Face the Raven, by Sarah Groenewegen

Latest in the Black Archive sequence of monographs on Doctor Who stories, the first of a trilogy with the next two. I don’t seem to have written much about Face the Raven before, though I included it in my starters’ list of New Who five years ago. I actually saw the set for the story when I visited the Cardiff studio in 2015, and though I did not take pictures, I very much liked it. The producers did too, and kept it around for a bit longer than had been planned. This of course was many months before the episode was broadcast, and one of the marvels of TV is that what is actually quite a small and constrained space can be made to look much more expansive on screen, as if, to coin a phrase, it is bigger on the inside than the outside.

Rewatching it now, I felt that it somewhat pulls its punches. I had completely forgotten who Rigsy is, which slightly blunts the drama. For the high stakes of the story, I didn’t really think that Capaldi and Coleman quite rose to the emotions of the occasion. Stephen Moffat has a habit of killing off his main characters and then resurrecting them again, and that expectation also slightly deterred me from investing much in the drama (and indeed Clara comes back again two episodes later).

Having said that, I’m definitely not one of the Clara-haters who were so prevalent in the fandom at one point. I really like Jenna Coleman as an actress, the character was intriguing and had more of a real arc than most Who companions old or new, and the way that she is brought down by her own hubris, in a small alley off the real world, does work for me. And I’m also a fan of Maisie Williams, whose character Ashildr gets a good outing here. (But I’ve never had my picture taken with her.)

Sarah Groenewegen is a friend of mine anyway, and I’ve enjoyed her Who fiction. Here she brings a close analytical lens to the story, pulling up all kinds of things that I had not really thought of; the Black Archive at its best produces books that you like more than their subject episodes. This has a short introduction and four long chapters.

The first chapter looks in depth at the character of Clara. Groenewegen starts by pointing out that Clara was basically invented to satisfy the needs of the 50th anniversary in 2013, and Coleman actually appeared and got killed off twice before becoming established as Clara Oswald, twenty-first century schoolteacher. She looks at the role of companions and how this worked out in this particular case. Sometimes fans invest more in the emotional dynamics of a show than is really there, but I was convinced by the argument here.

The second chapter looks at Ashildr and Rigsy as returning characters, and reflects on how the show interrogates time and change, and the Doctor being held accountable for his actions. There’s a brief but fascinating exploration of the Ashildr/Clara relationship.

The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Vivian Sobchack observed that contemporary American science fiction and horror movies also rely on making the familiar unusual1. The motif of Earth as home being ruptured by the alien is a common one in Doctor Who, especially during the late 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, one of the most effective Doctor Who scenes is the sight of dummies coming to life and bursting from their shop windows to terrorise the passers-by during Spearhead from Space (1970). As Jon Arnold observes, ‘They are the most logical choice from a gallery of Doctor Who’s gallery of monsters’ to bring back in Rose (2005) because they are ‘a place of domesticity suddenly rendered shockingly alien’2.
1 Sobchack, Vivian, ‘Child/Alien/Father: Patriarchal Crisis and Generic Exchange’ in Penley, Constance, Elizabeth Lyon, Lynn Spigel and Janet Bergstrom, eds, Close Encounters: Film, Feminism and Science Fiction. p16.
2 Arnold, Jon, The Black Archive #1: Rose, p30.

The chapter looks at geography, London and refuge, and the way in which Doctor Who interacts with the real universe (there is a real London; there was a real refugee crisis at the time the story was made). Lots of other writers are invoked, in particular Paul Cornell and Ben Aaronovitch.

The final chapter looks briefly at the symbolism of ravens, reminding us that they actually have something of a history in Doctor Who, and in more depth at the subject of death, which I think Face the Raven handles rather better than Dark Water / Death in Heaven.

It’s a rare case where I wished I had read the book first before rewatching the story; I would have got a bit more out of the latter. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)

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