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Doctor Who S9.10 "Face The Raven" review

Now that’s more like it. After last week’s found footage misstep Doctor Who was back on blistering, series-best, form with “Face The Raven”. Even more impressive: it’s writer Sarah Dollard’s first script for the show.

Starting as a captivating, dark fantasy whodunit, it’s a story that slowly transforms into a heartbreaking send off for Jenna Coleman’s Impossible Girl, blending a superb standalone mystery and ongoing character arcs in a hugely impressive manner. The case of the unfathomable chronolock would be interesting enough to sustain an entire episode by itself, but the fact it’s also a semi-sequel to “Flatline”, not just with the return of Rigsy but in the way Clara continues to behave like Doctor Oswald, is a hugely rewarding piece of long-form storytelling. It’s the most confident and accomplished debut for a Who writer since, well, Jamie Mathieson last year. But you have to go back a long way to find another debut script quite this good.

The Doctor “can never resist a mystery”, and when it’s one that’s crafted quite this well neither can we, the carefully rationed breadcrumbs keeping you guessing till the final moments. Of course, with Ashildr/Mayor Me involved you can assume fairly early on that Local Knowledge was never the real target, but that doesn’t stop you pondering who (or what) is behind Rigsy’s death sentence. After stumbling last week, returning director Justin Molotnikov deftly handles the tale’s wild tonal shifts, gleeful flights over London one minute, pit of your stomach sadness the next. Visually it feels more like fantasy than science fiction – killer crows, psychic glow worms and the Diagon Alley refugee camp giving the episode a late-era Potter feel that fits the story well.

Time Lord Trivia

Sarah Dollard started her career on Neighbours and has written for Merlin, Primeval, Being Human and most recently Sky 1’s You, Me And The Apocalypse.

Maisie Williams puts in her best performance yet as Me, the years twisting Ashildr in subtle but instantly noticeable ways. Her tension-filled exchanges with the Doctor are a joy, even before the high drama of the final 10 minutes. It’s nice that we get more of an insight into Rigsy’s life, but Joivan Wade slips into the background well before the real fireworks. And understandably so, because this is the Doctor and Clara show, and they’re both stellar.

Companion deaths on Doctor Who are always momentous, but Clara’s feels like an even bigger gut punch than most because it’s so senseless and sudden. Her fatal decision to take ownership of the chronolock amounts to nothing. It doesn’t save Rigsy, it doesn’t help the Doctor, it doesn’t buy them a single extra second. There’s a bitterly tragic irony to the fact that a character who so often behaved like the Doctor, and excelled at it, should fall on her own sword. Jenna Coleman is brilliant, you feel every moment of Clara’s horrific realisation, followed by the swift acceptance of her fate. She stays resilient and proud to the end, keeping a much cooler head than even the Doctor can manage. Till the last second there’s a seed of doubt – maybe the Shade won’t take Clara’s life if she doesn't run, if she stays brave. But on this occasion there's no cheating death. It's a cruel fate but it makes for incredible drama. What a way to go.

Capaldi is just as magnificent giving his passionate speechifying in “The Zygon Inversion” a run for its money with some fearsome but increasingly desperate intellectual rage. When the Doctor growls “I will end you and everything you love” you’re in no doubt that his anger could raze planets. It’s a rare moment where the Doctor can do nothing but look on, stupefied and utterly unable to help. He can’t even comfort Clara. Instead he’s the one who receives all the words of advice and warm hugs from his companion. Quite what effect it will have on the Twelfth Time Lord remains to be seen.

Clara’s death almost overshadows the episode’s big cliffhanger – the Doctor has been kidnapped. But by who, and why? We’ve no idea, but the two-part finale has an awful lot to live up to.

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Retcon Returns

The meta-monikered amnesia drug was frequently forced on unsuspecting civilians in Torchwood to explain away all the extraterrestrial events in the middle of Cardiff. Seems Captain Jack isn’t the only person with a stash locked away.

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Cameo Creatures

Among the monsters disguised on Diagon Alley are Judoon, Sontarans, Silurians, Ood and Cybermen. Nice to see the old costumes being pulled out of storage.

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Fond Farewell

The post-credits scene is a lovely tribute to Miss Oswald. We’re guessing the Doctor won’t be best pleased to find his TARDIS covered in graffiti when he gets back though.

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The Clara Chronicles

“Sometimes Jane Austen and I prank each other. She is the worst, I love her. Take that how you like.” Spinoff, anyone?

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Best Line

The Doctor: “You will save Clara and you’ll do it now or I will rain hell on you for the rest of time.”

Doctor Who airs on Saturday evenings on BBC One in the UK and BBC America in the US.

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WriterSarah Dollard
DirectorJustin Molotnikov
The One WhereRigsy discovers a tattoo on the back of his neck counting down to doom, but its Clara who meets a tragic end.

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Available platformsTV