So there we have it. The culmination of all the lessons, insight, and mounting bravado: we bid farewell to Clara Oswald. We have to go back 33 years for the last time we saw a (permanent) companion of the Doctor die on our screens, and as I mentioned last week, Jenna Coleman’s looming departure from the show was aligning with her character’s cockiness reaching a point where she could be due a massive fall from grace.
Face the Raven kicks off something of a murder mystery tale with a phone call to the TARDIS. Rigsy (a character we first met in last year’s excellent Flatline) is calling Clara for help after waking up with partial amnesia and a tattoo on the back of his neck, a series of numbers that are changing, a countdown. The Doctor and Clara follow clues to find Rigsy stumbled upon a hidden street tucked away in London, a concealed region home to a menagerie of aliens, hiding away, living in peace. Rigsy has been tagged with “The Shade,” a death sentence given for his trespass and apparent murder of a resident. It’s a race against the clock as he Doctor looks to find out the truth, while Clara comes up with her own ill-fated solution to the problem.
The first surprise here was the reappearance of Ashildur/Me (Maisie Williams) as the Mayor of this curious little pocket of aliens tucked away in a London backstreet. It’s something akin to Diagon Alley or right out of the pages of a Neil Gaiman novel. She runs the place with severely enforced laws, such as capitol punishment for seemingly innocuous crimes like stealing medicine. Apparently this is required to maintain the tenuous peace between the different races. Rigsy is a victim of this, but the truth is the ‘murder’ is a ruse, a mystery to draw the Doctor in, because there’s nothing the Doctor loves more than a puzzle.
To maintain the safety of the street and its inhabitants, Ashildur has struck a deal with an outside party to secure the Doctor and deliver him to them, along with his “Confession,” a Macguffin that popped up first in the season opener. Who “they” are is unclear but if pushed, I’ll put $50 on it being the Time Lords of Gallifrey.
Doctor Who is certainly not pulling any punches this year with the grittier fare and is really driving home the aftermath of the Doctor’s tendency to interfere. Ashildur/Me is a manifest form of this and the ripple effects of her creation are turning out to be huge. Her immortality imbues her with a conviction and determination. Her age and experience also reinforce her opinion that her way is the right way, which neatly brings us to Clara, another creation of the Doctor.
Oh Clara, my sweet, lovely sweater-wearing Clara. Rigsy served as Clara’s companion of sorts in last season’s Flatline and he does the same here, offering questioning and doubt to her plan, which she ultimately ignores. A healthy dose of fear and suspicion keeps you on your toes; an essential quality when traveling through time and space. Clara, after her journey with the Doctor, got good – very good. So good that she failed to see her limits. Her assumption that the Doctor will fix things and that she herself knows best contribute to her doom. The show/writers mishandled her character this season, but the poignancy of her departure remained incredibly moving. This was not a quiet slipping away but a painful exit; even her muted scream did little to soften the blow. A very poignant speech to the Doctor, a solemn braveness and then, oh, Capaldi’s face. This man can deliver a line superbly, but there are few that can infuse so much sorrow, anger, and heartbreak into a look.
Some promotional materials have suggested we may get another appearance from Clara in the show, but this end had a finality to it. The last time the Doctor was pushed into such an emotional fervor was after the abduction of Amy and Rory’s baby. The death of Clara offers no silver lining of hope though. The show has never spent time to explore such fallout – typically a new companion is selected in the next episode – but we leave with the Doctor, trapped and alone. It’s a fascinating opportunity to see him deal with his grief.
Despite his promise to her to not seek revenge, we’re sure to see some fireworks next week. The companion often serves as the Doctor’s moral compass. We now not only find him mourning but also without anyone to reign him in. Who knows where this will take our heart(s)-broken Time Lord.