The Only Way, Doctor Who: Face the Raven, Reviews, 22/11/2015

I’m glad this episode was as good as it is. From the top,

SPOILERS

because Face the Raven will go down as the best companion death episode that’s ever been done in Doctor Who. Though I’ll be the first to admit that this was about the right time for Clara to go, the actual death of a companion is some serious business. 

Steven Moffat often talks about how important it is that
Doctor Who not become stuck repeating its past. It has
to try new things to survive. So I'm glad Clara's death
comes when it does. It's the departure of a regular cast
member that, while superbly effective, isn't treated
with the bombastic context of a season finale.

But it made for legendary Doctor Who.I mean, we’re not dealing with Adric here. 

Let’s contrast the case. Adric’s death was a needless ploy in a story that would probably have had him leaving the TARDIS anyway to return to his home dimension. 

Instead, his death became the perfect symbol of how wasted he was on the show. A decent, if over-earnest, young student-style companion to Tom Baker, he had no place in the Classic Season 19 TARDIS crew. With Tom, Adric was half of a double-act, the companion that would mess up and get into trouble.

Adric was always that type of character: he was smart enough to think he knew how to fix a problem, but not smart enough to figure out the right thing to do. Fine when you’re the only companion. 

But Classic Season 19 introduced a less domineering Doctor in Peter Davison, the adventurous and stumbling Tegan, and the more assured scientist Nyssa. The two new companions had a brilliant dynamic together since Castrovalva. Adric had no place left. He was just flailing around on the TARDIS.

So while Adric had to leave the show, there was nothing particularly compelling about how he left. He was a companion whose potential on the show ran out of steam when there was plenty left to explore in the rest of the crew. So Adric had to leave, but he didn’t have to die.

It was an event – let’s kill a long-running companion for the first time ever – but without a reason. The death of a companion in Doctor Who is serious enough, both in its rarity and its power in the show, that it becomes a major event. 

While my main argument in this post is that Clara didn't
have the potential in her character to stay on Doctor
Who anymore, at least her death was properly tragic.
Adric's death is, in contrast, celebrated among Doctor
Who fandom as something we love to watch happen
to one of the most annoying characters in the show's
history. Kind of undercuts the event's drama.
And that major event was for a character who was such a damp squib as Adric? Trying to generate powerful drama without any attempt at establishing it over the long term. Mistaking a vague sketch of the dramatic for the real thing.

But let’s leave aside John Nathan-Turner’s narrative aesthetics. What can this teach us about Clara?

Her death was powerful. A beautiful and affecting moment. The direction certainly helped, with understated music playing over her otherwise silent scream. Her final speech to the Doctor was also moving, and cut straight to the heart of their relationship.

She was the voice of conscience that saves the Doctor from being a true genocidal killer.* An opposition to cynicism is probably the ethical stance that Doctor Who most consistently makes, and it’s at the heart of the show.

* And Doctor Who from revolving around an aching abyss of moral contradiction, the hero who murdered billions of innocents.

The Doctor is a character who, as he’s developed, has become someone dedicated to finding a better resolution to intractable conflict. “There’s always a better way.” That’s exactly what The Zygon Inver(s)ion was all about a couple of weeks ago.

The one terrifying moment where this broke down was the Time War, which was overwritten when Clara Oswald appeared in its climactic moment. The Doctor today is a harsh and intense character, especially as he’s developed under Peter Capaldi. Such a character can easily succumb to cynicism, the damnation of everyone because of their situation.

Conscience is the voice of calm, the engine of sympathy. It’s why the Doctor, after Clara’s last instructions, tells Ashildir to hide from him, so as not to risk his anger. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

Clara had to leave Doctor Who because she had run out of
potential, a curious concept. See, Doctor Who thrives by
doing something new, building on what had gone before
to change completely. Its successes are lessons that let
you make new mistakes later. The driving concept
of Ashildir's character illustrates this principle.
Conscience is the foundation of ethical behaviour, our inner motive not to give into to the worst solution for the world. It’s the kick of energy that makes us care for those who suffer. Clara’s role in The Day of the Doctor put this aspect of her character at the forefront.

So it’s narratively fitting that her death would call back to this central part of her character, which was so important to the most important episode of modern Doctor Who.** It’s also fitting that Ashildir, whose current villainous nature is the result of the Doctor’s misplaced conscience, is responsible for Clara’s death.

