Previously on Doctor Who, ‘Sleep No More’
Warning: This recap contains full spoilers for the most recent episode of Doctor Who.
So, Clara died, and we should talk about that. We knew it was coming by the end of the season, and there are only two more episodes after this, but still, it was a bit of a surprise that it happened now and like this. How did we get here? Let’s review.
After Rigsy calls the TARDIS line to report that he has a tattoo counting down the minutes on the back of his neck, Clara and the Doctor swoop in and hunt down Mayor Me/Ashildr’s very own version of Diagon Alley, a sanctuary of non-violence for any aliens who request asylum, especially from the Doctor. Lurkworms in the street lights throw off a psychic field, molding appearances to your expectations, so no one is able to see who is really there.
The refugees believe Rigsy murdered a Janus woman named Anah; Janus females have a face on both sides and can see the past and future. His punishment is the tattoo, Quantum Shade controlled by Mayor Me who releases it from the curls on her neck as a form of violence control, calling it “meet the raven.” Its harsh and unsympathetic effects are demonstrated when an older man, accused of stealing medical rations for his wife, runs out of time. A wraith-like raven chases him down the street, flashes into him, and releases his life as he screams by exhaling as black smoke.
Mayor Me allows the crew to question anyone there, but she and her henchmen feel that one human’s life is worth keeping the peace. In one of her signature too-clever, trying-to-be-the-Doctor moments, Clara finds out that shade can be transferred to another person, so she convinces Rigsy to give her the tattoo, believing as always that through a series of tricks, intimidation, and loopholes, her magician will find a way out. The trouble is, Clara doesn’t know that this entire event was orchestrated by Mayor Me to bring the Doctor there, using the only other human who has his number as bait, in order to give him over to an unknown adversary in exchange for continued safety.
Thanks to the Janus woman’s disguised daughter, they realize that the “murdered” woman is only in stasis. To release her, the Doctor is cornered into using his TARDIS key. Knowing he’ll lose it, he willingly plugs it in and is cuffed with a transport bracelet. Mayor Me steps out and demands his confession dial as well, then agrees to release Rigsy. Except, of course, Rigsy no longer has the shade. Clara, thinking she still has the upper hand, demands she return the key to the Doctor, but it seems she focused on the wrong clause when designing her plan. While she believes that she’s under the Mayor’s personal protection, the contract with the shade was only breakable the first time; once transferred, it cannot be removed.
The Doctor immediately loses his Doctor-ness, demanding Me fix this or he will expose her and her sanctuary to the world and call in all the UNIT, Daleks, Cybermen, Zygons, and Space Boogers she can handle (kidding about the last one). When Me doesn’t believe the Doctor would do such a thing, he responds chillingly, using her own appellation against her:
“I can do whatever I like. The Doctor is no longer here. You are stuck with me. I will end you and everyone you love.”
YASSS! This is potentially my favorite 12th Doctor moment so far.
But Clara stops him, asking him not to insult her memory by losing himself to his warrior tendencies and heal himself (reference to “The Night of the Doctor” when the Eighth Doctor became the War Doctor). Perhaps all she was looking for all this time since Danny died was a good death.
“What about me?” he asks sadly.
She asks him to just let her be brave and to be proud of her. He kisses her hand, and she walks out into the street. Repeating her mantra, Clara whispers, “Let me be brave.” The raven arrives, and, with a flash, disappears into her and slowly, silently exits through her mouth. Clara Oswald is dead.
When Me offers her apologies in the regretful-yet-shallow way that only a semi-immortal can, the Doctor asks if she knows why Clara said all those things. Me believes it was to save him from himself, but no.
“I was lost a long time ago. She was saving YOU. I’ll do my best, but I would advise you to stay out of my way. You’ll find it’s a very small universe when I’m angry with you.”
With that, the bracelet transports him away, and, in a sweetly poignant scene after the credits, Rigsy memorializes Clara by tagging the TARDIS with lilies and roses.
Losing companions is a Whovian rite of passage we all must digest every few years, and these tumultuous times deserve a vent. Clara was a divisive character, disliked by many for either her interactions with 11 or 12 or both. I’ve always felt let down by the dark possibilities behind Oswin Oswald and the Victorian version who fell to her death after taking the TARDIS key, but, for me, Clara hit her stride once Capaldi settled in. At times during this season, her need to be clever like the Doctor felt too on point, a pendulum clicking audibly as it swung closer and closer to her death, until finally it was impossible to escape.
