Netflix UK TV review: Doctor Who Season 9, Episode 10 (Face The Raven)
Mark Harrison | On 22, Nov 2015
This is a spoiler-free review. Already seen it? Read on at the end for spoilers.
As ridiculous as it would seem to keep declaring episodes as the best of the season, Doctor Who’s ninth season has been ridiculously good and that continues, with bells on, in the cataclysmic Face The Raven. It’s the first episode from writer Sarah Dollard and she immediately puts herself in the upper tier, alonsgide writers such as Peter Harness and Jamie Mathieson, with a witty and imaginative tale.
Clara’s friend, Rigsy (Joivan Wade), calls the TARDIS when he wakes up with a mysterious tattoo that is counting down to something and has no memory of the last 24 hours. But what seems like a Hangover-like mystery turns out to be more sinister when the Doctor realises Rigsy has stumbled upon a trap street.
Trap streets would appear to be a cartographer’s signature (think of the recent film Paper Towns for a similar quirk of geography), but they’re not. Hidden behind a perception filter, these streets are where the dispossessed of the universe take refuge on Earth. The mayor of the street is familiar to the Doctor and Clara and unless the trap street’s residents can be persuaded otherwise, then Rigsy must face the raven that watches over their tentative peace.
Dollard works wonders with a distinctly Harry Potter-esque premise, dispelling any comparisons by making such fundamental Doctor Who out of it. Likewise, director Justin Molitnikov follows Sleep No More with a very contemporary episode and makes it feel really unique. In practical terms, the street is one of those budgeted, world-building exercises that raids the show’s costume department, but it’s not nearly as noticeable as, say, the scene in the Maldovarium from The Magician’s Apprentice, or absolutely all of A Good Man Goes To War. Face The Raven excels thanks to a tandem of creative writing and directing.
Moreover, it takes a terrific setting and a murder mystery plot that would be enough for any other episode, and makes it the stage for something altogether more unexpected. We’ll get to that, but it’s worth noting that the trap street is one of Who’s best executed concepts in a while and could easily serve as a locale for the series going forward, particularly given the characters at the heart of it.
Also somewhat surprising is Wade’s return as Rigsy. Although he appeared in last year’s finest episode, Flatline, he’s probably behind a number of one-off characters in most fans’ wishlists for returnees. We learn much more about him here than in his previous turn, but then he’s the unexpected catalyst for something bigger.
In a roundabout way, it makes sense that Rigsy came back in a story in which Clara acted in the Doctor’s stead – certainly, Flatline ended on a sour note as the Doctor commended his companion’s performance in his absence without necessarily approving of her behaviour. It’s fitting that when the character returns, Clara over-reaches, to tremendously dramatic effect.
That arc of Clara acting as recklessly as the Doctor has been going on at least as long as Rigsy has existed in the show, and Jenna Coleman’s finest hour coincides with that whole thing coming to a head, as her actions complicate an already fraught scenario even further. She’s at her best here, after a run of episodes in which she hasn’t had loads to do. Peter Capaldi is just as compelling when he’s in the back seat, but Coleman delivers a performance that is on the next level.
After last week’s divisive found footage episode, Face The Raven is the stuff of which fan favourites are made. It has a fiendishly clever idea at its centre, it’s witty and quotable and it builds to a hell of an ending. Some of its surprises were given away in advance, so if you’re reading this and still haven’t seen it, you really need to discover the rest for yourself, especially as it moves diagonally – or (ahem) Diagon Alley – into the final two parter.
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Additional notes (contains spoilers)
“Don’t run. Stay with me.”
Goodbye, Clara Oswald. If you didn’t know this was coming in this particular episode, her brave confrontation with death was a massive shock. It’s perfectly orchestrated throughout the episode, foreshadowed by her adrenaline junkie antics and then cemented when she responds to the reveal that Rigsy has been sentenced to death by taking his appointment with the raven, actually an unstoppable Quantum Shade, for herself.
In the last year, Death In Heaven and Last Christmas both offered potential exit ramps for the companion, but this one offers real closure and the Doctor’s reaction to it provided a vicious counterpoint to his plea for peace and understanding in The Zygon Inversion a few weeks ago; he’s mad as hell before, during and after Clara’s death.
Still, can we imagine that they will be able to resist at least one more scene featuring Jenna Coleman before the end of the season? If this were Clara’s last episode, we’d be really surprised. That said, we’ve had so many fake-outs already that it might be overkill, if we see her get out of her final folly. This is a solid ending to her story, and Clara would be the first companion to die (for realsies) since Adric in 1982’s Earthshock.
Also, Maisie Williams’ return as Ashildr/Me yielded very dramatic consequences. We learn that the Doctor has been trying to keep tabs on her, but some time since he lost track, she’s been approached (and apparently coerced) into helping to trap him here. She looked like the most likely Big Bad, but whoever “they” are, the Doctor will likely make them answer for Clara’s death. Whether or not we see Me again, the consequences of her actions here will reverberate through the show for the forseeable future.
For now though, this would seem to be the first part of a three-parter, just like Season 3’s Utopia before it. At the end of the story, the Doctor is forcibly teleported away by the arch-manipulators behind Me’s scheme. He doesn’t know where he’s going and he doesn’t know who has trapped him, but next week’s episode is the long-mooted one-hander for Capaldi. If it goes along the same lines as this season so far, the grand finale going to be a doozy.
Finally, you might have missed this unless you waited for the trailer, but the short post-credits scene with graffiti artist Rigsy tagging the abandoned TARDIS in tribute to the Doctor and Clara was a nice touch. It wouldn’t have fit anywhere else in a very packed story, but we’re glad it made it in. (You can watch it on BBC iPlayer here at the 46.20 mark.)
Photo: Simon Ridgway / BBC