** The second most important episode being The Time of the Doctor, for kicking away this moronic continuity of the 12-regenerations limit that was holding Doctor Who’s future hostage.

Getting ahead of myself again.

She also mentioned Danny Pink, whose own death (all three of them) were essential to the climax of Clara’s most important narrative arc on the show.

I originally wrote in my posts on Death in Heaven that this was Clara’s perfect departure, her and the Doctor’s tragic moments of personal loss. But since Jenna Coleman returned to Doctor Who, they needed another year out of the character.

The problem is that when you have a storyline as brilliant as Clara and Danny’s relationship over the last season, it’s damn tough to top. It’s no surprise that they couldn’t find something else as powerful. 

So Clara found herself being written out of her own show. Little by little, she had less and less to do this season. A substantial lead role in The Magician’s Apprentice became the Master’s stooge in The Witch’s Familiar

Ashildir is immortal, and The Woman Who Lived sees
her compare herself to the Doctor, as a fellow
immortal. But the Doctor is an immortal who can
change, each regeneration remixing his personality in
a new way each time. Ashildir is an immortal who
remains constantly the same.
Under the Lake / Before the Flood was a pretty ordinary story with an ordinary role for her. And her role was big enough in The Girl Who Died as in most episodes with a strong guest character. 

But then The Woman Who Lived was a solo Doctor adventure, with a single appearance from Clara. The Zygon Inva(er)sion saw Clara totally sidelined in favour of Bonnie. Jenna Coleman gave her best performance of the year, apart from this week’s, as Bonnie. It was another sign that the character was through. Coleman’s performance was most interesting when she was playing another character.

Her story arc this year was especially thin. All they really had for Clara this year was that she was growing especially reckless. Without Danny, she really didn’t have a home to go back to – and we never see any of her home, family, or Coal Hill School this season. 

So her joy at the wonders of the universe becomes a mad adventurousness, thrill-seeking, risk-taking. Compare it to her love story with Danny and its conflict of Clara’s love of travelling with Danny’s joy in building a community and life.

Clara’s thin development this season finally gave in to the initial complaint about her character, that she was a stereotypical generic competent companion. This complaint was based in a perceptual mistake of the audience that believed it. 

Her first season’s story arc, the mystery of the multiple Clara’s, was a red herring to trick the audience out of seeing her real story. Clara’s first season was the story of a woman with a conscience powerful enough that she’d give herself up to save someone she cared about. 

Clara is a young woman with an incredible sense of joy at the beauty of the universe, but who also had this deep ethical core. The same Clara who risked sacrificing herself to save the Doctor and the universe in Night of the Doctor is the same one who did sacrifice herself to save her friend Rigsy in Face the Raven.

Each time we see Ashildir, she becomes less interesting.
In The Girl Who Died, she's remarkably creative enough
to merit the Doctor saving her, and to become the hero
of the story. By Face the Raven, she's become another
typical Doctor Who petty tyrant with a chip on her
shoulder. In never changing, she becomes
progressively less than what she had been.
All this makes for a truly satisfying end to her character in Doctor Who. Her recklessness gets the better of her, but it does so thanks to her conscience, to protect her friend. She calls back to Danny, the love of her life. 

Even the TARDIS memorial Rigsy makes for Clara is a touching callback to the original arc of the TARDIS’ initial distaste for her.

And she reminds her best friend, the Doctor, never to forget his conscience, even when her death will make him very much want to. So Ashildir gets the most appropriate ending for her arc as well.

Ashildir gets told, essentially. Her scheme to steal the TARDIS key for a mysterious third party*** is an attempt to punch above her weight as a villain. She becomes a villain capable of luring the Doctor into an iron-clad trap, a control of Doctor Who’s narrative that only the greatest villains can achieve.

*** Who’ll be the main villains of the finale, Hell Bent, in the conclusion to another brilliant three-part story. They’re rare in modern Doctor Who, but when they have a solid structure and purpose, they work brilliantly.

