Tony advocates for traumatizing the audience.
So long, Impossible Girl. You came into our life as a sassy, soufflé-making Dalek, then as a barmaid-cum-governess, then as a babysitter, and finally as a teacher. You faffed about with a man who wanted to make you less than you could be, presumably out of some White Knight compulsion. And you died of kindness and a misstep, thinking you had the chance to undo what you’d done, but facing the consequences bravely.
I bow to no-one in my appreciation for Sarah Dollard’s Face The Raven, and the underplayed, suddenly-this-is-really-it death of the girl who died a thousand times to save the Doctor, including at least twice on-screen. And the modern show is a different phenomenon to its Classic variation inasmuch as the world into which it broadcasts is different – smartphones, fansites, actual press interest, Facebook and Twitter make it more and more difficult to keep genuine secrets of the show’s big reveals, so we knew this was to be Clara’s last series. But how much better would the episode have been if we hadn’t known in advance it was her last story? If we’d been able to go into Face The Raven buying in to her own sensation – this’ll happen, then we’ll undo it, the Doctor’ll have a bit of a shout, then it’ll be business as usual. How much more effective would the ending have been if instead of knowing in advance that this was Clara’s swan song, we like her had felt the thrill of Clara just being Clara, and then suddenly we’d been hit in the face with the lack of options, the lack of a get-out clause.
Death rarely came to companions in Classic Who, and when it did there was never any press fanfare about it, because the attitude of the press to Doctor Who wasn’t centred on in-universe plot details – there were stories when companions came in and sometimes when they left, but rarely did you get advance details that a particular story was going to be their last, and you certainly never got details of whether they were going to go off into the sunset of a distant world or whether in fact, time and space would end up being fatal to them. When Katarina died in The Daleks’ Master Plan, it was shocking, the first time anyone close to the Doctor had paid the ultimate price for their travels. When Sara Kingdom died shortly after her, it became the most appalling of stories, and rocked the previous certainties of the viewers.
So much so that it wasn’t until 1982 that another companion lost their life along the way, and Adric kept fighting to puzzle out the answer to a logic gate right till the end, until a rogue shot from a Cyberman’s gun destroyed the computer he was using. ‘Now I’ll never know if I was right,’ he said, gazing at the Earth as he plunged into its atmosphere, killing the dinosaurs and himself. Everyone’s scathing about Adric these days, but as one who watched it live, I can tell you that moment traumatized a whole new generation of Who-fans.
When Kamelion died in Peter Davison’s final season, to be honest, it held nothing like the impact. It should have done, but it didn’t. There was a sense of him never having really been alive, and of having done nothing but lean against walls and be a liability when he was featured, so the idea of Kamelion as a proper companion never gelled. He was just there, and then he was gone.
Peri’s death shocked and horrified fans when it came, and again, there was no special announcement to make episode 2 of Mindwarp ‘the one in which Peri dies’ ahead of transmission. That meant we kept wondering, kept expecting something else to happen, expecting the Doctor or Yrcanos to save her before the operation to transplant Lord Kiv’s brain into her body was complete. When that didn’t happen, the shock was utterly palpable. A later-in-the-season retroactive rewrite felt like the Production Team trying to backpeddle, to have their cake and eat it, and at the time it was known to displease Peri actress Nicola Bryant.
Since Peri, no companion has really died in Doctor Who – or if they have, it hasn’t proved an impediment to still having stories with them. Rose is in her other universe with her human Doctor. Martha went off with Mickey to shoot Sontarans…apparently. Donna’s reversion to her pre-Doctor life feels like a death, granted, but isn’t – she ends up married and a millionaire, which would be enough to make that old Donna happy. Adelaide Brook kills herself, yes, but as she was always going to die anyway, the only impact is on the Doctor, jolting him out of his Time Lord Triumphant mode. Even Astrid, who pretty much damn well dies, is turned into ‘starlight’ so she can explore the galaxy. Amy and Rory die, but only of old age and natural causes, together most of the way through their lives. Rory of course died many times, becoming almost a comedy corpse, resurrecting with a regularity that could give the Doctor himself a run for his money. River died at the end of her first story, annnnnd then went on to return time and time and time and time and time and time again. And again at Christmas. You can make a compelling argument that death has become a devalued commodity in New Who, and particularly in Moffat-Who. Even Danny Pink, let’s not forget, came back from the dead three times in various forms before finally being allowed to be properly dead in the ‘not getting up again’ sense.
The Impossible Girl died twice in her first two outings, and went on to become one of the longest running companions. So while there’s something right and timely about the manner of her death, knowing it was coming so specifically in advance weakened the impact of the episode and the death she had, because in a sense we were waiting for it from the very beginning. When the raven chased down the old geezer, it served as telegraphing – this is what will happen to Clara, we were pretty much told. Prepare yourselves. And we did, meaning we were braced for it when it came, with none of the desperate scrabbling for last-minute solutions that characterized the Adric Factor, or the Peri Paradigm – rather than sharing Clara’s chuckling certainty that there’d be a solution that saved her, that the Doctor would find it and take the chronolock off her, rather than experiencing that “Oh god, this is really it!” stomach-lurch of inevitability, many of us were primed by the news that she’d be leaving in Face The Raven, and so watched Sarah Dollard’s story with rather the wrong spirit, knowing too much, waiting for the moment, certain from the second she took Riggsy’s chronolock that she’d made the move that would kill her. Knowing a little too much cast a pall over the episode that it neither needed nor deserved – Dollard’s brilliance of invention would have shone even brighter if we hadn’t known that Clara was going to die at the end of it.
Of course, this is still Moffat-Who, and it’s been pointed out that Clara is known to have some lines in the last two episodes of the series. Do we expect it to be Clara Clara though, or just some memory or cheat of Clara, tormenting the Doctor with the knowledge that she’s gone?
Ultimately, there was a good reason to warn the public a day early about Face The Raven – Doctor Who is massively more popular now than it was in the 80s, and it was a mark of responsibility not to traumatize a generation of children without giving their parents at least the chance to sit them down ahead of time and explain what would be happening. On the other hand, while little will tarnish the invention of the Face The Raven script, the decision to tell us ahead of time that Clara would be leaving in it robbed it of the Adric Factor of total, gobsmacking trauma that perhaps, once in ten years, it would have been better not to dodge.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk