For years now, Doctor Who has been exploring the dark side of the Doctor, that quasi-immortal time traveler from another planet. He turns people into weapons, he inspires his friends to be reckless, he makes his enemies worse, etc. But with this latest episode, we see the absolute worst indictment of the Doctor.
To some extent, the events of “Face The Raven” can be read as a tragic misunderstanding. The immortal Ashildir, aka Me, sets a trap for the Doctor in which nobody is supposed to get hurt—but because Clara over-reaches and tries to be too clever, she accidentally becomes a victim and is killed. But one layer below that, this is about the collision between two ordinary women that the Doctor turned into something more. The Doctor chose to make Ashildr immortal, knowing how horribly that could go wrong, and he also kept convincing Clara that reckless arrogance was a good strategy for dealing with impossible situations.
Not that the Doctor takes all the blame for this disaster—but his anger at the end of the episode is misplaced. He should be looking in the mirror when he makes those speeches about his righteous wrath.
So basically in the mostly brilliant “Fear the Raven,” the young Viking that the Doctor made immortal back in “The Girl Who Died” is still alive in the present day, and she’s created a special sanctuary for aliens who want to hide out on Earth, many of whom are hiding from the Doctor himself. Ashildr/Me makes a deal with someone or something—my guess is Missy and/or the Daleks—to get the Doctor out of the way and obtain his Confession Dial (the will and testament he created at the start of the season, containing his biggest secret.) In return, this mysterious entity or group will guarantee protection for the hidden alien sanctuary.
To that end, Me frames the Doctor’s friend Rigsy for the murder of Ahna, one of the aliens living inside the sanctuary—which is a hidden “trap street,” that ordinary humans can’t see—and puts a “Chronolock” on him. Basically, Rigsy has a tattoo on the back of his neck, which is a number counting down the number of minutes he has left to live. (Which is a really nifty concept.)
The Doctor is supposed to realize that Ahna is actually still alive, and just being held in stasis. And also that Ahna’s “son,” Ahnason, is actually a girl, with the same psychic powers that all the females of Ahna’s species have. For the Doctor to free Ahna from stasis and prove Rigsy’s innocence, though, he has to surrender his TARDIS key and also get trapped in a teleport bracelet that will send him someplace far away. All of these things happen more or less according to Me’s plan.
But Me has miscalculated, because Clara has been getting overconfident lately, ever since she started learning to be like the Doctor last year. Clara convinces Rigsy to transfer the deadly mark to her, on the theory that this could buy them more time to find out what really happened to Ahna. Clara is under Me’s explicit protection, so in theory the “Chronolock,” with its deadly raven, won’t harm her. Unfortunately, Me no longer has the power to remove the “Chronolock” once it’s been transferred from Rigsy to Clara, because the terms of her deal with the quantum shade have been changed by Clara’s actions. Me no longer has any influence on the outcome.
The upshot? Clara dies in front of the Doctor, who is then whisked away to some horrible other place. Only Rigsy is left behind—and even though the alien sanctuary usually wipes people’s memories using the amnesia drug Retcon before allowing them to leave, Rigsy is apparently allowed to remember what’s happened, because he turns the Doctor’s abandoned TARDIS into a beautiful shrine to Clara.
We’ve already written a lot about last year’s arc, in which Clara starts out being a critic of the Twelfth Doctor’s callousness and manipulative games, only to wind up imitating him and becoming a kind of surrogate Doctor. This was one of the most ambitious things Doctor Who has ever done, and tonight’s episode marks its culmination.
This year’s Clara arc has been much less fleshed out—to the point where I was starting to wonder if the show had run out of things to do with her. But now that we know how it (probably) ends, you can see the bones of the story in what’s happened thus far this season. (We don’t know if Clara’s going to stay dead, of course.)
In the opening two-parter, Missy seeks out Clara because she understands the Doctor better than anyone—and then in the second episode, Missy asks Clara just why it is that the Doctor always wins. Clara realizes that the Doctor wins because he always knows he’s going to win, and so he’s always looking for the way that he’ll make that happen. (And this dovetails with the storyline where the Doctor tells Kid Davros that there’s always a way to survive, until he realizes this is Kid Davros.)
Of course, Clara is telling Missy that the Doctor always wins in the shadow of the Dalek city, which is the symbol of the Doctor’s greatest failures—both his failure to wipe out the Daleks in the Time War, and his failed mission to prevent the Daleks’ creation in “Genesis of the Daleks.” Plus I guess nobody ever told Clara about Adric, and last week’s episode, “Sleep No More,” was all about the Doctor losing as well.
But Clara believes that the Doctor always wins, which means in turn that if she can imitate the Doctor, then she, too, will be unbeatable thanks to her astounding cleverness. In “Before the Flood,” we see her gambling with other people’s lives, based on her own shrewd deductions, and at various points in the season the Doctor warns her that she’s getting too reckless and enjoying these adventures a bit too much. The Doctor keeps trying to tell her he has a “duty of care” towards her, and he’s worried something will happen to her.
And meanwhile, the Doctor keeps confronting the possibility of Clara’s death—he thinks she’s dead in the season opener, and then again in the Zygon story, and it wrecks him both times. And in “The Woman Who Lived,” Ashildr keeps taunting him with Clara’s short lifespan and the inevitability that she’ll blow away like smoke.
So “Face the Raven” is about the consequence of the Doctor’s mentorship of Clara since the beginning. We’re reminded, early on that she’s being too reckless and thrill-seeking, as she hangs out of the TARDIS over London.