Because other than that, Ashildir is basically just another petty tyrant with a wild concept behind her. She runs the refugee street as a tyrant, ruthless in her enforcement of brutal rules. It’s the paradigm concept of villainy in Doctor Who, but she's just another example. Depressingly ordinary. She shouldn't be given the narrative weight of forcing terrible violence from our hero in a quest for revenge.****

**** Another wonderful meta-fictional aspect of Clara's death. She makes the Doctor promise not to make her death the motive of an anti-heroic revenge narrative. Essentially, she promises the Doctor not to put her in a fridge.

But her key concept makes her a fitting parallel to Clara’s perfect narrative culmination. Ashildir is an immortal who sheds her memories, becoming dissociated from them as they’ve become stories in her notebooks instead of visceral experiences. 

All her lasting associations and friendships disappear into a past she doesn’t even remember. Ashildir has truly become Me, a pure indexical, a presence and personality without her own lived narrative. 

Rigsy, meanwhile, is the perfect character to spur Clara's
death-by-conscience. The entire meta-fictional joke of
her first season's storyline was that underneath this
elaborate sci-fi problem, Clara was always an
ordinary person who stepped up to become a hero
when it was needed. She died doing the same for
another ordinary person who had become a hero
helping defeat the Boneless in Flatline, Rigsy.
Her choice of a Janus woman as supposed victim is appropriate in this sense. These aliens can telepathically perceive the complete narrative of everyone they meet. No one has any secrets from them, and they perceive everyone around them completely.

No wonder the Janus disguised her daughter as a non-telepathic male. Female Januses must be the most hated creatures in the universe. But she’d also be a call of conscience for Me, able to recall her entire narrative for her. 

Because when you know the whole of someone’s narrative, you understand how they became the way the are. That knowledge makes it impossible to hate anyone.

I don’t know if we’ll get to explore that potential for Ashildir / Me, since Maisie Williams’ time on Doctor Who seems to be finished. As is Jenna Coleman’s, though her potential as a character has been thoroughly explored. 

Yes, I always liked her character. Especially her interaction with Capaldi, and her pivotal role in Day of the Doctor. Face the Raven wasn’t the perfect ending to her character’s time on the show. That would have been if Death in Heaven had been her last episode. Her largely superfluous role this season is a sign that her character stuck around a season too long.

But as an end to one of the longest, deepest, and most complex companion narratives in the history of Doctor Who, it was fantastic.

We’ll always have the DVDs.

5 comments:

  1. I loved this blog post. It’s an excellent tribute to a fantastic character, and a fascinating discussion of companion departures in Doctor Who.
    But I'm not sure I outright agree that Clara's character ran out of potential, I just don't think the writers delivered on that potential - after she got the best characterisation any companion has had in Series Eight, a merely passable year (I call it passable largely to her brilliant departure) is disappointing. But the ideas they had for her could have been great - a companion who is completely unattached to Earth life and becomes an increasingly Doctor like figure has the potential to be brilliant, if lacking the complexity of her Series Eight arc. It hasn’t really been done in New Who, even if they touched on the subject with Rose and Donna. And the sheer warmth between Clara and the Doctor this year (I'm thinking particularly of the wonderful scene at the end of "TWWL") is a genuinely nice development after their spikier relationship last year.
    For me, it’s easy to see where the issues crept in: the three episodes where she isn’t losing narrative space to Missy, Ashildr, and Bonnie, with the exception of her departure, were written by Toby Whithouse and Mark Gatiss, neither of whom have track record of giving the companion an exceptionally strong script. Moffat, Mathieson, and Harness, who I consider more skilful writers than Gatiss and Whithouse, all found room in their scripts for Clara to shine and be clever (albeit less than usual). By contrast, Whithouse made space for the necessary “darker Clara” character beats, but in the least interesting way possible: he didn’t really give her anything important to do. And Gatiss seemed more interested in having fun with his “found footage” structure than in committing time to Clara’s character arc instead, her main role was to get stuck in the Morpheus machine. Pity.
    Imagine an alternate Series Nine, where “The Witch’s Familiar” continues the more even Clara/ Missy dynamic of “The Magician’s Apprentice”, and where Gatiss and Whithouse gave plenty of Doctorish plot beats to Clara, both positive and negative, in their episodes. Suddenly you have a season with a far stronger and more present role for Clara, and between Missy, Ashildr, and Bonnie, she’s surrounded by characters who work as literary foils for her. Her season arc then gets paid off in style by her departure in “Face the Raven”. I think that would have justified keeping her on for a third season, even if it wouldn’t have been quite as impressive as series eight.

