Well, we probably all knew this was coming sooner or later. It doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.
As is the case with Doctor Who, all good things must eventually come to an end. “Face the Raven” proves to be many things over the course of its hour run—the return of old allies, the exploration of a new world cleverly hidden amidst our own, the kickoff to an epic season concluder, etc. What it all boils down to, however, is this—“Face the Raven” is Clara Oswald’s (for now) departure episode. I say “for now,” because I’m positive Clara’s story will have some sort of epilogue that will coincide with the season finale. That being said, what this episode makes explicitly clear is that she is no longer in the land of the living.
With one or two exceptions (Susan, Sarah Jane), companion departures were rarely given any kind of dramatic weight in the classic series. The revised series has changed this, sending off companions in ways that have been emotionally lacerating (Amy/Rory), appropriately melodramatic (Rose), dramatically infuriating (Donna) and “eh, guess it’s time for me to leave now” (Martha). Clara’s demise fits comfortably in that first category. Even if it’s not the last we see of her, the experience leaves a scar, man. Unlike with the others, it’s not until halfway through the hour that one begin to recognize that the chess pieces are being put in place to knock Clara off the board.
Appropriately, the episode opens with The Doctor and Clara arriving in the TARDIS, having just completed yet another time adventure. How exactly Clara managed to get them banned from “the second most beautiful garden in all of time and space” will never be explained because their conversation is interrupted by a ringing TARDIS phone. The caller is Rigsy, the affable graffiti artist who the duo teamed up with back in last season’s highlight episode, “Flatline.” Rigsy is concerned, because he woke up with no memory of where he was for all of the day before. What’s more, there’s a tattoo on the back of his neck that is counting down to zero with each passing minute. Upon inspecting this strange phenomenon, The Doctor recognizes it as being 1.) alien in nature, and 2.) deadly. With Rigsy now having a wife and baby girl to think about, The Doctor takes on his case and the team goes about trying to locate a hidden alien community that might indicate the tattoo’s origins.
One of Doctor Who’s best qualities has been its ability to spin fairly mundane objects and occurrences into something distinctly alien (i.e. The Weeping Angels). Here, The Doctor indicates that Londoners pass a street leading into an alien realm everyday but that, because of a built-in misdirection system, passer-bys either ignore it, or forget what they’ve seen. The trio eventually locates a (Harry Potter reference alert) Diagon Alley-type street filled with a various assortment of aliens. What’s more, their mayor is none other than Ashildr, who both placed the tattoo (or “chronolock”) on Rigsy’s body and wiped his memory. The reason? He has been convicted of murdering a local alien named Anna. Specifically, he was found standing over her dead body. Taking a cue from the street’s security system, “misdirection” is a key word here, since the episode is all about leading the audience into what appears to be an alien-themed murder-mystery, only to have the rug pulled out from under them in the final third.
Naturally, The Doctor and Clara both believe that Rigsy is being set-up, and that he was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Ashildr is inclined to believe them, but herein lies one of the great wrinkles that makes Doctor Who’s world-building second-to-none—the residents need an outsider to be responsible for this mess, otherwise, everyone will be looking at their neighbors with suspicion and the carefully cultivated community will collapse into chaos. Right now, the fear of the malevolent “quantum shade,” which takes the form of a raven and kills anyone with a chronolock that reaches zero, is the only thing keeping everyone in check. As a demonstration of the region’s harsh laws, one elderly man is put to death for merely stealing medical supplies for his ailing wife.
While The Doctor interrogates the locals, Clara comes up with a possible strategy based on the fact that the executed man’s wife had begged him to pass along the chronolock tattoo to her. Apparently, someone afflicted with the tattoo can pass it along to a willing new host. Thinking like The Doctor, Clara develops a plan: Rigsy will pass along the chronolock to her and, because Ashildr has guaranteed that no harm will befall her, it will buy them time to prove Rigsy’s innocence. At first, Rigsy refuses to put Clara in danger, but he’s quickly reminded that he has a wife and daughter to think about and promptly goes along with the plan.
