven. I kept waiting for his human face to glitch out and reveal he's a Slitheen or something, but nope. I guess they thought it'd make him less sympathetic.

Of course the raven's not really a bird, it just looks like one. It's actually a Quantum Shade, which is a kind of spirit that can chase you anywhere in time and space (even a few meters down the road), then kill you from the inside as a cloud of black smoke. There's some great smoky raven effects this episode by the way, it's very impressive.

With the interruption over, Clara decides that she and the Doctor will split up to question people on the street, with her playing good cop and him bad cop. Separately. I'm not sure she understands how good cop/bad cop is supposed to work.

But while the Doctor's off elsewhere, Clara's attempts to pull something behind his back, taking the chronolock tattoo from Rigsy for herself. He doesn't give up his death sentence easily, but he's got a baby to think about and she does have a cunning plan. Me promised that Clara would be under her protection and she controls the raven, so in theory transferring the countdown will take the metaphorical ticking clock off their heads.

Not that she's got any doubt they'll figure out who set him up before the timer runs down. She seems to be following Missy's advice from The Witch's Familiar, as she's assuming that she's going to win and then taking the steps to make it happen (by transferring someone else's doom to herself like the Doctor did in Mummy on the Orient Express).

33 minutes left.

Meanwhile the Doctor's chatting with the alien from the beginning, now looking considerably more human (though still acting kind of alien). I keep getting distracted by the woman selling the glittery LED pumpkin in the background though.

The alien takes the opportunity to whine about Rigsy calling for a doctor when they found him by the body yesterday. Not for the victim, for himself. Or more precisely 'the' doctor. So Me knew that Rigsy knew the Doctor all this time and likely wanted him to bring him here. It's definitely starting to seem like the trap street is a trap.

A visit to the murdered woman's daughter reveals the truth: Mayor Me is definitely up to something and she set up the mystery to lure the Doctor here. But the girl's ability to read people's pasts and futures doesn't work so great with the Doctor though due to his nature as a 2000 year old time traveller, so she can't just reveal the whole plot to him.

She didn't even know that her mother has been alive this whole time, frozen in that stasis pod! There was no murder, it was all a set up to get the Doctor here, and the mechanism to deactivate the pod requires a TARDIS key. I'm not sure how he could tell that just by looking at it, seems like a typical Yale lock to me, but then I'm not a Time Lord.

The Doctor goes and deliberately sticks his hand into the trap like an idiot and releases the mother, getting a teleport bracelet clamped onto his hand as reward for his selflessness. Then Me walks in to explain what's really going on here. She doesn't want the Doctor's TARDIS, but someone else wants the Doctor and she made a deal to give him to them in exchange for the safety of her street.

Plus they also want the Doctor's confession dial from The Magician's Apprentice, which is a bit weird.

Me goes to take the timer off Rigsy's neck only to find that Clara's got it instead. This is not a good thing. By taking the chronolock Clara changed the terms of the contact with the raven and cut Me out of the deal. Now there's nothing she can do to save her.

8 minutes left.

This wasn't the plan, no one was supposed to die, and now Me's got a bit of a problem as her people know that she made a promise to protect her. Plus she likes Clara... but not a fraction as much as the Doctor does.

So now she gets to see his angry face turned up to 11 and receive a selection of his threats.

But Clara calmly talks him down. She knows the Doctor gets a bit unhinged without a companion and she'd very much appreciate it if he didn't go on a roaring rampage of revenge in her name once she's gone. She made the choice that led to her death and she's going to own that mistake. It's funny though that she would never have put herself in danger here if he hadn't made an extra effort to protect her due to her addiction to throwing herself into danger.

Clara has spent the last series and a half trying to be just like the Doctor and in the end she was, even to the point of sacrificing herself to save her companion. The difference, the Doctor points out, is that he's less breakable than her. All those times he died saving people like Peri, Rose and Wilf he just changed his face and carried on, but she can't escape this.

Though on the other hand he saw her die twice over before he even met her and it's a habit she's kept up through this season, so who knows? They're sure spending a long while saying farewells if this is a fake out though.

With her 8 minute farewell time almost up, Clara goes out into the street to face the raven head on. She ran from certain death back in The Magician's Apprentice but now she's at a place where she can meet it without flinching, if it really is inevitable.

The way they've edited this makes it feel like the raven's taking forever to get around to killing her, but it actually leaves the cage long before the countdown is over so that it can find a comfy spot to spy on her. Then shortly after the clock reaches zero the raven flies into her and... nothing happens! Maybe the Quantum Shade only hurts the guilty, or perhaps it respects that she's the only person who didn't run, but it looks like it's going to let her go!

