Monday, 23 November 2015


Clara's exit shows just how far Doctor Who has come under Peter Capaldi.

My friend he wasn't the raven... (Image: Copyright: BBC)
In a lot of ways, November 2015 isn’t a great place to be. Following the appalling terrorist attacks in Paris last weekend, world governments are planning yet more military action in the Middle East, which I can’t help thinking once again hasn’t been thought through, and will only make the situation worse. More and more, it seems, educated and usually reasonable people that I know are making casually racist remarks. Elsewhere, the government want to save 20 billion £ on public services between now and 2020, but miraculously have managed to find millions to spend on expanding the security services. Where, I wonder, is the logic in defending a country where the quality of life is becoming harsher and harsher through threatened cuts in financial help for the NHS, police and low wage earners, and where racism now appears to be acceptable?
In the context of all that, you can perhaps see why Doctor Who has matured so much in the last two years. In Peter Capaldi’s first series, there was the running storyline of maths teacher Danny Pink’s rejection of the army because he accidentally killed a child in Afghanistan. That tied in with the Doctor’s prejudice towards soldiers (and it’s curious how no-one remembered that the first military officer to teach maths in the series was everyone’s favourite dolly soldier, and the Doctor’s great friend, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart). This year the production team have gone even further, specifically equating aliens with immigrants and terrorist groups, denouncing extremism and, this week, presenting a ‘refugee camp’ hidden from modern-day London (notably designed and shot very like Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films). In this ‘trap street’, varied alien races – Sontarans, Judoon, Cybermen and Ood among them – can, tellingly, live in peaceful co-existence.

Satisfyingly, the engagement of ‘Face the Raven’ with contemporary issues was morally very murky. While the returning Ashildr (Maisie Williams) might have created a safe haven for off-worlders, her edict of crimes being punishable by death in a ritualistic manner would have been applauded by several fundamentalist groups I can think of. Not only that, she broke her own rules, setting up the innocent Risgsy (Jovain Wade) for a murder that hadn’t actually happened so she could trap the Doctor, who a few weeks ago had saved Earth by stopping a war between Zygons and humans. New writer Sarah Dollard is a real find and I’m looking forward to what she does next with the series.

'My friend you're black and when
you fly you're wild...'
She applied the symbolism of the raven very cleverly. The use of the bird as a ‘quantum shade’ fits with Ashildr’s Viking heritage as in Norse mythology, the god Odin used two ravens as his eyes in the human world (left), while the Vikings themselves used the birds on their longships to find land. In other European cultures ravens are a symbol of sadness, loss and death, while in reality the birds are scavengers that steal eggs from other nests. You can find allusions to all these facets of the evocative creature within the story.

Dollard’s debut script was also a mystery that became a tragedy. The trap street itself was a trap, not just for the last of the Time Lords but for Clara Oswald. Her personal story’s a good example of how the series has grown up since her introduction in the creatively hyperactive Matt Smith days. Starting out as more of an idea than a character – ‘the impossible girl’ – Clara’s had to deal with the apparent death of a potential lover reborn as an abrasive uncle, subsequently not dealing with the actual death of her soul mate Danny at all, becoming an adrenaline junkie full of reckless over-confidence. Rigsy’s life was pointedly shown to have moved on, with a new home, partner and child, while Clara’s hadn’t. With hindsight, it’s hard not to see her death as inevitable. For Doctor Who – particularly modern Doctor Who – that’s downbeat and real.

This being modern Doctor Who, though, she was allowed a heroic death. Today, the alarmingly matter-of-fact killings of the companions Katarina and Sara Kingdom (‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’) and Adric (‘Earthshock’) would have been a bit too much. To be honest, my old school Doctor Who-self would have preferred that, as the lingering, elegiac shots and Hollywood fanfare that accompanied Clara’s demise weren’t to my taste. But, in these miserable days, the message was an important one: if you’re life hasn’t been perfect, you can still save others and face the end with dignity. Even here, however, there was dramatic complexity: the Doctor saved Ashildr’s life in ‘The Girl Who Died’, which ultimately led to Clara’s death, while the Time Lord was betrayed by a girl he granted immortality and doesn’t entirely trust.

It goes without saying that the episode belonged to only two actors, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. Next week, by the look of it, ‘Heaven Sent’ will belong to only one.

Bit to rewind: ‘You’ll find it’s a very small universe when I’m angry with you.’


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