Sunday, 29 November 2015

Doctor Who: Face The Raven (Episode Review)

Those already wondering, yes this episode does break the streak of mediocre to terrible stories we've had until recently. It remains surprisingly coherent, interesting and investigates a few new ideas we've not seen fully developed in an episode. There are niggling problems to be sure, but on the whole it comes together quite well. The issue here, the real issue, is that people are only going to be talking about the last five minutes of the episode. It's also because of this fact, because so much hinges upon the impact of what might follow, that I held off delivering a verdict on this one until the second part was released.

Serving as something of a sequel to Flatline, the TARDIS is suddenly called by Rigsy, the graffiti artist who assisted them in defeating the Boneless. While the Doctor is infuriated that Clara so willingly handed out the TARDIS' phone number to others, their attention is soon drawn to a tattoo on Rigsy's neck. It's a string of numbers and slowly counting down...

Now, part of the reason for that oddly conclusive introduction is due to one thing: To properly discuss this episode there needs to be spoilers. Normally this is a point we'd avoid entirely, but in this case so many elements here ties into the last five minutes. So, spoilers in three... two... one... The entire story is about Clara's departure. While it won't be clear at first, and it's a twist which shows up only upon repeated viewings, there are elements tied into the narrative which helps to enforce the tragedy of the ending. So much of it fits into place remarkably well, so while the episode is likely only going to be remembered for the last five minutes, much of that comes down to how well it set up the final part.

The opening establishes what we've come to know about Clara: She's confident, extremely independent and has a streak which few characters have pulled off. Notably, above all else, she's remained one of the few companions to take over the Doctor's role and genuinely pull it off. While Amy, Leela and others might have retained this independence, there was always a sense that they knew the Doctor was going to be running the show and tried to stick with this plan. Clara though, as much as people might complain about an apparent lack of character, has gradually evolved into someone willing to set up her own plans. We've seen time and time again that she's willing to break with his plans more over time. While this has slowly paid off, Face The Raven ultimately shows just what happens when that goes too far and she tries to effectively become the Doctor.

The idea of such risk-taking is established from the very start, as we see the tail end of another adventure, with the Doctor commenting upon a seemingly unnecessary risk he was unaware of. Clara herself is ultimately extremely flippant about this, and as a result she seems to have lost sense of the danger. We see this gradually developing more as the story goes by, with her pushing ahead with a determined efforts to put her own life at risk to save someone else. However, at the very end she pays the price for that, and we ultimately see just how badly such a determined effort can backfire. It's not that she wasn't heroic, far from it, but the episode retains an underlying theme of her having lost sight of the real danger when it comes to such actions.

Such a theme is remarkably subtle given how it's quickly pushed into the background and largely forgotten by the audience. In fact, the focus is placed so heavily upon the episode's own individual plotline that it remains hidden in plane sight, present in subtle ways but never completely disappearing entirely. It's usually found only in small, minor moments, such as Clara first finding the location they are searching for or her actions when facing the aliens, but you'd be forgiven for only recognising this as an afterthought. As such, when it concludes, the finale hits that much harder.

Now, the problem is that once you stop and take away the Clara plotline, the episode really doesn't hold up all that well. There's a great deal of logical failings which are evident from the start, and even when facing a ticking clock the story doesn't really seem to pick up the pace. Addressing that last one first, the point of someone's impending death is just treated like a hindrance. At best it's commented upon almost for humour once or twice but little else, and even when the character himself is facing death mere minutes away, the impending pressure of facing a horrific threat never just seems to hit home. This is most definitely a fault of the direction as much as the script, as searching about for hidden streets is effectively treated as strolling about London, not some rush to spare someone from the hangman's noose.

When it actually comes to the bolthole the aliens have found in London - effectively just a refugee camp - further problems quickly arise. Even ignoring small moments such as a cyberman being present (AKA those guys who inspired the Borg, those things who would be going around conquering stuff, not hiding in a back alley being fixed by someone) the very nature and rules established by certain aliens keeps shifting. Everyone there is supposed to look human thanks to a psychic worm field plot convenience device to save on the budget, but that's broken within minutes of being established. How so? Primarily thanks to one very specific alien having two heads when everyone there is supposed to look human. Besides even that, the actual ticking clock tattoo is somehow passed over to Clara without any problems. However, when it comes to returning it, the episode becomes remarkably vague about the exact reason why it can't be. Okay, it says that the terms of the contract changed meaning that Clara couldn't give it back to Rigsy. Fine, but the problem is that taking the damn thing in the first place seemed to change the terms without any issues.

As a final note though, the serious problem which arose here more than anything else honestly seemed to be how hard the episode was pushing for spin-offs. Doctor Who, while still strong, has been losing viewing figures since the end of Matt Smith's tenure. Atop of this, to equal the spin-offs we saw during David Tennant's era, many suspect that Moffat has been trying to force as many new ideas into the show as possible for returning tales. It's one likely reason why River Song seemed to so frequently hijack the entire show, Vastra's group kept re-appearing over and over again, and new ideas keep seeming to hang around. As such, this new idea of a refugee camp hidden out of sight just seems to have "NEW SHOW, BUY IT NOW!" plastered all over it, and when you actually stop, not too much seems to really figure into the overall story. At best it's a mildly interesting distraction, but nothing truly special.

If you've not guessed from that final bit, this doesn't quite work out as a part of an ongoing story. Okay, it retains a solid theme, but beyond the themes of loss and a few superficial traits, not much is carries over or really seems to register into Heaven Sent. As such, it's a distraction with some mild build-up rather than a true beginning.

I'll freely admit this review is going a little easy on Face The Raven for two reasons, the first being how well it handled the idea of consequences. The second is that the writer, Sarah Dollard, was dropped in at the deep-end. Asked to write her first Who episode both as a companion exit and the beginning of a three-parter - not to mention possibly spin-off shilling - it's a testament to her skills that we didn't end up with a complete disaster. Watch it for a few key moments perhaps, where the writing does shine through, but don't expect a classic from this one.

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