Oh, no, hang on, she's screaming. That's not a good sign. We're getting shots of the screaming from all kinds of camera angles and then... she stops. In fact she looks like she's going to be okay! I knew they weren't going to give a companion a pointless death over a tragic misunderstanding of quantum raven contract terms!

Oh. Well at least she's not going to be eaten by carnivorous eye gunk due to her nap in the Morpheus pod now.

I think that makes Clara the first proper companion permanently killed off since Doctor Who came back in 2005. I suppose you can count the Ponds as well, though dying in their 80s off screen isn't really the same thing. Clara nearly got a similar ending in Last Christmas as the Doctor ran into her as an elderly woman and decided that this somehow meant he couldn't go back and have more adventures with her when she was young, but that dark fate was averted when Jenna Coleman signed up for another year. Instead Clara died a painful death at maybe not even 30 years old, and her friends and relatives will never know how it happened.

The episode's not quite over yet though, as the Doctor still has that bracelet clamped to his arm. I bet he could've gotten rid of it by now while everyone was distracted but he wants to meet the person who put Me up to this and caused Clara's death, so that he can show them his Malcolm Tucker face.

The teleporter activates and the Doctor's taken away somewhere.



Surprise post-credits tag! They're breaking with the format all over the place this series, with the Doctor speaking straight to camera in Before the Flood and Sleep No More having a found footage gimmick without opening titles. It's a shame Rigsy didn't sign his work though, as then it'd be a tag about a tag.

Hang on, how did he remember that Clara died? I thought people had their memories erased when they left the trap street to protect its existence, that's why he didn't remember he was innocent. Never mind, it's a cool ending.


Damn, the Doctor's doing pretty terrible lately, with two major losses in a row. First he lost the entire human race to the Morpheus signal in Sleep No More and now he's lost Clara too!

Though to be honest I don't actually believe that Sleep no More will lead to anything more tragic than a sequel and I'm not entirely convinced that Clara's out of the game either. Mainly because she died in a street lit by 'nothing you see can be trusted' worms, right next to a stasis machine and a woman who came back from the dead. But also because she died a tragic pointless death to pay off an arc about her growing recklessness and that doesn't seem heroic enough for the longest running companion of the current run. I feel like she's got to pull a Danny Pink and come back for a triumphant encore.

This is the trouble with all the death fake outs over the last few series. It's hard to have a proper reaction to someone dying when no one ever stays dead! Even characters who were 'absolutely not ever coming back' dead like River Song and the Brigadier came back as a psychic image and a cyberman!

But this episode was one of the better episodes of the series for me. I'm not sure I'd rate it as high as Rigsy's last episode Flatline, but I definitely feel a lot more positive about it than Sleep No More. It was nice to see the Doctor and his companion (and her companion), out solving the mystery as a science team, even if it took them half the bloody episode to reach the trap street and get the proper story started! Well, more like ten minutes actually, but it felt longer.

The trap street was pretty well realised for a TV episode too, even if having the background characters mumble 'murderer' all the time made it hard for me to take their Harry Potter secret street society seriously. A sanctuary for Doctor Who villains who've had enough is an interesting idea and it seems like one they could revisit, even if it's just another place for characters to ask around when they're after information.

I'm not 100% on board with the magic raven bullshit though, but they left most of how it works as a mystery so it's hard to say that it couldn't work how it does. In fact most of the insane things it can do are told to us rather than shown, so there's zero evidence it actually can follow people across the universe and to the ends of time, and who even tests that anyway? Plus they threw the word 'quantum' onto it so that means it's sciency!

In fact the lack of annoyances in the story let me focus on my annoyance with the music, which wasn't entirely on the episode's side for the whole runtime. It tended to trip things up for me at times, especially at Clara's dramatic farewell, which was straying close to being Clara's melodramatic farewell. Then again you could play the Nyan Cat music over the top of those last few scenes and they'd still work due to Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman bringing the acting without overplaying it. If there's one thing the Doctor Who crew always nails it's casting the main characters, and Clara's successor has a hard act to follow.

Okay I just tested the Nyan Cat thing and it's not actually true. Still a decent farewell for a great companion though.

Doctor Who will return with either Heaven Sent or Hell Bent, I can never remember which comes first. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures it's Deep Space Nine's The Nagus. Can't say I'm looking forward to it.

Please feel free to leave me a comment if you've got any opinions about Face the Raven or my writing. The comment box's hunger for fresh feedback can never be satiated.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, you're right, the raven itself was a bit wishy washy -- or timey wimey -- in its explanation. I suppose it doesn't matter because it's there to drive the drama but it niggles a bit that it doesn't make much sense.