Writer: Sarah Dollard.
Director: Justin Molotnikov.
Main Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Joivan Wade, Maisie Williams.
Hello, Whovians! Well well well. We’ve come to rather an important point, haven’t we? Series 9 has flown by and now here we are: part one of the season’s three-part finale (hasn’t it been a while since that’s happened, eh?). We’re off to contemporary Earth for a brief stop-off, a meeting with some old friends, and a farewell to some others. It’s time to ‘Face the Raven’.
(A brief note in place of my usual SPOILER WARNING. This is the beginning of the finale, so spoilers will be coming from here on out. Be warned.)
We open, as with quite a few prior episodes at this point, to the Doctor and Clara having evidently already had an adventure of their own off-screen. The mood is a jolly one, albeit marred slightly by the Doctor’s comments on Clara’s increasing recklessness. They’re interrupted, however, by a phone call to the TARDIS line. Clara answers to find herself speaking to Rigsy (last seen in Series 8’s ‘Flatline’) who’s apparently got…a tattoo. Disgruntled by his seemingly-flippant usage of the TARDIS phone, Clara informs him that it’s specifically for emergencies only. Rigsy, however, insists that it is an emergency as the thing happens to be counting down to something. His curiosity piqued, the Doctor sets off for Earth immediately…
It might be the most low-key opening to Series 9 thus far, to be honest, feeling more like an opening we’ve come to expect than the season’s typically experimental pre-credit sequences. That’s not a bad thing of course, just an observation. It’s quite interesting because the episode that follows is also rather low-key, at least in scale. Writer Sarah Dollard (in her first episode for the show, incidentally!) keeps things very contained. Most of the story takes place on a single street in a handful of locations, and the entire series of events occur over the space of a scant few hours. Certainly one of the least grandiose episodes so far this season on paper, in practice it feels anything but. This is the first part of what promises to be a groundbreaking season finale, after all. Changes to the status quo are to be expected in full force, and ‘Face the Raven’ shows us just a teaser of how shocking these changes might become. Naturally, the cliffhanger at the end is an immense one as is only appropriate, giving us a fair idea of things to come.
As far as actual plot structure goes, it’s a good old mystery episode and it’s paced excellently throughout. The story unravels slowly, in such a way that we come to revelations at roughly the same time as the Doctor himself. There’s something very satisfying about the way in which the TARDIS crew investigates the mystery at hand, going from examining maps to a fairly spectacular use of the TARDIS over London to simply asking around and getting information from various persons of interest. It all feels very logical, in other words; events flow into one another very smoothly. The crux of the episode, as is to be expected, revolves around setting up the stories to follow and there are plenty of hooks leaning in that direction, though these are largely kept to the last ten minutes or so of proceedings. Make no mistake, it’s definitely a setup tale, but it easily stands as a story in its own right.
The episode takes a good deal of influence from the likes of Diagon Alley and, much more so, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere in its setting, which is a truly fascinating one. The initial idea for the episode as described by Dollard sprung from the concept of a ‘trap street’, explained quite neatly in the episode itself by way of Clara. It’s a thoroughly fitting idea for Doctor Who, a street that doesn’t exist so to speak, and it’s executed wonderfully. With many representatives from the Whoniverse’s nigh-endless roster of aliens all packed into one locale, the story takes quite a few pains to show us just how varied a culture such an arrangement would create. I’ve got to give great commendation to the prop department, the costumers and the set designers for this one because they really did go all out. It feels like a living, breathing little pocket of civilisation that the Doctor’s arrival has disturbed and that’s extremely important for such a story to establish.
We’ll move onto the cast, and once again I’m going to vary up the usual order so we’ll start with the guests of the story! Returning from last year’s standout episode ‘Flatline’ is Joivan Wade as Rigsy, who’s changed fairly significantly since last we saw him! He’s got a child (or a “new human” as the Doctor says) and things are going fairly well for him…except for his impending doom, of course. Bringing back such a character is a nice way of kicking the plot off without too much time wasted on introductions. Naturally, Rigsy has virtually no idea what’s going on (conveyed quite hilariously by Wade throughout) but we can see the effects that even a single meeting with the TARDIS team has had on him, especially at the end of the episode in one particularly heartwarming/heartwrenching scene.
Also making her return is Series 9’s newest star, Maisie Williams as Ashildr (though now she goes by Mayor Me). She’s as shady as she was in her last appearance; arguably more so in fact! It’s quite interesting watching this character develop over the season, and a real credit to Williams as an actor that her performance can vary enough to make it credible. From scared child to anti-heroic highwayman, Ashildr takes on the part of this episode’s primary antagonist and she’s quite a scary one. Having lived several lifetimes now, the trend of her immortality taking her empathy away has reached its peak. Her heart is in the right place, certainly, but she’s callous and cold throughout, very ruthless in her way of doing things. It’ll be interesting to observe where she goes to should we ever see her again!
I mentioned above that this episode is the beginning of a shift in the status quo, and we move on to the biggest of its changes. Three years ago in 2012, the Eleventh Doctor bumped into a young Victorian governess named Clara Oswald. A short time later, she joined the TARDIS officially as his companion. Now, three years and one regeneration later (a fairly incredible run as companion in terms of length), the story of Clara Oswald has reached its end. While she will make one further appearance in the series, ‘Face the Raven’ marks the swansong of Jenna Coleman’s tenure in the TARDIS. For an entire season now Clara has been becoming more reckless, less careful, and ultimately more like the Doctor. Now, at last, she pays the price for this. Coleman plays Clara beautifully in this story, bringing every facet of her development over the last year into play, and her final scene in the episode is wonderfully written. It’s a logical culmination of her character, it makes perfect sense, and ultimately it’s an incredibly fitting end that reinforces the ever-present message in the show: the Doctor changes people, and rarely for the better.
With that, we’ll move on to the man himself. Peter Capaldi as the Doctor has shown us a tremendous amount of versatility in his performance, which consistently remains the best part of an already fairly stellar season of Doctor Who. What’s going to come next, however, seems likely to topple everything we’ve seen so far. The Doctor is the centre of the mystery in this tale, something which he’s quite eager to figure out. However, by the end of this first part of the finale the Doctor has well and truly lost, and lost everything at that. Capaldi’s portrayal of an absolutely broken and furious Doctor, more so than he’s yet been in this run, is terrifying to behold both to the characters in the episode and those out of it. Where other Doctors in his situation might have been reduced to roaring anger, the Twelfth Doctor never so much as raises his voice as he delivers some of the most terrifying threats he has ever spoken aloud. It’s honestly chilling to watch, and leaves the viewers sitting on tenterhooks for the next episode. Things will be very interesting for the Doctor from this point on, and I suspect we’re going to see some things we have never seen before.
All in all? ‘Face the Raven’ is an enjoyable watch that just feels very, very Doctor Who in nature. It’s a whimsical concept that quickly goes off the rails and becomes horrifying. What’s arguably more important, however, is what it’s building to. This promises to be the most interesting and groundbreaking Doctor Who finale in possibly all the modern series, and based on what we know is coming, I can safely say I’m ready to give it that chance.
An entertaining and quirky episode with a fantastic setting and great characterisation.
Do join us next week for…blimey, I’ll leave it at saying that next week’s review is going to be very unusual. Let’s just say the cast section is going to be dramatically shorter, eh? ‘Heaven Sent’ is on the way!