The episode itself was, like last week’s, something of a mixed-bag, a bunch of fairly incongruous ideas tied together and saved by a conclusion that pretty much redeemed it. The unconvincing opening scene tried to sell us the idea that Clara and the Doctor were having an awful lot of fun that we weren’t privy to, before once again laying it on rather thickly how much closer Clara was to the end of her days in the TARDIS than the beginning – and then opening out into a slim story that revolved around a trap for the Doctor. The problem wasn’t that we’ve been here before – the trap itself was one of the more persuasive elements of this week’s instalment – but that the plot necessitated the Doctor making imaginative leaps that weren’t there to be made. Two weeks after a fortnight’s worth of aliens masquerading as human beings in broad daylight (remembered for us in the dialogue lest we forget), it felt inconsistent that the Doctor knew exactly where to start looking for this week’s antagonist based on nothing more substantial than what was apparently a hunch; we’ve faced aliens hiding out in the streets of London enough times in the last fifty years not to automatically assume they have an entire hidden street in which to do it. Once we arrived in the trap street – a great idea that might’ve carried an episode on its own – and discovered it to be an alien refuge – another great idea that again might’ve carried an episode on its own – the contradictions piled up; if married Cybermen seeking medical supplies was odd, then the Doctor seeing the hallucination having experienced so much alien life (not to mention being an alien himself) was odder – and while the Victorian setting was visually pleasing, intellectually it felt like artifice.
The “chronolock” itself, coming after last week’s almost explicit plundering of The Ring, was an interesting idea that might have worked better had the time span it allowed its victims given the story more urgency. As it was, the first half of the episode played out with very little sense of pressure to solve anything.
Fortunately, and in spite of Maisie Williams appearing out of her depth having impressed so much in The Girl Who Died and much of The Woman Who Lived (Joivan Wade on the other hand was much better than in his previous appearance), once the concept of facing the raven had been introduced, the episode became much more streamlined and fairly motored its way towards the inevitable and yet still surprising climax. Surprising, not because of how Clara met her fate (which had been signposted well in advance of it happening), but because of how the Doctor was involved and in some ways responsible for bringing it about. Ironic that the Impossible Girl who sacrificed her other selves so many times to save the various Doctors, here became collateral in a plot that we have yet to learn is even proving a threat to him.
Face the Raven had an uncommon ambience that might have been encroaching threat had the pacing been tighter and the characterisation less diverse, and after Catherine Tregenna’s superb evocation of the effect that unrequired immortality might have on a person four weeks ago, Sarah Dollard’s script seemed almost wilfully to shun much in the way of character beats. But once we entered the latter half of the fifty minutes and some of the pieces started to fall into place, many of the earlier discrepancies began to matter less as our curiosity about how far they’d go in killing Clara off came to the fore. And there was little in the way of shyness, about any of it.
Here Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi, as if either of them were ever not going to be brilliant, really sold the helplessness of the situation – and the resolve it required to accept it. Capaldi’s never been less than electric in a single minute of his two series in the TARDIS, but Coleman’s been sold a little short by her material on occasion this year and her acting has had the momentary wobble or two. But here she was magnificent, every revolution and new conviction of her last few minutes utterly real – and whether we’d been on board for the rest of her journey or not, it would have taken a hard heart not to feel something as the raven approached. The dialogue between Clara and the Doctor as the realisation dawned that there was nothing to be done, was simply riveting, and while for some it might have gone on for just a minute or two too long, there’s no question the characters and the actors playing them had earned it. Even better was the Doctor’s threat to Ashildr in the aftermath. As for Clara’s actual death scene, in keeping with the drawn-out emotional ringer that the build-up to it had put us through, there were no cutaways during the moment itself; the younger among the audience weren’t spared a second of her pain (it is to be hoped an acquaintance with the Harry Potter films will have at least helped prepare them for it – perhaps the reason for this week’s Diagon Alley influence?), and but for Murray Gold’s inappropriately melodic music (when something equally as bold but much more subtle in construction would have been preferred), Clara’s final moments were given a sense of absolute finality that assured us they won’t be backed down from.
Was it right for Steven Moffat (albeit through an episode ostensibly written by Sarah Dollard) to finally actually kill off a companion, given the number of times we’ve had that threatened over the years – primarily by Russell T Davies, of course – only for it not to physically happen? Unlike atheist Davies, Moffat’s Doctor Who seems to posit an analogous afterlife in common with most religious beliefs (albeit as seen through the sci-fi prism of data ghosting and the like), with a number of major characters (River Song and Danny Pink among them) having ascended to some kind of heaven once their time was up; if Clara’s death is to have any kind of effect on the watching junior population (and we’ll presumably find out exactly where Clara ends up in as fortnight’s time, potentially in some kind of data core or Nethersphere of her own; the return of the Doctor’s confession dial perhaps being a clue or a facilitator as to where), then maybe it will be to send children back into religious studies with a new-found curiosity about what happens to us when we’re gone?
There is, doubtless, still a twist or two to come; after all, we are yet two hours shy of the end of Series 9. There is unquestionably a resolution to Clara’s death on the horizon, that might allow it to settle more easily in those impressionable minds – and while half the audience will cry “Cop out!” when it happens, there is another half that will take satisfaction in the placing of a full stop on her story. But for now we can instead celebrate how blistering Doctor Who can still be when it attends to silencing its critics, and if the first half of Face the Raven maybe failed to take flight, the soaring second half more or less made up for it.