I feel like this is a given, but I am discussing “Face the Raven,” the most current episode of Doctor Who. As a result, spoilers will be present. I wouldn’t read this if you haven’t seen it or have any issues with spoilers.
So, the rumors that have been circulating for months turned out to be true. Saturday night’s episode of Doctor Who, ominously titled “Face the Raven,” ended with the death of companion/co-lead Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). In an act of recklessness, Clara insists Rigsy, the character last seen in Series 8’s “Flatline” gives her the chronolock tattoo counting down to his death, thinking she can manipulate Ashildr with a strategy no one saw coming, buying them time. She thinks it’s clever, and it would be if not for her lack of understanding as to the true meaning of the chronolock. She fails to realize is that once the chronolock is passed on, it cannot be removed. She cannot be saved. All she has left to do is bid her goodbyes to the Doctor, and face the raven. She plans to die alone, but as much as he can, the Doctor has her back. She doesn’t know he’s there, but he stays with her until the end.
Just like that, Clara is dead. It’s true, no one saw her plan coming, but it’s not clever; it’s tragic. The show had been building on a theme first introduced last season, that Clara was addicted to life on the TARDIS, wanted to be like the Doctor, and suffered from an inflated sense of invulnerability. This current series had also been foreshadowing that something terrible would happen to her for weeks, so it couldn’t have come as a surprise.
However, I’m writing as an older viewer. I’m an adult who watches Doctor Who (there must be some sort of therapy or support group I can join) and follows Doctor Who speculation, but this is still supposed to be a family show, able to be watched and enjoyed by children. I’ve seen articles written about the show being too scary for kids (arguments that have hounded the show since the 60s, to be frank), and I’m not making that argument. Scary shows were my favorites as a kid. I lived for children’s supernatural programming, like Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Eerie, Indiana. Kids, or at least a certain group of kids, will always enjoy being scared. I have no problem with scary shows for children. If a parent feels something is inappropriate for their child, they can always change the channel, but scary shows have a place in children’s programming and always will.
No, what I’m writing about is an issue fellow We Minored in Film blogger, Kelly Konda, and I have frequently discussed: Doctor Who may be a show that is thematically no longer suited for children. Ever since Peter Capaldi took over as the titular Timelord, the show has become darker, more adult. The action has taken a backseat to large sections of dialogue and ethically ambiguous dilemmas. There’s a perfectly logical reason for this shift. Previous Doctor Matt Smith was in his 20s when he was cast and Peter Capaldi is in his 50s. Running is more than likely not going to be his greatest strength. In addition, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor presented himself to the world with a far surlier demeanor (which, to be fair, has softened this season) than his predecessors. He didn’t instantly bond with humanity and he seemed to view the world through a far more morally complicated and contempt-filled lens. He was more pragmatic, and although he may have been haunted by the decisions he had to make, he didn’t outwardly grieve them. This season has seen a more exuberant, happier Peter Capaldi for one obvious reason: Clara.
He went from this at the end of series 8:
So, now we come to what I promised this article would be about way back at the top: what does Clara’s death mean to the world of Doctor Who? Despite the fact this season has featured a more compassionate, more enthusiastic doctor, do not take that to mean the season hasn’t been stuffed to the brim with issues to be found in more adult sci-fi fare. In fact, if there’s been a recurring theme this season (beyond hybrids) it’s that actions have consequences. Every major decision the doctor has undertaken has had consequences. It’s only just now the Doctor is truly suffering from them. Clara’s death is a consequence based on 2 actions: saving Ashildr and ignoring warning signs.
Let’s start with Ashildr, the Viking girl who died as a result of the Doctor’s scheme to defeat a deadly warrior race known as the Mire. She was made immortal through the Doctor’s rash, emotional decision to not lose another life. Despite knowing the dangers of tampering with the balance between life and death (after all, he had just argued with the Fisher King about that very issue in the previous episode) and having previously told Clara he can make “ripples. . .not tidal waves,” he makes a bold decision and saves her, consequences be damned. It’s a decision that ultimately costs him Clara.
