Trap streets and teleport bracelets abound in this week's stand-out installment, with writer Sarah Dollard delivering the first masterpiece of the Capaldi era.
Doctor WhoAirtime: Saturdays, 8.10pm
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Subtitle: Series 9 Episode 10 - "Face the Raven"
Air date: 2015-11-21
Like all good Doctor Who episodes, "Face The Raven" began with the usual premise: what if phenomenon X could only be explained as alien activity? In this case, said phenomenon was the rather mundane business of trap streets. You know -- the non-existent byways that mapmakers insert on their maps in order to discourage would-be plagiarists from lifting and publishing their maps as their own. It’s the cartographic equivalent of the pitfall that every high school cheat fears: copy off someone else at your leisure, but what if the teacher notices when you replicate their mistakes too? I think I actually found (or rather, didn’t find) one of these a few years ago when I was driving in America, and was thoroughly confused by a street I was using as a waypoint that my map said should exist but didn’t.
Perhaps I should have stopped and taken a look around, because it turns out that trap streets aren’t trap streets at all: they are concealed spaces where aliens can dwell. It’s all very Neverwhere, and ushers in 45 minutes of thrilling television from the pen of debutant Doctor Who writer Sarah Dollard.
The trap street the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), and graffiti artist Rigsy (Joivan Wade, last seen in series eight’s "Flatline") stumble across is particularly important, being a refugee camp for aliens living on Earth. Sontarans, Judoon, and even Cybermen live side by side, kept from killing one another by a strict behavioural code based on the death penalty enforced by the camp’s mayor, who turns out to be none other than “Me” (Maisie Williams).
Last encountered a few weeks ago in seventeenth-century England in "The Woman Who Lived", Me cut a swathe through fandom when it was speculated that Williams was being touted as a potential replacement for Coleman, who -- as we all know by now -- is leaving the series. Williams’ work seems to improve with time; the memory of her serviceable but not-quite-there performances opposite Capaldi in the earlier episode is banished by some fine exchanges here. Me’s longevity -- by the present day, she, like the Doctor, is more than a thousand years old -- places her on an equal footing with the Doctor, and like him, she is wily and guileful.
It transpires that Rigsy is under pain of death in the camp for having killed one of its inhabitants. The time of his execution is tattooed on his neck in the form of a number expressing the minutes of life remaining to him that counts down; an arresting image if ever there was one. But when the Doctor discovers his victim to be alive and well, the trio smell a rat. When Me is confronted, she reveals her true intentions: the Doctor was lured to the camp in order to ensnare him with a teleport bracelet and send him… to someone, for reasons unknown. Who is Me working for? And what do her masters want with the Doctor? Roll credits.
At least, if the credits had rolled at that point, we would have been left with a satisfying, well-paced story that saw the Doctor being bested for once. Instead, we get a denouement that will stand for years to come as one of the finest the show has ever seen. Me offers to remove Rigsy’s tattoo, thereby freeing him from his death sentence. The trouble is, he no longer has it. In the confines of the camp, the tattoo can be removed and given to someone else, and that someone…
… is Clara.
For those of us who weren’t spoiled, the sudden realisation that Clara was going to die not in the season’s finale, but here, now, was the jolt to end all jolts. Perhaps we should have seen it coming: Clara has become increasingly hubristic in recent times, and the risk-taking side of her -- a product, perhaps, of her unresolved grief for her departed boyfriend, Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) -- is seen early on in this episode, when she dangles out of the TARDIS’ door by her ankles in a nice bit of foreshadowing.
The really refreshing thing is how much emotion writer Sarah Dollard wrings out of so little. Not for Clara the tear-soaked, soapy outpourings we associate with Amy Pond’s or Rose Tyler’s goodbyes in years gone by. How could there be, when she took the tattoo of her own free will, in the mistaken belief that she was immune from its influence, that its power could be nullified once she received it? Jenna Coleman’s performance here is magnificent, a single look conveying Clara’s disbelief at having become the architect of her own destruction through taking a reckless and, as it transpires, unnecessary risk. There is a hug for the Doctor, and a short, finely written speech, reminding him to cleave to his principles, forever confirming Clara’s status as his moral conscience. Then she walks out of the room to face the raven. “Let me be brave”, she whispers to herself as the moment approaches, and brave she is. It’s as fine a sendoff as anyone could hope for, and Coleman’s death scene is understated and dignified.
The exceptional sweep of Dollard’s script, alighting on such topics as the rights of refugees to live without fear of violence, the morality of ends justifying the means, and the futility of revenge is breath-taking; it’s surely a shoe-in for this year’s Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, and can only result in a permanent place for Dollard on the show’s writing staff. It’s far too early to mention the word "showrunner", although that hasn’t stopped fandom. Who can blame them? After all, good writers do not grow on trees, and when a Doctor Who rookie shows such a superlative and intuitive grasp of what the show is about, the makers would do well to sit up and take notice. Add into the mix the uniformly excellent acting, the perfectly judged dialogue, superb sets, and masterful directing, and "Face The Raven" transcends the usual mix of gadgetry and running around that it is attendant on Doctor Who writers to deliver week in, week out. It is, quite simply, the first undisputed masterpiece of the Capaldi era.