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    1. Very insightful. It's striking how it could only take the few small changes you describe to make Clara's story arc this season that much stronger – hell, just to make it present.

      I mean, I was meta-textually interested in how Clara seemed to be drifting out of prominence in her own show – from a surrogate Doctor to the Master's companion to regular companion to barely there. But it really is like the season as a whole was kind of letting her down.

      Yet the reckless Clara still never had nearly the depth as the Clara torn between the Doctor and Danny's worlds. I don't think any longer that conflict is the only necessary way to build drama and character development. But the way this season came together, her recklessness was much more subtle and understated feature of the stories' continuity, almost too much. It seems to have been a trade-off with the development I rather liked this season of having the stories better able to stand on their own.

      As you can see, I'm still pretty back and forth on this.

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    2. I'm equally back and forth - on tumblr, abossycontrolfreak does make some very strong defences of the way her arc has been handled this season, arguing that letting her develop in the gaps of the story is a strong approach to take for Clara this season. I don't quite agree, but it's rare that I outright disagree with her meta on Clara I'm equally back and forth - on tumblr, abossycontrolfreak does make some very strong defences of the way her arc has been handled this season, arguing that letting her develop in the gaps of the story is a strong approach to take for Clara this season. I don't quite agree, but it's rare that I outright disagree with her analyses of Clara. Personally, however, I still lean towards “They should give Clara things to do.”
      But I do find your argument that the show is reshaping itself around Clara just as it did for Tom Baker in his final season very compelling. Particularly as Clara is the longest-running companion of the new series, just as Baker was the longest running Doctor of the show. It makes a certain amount of sense that they’d try to ease her out in a similar way to Baker after her particularly central role in series eight.

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    3. Actually, I’d argue the writing for Clara has mimicked the writing of a Doctor far more than it has the standard writing of a companion for New Who. In Series Seven, we see her performing “old standard” roles and stories to bed in her character, and see how the different twists Coleman’s performance and Clara’s character bring to these standards. Those things and the “Impossible Girl” arc serve as the companion equivalent of distractions such as UNIT/ The Paternoster Gang/ Returning monsters to give a new Doctor time to settle. Then, in series eight, having had a season to get used to her character and Coleman’s performance, the writers give her character a more ambitious and complex character arc, just as Series Six and Series Nine are slightly more ambitious in scope than their respective Doctor’s first seasons. Then, as her role settles in her third season and the amount of new things they can do with her character runs out, they quietly reshape the show around her, giving her something of a farewell tour (which I think happens to an extent with Smith and Tennant in their final seasons). It’s not a perfect parallel, but I think it’s an interesting and instructive one.

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  2. I enjoyed reading your perspectives here, though I find myself perplexed by a lot of them.

    I disagree with almost everything you say about Adric, but I'm used to being in the vanishing minority about him, so never mind. :) What's interesting is that your description "he was smart enough to think he knew how to fix a problem, but not smart enough to figure out the right thing to do" to me applies even more to Clara in "Face the Raven" than it does to Adric (whose errors were often more specific, usually involving attempting to out-guile older male villains, but that's another discussion). She takes on the tattoo without really knowing how it works, which looks from the outside like Doctorish behavior but generally isn't (even when he improvises, he's usually doing it over a foundation of knowledge).

    "It’s also fitting that Ashildir, whose current villainous nature is the result of the Doctor’s misplaced conscience, is responsible for Clara’s death." I've read so much tut-tutting online about this that you'd think everyone but me had had the life experience of saving the life of someone who then became an unscrupulous immortal. It's weird how clearly they seem to think the Doctor should have foreseen that outcome, how deterministic they think it is. I assume the right thing to do was to let her die.

    "This complaint was based in a perceptual mistake of the audience that believed it." I see your position but respectfully disagree with the implication that feeling that story could have been better told was a "perceptual mistake."

    "Who’ll be the main villains of the finale, Hell Bent, in the conclusion to another brilliant three-part story." This is perhaps the most perplexing part: have you seen the other two parts already? That's a serious question. If so, I'm glad to hear they're going to be brilliant! :)

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