However, to lay the blame about what happened to Clara solely at Ashildr’s feet is unfair. Clara also makes a rash decision, believing she understands how the Doctor thinks. However, Clara hasn’t been alive for two thousand years. She lacks the Doctor’s perspective and knowledge, and she pays the ultimate price. The Doctor has addressed Clara’s recklessness in prior episodes (a recklessness on full display when she dangles out of the TARDIS with no fear for her safety), but he never has a direct confrontation with her. He seems to sense she her disregard for her own well-being can only come to a grim end, but he lacks the strength to either firmly confront her about her behavior or just drop her off back on Earth where she belongs. Ultimately, their relationship was one of two damaged, co-dependent individuals who knew they weren’t good for one another but couldn’t bring themselves to walk away.
Clara felt the Doctor always wins. She fails to realize that every win feels like a loss to the Doctor, because wins always have casualties. Clara thinks she understands how life with the Doctor works, and that he can escape any situation. But, as he tries to tell her, he’s not special, he’s just “less breakable.” She tries to say her death was her own fault (and it is), but the Doctor isn’t blameless. When he gives her that sad, lost smile and tells her he can’t fix this problem, you see the last remnants of Clara’s bravado fall away. She’s not a reckless time traveler anymore. She’s a sad lost young woman who lost her fiancé and ran away from the pain of that loss, never forced to look back. Both she and the Doctor are always running from the pain, but pain always catches up to you in one way or another.
Ultimately, this episode comes down to Clara and Ashildr, two women who were essentially made by the Doctor. Ashildr was saved because he couldn’t bare to have another death on his conscience, but that disregard for consequences cost him Clara, the person he is least capable of losing. Clara travels with the Doctor because he needs her and she needs not to feel connected to the loss she experienced. If she’s always running, she won’t have to look back, and she learned that philosophy from the Doctor. Ultimately, the Doctor’s presence cost both of these women some of their humanity.
The question I really have buried in this mishmash of an essay is how much do children understand these questions and ambiguities? Putting aside the image of Clara’s soul being sucked out of her body, her agonized, unheard scream, and the general despair Peter Capaldi exudes when he realizes he is powerless to fix this particular situation, we’re still left with morally complicated issues in a show that its showrunner, Steven Moffat, feels can be watched by kids, recently telling Variety:
We make and develop Doctor Who to be enjoyed at any level. That’s the truth. We are actively thinking, “What would a 5-year-old think of this?” In terms of our audience: It’s the entire human race, if possible. But it is kind of identified by me and Jamie (Mathieson) as a children’s show. What that means is that you can start watching it as a child. So I’m always saying to them in America, “Get in on [the air] earlier! Kids will love it. They just will!”
Part of me wants to call “bullshit” on that claim. It just doesn’t seem logical to make the argument that a 5 year old in any way factors into Moffat’s thinking. After all, this season has seen the Doctor leave a small child in a battlefield (I know it was Davros and I know he eventually went back for him, but the point still stands), an ISIS parallel featuring a speech about how pointless war truly is, and a world in which your central character may not be the figure of good he was once believed to be (after all, he threatens to “rain Hell. . .for the rest of time” as a means of saving Clara, something he knows must be futile). This idea is up for debate, and please understand, I don’t mean this as a criticism. I love the show, and the fact that it’s gotten darker and ethically more complicated has made the show so much more interesting, but I’m not a child. I’m not sure I would have embraced this new story telling strategy as readily as I do now. Maybe it’s because I was a stupid child (that’s quite possible), but I think it may just mean that, despite what Moffat says, Doctor Who may no longer be family viewing, and that’s okay.
So, what do you guys think? Is this still a kids show? Do you feel it’s gotten more adult? Let us know in the comments.