And when she decides to take on Rigsy’s death sentence for herself, she frames it explicitly as a matter of being like the Doctor. (It’s a neat touch that this story guest-stars Rigsy, who previously met Clara in the story where she was actually pretending to be the Doctor, “Flatline.”) She puts it in terms of “Doctor 101,” “talking the opposition into their own trap,” and “Doctor 102: Never tell anyone your actual plan.” But also she keeps saying “This is clever.” (A phrase that, as the Doctor observes about something else, is usually followed by a lot of screaming and things on fire.)
She gets a nice Doctorish bit about how they go around saving people—when she’s not flirting up a storm with Jane Austen, whom she has apparently had a thing with.
So Clara really does bring this on herself, by being massively overconfident and not thinking things through. (She doesn’t stop to think about the implications of the idea that “the death is locked in” and can’t be cheated.)
As bleak as it is, Clara’s fate is the logical endpoint of her journey up to now.
Meanwhile, there’s Ashildr. The Doctor brought her back from the dead because her innocent storyteller talent moved him, but also because of a moment of egomania and self-pity. Back in “The Girl Who Died,” the Doctor realizes where he’s seen his current face before—Lucius Caecilius, the man he saved from the destruction of Pompeii by bending the rules of time. And this face is a reminder to him that he should forget the rules when it allows him to save people, because he’s the Doctor and that’s what he does. He’s lost so many people and he just always goes on, a prospect that fills him with bitterness.
In a sense, the Doctor’s victories that Clara sees as inevitable and perfect are actually defeats in his mind, because so many people die to achieve them.
In any case, the Doctor chose to turn Ashildr into an immortal, in spite of knowing how well these things generally turn out, because of his own over-inflated sense of what it means to be “the Doctor,” and because he didn’t want to lose another person—and this leads, pretty much directly, to him losing Clara.
The notion that “I’m the Doctor, and I save people,” is put to the test early in “Face the Raven,” when the Doctor first realizes that Rigsy is under a “quantum shade” death sentence. The Doctor’s first impulse is to write Rigsy off, because there’s no obvious way to save him, and he even breaks out the cue cards with sympathetic phrases on them. It’s only when Clara puts pressure on him that the Doctor rallies, and puts on a brave face, and starts spinning his wheels to find the hidden street and figure out what happened to Rigsy there. The Doctor is, for a moment at least, fully resigned to not being able to save Rigsy.
Maybe because Ashildr has no memory of her own past, she’s reinvented her mission quite a bit since we last saw her in the 17th century. First she wanted to escape from this planet because she’d lost the ability to care about anybody, and then she decided that she would take on the mission of cleaning up after the Doctor’s messes and saving the world from him. Now, she’s the “mayor” of a street of alien refugees, and she pretty much keeps the peace with a reign of terror—jaywalking is punishable by tattooed quantum death.
She’s an artifact of the Doctor’s determination not to let people he cares about die, at any cost—so it’s weirdly fitting that she indirectly causes the death of the person the Doctor cares the most about.
(And yet, I kept wondering just how unavoidable Clara’s death really is, in this scenario. I mean, there’s the stasis machine that Anah was just kept in, right there. There’s the teleport bracelet—what would happen if you teleported someone in stasis, at the exact moment that the “quantum shade” attacked them? They could try transferring the “Chronolock” to the Doctor, or to Ashildr, since neither of them can die. I feel like a lot of avenues were left unexplored here.)
Is Clara really dead? Yeah, I guess so—although I’d be shocked if her fate isn’t revisited somehow in the season finale. Maybe she comes back as the Hybrid, the mixture of two warrior races that we keep hearing about. It seems unlikely, with two episodes left to the season, that anything we just saw will turn out to be “final.”
For now, though, the Doctor is in an incredibly dark place. Clara spends her last moments on Earth admonishing the Doctor not to go dark. He’s already threatened Ashildr with bringing “the whole laughing world,” including UNIT and the Daleks, down on her alien refugee street. Clara says that the Doctor’s reign of terror would end with the first crying child he sees.
In one of the show’s most effective, emotional moments, Clara tells the Doctor that he mustn’t become a warrior—he has to stay the Doctor, no matter what. He has to work on healing himself, even if he couldn’t save her. And no matter what, he can’t go on a path of vengeance.
After Clara is dead, an absolutely furious Doctor tells Ashildr that Clara said all that to save Ashildr—because he was lost a long time ago. But he advises her to stay out of his way, because it’s a very small universe when the Doctor is angry with you. And then he’s zapped away, to what looks (from the “next episode” preview) like a pretty nightmarish place of endless monologues.
I’m pretty curious to see what happens next here—I guess it all revolves around what’s on the Doctor’s “Confession Dial,” plus the identity of whoever Ashildr made that deal with. (Again, guessing Missy and/or the Daleks.) And just who/what the Hybrid is. But most of all, I’m curious to see exactly how, or whether, the show can pay off this latest and darkest iteration of the motif of the Doctor’s hubris and obsession with his own mythos leading to suffering and death.
But now, nobody can ever claim again that the Doctor always wins.
Edited to add: I get what people are saying about respecting Clara’s agency, which means that she has to take the blame for her own stupid decisions. I do get that. On the other hand, this is a show that has treated us to dozens of speeches about how the Doctor turns people into weapons (“Journey’s End”), the Doctor makes people reckless because they want to impress him (“Vampires of Venice”) and he is an officer who makes people into good soldiers (Every Danny Pink speech last year). And tons more. The Doctor changing the people around him into his own image has been one of the main themes of the show for years now, and Clara’s fate certainly seems to be the ultimate example of that.