There’s something curiously low energy about “Face the Raven.” It all feels rather like a bit of Harry Potter fan fiction retrofitted into the Doctor Who universe, with its secret London street of alien races and bizarre, mystical punishment that comes in form of a raven that’s actually an inescapable Dementoreqsue smoke monster that kills you if it touches you. (Why the punishment for breaking the rules of the street isn’t simply to be exiled from this seemingly idyllic safe haven is beyond me. Better to have an overcomplicated system with all sorts of loopholes and tattoos, I guess?) The murder mystery at its center doesn’t feel all that compelling, the script forces the characters make enormous jumps to conclusions, and even the momentous events of the final few minutes feel, well, strangely tacked on. Let’s dig in.
When Rigsy from last season’s “Flatline” discovers a mysterious tattoo on his neck that’s counting down the minutes, he contacts Clara and the Doctor for help. The Doctor determines it’s from a forgotten encounter with aliens, yet within mere moments of making that determination the Doctor decides there must be a hidden street somewhere in London where aliens live undetected. It’s a huge leap. Why wouldn’t he consider alien abduction? Another invasion? Some other explanation for Rigsy’s alien contact? What makes him think it’s a hidden street? Well, nothing really, except that the script needs him to, and of course he’s right. Such a street does exist, and it’s being run by Me (a.k.a. Ashildr, the immortal Viking girl) as a kind of refugee camp for aliens who are tired of fighting and violence and wars. We see Judoon, Sontarans, Cybermen, Ood, Silurians, and Ice Warriors all living there in harmony. Me tells the Doctor he better be careful because all these races (except the Ood, I guess) were his enemy once, which makes this street a very dangerous place for him to be. How fun that would have been to explore! Instead, the episode ignores it immediately after it’s mentioned. No one gets in the Doctor’s face. No one says, “Hey, you’re the asshole who blew up my ship,” or, “Sorry about that time I tried to laser your face off.” No one even seems to care that he’s there.
They do care that Rigsy is there, though, because they all believe he murdered one of them, despite any evidence outside the fact that he was found standing over the body. (Oddly enough, this happens to the Doctor constantly in the classic series. He lands somewhere, finds a body, is discovered at that exact moment, and is immediately accused of being the killer. This is literally the opening scene to easily half of the serials.) A murder mystery is a great hook for any story, as is a ticking clock, and linking the need to find the real killer to that countdown should make for narrative gold. Except here, our heroes decide it’s less important to find the real killer than to just convince everyone on the street that Rigsy is innocent, which is without a doubt the least narratively compelling way to go about solving a mystery. Anyway, they find a psychic who tells them almost everything they need to know, the Doctor immediately figures out the rest, the victim turns out to not even be dead, and it’s all a trap set by Me to hand the Doctor over to some mysterious forces who have threatened to otherwise destroy her secret enclave. In other words, it’s all a set up for an episode yet to come, which makes it all a bit of a shrug.
After giving an incredible performance in “The Woman Who Lived,” Maisie Williams seems over it here. Her performance is overly subdued, with none of the charm and energy she brought to it previously. I understand that her character is older now, perhaps wearier, and that she’s concerned about the trap she set for the Doctor, but her presence barely registers for me throughout the episode. Seriously, it could have been anyone in charge of that street. (I’m also upset that the now-immortal Sam Swift isn’t there with her, too. He’s awesome, and to be honest I was hoping for a romance between them!) I was excited when I heard Maisie Williams would be back for this episode, but I was let down by how small of a role she ultimately played. I suspect Me will be back for the finale, though, and I hope it’s a return to form.
That “Face the Raven” is also Clara’s last episode is the only thing that makes it special. (Presumably her last, I should say. I half expect her to appear again one way or another in the finale, just like Me.) That she sacrifices her life to protect Rigsy from the raven is fitting and brave — and also feels completely unnecessary in such a lightweight episode. That’s why I said up top that it feels tacked on. I was never a big fan of Clara, and if this is how she goes so be it, but it all feels very forced.
The Doctor Who revamp has always had a problem with companions leaving. In the classic series, companions left for all sorts of reasons. Some realized the TARDIS had taken them somewhere they were needed (I’m thinking of Nyssa staying to help cure the sick on the Terminus space station, or Romana staying in e-space to help free the Tharils from slavery); some left because they fell in love and wanted to start a new life with their partner (like the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan, who stays on 22nd century Earth with Dalek-fighter David Campbell, or Leela, who confusingly decides to stay on Gallifrey to be with Andred, one of the Chancellery Guard, with whom she has very few scenes or, for that matter, chemistry); or they’d just had enough and wanted to go home (like Ben and Polly, who left the TARDIS together as soon as they were back on Earth in their own time, or Tegan, who had seen too much Dalek violence and was over it). But the revamp, from the start, has been so in love with the idea of the Doctor that it literally cannot think of a reason why anyone would want to stop traveling with him, so they have to come up with big reasons for their departures: Rose got stuck in an alternate universe (although she chose to stay there even after finding a way back, so whatever), Donna had to have her memory wiped or her head would explode or something, Amy and Rory got zapped back in time to the 1930s and just lived out their lives there because for handwaving reasons the Doctor couldn’t go get them, despite having a vessel that can go anywhere in time and space, and now Clara has to die. No wonder I like Martha so much: she’s the only companion who decided to leave the TARDIS for her own reasons (eye-rolling ones, if you ask me — “You’ll never be my boyfriend!” — but still, they’re her own) and went on to become an awesome recurring character on both Doctor Who and Torchwood. I would love to see the show do that again, but it seems determined to have every companion’s end be a final one. But the problem is that if every companion has to die or come to some other tragic end, it stops being fun. (It also runs the risk of making the audience stop engaging with them, because they know it’ll only end in heartbreak.) Anyway, I still think Clara should have run off with Danny Pink last season and been like, “Byeeeeee!”
Actually, I suspect that’s going to be the final scene of the season, perhaps in Missy’s computerized afterlife, which as far as we know is still operational. But what about all this stuff about the Hybrid? The season has been ominously hinting at its importance from the start, and now it’s only got two episodes left in which to deal with it. I like to think Steven Moffat has learned his lesson about bringing up plot points only to discard them before anything comes of them (remember when the TARDIS didn’t like Clara?) so I fully expect something to be made of it in the next two episodes. Or at least, I hope it will. You can’t take anything for a granted with a show that thinks replacing the sonic screwdriver with sonic sunglasses is a good idea.