“Face the Raven” was as good as it could be, but by no means as good as I would have liked it to be. This looks to be Jenna Coleman’s last episode in the role of Clara Oswald, which had been the rumor before the season started, and it’s frankly a relief to have it over with. The facts that it’s the second episode of the season written by a woman and that it’s actually pretty well written—both nice changes for Doctor Who—are really just a bonus.
Given the state of the show after over five years of Steven Moffat doing his best to destroy everything good about it, my expectations of it are pretty low, and “Face the Raven” exceeded them. That’s not saying much, and the episode did have some great moments, but it’s all tempered by my general dissatisfaction with the series and with Clara’s tenure as companion in general.
In “Face the Raven,” Clara and the Doctor receive a phone call from previous acquaintance Rigsy, who has a problem: he’s got a mysterious counting-down tattoo on the back of his neck. In a somewhat senselessly convoluted plot, it turns out that Rigsby has been framed for a murder at an alien refugee camp in London that is being run by the Doctor’s most recent frenemy, Ashildr/Me (Maisie Williams), who has contrived this scenario to draw the Doctor into a trap because she’s decided to trade the Doctor to some unknown “them” in exchange for protection for her little alien enclave.
It’s nice to see Maisie Williams returning so soon, and I suspect that we could see her sometime in the next couple of weeks as well, judging from the “…to be continued” at the end of this episode. Her performance here wasn’t as strong as it was in “The Woman Who Lived,” but she wasn’t given nearly so much to work with here. Still, I adore Maisie Williams, and Me/Ashildr is as good a recurring character as has been introduced during the Moffat era. Me’s plan in this episode may be a little silly to start with, but once it all goes sideways, Williams does an excellent job of portraying the character’s conflicted feelings, her regret, and her fear of the Doctor’s wrath.
Peter Capaldi turns in a much more understated performance this week than I expected. I rather thought we would see a fit of overly verbose histrionics over Clara’s death, but instead his reactions here stick to the realm of the believable, and it’s gratifying to see that Clara’s final moments weren’t entirely focused on the Doctor—at least not for his part.
Clara, of course, is (as always) a mixed bag this episode. She oversteps the bounds of her role as companion and does something that is, honestly, wildly stupid and results in her death. Even within the questionable logic of the episode it’s a decision that only makes marginal sense. However, Clara’s courage and kindness as she faces her death, talking the Doctor down from his desire for vengeance and doing what she can to protect Me and reassure Rigsy, is well-done. At the same time, though, it’s terribly frustrating that, in her final moments, Clara thinks almost entirely of the Doctor and his feelings. It’s frustrating that Clara’s death was so clearly a result of her own poor decision making, and it’s infuriating that years of piss-poor characterization diminish the emotional impact of it all. Worse, Moffat’s inability or unwillingness to truly kill characters off ensures that Clara’s death doesn’t have the feeling of finality that would make it really tragic.
Make no mistake. I’ve never disliked Clara herself. I’ve only been incredibly disappointed and dissatisfied by her treatment in the narrative of the show. Jenna Coleman is a talented actor, and she brought a great deal of charm to the role, but she’s never been enough of a superwoman to overcome as much awful writing as her character has been subjected to. No one could be, and it’s an unmitigated shame that my strongest feeling about Clara’s final episode is gladness that this chapter of Doctor Who is finally done with. I’d like to say that I’m hopeful that a new companion will provide just the sort of fresh start the series needs, but I don’t expect any real change as long as Moffat holds the reins.