Written by Sarah Dollard
Directed by Justin Molotnikov
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Joivan Wade, and Maisie Williams
Transmitted 21st November 2015, BBC One
“She enjoyed that…….way too much” - Rigsy, Face the Raven
This year, Doctor Who’s arc has been a collection of ominous themes, sketched in throughout the series, and gathering momentum week-on-week. The Doctor’s confession dial. His mistake in reviving Ashildr. Friends within enemies. The hybrid - whatever that may be - and all manner of other hybrids, thrown in to keep the Doctor and the viewer guessing. And, most of all, an increasing sense of dread about the fate of the increasingly fearless, reckless, thrill-seeking Clara Oswald - forecast through portentous dialogue, and the Doctor’s worried eyebrows.
This week, it all came to a head (well, most of it), in one of Doctor Who’s finest three quarters of an hour, beginning with a mystery, snowballing throughout, and ending in lump-in-throat tragedy.
Kicking off with the returning Rigsy calling the TARDIS, having woken up with a regrettable tattoo and no memory of last night, new writer Sarah Dollard plays an absolute blinder - as the Doctor and Clara are drawn quite literally into a Trap Street. The tattoo is of a number, and it’s counting down. It’s a death sentence.
The conceit of the street, literally hiding in plain sight, is a brilliantly Doctor Who idea. Everybody at some point has counted steps, then unaccountably lost their place and started again. Everyone has failed to see something right in front of them. The sense of clouds gathering is there from the start, and Dollard gives the Doctor (resplendent in purple velvet) and Clara one last moment of fun, as they search for the street from above and on foot, before finding it - in one of those rare occasions that London looks and feels like London.
This street, a haven for aliens living peacefully on Earth is a trap in more ways than one. It’s a honeypot for the Doctor, who can’t resist the mystery, and he’s only drawn in further when it turns out Rigsy is being accused of murder by the self-appointed Mayor, and every thread leads to more puzzles to solve.
That Mayor is Ashildr, who must be nearly the Doctor’s age by now. She’s still calling herself ‘Me’, and hasn’t seen Clara in such a long time, she only knows her through conversations written down on ancient journal pages. She’s evolved from storyteller, to amoral highway(wo)man, to a glacial leader of a community, and the passive-aggressive, resentful relationship with the Doctor fizzes on screen. It’s just one layer of tension. The residents of the street are fearful and distrustful of outsiders. Ashildr allows the Doctor and Clara some time to clear Rigsy’s name, but not before showing what the quantum shade in raven form is capable of. Her rule, she claims is peaceful and just, but her ruthlessness is something to behold. Just how much of it is for show is debatable, as Maisie Williams’ quiet, still performance gives little away.
Nothing in this episode is what it seems - not the community of familiar and hostile aliens hiding behind the perception filter (also a neat way around the pretty, but stagey Trap Street sets), or the ominous caged raven that enforces Mayor Me’s law. The dead Janus woman isn’t dead, and her son is actually a psychic daughter. Rigsy is framed and lured in to entrap the Doctor. Clara secretly takes the chronolock curse from Rigsy, in a reckless, yet well-meaning double bluff. Most crucially, Ashildr’s promise of protection means nothing, and Clara pays the price.
It’s all a trap. Everything has been engineered by Ashildr in the name of handing the Doctor over to parties unknown. The only genuine things to come out of her ruse are her shocked reaction to Clara’s accidental sacrifice, and the revelation that she’s traded the Doctor for the safety of her people.
The climactic scenes between Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, and Maisie Williams are electric. The Doctor’s cold fury as he very convincingly threatens to rain hell on the street is balanced by Clara first refusing to believe she’s not indestructible, before stoically accepting her death sentence, and then ordering the Doctor not to be that guy - to be a Doctor, not a warrior, before walking outside and facing the raven. As she falls, lifeless to the ground, the pain of losing his best friend is written all over his face.
Shattered, the Doctor turns to Ashildr and, in a masterfully understated moment, issues a chilling warning about how small the universe can be when he’s angry at you. He’s terrifying, a barely tamed beast without his friend to tame him, and the woman responsible for his pain nods in cowed silence. In the face of this loss, he’s never more dangerous. And then he’s gone, teleported away to who knows what fate.
Face the Raven might be the best standalone episode of Doctor Who in a couple of years, or might be the first part of a three part finale. How it all ends remains to be seen, but it looks like the trouble is just beginning.