…our sign of parting, bird or fiend…
Once upon a Sunday dreary, I pondered an episode wearily for a blog quaint and curious. Yes, it was Face the Raven. As a single episode it had pathos, pretty nice world building details and special effects, it also had history and the start of a mystery.
It had familiar faces and the Doctor and Clara being themselves, together. However, there was only ever one direction this narrative was heading, and the reckless generosity and confidence of Clara’s decision, and the emotion and courage she demonstrated in facing the consequences, are undermined by a bunch of stuff.
Firstly…thanks to a few years devoted to death retcons: NONE OF US BELIEVE IT NOW WHEN A MAIN CHARACTER DIES. (Although I did appreciate The Doctor’s talk of the retcon drug: there are so few references to Torchwood these days.) Need I mention Rory, and then Amy, Clara as her alternates, Danny Pink, the Paternoster Gang, and River Song and also Rose’s Dad with his back up from another dimension? They die but aren’t gone.
If this story begins as a recovered memory adventure, then that is only a metaphor for all the characters who continue to disappear only to come back. Including the latest to die and live: Ashildir herself. And not forgetting the actual apparent murder victim of this episode. She’s also not dead. (And blaming Rigsy? How tropy is that?)
Of course, there’s a larger narrative at play here which undermines this story. It’s a false emergency because it is a set up. Clara, with her intention to save Rigsy, dies but didn’t have to. That feels deeply unfair, narratively speaking, for someone who’s been pretty crucial for stories for a few seasons. And I say this even though this is the kind of death that actually happens all the time. People in life die midway through all kinds of adventures. Obviously, for Clara haters, this episode will be welcomed. However, even for viewers accustomed to eternal returns, this is a full stop in the middle of a sentence and Clara was a better English teacher than that.
The lesson Clara the Teacher shows her class is the dangers of being The Doctor and imitating him. He spends his time saving the universe, and in doing so, has died many times, but he regenerates. Humans, if they live as recklessly and as generously, will pay a price too.
Dead but not: a never-ending story?
What this dead but not does is diminish the sacrifice, but also sets up expectations. Even with time travel shenanigans (in terms of meeting your dad after he dies, and naming your future daughter after your best friend, who is your daughter) having people return means, when they don’t or can’t, audiences feel cheated. And speaking of Rose, how many times did she cross dimensions when it was impossible? Yes it was love finding a way and enemies fracturing the universe, but still. If writers use words like death and impossible, things should really be dead or impossible.
If things are not really dead and not truly impossible FIND BETTER WORDS. I can suggest some, such as: implausible, impractical, questionable, difficult, unknowable as well as suspended, comatose, disappeared, infected, absent. Perhaps Clara, as an English teacher, should have called herself the Implausible Girl, a side kick to Donna’s suggested Anomalous Doctor.
The Implausible Girl
Clara faces the raven with dignity, after a moving speech directed at saving The Doctor’s sanity and salving his conscience, but whether we like her or not (and many dislike her) we expect to see her next episode. And if you’ve seen the previews and articles regarding the next episode/s we will, in some way.
Actual death is also full of expectation because those the dead leave behind contain the seeds of this within. It is in our nature to just expect life to continue because it does, even though individuals don’t.
Story tellers dealing with life and death need to acknowledge the finality of death for the individual, despite all the SF in the world, and also give space for the reactions of the living, whether a character sacrifices herself to a Justice Smoke Tattoo Raven of Doom, or dies crossing the street.
Perhaps, somewhere along the way, Doctor Who got it mixed up. Someone decided the normal ‘expecting to see deceased people in their usual situations’ became we have to bring them back. However, the Doctor was right years ago when he said bringing the dead to life would be horrific. Danny’s second death, caught as he was in a nightmare, was heroic and painful contrasted to his mundane first death, which was shocking and drove Clara’s motivations up until her own demise. Yet, Danny’s heroism was again undermined by his third extinction – and his renunciation of a return. All I’m left thinking is: if Clara’s last words to save Ashildir and The Doctor are to remain meaningful, then she must remain dead.
Until we remember all the iterations of her, scattered along The Doctor’s timeline, in the past, and if in the past, then the future too.
Dreams all mortals dreamed before
All this death and back to life business just demonstrates The Doctor is a creation out of the same impetus that drives humans to follow religions (often featuring the dead that live), as well as belief in ghosts and other immortal beings. We want death not to be end. I’m not judging beliefs by the way, who amongst us doesn’t want our loved ones not dead? These beliefs are for the consolation of the living. What I do know is while lives end, stories don’t. They are repeated, they are rewritten, they are subsumed under further stories, and unearthed at intervals to echo across time and space. They endure. When stone becomes dust if there is a voice to give utterance, then there will a story. No SF retcon will rewrite a life once it’s gone, but to remember a story, that’s something.
Of death and stories and Doctor Who we can say only this and nothing more.