SPOILERS FOLLOW, do I have to say this every time? Have you not worked it out? Spoilers.
“Everyone knows that everyone dies. And nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies in all the worlds might just turn dark, if he ever accepts it.” – River Song, Forest of the Dead.
Once upon a time, this statement might have been true. It was true of Eccleston, it was certainly true of Tennant – boy was it true of Smith – but Capaldi… this is a man that has seen death, he’s caused death and, more than the other three, seems to accept it. Clara is gone. She faced the raven and now the Doctor’s alone again. He’s alone in an unknown landscape, facing the thing that he partially blames for Clara’s death (he also blames Me, but let’s call her Ashildr for the sake of avoiding confusion) and he’s angry. I always rate a series of Who on three main factors: The interplay of Doctor and Companion, the individual episode plots and whether it manages to stick the landing. I’m still wary of the secret three-parter formula ever since the superb Utopia led into The Sound of Drums and The Last of the Time Lords, which were… let’s say less good to be nice. My point being, if they can build on this episode then we are in for a barnstormer of a final two-parter.
So onto this episode itself, let’s give you the quick plot run-down. Doctor and Clara are having fun in space, Clara is bragging about doing impressive things while in danger (foreshadowing), Doctor gets a phonecall from Rigsy (the graffiti artist from last series’ Flatline) saying he has a tattoo that’s counting down to zero. The Doctor and Clara turn up, he has a tattoo counting down to zero, the Doctor tells Rigsy he’s going to die unless they can get rid of it, there’s a street finding montage that’s more interesting than the term ‘street finding montage’ would suggest; they find a telepathically cloaked street run by Ashildr who has a quantum lock on Rigsy where, once it counts down to zero, he must face the raven (snuff it) because he can’t remember it happening but apparently he murdered a literally two-faced woman and we know this because we witness an old man die for stealing and his wife begs him to give the curse to her (foreshadowing), he doesn’t, he dies, it’s sad (this is what happens when you give supporting characters personality, Moffat!), they try to convince the residents of the street who all happen to be alien refugees (either brilliant or awful timing depending on how you look at it), most of whom have previously fought the Doctor; Clara secretly takes on Rigsy’s curse in that Ashildr promised to protect her, they meet the dead woman’s child, it turns out the two-faced woman wasn’t dead, she was in a stasis pod, it was a trap set by a blackmailed Ashildr to take the Doctor away from Earth, Clara has taken the curse so it can’t be removed – she dies – it’s even worse than how said the old man-thing dying was; the Doctor is bloody furious with Ashildr, he gets teleported away, we don’t know where and then this happens…
So we’re all caught up? Good. Appropriately, this was actually quite a Doctor-lite episode. He was around, doing his thing, but, really, this was Clara’s story and if the rumours (and the fact she, y’know, died) are to be believed, this was her last story in the TARDIS. Boy, did she choose a doozy to go out on. Jenna Coleman was a bit of a cypher in the Matt Smith-era but ever since they brought in Capaldi, she’s gained a real sense of purpose and agency as we see the real worry of the Doctor in bringing a companion along with him – they start to become him. But the Doctor can’t die and, in case I haven’t made this clear enough, THE COMPANION CAN!
In this episodes, we see shades of all the things that made Clara a great companion: loyalty, knowledge, humour, integrity, self-belief and strength. We also saw that much like the Doctor she can’t notice a trap when she’s standing right in it and often even if she does notice it, runs in anyway because why not, megaLOLZ. But it makes sense why Clara would die how she did. This was a companion that we were introduced to when she was trapped inside a Dalek thinking she was making Soufflé; she wasn’t someone he just met on the street somewhere. She couldn’t just leave the TARDIS, she had to go down swinging and really, it was a perfect ending that the thing that got her killed in the end were a bone-headed attempt to recreate the Doctor’s own bone-headedness and just generally the compassion to save the life of one young Dad. Coleman’s performance retains an impish charm while also slowly understanding the grave (sorry) nature of her situation. This particular story made me miss Clara more than I thought I would but I do hope that it is her last episode because this was a powerful goodbye and to have her come back again would really diminish its power.
There was a lot to recommend about this episode beyond Clara. Rigsy was a welcome returning presence bringing with him a naturalism and a humanity that leant him a presence in his scenes that benefitted his limited material. A nice touch was shown in his first reaction to being told he was accused of murder was to ask the name of the victim, this kind of selflessness is often rewarded in secondary companions. Capaldi was great as always (even if we didn’t get any footage of him on the guitar this time but there’s still two more episodes; if they can make Capaldi mournfully playing the guitar on the TARDIS porch in outer space happen as the last shot of the series, I will love them forever) especially in the third act when he managed to switch between frantic compassion, horror and sheer rage before you could even blink. No matter what anyone says, Capaldi is probably the best ‘pure actor’ that has ever stepped into the Doctor’s cloak and I like how he’s changed his interplay with characters to adjust to new characterisation, including his fascinating relationship with Ashildr (Maisie Williams is once again very good with less to do this time).
The episode has some minor narrative problems as a lot of it feels contrived to put our heroes into the place they are in the third act, especially the lengthy ‘street finding montage’ which does feel like the logic behind it is forced in to give Clara and the Doctor a chance to show how they work well together and also to give Clara a chance to show she’s clever by talking about ‘trap streets‘ (once again, foreshadowing, Admiral Ackbar was right). Equally, the dynamics of the trap street and its alien refugee camp-meets-Diagon Alley vibe never feels fully explored. But, hey, there’s still two episodes of this series to go and I can’t imagine that we won’t be back in the street before long. Unless we’ve already seen it loads of times and they ret-conned our memories…
Goodbye episodes are always difficult to pull off. Go too reverential and it becomes dull and sentimental; make it too quick and it lacks a proper climax, but this was pretty much a perfect blend. It’s maybe too bottom-heavy an episode, the first two-thirds breezing by leading to the crushing defeat at the end of the episode, but that structurally makes sense. Clara didn’t know she was going to die in this episode but the important thing was that she was prepared. Now we’ve got two episodes of a Doctor that we haven’t seen in a while, one who’s seen a companion die and he’s looking for someone to blame. Even with Clara’s lovely little final speech begging the Doctor not to seek revenge, I think we’re in for something special when the Doctor finds whoever’s responsible.