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After what may possibly have been Series 9’s worst episode last week, it was pleasing to tune into Face the Raven and watch what is possibly the best episode of the run so far. That it was penned by a newcomer to the Whoniverse makes that feat ever more remarkable.

Before I go any further, a warning: this review contains spoilers! Big, fat, juicy spoilers that will most likely ruin your enjoyment of an otherwise incredible episode if you have not yet watched it. If you do not want to know what happens in the end, please do not read on. There are also minor mentions of the public revelations – and personal theorising – about the last two episodes. If you have been avoiding those, too, please do not read on. You have been warned!

Spoilers

Clara dies! Okay, so spoiler-wise that’s probably quite tame. We all knew Jenna Coleman was leaving the show at some point this season, and all of the pre-broadcast interviews, previews and teasers pointed towards Face the Raven as being her exit, but even so: Clara dies! Not in a Donna Noble memory-wipe way. Not in a Rose Tyler transported-to-another-universe-from-which-she-cannot-return way. Clara. Is. Actually. Dead.

You must forgive the emphasis being placed on Clara’s death – it’s not like we’ve seen her die before, have we? Oh, wait, we have. Twice. What’s worse, both deaths made viewers feel. Dalek Clara’s death was emotional. Victorian Clara’s death was emotional. It would take an incredibly strong script, first-class acting, impeccable directing and a jarring musical score to top Clara’s earlier demises (from a purely artistic perspective, you understand). Fortunately, Face the Raven was produced with all of the above in abundance. The question is: did it make Clara’s last-last-last breath emotional enough? Well, we’ll come back to that…

Pure art

As mentioned above, the tenth episode was also the first adventure for writer Sarah Dollard – a brave appointment for showrunner Steven Moffat, considering the importance of this story, but most certainly a gamble which has paid off for all Whovians. No doubt, with Clara’s death and the setup of the series finale, the hand of Moffat will have been guiding Dollard with important elements, but the scenes we’ve seen were sufficiently hers to ensure a solo writing credit – compared to The Zygon Inversion, where Peter Harness, the soloist in the first part of that story, shared the kudos with Moffat.

Much like Sleep No More, we are left with many unanswered questions – most pressingly: who persuaded Ashildr/Me to trap the Doctor – but unlike with Mark Gatiss’ creepy tale, we can be reasonably confident of finding answers by the time the credits roll on Hell Bent (or at least we hope so – this is Doctor Who after all, and there are some questions we know will never be answered). Dollard has perfectly captured the characters of the Doctor and Clara – and keeps us guessing about whether we should trust Ashildr to the final reveal. It would be both a shame – and a compete surprise – if we do not see more of Dollard’s work in years to come.

Justin Molotnikov was back again after stellar directing in Sleep No More, albeit adopting the tried and tested formula Doctor Who is renowned for. After all, this episode was not about experimenting with something new, but watching Clara’s demise and setting the Doctor up on his journey to whatever strange place we see him in, alone, in the trailer for Heaven Sent. However, as a result, the directing does not stand out in the way it did last week. It was not a terrible display by any stretch of the imagination, and Molotnikov has showcased his best talents one again, but I do feel Sleep No More will be remembered as his better work this series.

A strong plot

Clara

Rigsy, Clara’s pseudo-companion when she was the sort-of Doctor in last series’ Flatline, calls the TARDIS telephone because he’s got a tattoo that isn’t a tattoo. In fact, it’s a Chronolock, counting down until he has to face the raven – and die. Discovering the Trap Street (reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley) where Ashildr is providing safe refuge for scores of alien lifeforms (including many of the Doctor’s worst foes), the Doctor tries to persuade the residents that Rigsy is innocent, while Clara, growing ever more reckless, devises a plan of her own: she is going to take the Chronolock from Rigsy as Ashildr has guaranteed her safety.

The Doctor discovers, though, that the murder Rigsy had supposedly committed never took place; the victim is currently in a stasis pod and the Doctor can only free her using his TARDIS key. Doing so clamps a teleportation device around his wrist. With her plan successful, Ashildr is ready to remove the Chronolock from Rigsy’s neck. She (and the Doctor) are horrified to learn that Clara has taken it, breaking Ashildr’s contract with the Quantum Shade and condemning Clara (yes, I’m coming to that). Ashildr takes the Doctor’s Confession Dial and, once he has said his final goodbye to Clara, we last see him transported away from London. Ashildr, we learn, has made a deal with somebody (the mysterious “they”) to guarantee the safety of her refugees, and the Doctor warns her to stay away from him: “you’ll find that it’s a very small universe when I’m angry with you”.

This was no ordinary setup to the series finale. The tale so expertly written by Dollard began with one story and became something completely different by the end – and it was done with such precision that it is difficult at first glance to realise where Rigsy’s story ended and where the Doctor’s solo journey began. It weaves in the Doctor’s Confession Dial – first seen in the hands of Missy in The Magician’s Apprentice – and once again leaves us wondering just what is so bad (given everything we’ve seen from the Doctor) that it must not be revealed until he becomes a spinning tree of lights. One thing is for sure: it’s probably not his name.

