Doctor Who Recap: When Is A Spoiler Actually Good For You?
Every one of these recaps assumes that the reader has seen the episode, but let’s take a moment to underscore this: SPOILER WARNING DO NOT READ ON IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THIS EPISODE. NO, REALLY.
Because spoilers are bad, evil things, and there are few who are as spoilerphobic as yours truly. But even I have to confess that when wielded just the right way, spoilers can actually add to your enjoyment of a story.
Take the announcement from the BBC that Jenna Coleman would be leaving the show this year. We all sort-of assumed this would happen, as two-and-a-half seasons is an epic run for a 21st century companion. But why not leave her departure as a surprise? The obvious reason is publicity. But the other reason is danger.
Once we know that Clara’s going to leave, every moment she’s in danger is suddenly heightened. Her extermination at the end of The Magician’s Apprentice and the near-death in The Zygon Inversion become all the more compelling when you know that she is actually going to leave at some point soon. The drama is intensified because of a well-deployed, BBC-sanctioned spoiler.
Deep down, of course, we expected them to save the big departure for the season finale. That’s how it’s always done. But as usual, Doctor Who was one step ahead of us. Anticipating that we television-savvy viewers would be waiting for the finale, they killed off Clara two episodes before it.
Face the Raven, written by Australian Sarah Dollard (represent!) is a frankly brilliant episode, doing everything Doctor Who should do: it adds to the mythology of the show in a grand and original way; it presents a new type of danger that doesn’t simply feel like a variation on a theme; and it’s filled with twists and turns that are all rooted in character.
The episode is filled with callbacks, but they all feel narratively appropriate. We have the return of Rigsy (Joivan Wade) from last year’s Flatline, the return of Ashildr (Maisie Williams) from this year’s The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived, and a few brief cameos from some old monsters. Ashildr (or “Me”), the immortal woman with a finite memory, is an ingenious creation, and the fact that she only remembers the Doctor and Clara through the stories she herself has written is an inspired and tremendously meta concept.
Her self-appointed role as the Patron Saint of the Doctor, saving the people he leaves behind, means bringing back someone like Rigsy makes complete sense. It’s not just a big coincidence. And the fact that Ashildr seems to be both ally and foe to the Doctor makes her the best type of character, and one who can easily fulfill the function of a UNIT or Torchwood.
The story itself — a murder mystery aspect inside a Diagon Alley-esque hidden street filled with alien refugees — is pushed into the background somewhat, but is nonetheless compelling. When Clara ups the stakes by taking on Rigsy’s death sentence, it’s a logical twist that drives the plot, but also speaks to Clara’s arc. She’s heroic, but she’s also too cocky, too confident in the face of tremendous danger. It’s that cocky heroism that is her downfall.
Is this actually the end of Clara? Very likely, but that doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of her. The forthcoming two-part finale promises the Doctor on a vengeance-fuelled mission, which makes me think Jenna Coleman will be back in the form of a hologram or memory or illusion, something akin perhaps to Adric’s post-death cameo in 1982’s Time Flight (or something else entirely – see my more detailed prediction below).
Ultimately, this was a fantastic episode. Small in scope, but big in ideas. Building on past continuity, but presenting us with something entirely new. Filled with big surprises, but all of them entirely logical. Bring on the season finale.
Questions To Ponder
- In a year of two-parters, was this one actually a follow-on from last week’s episode? Nope — and that in itself was another brilliant switcheroo. Showrunner Steven Moffat promised us we wouldn’t know for sure if we were watching a two-parter or not, and now that we know Face the Raven is actually the beginning of a three-parter, it puts last week’s ending in an entirely different light: the promise of the Sandmen spreading across the cosmos is not an immediate threat that needs to be resolved, but seemingly an origin story for what might be a recurring monster.
- Do we need to have every single aspect of Doctor Who explained in back story and prequel? Clearly not. And yet, I’m nonetheless desperate for a story featuring the Ood who was tenderly caring for the Cyberman. Romance, slash fiction, whatever. Make it happen.
- Did anyone else expect a Torchwood reveal or cameo given Rigsy’s memory was wiped by “ret-con”, the amusingly-named drug established in Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood?
- Are we actually going to see Jane Austen at some point? References to off-screen adventures with the famous author have become one of the show’s great running gags, and I’d wager it’s very likely that an adventure with Jane will be the next Celebrity Historical.
- What exactly is on that confession dial? We all knew it would come back after its introduction in episode one, but after the events of The Day of the Doctor, what exactly does the Doctor have left to confess?
- Is Clara dead? Yes. Is Jenna Coleman gone for good? Maybe. If there’s one thing that was established long before we even met Clara, it’s that there are numerous versions of her throughout the universe, splintered off in The Name of the Doctor to protect the Doctor across space and time. So although the hologram/memory/illusion route is likely, it’s also possible that Coleman will return next week as an entirely new character, which would be a fitting coda.
Although the reveal of Cybermen was a bigger surprise in Earthshock than in Face the Raven, their unexpected last-minute reveal is a good example of the effectiveness of keeping spoilers hidden. Also well-hidden was the death of Adric, the deeply irritating maths-whiz companion whose sacrifice wasn’t so much heroic as comically accidental. Still pretty emotional, though.
Regardless, it was 20th century Who’s first real companion death (Katrina and Sara Kingdom aside), and in light of 21st century Who’s first real companion death — next week’s revelations aside — it’s well worth a look.