Truthfully, I was a bit aggravated by the seeming mundanity of her death itself, her scream muted by swelling theme music, and I am disappointed that the Doctor’s maudlin concern for her was not a premonition. And, even more obscure, the flash forward to Orson Pink last season apparently means he was just a distant relative who somehow knew about Clara and Danny’s brief romance, despite Danny being an orphan and Clara living as though she didn’t have one. Harrumph. Further, I was never quite sure if the infuriating Me really couldn’t fix it, if the Doctor had gone on rampaging, or why they didn’t try the MacGuffin literally flashing in the background—the stasis chamber. Imagine Clara trapped in time, perhaps for many years while he attempted to unravel the contract, with the raven quorking ominously outside the chamber, waiting for that last second to run out.
That said, there were quite a few things to like this episode. The Diagon Alley set was richly claustrophobic, and the Quantum Shade mesmerized to fantastic effect, calling back to Lady Me’s summary of the mortal life in “The Woman Who Lived”: “All these people here, they’re like smoke. They blow away in a moment.”
The acting by Capaldi, Coleman, and Williams was simply superb as they shifted from their typical trickery and blasé risk taking, to horror and sorrow, to murderous resolve, and finally to smoldering anger. Absolutely riveting. Arrogance ruled the day, making this death one of hubris, truly a problem of the gods, or semi-immortals in this case. The first mistake goes to the Doctor when he overlooks Me’s statement “I brokered a deal” and didn’t ask the pertinent question: With whom? Not a good move when he’s been on a losing streak.
As the Doctor checks out and the Warrior kicks in, he blithely dismisses the wellbeing of the sanctuary and this peace, roaring, “I. DON’T. CARE.” This calls back to 12’s second episode, “Into the Dalek,” in which he introduces Clara, “This is my carer. She cares so I don’t have to.” With her nearing death, his caring veneer quickly dissolves. There is tragic irony in the mechanism of Clara’s death, seeing as how he created Me/Ashildr in his whimsical determination to always save everyone. Using the Shade’s contract, “The death’s locked in,” one wonders if Ashildr’s original fate came home to roost in this moment, Norse pun intended, or, perhaps, if Clara has even been on the clock since “Last Christmas” when she considered staying with Danny under the Dream Crab’s spell.
I loved that the episode began with the Doctor and Clara literally blowing in with laughter from another adventure, her having saved him from “marrying that giant plant thing.” Their familiarity is unobtrusively re-established by their shared hand signals and her accurate-enough evaluation of the Doctor’s affinity with Rigsy to give out his phone number without permission, the very thing that brought them together originally in “The Bells of Saint John”. But, their relationship is distilled by one moment in particular: when the Doctor realizes Rigsy is doomed and immediately walks to the back of the TARDIS controls, shifting through the Emergency Flash Cards she made for him while not reading them at all, and just looks into her eyes, communicating the gravity of Rigsy’s fate and how sick he feels about it. She takes over as his translator to her fellow human, embodying her role as his bridge between two worlds, human and alien, emotional and awkward—the pinnacle of 12/Clara symbiosis before undertaking their final adventure.
How did you feel about this episode, and, more importantly, do you think we’ll ever see Clara again?
Minor Facts and Themes:
- Flexible gender themes continued with the Janus child masquerading as a boy to escape enslavement.
- Clara dies in a sanctuary offering asylum, coming full circle from her original Oswin Oswald aka Soufflé Girl appearance in “Asylum of the Daleks.”
- Races seen in the sanctuary included Janus, Cybermen, Lycans, Oods, Sontaran, Silurian, Ice Warrior, Judoon, and the Blowfish from Torchwood.
- Speaking of Torchwood, retcon is the drug they use to maintain secrecy.
- Clara again mentioned her “thing” with Jane Austen, confessing she loves her to Rigsy.
- Clara is the first companion of the new series to end her tenure by dying in-episode and only the fourth official companion to do so in the TV series. Katerina, Sara Kingdom, and Adric were the other three.
- Clara hanging from the TARDIS to map London’s streets mirror the 11th Doctor’s similar adventure in “The Day of the Doctor.”
- Ravens previously appeared on Doctor Who in “The Day of the Doctor” when the ravens of the Tower of London “needed fresh batteries” and with Cessair, impersonating druidic goddess Cailleach, in “The Stones of Blood.”
- This was former Merlin and Being Human writer Sarah Dollard’s first Doctor Who
Doctor Who S9E10
While a few logical questions remain, “Face the Raven” combined beautiful sets, effects, aliens, dialogue, and acting in bidding farewell to Clara. What more can be said?