And who persuaded Ashildr to trap the Doctor? Who had strong enough knowledge of the Doctor’s life to know Ashildr could bring him in? Who needed the Doctor on his own and without his TARDIS? Who, that is, other than every enemy he has fought to date. Theoretically, it could be the Cybermen, the Daleks, the Silence, the Master. Indeed, it could even be the Time Lords themselves. After all, anyone who has read the BBC press summary of Hell Bent will know that the Time Lords and Gallifrey are back in the Doctor’s life once more (sorry, if you haven’t read it, I did say there’d be spoilers):

Returning to Gallifrey, the Doctor faces the Time Lords in a struggle that will take him to the end of time itself. Who is the Hybrid? And what is the Doctor’s confession?

Face the Raven ranks in at number one for my personal favourites this series (so far). It contained everything you could want from Doctor Who: expert writing, top-class directing, stellar acting, misdirection, suspense, profundity and tragedy. It ranks amongst the highest in Capaldi’s reign, and leaves viewers feeling both satisfied and hungry for more, in equal measure.

No more Clara?

Viewers cannot fail to have been moved by Clara’s death. Even those who had begun to feel that the well of character development had run dry long ago cannot have remained stony faced as Clara faced the raven. Ultimately, her recklessness was to be her undoing – something most Whovians will have seen coming for the majority of this series.

The touching last scenes invoke a sense of pride in a character who had become too much like the Doctor for her own good. However, she channels those instincts – and, fittingly, the ghost of Danny Pink – in deciding she will go to her death with dignity. Yet she detaches herself from the Doctor’s psyche when she sees the anger in his eyes. Anger that he had let her become so reckless, anger that Ashildr had brought about Clara’s final journey. She warns him against taking revenge for her death and Coleman shows real passion as she works her way through her final lines. Clara also asks the Doctor not to be by her side: “In the end everybody does this alone,” she says, trying to be brave and asking the Doctor to be proud of her.

Doctor

As she walks out into the street, you cannot help but feel sorry for her as she eyes up the creature that she knows is about to take her life. She keeps asking to be brave, but the fear in her eyes is immovable. The dramatic score as her final seconds count down is made all the more effective by her silent scream. Rigsy, Rump and the Doctor all hear the immense pain she feels, but we are spared her dying call until her last breath leaves her body. If there can be art in death, this is surely it.

And yet…

Have we really seen the last of Clara Oswald?

Sure, her death looked final – and it certainly felt final. The pain in the Doctor’s face as he realised her time was up, the lost look on his face as she was saying goodbye, was not the pain of a man who thought there might be a way out for Clara. Peter Capaldi even said when talking with Graham Norton about Face the Raven that:

It’s the end of the line for Clara Oswald played by Jenna Coleman who’s been my companion for the last two years. It’s the end of her story. I don’t want to go into the details of it, but it’s sad.

Sometimes people can’t come back. Sometimes things happen that they can’t come back from.

It all seems to be very final. But, if we are not going to see Clara again, why has she not yet appeared wearing the retro waitress outfit seen on the front cover of Doctor Who Magazine?

Of course, it could just be for publicity; a clever play on the Last Orders headline on the cover. But consider also the publicity photograph of the Doctor in the same diner, the one he visited when he knew he was going to die (The Impossible Astronaut, Series 6) and it does start to raise eyebrows higher than even Capaldi himself.

There are any number of reasons Clara could feature in the final episode, after all we’ve seen her die before. She died in Asylum of the Daleks. She died again in The Snowmen. She went on to be very much alive in 33 episodes (including the 50th anniversary special two years ago today), although she did become a Zygon clone earlier this series and died millions of times throughout the Doctor’s lifetime in The Name of the Doctor.

The Clara in Hell Bent could be one of the millions of ghosts in the Doctor’s timeline. She could be the Zygon clone. She could even be the mysterious Hybrid. Or she could be the real Clara, and we find out that the reckless Clara who died had become so reckless because she wasn’t Clara at all. After all, didn’t she say, just before her death, “maybe this is what I wanted?”.

Can it be merely coincidence that Clara’s death took place on a street protected by a misdirection circuit? After all, that is, essentially, what defines a good Doctor Who story: an elaborate, protracted series of misdirections, twists and turns, until the final reveal.

All this is merely musing aloud. I have no inside knowledge. I have not seen what happens next. I only know two things for definite: I am ridiculously excited for the last two episodes of Series 9 and we’ll all just have to wait and see what happens next…

Quotes

Doctor: “If you want your extremities to stay attached stand absolutely still. If not, we can provide a small bag. You can take them home at the end.”

Doctor: “There’s no nice way to say you’re about to die.”

Doctor: “My God. A whole London street just up and disappeared and you lot assume it’s a copyright infringement.”

Ashildr: “Don’t worry, we’re perfectly safe.”
Doctor: “Yes, a phrase I find is usually followed by a lot of screaming and running and bleeding.”

Clara: “Sometimes Jane Austen and I prank each other. She is the worst, I love her. Take that how you like!”

Doctor: “I can do whatever the hell I like. You’ve read the stories, you know who I am. And in all of that time, did you ever hear anything about anyone who stopped me?”

Clara: “You’re going to be alone now and you’re very bad at that.”

Doctor: “What’s the point in being a doctor if I can’t cure you.”

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