I’m putting these together, although they are the lone non-two-part pair of the season. Indeed, you could almost make “Face the Raven” part one of the three-part finale (quite like how “Utopia” set up “The Sound of Drums” while still remaining narratively separate), which makes “Sleep No More” the real anomaly. The pair still remains the thematic unity of the titles, however, with the Edgar Allen Poe ravens & no/nevermore connection. We’ll come back to Poe a little bit later.
To start with by far the less interesting episode, I actually kind of liked it, although less so on second viewing once its tricks are all revealed. It’s not the best episode Mark Gatiss has done (I still really love “The Crimson Horror”), but neither is it the worst. The idea of monsters made of that crusty eye-stuff that you get after a deep sleep may take the cake for the most ridiculous concept for a Doctor Who monster ever, at least for new Who, but what’s interesting is that the design of the monsters is actually quite scary. I had this weird cognitive dissonance watching the episode, with one part of my brain sort of freaked out by their oozy, lumpy, hollow-faced Sandmen, and the other half in complete stitches over the goofiness of the idea. It’s a pretty bold and unique blend of the monstrous/mundane that Doctor Who specializes in so well.
Other than that, the episode is pretty standard fare running through corridors, as I’ve come to expect from Gatiss. There’s some interesting “breaking the fourth wall” moments with the found-footage visual approach, but nothing all that exciting.
CLARA: When do you sleep?
DOCTOR: [Looking at Clara/the audience] When you’re not looking.
To be honest, by far the most interesting aspect is the ending, where the Doctor and Clara are lucky to escape with their lives, the monsters are left unconquered, and (in a very Ring-like way) the very footage we are watching is called into question. It ends on an ominous note of defeat, with the Doctor fleeing for his life, still wondering what the hell is going on,the space station crashing to destroy Neptune and the video signal infecting the world via our TV screens. Sweet dreams, indeed.
Now on to the real reason we’re all here, which is Sarah Dollard’s exquisite “Face the Raven.” While you’re at it, go download her script from the BBC Writers Room and give her a follow on Twitter and Tumblr, and she’s one of the most exciting new talents out there. What’s most exciting about her, as you’ll see from checking out her social media feeds, is the unpretentious earthiness she brings to the table. She is so clearly a fan, not just of Doctor Who but a fan of art and TV in general, and not just a fan in the classic stats-and-facts sort, but the new breed of fan that’s all about, as they say, “feels.” I mean, seriously? How cute is she? It’s a brilliant contrast to”Sleep No More”, which is dressed up in a Doctor Who suit but supplies a fraction of “Face the Raven’s” charm, ingenuity, or emotion. Indeed, watched back to back (as I did with my family this holiday) “Sleep No More” feels pitifully thin in comparison.
“Face the Raven” is not thin. It’s an ooey-gooey, yummy layer cake of delicious elements. What starts as a slightly comedic romp featuring Rigsy’s countdown tatoo, his baby daughter, Clara dangling over London, and a hidden “trap street,” turns into a murder mystery in an alien refugee camp starring Maisie Williams’ increasingly poised Lady Me, which morphs yet again into the surprising (and surprisingly devastating) exit of Jenna Coleman’s Clara. All of these episodes within the episode are done with skill and confidence from this relative newcomer.
But let’s talk about that ending, which is where the real power lies. We also have to talk about it in the context of killing characters on TV. When Game of Thrones adapted, well, Game of Thrones and committed George R.R. Martin’s famously shocking killing of Ned Stark, this was something of a game-changer. TV deaths happen all the time, but every show has the unwritten rule of the “unkillable characters.” Killing the unkillable has subsequently become something of a fashion, to the extent that nowadays the only way to shock an audience is to fake-kill some characters. See, again, Game of Thrones with Jon Snow (and their recent teaser poster). There’s The Walking Dead‘s multi-episode taunt regarding Glenn’s (in my opinion, all too obvious) fate. There’s The Leftovers which mercifully launched Kevin straight into his brilliantly bonkers dream quest immediately after offing him. These days, the shock isn’t in the shock death. It’s in the surprise of life, and the ambiguous in-between.
Then, of course, there’s just the question of death in Doctor Who at all. Death can be a huge theme in Doctor Who without killing the companions, simply because a large number of guest actors are killed off pretty much every week. The Doctor himself dies on a fairly regular basis, only to be brought back in a different form. The narrative, in other words, does not necessitate the death of the companion, and there’s even an argument against doing this, given Doctor Who status as family entertainment and the companions as the sort of protagonists of the show. I’m in the process of formulating a theory of Doctor Who and fairy-tales, which usually follow a “there and back again” structure. Fairy-tales (though often grim, frightening, and violent) are ultimately an optimistic genre and rarely end in the death of the hero.
