A few episodes ago in Doctor Who we had the phrase “truth and consequences” to ponder over. But if “Face the Raven” can be summarized in a few words, it would be “actions and consequences.” The episode begins as most Doctor Who episodes with Clara Oswald do: with an off-screen adventure and praising of each other’s abilities. It’s only when the spray painter Rigsy, from “Flatline” phones the TARDIS directly that things become serious fast.
And I do mean fast. Rigsy has a number tattoo that keeps counting down towards … something. This “something,” of course, is Rigsy’s imminent death. This is obviously something that neither The Doctor nor Clara can tolerate as Rigsy has a family and, in particular, a small child. He also doesn’t remember how he even got this strange black tattoo. This leads to some fascinating research and the discovery of a hidden street and neighbourhood on par with Neil Gaiman’s London Underground in Neverwhere.
It turns out there is a hidden refuge for aliens and other beings on Earth. It is has a “misdirection circuit” that protects it from outsiders with any knowledge of its existence. It has existed for about a century and guess who operates as its Mayor?
That’s right: our old friend Lady Me.
One way she decided to protect the world against The Doctor’s “good intentions” was to create this refuge. And it contains quite a number of beings shrouded in advanced holograms: including and not limited to a Cyberman. But the real mystery begins here. It turns out that Rigsy apparently murdered someone in the refuge, a model citizen, even though he has no memory of this. As such, Lady Me is responsible for the tattoo on his neck that will summon what looks like a raven to enter his body and kill him with excruciating slowness: the price of any crime that would endanger the refuge.
So of course The Doctor and Clara seek to prove that Rigsy, who had no way of even finding this place on his own to begin with, is innocent so that Lady Me will remove his tattoo. The good news is they prove that not do they prove that Rigsy didn’t murder anyone, but that his supposed murder victim is still alive in stasis.
The bad news is that it had all been a trap.
It turns out that Lady Me, having watched The Doctor’s doings for centuries, found out about Rigsy and lured him to the refuge and faked the entire crime: just to lure The Doctor to her. She then captured him: for a mysterious benefactor who gave her the misdirection circuit and cloaking technology that she uses to protect the refuge. Further, she also takes his Confession Dial away from him: though whether or not it was for her benefactor, or herself remains uncertain.
And then … it gets worse. As if Lady Me not learning from her last negotiation with an alien benefactor weren’t enough, Clara also didn’t learn … until the end.
The symbolism is heavy. After all, it is no coincidence that the alien woman supposedly murdered is a Janus. In addition to having two faces that can see the past and the future, Janus himself — the deity which the species is based from — is a god of beginnings, transitions, and endings. Before they solved the murder that didn’t happen, Clara and Rigsy had figured out that the Raven’s mark could be transferred to a willing host. And so Clara decided that she would take Rigsy’s mark: figuring that The Doctor would succeed and thus save her as he always did.
Except he doesn’t.
As it turns out, Lady Me can’t remove a tattoo from someone who accepts it willingly. There is literally nothing she can do. It is only in those last moments that Clara begins to understand. It is a hard lesson. More often than not, The Doctor has always managed to outsmart both their opponents and threats that come their way. In fact, The Doctor has saved Clara from quite a few moments that should have led to her death and, after a time, she started to take this for granted. It is only at the end, realizing that The Doctor can’t save her that Clara understands that her actions have consequences.
It is a fairly tragic end to the character for a number of reasons. Even as she processes and accepts her impending doom she still acts as a mirror to The Doctor: stating that she wanted to be like him. She also grimly mentions that perhaps all of her risk-taking was, in reality, leading to this moment: or that maybe she can find meaning in her sacrifice as Danny Pink had done.
To be honest, all of these possible explanations seem pretty tacked on to a character who alternated between self-righteousness, tagging along, becoming a joke in this season, and having one moment of genuine grace in “The Zygon Inversion.” Even so, when she dies she goes out with a certain degree of dignity as the raven kills her very slowly in the refuge.
Suffice to say, The Doctor is teleported away to meet his new captor but not before it becomes very clear that Lady Me should hope to never, ever, meet him again. The episode ends after a pause where Rigsy leaves the TARDIS with beautiful graffiti commemorating Clara’s sacrifice.
What makes this episode so sad is how cleverly it begins and how it ends much in the way that Clara’s time with The Doctor began: with bravery, impetuousness, and stupidity. Clara didn’t have to die. If she had just waited and continued to do her part to help The Doctor, they could have saved Rigsy and left the refuge intact. If there had been symmetry to her character arc such as it was, she could have died peacefully in old age at a fixed point in time in “Last Christmas.” If Clara’s actions as “The Impossible Girl” had been shown to viewers, rather than told perhaps her death would have more impact than attempting to elicit pathos through three slow frames of motion. Just her final words themselves to The Doctor would have been more than enough.
The real tragedy of Clara Oswald, when it comes down to it, is that she could have been so much more and as abruptly as she came into Doctor Who she was just as arbitrarily removed. Frankly, she deserved better. Despite this, at the very least she faced her death as bravely as any Companion: and her exit from the show leaves an emptiness that we will have to see bridged in some way.
Because one thing is certain. Perhaps Clara was successful in keeping The Doctor from becoming the Warrior again, and convince him to “heal thyself,” but while he may not unleash vengeance he is most certainly going to seek justice next time, on Doctor Who.