In the end, The Doctor discovers that Anna, the deceased alien, is not actually dead; rather, the whole thing was a set-up by Ashildr to confiscate his TARDIS key and strap a teleportation device to his wrist. Apparently she is under pressure from the ever-mysterious “they” (my money is on Gallifrey and the resurrected Time Lords) to deliver The Doctor, or else her street will no longer be safe. The convoluted way in which she goes about this (put Anna in a quasi-freeze state, frame The Doctor’s former ally, assume he’ll figure out he needs to use his TARDIS key to free Anna, etc.) is probably a bit too farfetched in retrospect, but, then again, the plan probably needed to be labyrinthian in order to lure The Doctor in.
When Ashildr offers to remove Rigsy’s chronolock, Clara finally reveals that she took it upon herself to take away his burden. Ashildr’s horrified reaction confirms what many viewers have probably already suspected—it can’t be removed. Ashildr promised the quantum shade/raven a soul. She would have been able to break that contract in the case of Rigsy. With Clara taking on the chronolock, however, Ashildr’s been locked out of the deal and there’s nothing she can do to stop the raven. In simple terms—Clara’s death is imminent.
It’s in these final ten minutes that the episode’s priorities shift. In an instant, The Doctor and Clara find themselves forced to say goodbye to one another. Such a volcanic situation reveals Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman at their absolute best, as each works through the various stages of death in drastically different ways. After an initial burst of shock, The Doctor’s demeanor turns to terrifying rage. He demands that Ashildr fix the situation, or else he will expose her street to the world. When she protests, he coldly responds, “I can do whatever the hell I like! You’ve read the stories, you know who I am. And in all that time, did you ever hear anything about anyone who stopped me?” When she tries to appeal to his role as “The Doctor,” he doubles down. “The Doctor is no longer here—you are stuck with me. And I will end you and everything you love!” Not since David Tennant proclaimed his own God-like authority back in “The Waters of Mars” have we seen The Doctor go quite as dark as he does here.
Clara, having gone through her shock period, recognizes her fate and, rather than go out kicking and screaming, decides to take a cue from her lost love, Danny Pink, and “die right.” She does, however, recognize that she needs to extinguish (as best she can) The Doctor’s fury before she departs. The ensuing scene stands as one of the most emotionally charged and beautifully written in the show’s recent history. While the Clara character has fallen victim to bouts of underwritten characterizations and half-baked arcs over the past two-and-a-half seasons, Jenna Coleman has never ceased to be an affable presence whose youthful enthusiasm (eventually) proved to be a nice foil to Capaldi’s endearingly grumpy Doctor. And though one would imagine Clara’s multiple deaths and resurrections would dilute the power of the scene, this (thankfully) proves not to be the case. All props to episode writer Sarah Dollard, who crafts the kind of heartfelt exchange that makes me just want to transcribe the whole encounter rather than merely offer commentary on it.
As The Doctor and Clara embrace for what could be the last time, The Doctor begs her to stay with him in her final moments. She politely refuses. “Everybody does this alone,” she explains. “This is as brave as I know how to be. I know it’s going to hurt you, but please… be a little proud of me.” With that, Clara walks onto the street. She raises her arms in acceptance of her fate. The music swells. The deadly raven enters her body. She falls to the ground. Dead. And then my room gets very, very dusty—if you catch my drift.
With his friend gone, The Doctor prepares to be transported to a mysterious new place. Before doing so, he turns to Ashildr and delivers a final message: “I strongly advise you to keep out of my way. You’ll find that it’s a very small universe when I’m angry with you.” I can comfortably say this, as someone who’s seen Capaldi in every episode of The Thick of It—he has never been scarier than he is when delivering those lines.
If “Face the Raven” has any overarching set-backs, it’s the feeling that this is merely the prelude to a much larger story, which, in the end, makes the episode feel a bit bifurcated between the more standalone murder-mystery elements and the bigger question about who would go through all this trouble to reach The Doctor. Ultimately, much like Season Three’s “Utopia,” which concluded by reintroducing The Master, before pushing the season into the (admittedly horrid) two-part finale, it may not be best to fully judge this entry until the rest of the season has played out.
Though, again, I doubt very much this is the official end of Clara in the Who world, it is the end of a certain chapter. And a brilliantly written chapter it is. As if to rub salt in the wound, the episode has a post-credit scene of Rigsy offering a memorial to Clara.
Goodbye, Impossible Girl.