Which makes it so fascinating to me that Clara is 1) killed, and 2) killed in this episode. We don’t expect Clara to die. That’s not what the companions do (at least, not lately). And it’s not just that you expect Clara to leave in the last episode of the season. Certainly Davies established that precedent, and Moffat continued it with the Ponds exiting in the mid-season finale. In that sense, this is definitely a shock, but if that were the only reason for doing it here I’d call it a cheap twist. No, more than that, Moffat entrusts this emotional climax of the season and the character to this noobie fangirl, Sarah Dollard. She writes to him with some ideas for a story, asking for a job, and he says, “You know what? Why don’t we kill Clara in your episode.” Where does he get the gumption? Given that Dollard knocked it out of the park, you have to think he had considerable confidence in her abilities. But I don’t think it’s just that she’s a great writer. Nor is it a case of him thinking, “Oh she’s new, so they’ll never see it coming. [Insert evil showrunner cackle]” It’s also that she has the qualities necessary to pull this off.
The fact that she’s a woman in a typically male-dominated culture (both in Doctor Who and the wider TV/film-making industry) counts for something. She’s also, as I said, a fan. Modern fangirls are all too aware of things like fridging in their favorite shows. As Philip Sandifer mentioned in his review, Clara’s final speech goes out of its way to establish Clara’s agency and non-victimization:
CLARA: You can’t let this turn you into a monster… You will not insult my memory. There will be no revenge.
This happened because of choices Clara made, and she owns her death, the good and the bad, the sadness and the bravery. It’s the culmination of Clara’s quest to become like the Doctor. The only difference is that he has back-ups of himself.
CLARA: Why shouldn’t I be so reckless? You’re reckless, all the bloody time! Why can’t I be like you?
That last line is the killer. Coleman says it with such longing, like a kid talking of the parent they admire and want to emulate. She doesn’t want to be ordinary. She wants to go down bravely, sacrificing herself for someone else, just like the Doctor does. She complained that Danny’s death was boring. This is certainly not that. But it’s never a petulant tantrum of Clara’s. She’s sad and scared. This isn’t what she wanted, but she faces it nevertheless. I wondered if acceptance and “letting go” would be Clara’s theme this season in light of her position as the Hanged Man in “The Witch’s Familiar.” Not to toot my own horn, but the image of Clara proudly walking to face death, asking whoever is listening for the strength to be brave, sort of answers that question.
To come full circle to Poe and the problem of fridging, in “The Philosophy of Composition” which examined his poem “The Raven,” Poe said:
I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven, the bird of ill-omen, monotonously repeating the one word “Nevermore” at the conclusion of each stanza in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object—supremeness or perfection at all points, I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death, was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”
Leaving aside the question of whether Poe was right about the objective poetry of dead ladies, I think we can certainly agree that death is as close to a universal theme as we’re likely to find, and that the untimely loss of loved ones is a “most melancholy topic.” The danger here (inherent in the fact that we are all he bereaved survivors in this scenario) is to fridge the beautiful woman, to kill her off and freeze her beauty for the sake of the exquisite man-pain of her grief-stricken lover. It prioritizes the suffering of the survivor by killing off someone else (usually, as it happens, the woman). This is precisely what Dollard doesn’t do, and why I suspect Moffat gave her the episode to write. We’ll spend plenty of time with the Twelfth Doctor’s man-pain in “Heaven Sent,” trapped as he is (in Moffat’s words) in the “castle of grief.” And it’s not as though Moffat hasn’t had a chance to write a death scene for Clara, having written (by my count) at least three death scenes for her. I suspect that when we see Clara in “Hell Bent” it will be as one of the echoes, book-ending nicely with “Asylum of the Daleks.”** No, I think Moffat knew what he had in Sarah Dollard and was smart enough to let her take the reins on this one. He let the eulogy for Clara come not from the “lips of a bereaved lover” but from the pen of the female fans who loved Clara. She put Clara front and center and did the Impossible Girl justice. Go on and tell me again how fan fiction isn’t a legitimate enterprise.
Meanwhile, the Doctor has been sent somewhere by some mysterious someones. “The Raven” is a poem about a man trapped in his sorrow and grief, possibly forever. I wonder if that will be relevant?***
**And wouldn’t it be nice if that one were to live on and not die for the Doctor?