It’s been a Doctor Who-intensive week, with one thing and another; and one cannot live by Doctor Who alone. So this review is posted somewhat later than I would have ideally liked.
Thin Ice has been widely praised and deservedly so. I enjoyed the episode’s treatment of Regency London, more black than it was in the movies and yes, perhaps more black than it would have appeared to many of those in London on 4 February 1814. This story, though, was set by the Thames, where London was at its most diverse and a large proportion of Britain’s trade came, often to be re-exported. The Frost Fair allowed the sons and daughters of Empire, the children of unions of no or doubtful legality or those made across social class and colour in the colonies and trading posts, to emerge from their protracted schooling or clerkships, their domestic service or their soldiering, or even, now and again, their unexpected but substantial wealth, and mingle with those from around the world who were just off ship, and perhaps not feel so odd and tolerated by an ambivalent society. It’s entirely likely that Bill would recognize this feeling and share it, and we see the crowd through her eyes. The companion has been explicitly identified before as the series narrator – Doomsday was the last story Rose would ever tell, and BBC America viewers in 2010 saw an introductory narration from Amy at the start of each episode which framed Doctor Who as her story – the young woman whose childhood imaginary friend turns up the night before her wedding and takes her away from everything.
Bill is a step away from the Amy model, back towards Rose – the ‘mystery’ she holds for the Doctor isn’t that she embodies a fantastical problem to be solved, but that her reactions are human and early-twentysomething and the Doctor is non-human and two thousand years old (at least). Thin Ice as we see it is Bill’s adventure – her experience, her casting, and it is right that we should see the story that way. However, there’s more to this ‘diverse’ London than boosting Bill. The London of 1814 was a few decades beyond Ignatius Sancho keeping his shop in Westminster, and of Olaudah Equiano campaigning for the rights of enslaved Africans; Dido Belle had been dead ten years, but Joseph Emidy was alive and was a celebrated musician, and Britain was eighteen years away from the election of its first known non-white MP, John Stewart. Bill’s reality needs to be our reality because it’s the memory Britain had to be prodded to remember after more than a century of it being painted out.
Pearl Mackie has a marvellous expressive face, and feet which can show off the most daintily laced boots. These are the slightest representations of her range. Her disgust at the Doctor’s apparent lack of concern for Smiler’s fate makes us feel the conflicts – how can we put our trust in the Doctor when he seems to show such little concern for human life? We are also unable to judge the Doctor ourselves because Bill is our narrator; for me, the Doctor’s calculations as he moved across the ice were based around saving the boy and the screwdriver, but circumstances meant that the screwdriver had to be saved if nothing else was. Bill as yet knows little about it nor understand what it means to the Doctor. The viewer is caught between choices made by the director, camera operator, editor, performers and writer among others and they have to make their decisions about their own impressions of a scene as it plays out before them. I thought that there was a lot of room for a more compassionate reading of Peter Capaldi’s performance than many found, but the emphasis in editing was on Bill’s interpretation of events.
Capaldi’s Doctor, though, remains much more approachable than in previous series, but without losing his edge. In reading from Struwwelpeter to the children, he’s refusing to conform to twenty-first century ideas of responsible guardianship while at the same time showing his appreciation of children’s attraction to the gruesome. He’s reading Hoffman thirty years before publication, which suits the Doctor’s philosophy of not worrying too much about the consequences of intervention in the human past. The scene nevertheless might point towards the Doctor’s irresponsibility at breaking his oath by travelling in space and time away from twenty-first century Earth. He thrives on crisis, and wants to promote it.
The realisation of the frozen Thames was striking, with enough shadow of Canaletto’s riverside views from sixty or seventy years before in them to convince me, while depicting an altogether more rumbustious river scene than he did. The design of the handbills and posters was believable too, resembling real survivors or images seen on early photographs from twenty or thirty years later, though a street nameplate seen looked distressingly modern and digital. Costuming was astute with the Doctor and Bill firmly in the middle or upper middle of a society otherwise seen at its extremes.
For an episode about a trapped marine creature and a frozen river, it’s not perhaps surprising that the episode felt it needed more buoyancy. I’d have enquired about the colour grading too. We need more warmth against the cold on a Saturday night. It’s a pity we couldn’t have seen more of the river serpent or of Lord Sutcliffe, the monsters below and above the water. Sutcliffe was credibly petty, his vision hobbled by greed, but we saw less of him than we might have done. His villainy was based in the cruelty of his time, but there was room for the viewer to have seen more of his schemes and how they might have played out in practice. I’m sure the residents of Fairford – a Gloucestershire village associated with one of the major political families of the period, the Hills, marquesses of Downshire, and latterly with a forthcoming open-minded literary festival – are happy that Sutcliffe is not wanted in the Fairford Club.
Thin Ice, though, was a very good Doctor Who story indeed, not only for its muscular liberalism as the Doctor referenced Captain America number one’s cover in a scene recorded several months before someone punched American ultra right-wing leader Richard Spencer, but also for its sense of design and its vivid sketching of a historical place and time through costume, setting and modelwork as well as through dialogue and performance. The Doctor doesn’t overthrow the established order in this story, but in endowing the children, though Perry, with the Sutcliffe inheritance, he does shift it a little towards the society we hope we know or would like to see, an optimistic note in troubled times.
Face the Raven had become over the last few weeks perhaps the most anticipated story of the season. A step-change in publicity had suggested that we were going to see an apparently freestanding episode cleverly turn itself into a crucial transition point for the series. A mystery of the week tale became a grand narrative of power and trust.
Face the Raven had faults, but its faults were overwhelmingly those of the season as a whole and not peculiar to the episode. The build-up to Clara’s death tends to have been through symbols told outside the narrative – the Abbey Road photoshoot, for example – rather than through storytelling itself. There hasn’t been enough consistent development for Clara’s recklessness nor her implied death wish. Her erratic and unstable regard for the Doctor oscillates between concern and respect and a determination to show her independence, whether by not returning his calls or by hatching plans of which she knows he would disapprove and which place both of them in danger. The series has been uncertain about how far it should present its lead characters as unlikeable. I winced at first at the device of having the Doctor and Clara enter from the end of an adventure perhaps more exciting than the one we saw last week (I’ve never felt so isolated among fellow Doctor Who devotees than I have been as a defender of Sleep No More, even as a fan of Love & Monsters) and at the return of the Doctor’s emotional response cards (I didn’t enjoy this conceit when it first appeared in Under the Lake, though there are many with whom it resonates strongly). A Doctor who is further removed from human existence than any we have seen before and a companion intent on following him are not easy people to spend time with. I don’t especially enjoy a Doctor engaged by a baby but unable to refer to it as anything but ‘the new human’, as if babyhood is a concept from which he has to protect himself. Likewise, by itself Clara’s joy at being suspended over London isn’t endearing, and we’ve not quite seen enough of Clara’s character development to justify it.
Yet my mistake here might be to regard Clara as the audience’s touchstone. It’s a role Clara herself has rejected, as if she could reach out from the fiction and deny writers and performer the chance to present her as an approachable identification figure, and that’s a mark of how well she has been drawn over the past few years. Nevertheless, throughout this episode there’s a doubt that developments regarding Clara, Ashildr and the Doctor’s arc have been adequately served by preceding episodes. For example, the confession dial is produced eight episodes after it was last a plot point. Additionally, the grafting in of Rigsy is an appropriate and creative reuse of the character, but his reintroduction doesn’t quite fit with where the character was left – and particularly left by Clara – towards the end of Flatline. It’s not the first time in twenty-first century Doctor Who that a viewer might be left with the sense that a twenty-two episode storyline has been forced into a much shorter structure, with resulting narrative loss and disjuncture.
There was much, much else to like about Face the Raven, however. Doctor Who has been a regular visitor to the present day since its return but this was the first episode for some years which displayed the sort of broad contemporary cultural literacy which was usual in Russell T Davies’s day. Internet folklore and urban anomie drawn on by Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling among others joined to comment upon the experience of moving to a city both futuristic and ancient at once whose geography is difficult to explain in the modern commercial language of urban development. The self-governing refugee camp, inventing its own rules and culture while it is hidden in plain sight by itself and the authorities of its host society, is a long-established political reality in many parts of the world. The ‘Trap Street’ in execution was perhaps too much like the prestigious buildings of the inns of court on one of the kinds of hidden street which does surprise when one comes across it in London, but the co-option of the architectural imagery we see is familiar shorthand for the deliberately hidden; Diagon Alley, as practically everyone recognises, transported to the needs of Doctor Who’s Cardiff-London, and maintaining Doctor Who’s connection with the symbols of modern folklore. The contrast was also necessary with Doctor Who’s continued use of the tower block as everyday residence, a 2005 co-option of the topology of the 1960s welfare state which gave birth to Doctor Who, and with the brief glimpse of Rigsy’s life a welcome nod here to social realism.
I really wish the locations could have been in London rather than Cardiff. The failure of the cityscape over which Clara dangles to match that which she, Rigsy and the Doctor explore on foot is noticeable in the absence of tall buildings especially; the ‘Great British Library’ another of those institutions which don’t exist in the real world when an amount of verisimilitude would have complemented the storytelling. Compromises are the product of necessity. It was something of a relief to enter the enclosed world of the Trap Street itself, controlled by lighting and grading and the studio.
Sarah Dollard’s writing ably sketched in a sense of fragile urban community. Her frightened, embittered, generous, loving aliens had a reality about them which a lesser hand could not have delivered. There were questions in the execution of the street which I didn’t think were resolved – if the lurkworms’ telepathic field made people see what they expected to see, did everyone in the street see each other as human, for example? This wasn’t made clear, but if so it can be justified as a rough peacekeeping measure. The logic behind the use of the quantum shade was more transparent, and was presumably based on Ashildr’s authority as mayor; she can provide the raven with a series of souls, where those who pass the chronolock on only have power over one person, and the final recipient – Clara in this case – is powerless because by agreement they have renounced authority. Dramatically, it’s brutally contractual but is a believable arrangement for the fractious society over which Ashildr rules.
A lot of the enjoyment in Face the Raven emerges from the performances. One wouldn’t know from the dialogue how pleased at first the Doctor is to see Ashildr again, but there’s warmth on Peter Capaldi’s face despite the gravity of the situation and Ashildr’s part in it. It’s necessary to re-establish Ashildr as a protegee with similarities to the Doctor – she asserts that she has adopted ‘Mayor’ as a title to live up to, as she understands the Doctor uses his – but there’s a coldness to Maisie Williams’s performance which confirms that this is someone more concerned about self-control than the Doctor, whose progress along ‘the slow road’ leaves her in a weak position, who has things to hide. As for the Doctor’s other protegee, Clara, she has a lot to hide too, even from herself; it’s Clara as much as Jenna who deploys Sarah Michelle Gellar-like shrugs to triangulate herself between the Doctor and Ashildr, needlessly asserting independence and instead seeming petulant and revealing her desperation.
The last several minutes of the story are dedicated to Clara’s death. The emphasis is on the present rather than the past, as it needs to be; there’s no catalogue of past incidents, just the first mention of Danny Pink by name this series, and several reminders of the legacy of the Time War. This has definitely been a season commissioned in the wake of the fiftieth anniversary, much as season 22 was of the twentieth, and while the references to the Doctor having been a warrior and indeed to the Doctor no longer being present are borne a little too heavily, they are preferable to the unco-ordinated calls to the past which littered the 1985 series. These serve a character point; the reason the Doctor is as angry and unapproachable as he often seems to be is that he has been painfully reminded of the warrior he can be. If the eleventh Doctor was the man who forgets, the twelfth Doctor is the whole man, the man who remembers. There’s a moment where Capaldi’s blink is synchronised with the sound of the beat of the raven’s wings, as the message that death can’t be cheated altogether is sinking in and with it the inevitability of Clara’s fate. The Doctor is a raven of a sort too.
The revelations surrounding Clara’s death are played out on the best-designed set in the episode. There are echoes of Ashildr’s Viking origins in the beams and the wood-carving, juxtaposed with the metallic puzzle-box which steals the Doctor’s key and binds the teleport bracelet to him, and the Metropolis-like art deco associations of the stasis capsule. Behind the capsule are panels reminiscent of the 2013 and 2014 versions of the TARDIS interior, and where the cross-beams in the Viking set might have been decorated with serpent heads here there are cogs and wheels reminiscent of the current title sequence and more remotely of the design of the Doctor’s presidential rooms in The Invasion of Time. Everything, the set seems to be saying, leads here; and it suggests that an old use of the third person plural in the series might be in play here.
The decision to play Clara’s death effectively as a silent film with a soundtrack was surely the right one. I don’t doubt Jenna Coleman’s ability to provide a piercing, rattling death-scream, but the way Clara’s acceptance of her fate and request of the powers that shape Doctor Who to ‘Let me be brave’ is followed by haunting Puccini-esque music and a very deliberate, attention-grabbing selection of images told a more layered story. The glimpse of Rump hearing Clara’s scream and realising what his explanation of the chronolock and the death sentence had led to, and the decision (or so it seems to me) for the actual moment of Clara’s death to take place off-camera, with Jenna’s eye-movements before the exhalation of the quantum shade suggesting consciousness, and during not, was brutal; we can follow the Doctor in his journey to wherever the teleport bracelet – time ring? – takes him, but not Clara. We leave her just before she leaves us.
Face the Raven is an inspiring Doctor Who debut for Sarah Dollard, whose understanding of character shines through. She finds and develops new purpose for Rigsy, who has much more to live for now than he did in Flatline but whose tag scene (so to speak) shows that he remains true, to borrow a phrase, to all his beliefs. As outlined above, there’s an agitational contemporaneity in the episode of which Sydney Newman might have been proud, though he’d probably have demanded more. The script deals with the emotional maturing of Clara Oswald well and it’s a pity its subject has been patchily served by those episodes which went before it. There isn’t always a point in every Doctor-companion relationship where they stop running – the Doctor/Rose relationship is built around the denial of an end point, even after Rose leaves the main narrative – but this was a more satisfying conclusion than many. Anything else has to be a coda to the main story. The Doctor is left by Clara with more self-knowledge and the strength to acknowledge this. Ashildr, meanwhile, is struggling with her inadequacies; like Clara, she has overreached herself but lacks as yet the courage to admit her mistakes. Face the Raven ends with a sense that characters have progressed several places which Doctor Who doesn’t get to convey as much as it perhaps should; it’s for this as much as its clear depiction of place and thematic convictions that I’ll remember Face the Raven.