‘The Black Archive #20: Face The Raven’ reviewed

❉ It feels like only yesterday that Obverse Books launched The Black Archive. How fitting that this particular story is celebrated in volume 20, a milestone for the range.

“Groenewegen successfully reconciles some of the more contradictory and disparate elements on Clara’s character, actions and story in a rational way within the framework of the series overall, and through this emphasises just why her death in Face the Raven is so noteworthy and tragic.  Best of all, it does all this almost exclusively using just Face the Raven as its text. “

Time can be a funny old thing.  It feels like only yesterday that Obverse Books announced and launched The Black Archive, their analytical range of books covering Doctor Who stories one at a time, but here we are on release number 20.

Sarah Groenewegen has written this essay, and an essay it is.  Some Black Archive releases (such as the rather glorious one on The Ultimate Foe) are thoroughly researched looks at the stories’ productions, and some are postgraduate-level dissertations, which is what Groenewegen gives us here, and it’s all the better for it.  Groenewegen’s obvious enthusiasm for Sarah Dollard’s script feels almost tangible.  Dollard’s treatment of Clara and Ashildr is praised and analysed, her interaction with wider social commentary on refugees gets its own chapter, and its use of trap streets as a plot device is (rightly) celebrated as a brilliantly Doctor Who-ish conceit.  Despite this, it’s not like a 90-odd page-long love letter but a serious academic tome, looking at the script of this episode and Doctor Who as a wider/larger text, engaging with Feminist-, Queer-, Narrative- and Social theory along the way.

It’s a worthwhile approach for a story often overlooked despite its critical praise and importance within the framework of Series 9.  This is due in part to it being a story in Series 9.  Coming (obviously) after Series 8, a set of episodes that launched Peter Capaldi as the Doctor and divided audiences then as much as it does now, Series 9 only made fans more vocal in their positioning.  As with argument and politics at large right now, the Twitter effect seemed to grab hold of fandom: you were either pro-Steven Moffat or anti-Steven Moffat.  There was no room for nuance or ambivalence.

It is also often forgotten or glossed over because of what came next.  This is twofold.  One thing is Hell Bent, which resets some of the consequences of this episode, and the other? Heaven Sent.

The latter is hands-down one of the greatest episodes of Doctor Who, period: you can keep your overrated Pyramids or Ice Warriors, your Morbiuses, Visitations and State of Decays, Heaven Sent tramples over them all.  But without Face the Raven before it, a story of great import bursting with imagination, wit, drama and commentary, it would not have had half its impact.  Its tragedy is that it gets lost amid the wonder that followed.  How fitting that this particular story is celebrated in release #20 for The Black Archive, a milestone for the range and hopefully reminds people just how good an episode it is.

Back to the book though.  The essay is split into chapters, which makes for a more bite-sized reading affair but does lend itself to repetition at times with points being made or, in one instance near the end, quotations used.  The use of repeated points is, of course, key to enforcing an argument in an essay, but beyond pointing out the themes in this script and that it’s a damn good script, no real ‘argument’ per se is being made.  It means the repetitive use of points at times feel a bit unnecessary, but this is but a minor gripe.

Of note is the disparity of sources used by Groenewegen.  Most of them are academic essays and other novels, while the others tend to be reviews, mostly by other fans.  This makes sense within the context of the essay: it’s a look, in part, of the episode’s resonance with fandom at large.  But it is perhaps also telling of the increasingly narrow audience for Doctor Who across Series 9.  Fans arguing with fans; fans watching and moaning.  Fans divided on Clara, on perceptions of smugness in the writing and, somewhat ridiculously, claims that Moffat hates the show or doesn’t understand the character of the Doctor.

(Whatever else, that last point never fails to make me just stop listening to any argument as it’s a silly school of thought, frankly, and not worth engaging with. You may not like Moffat’s showrunning, but the idea that he doesn’t understand Who is laughable.)

Returning to Clara briefly, it’s Groenewegen’s look on her that most made me nod and pay attention.  Groenewegen successfully reconciles some of the more contradictory and disparate elements on Clara’s character, actions and story in a rational way within the framework of the series overall, and through this emphasises just why her death in Face the Raven is so noteworthy and tragic.  Best of all, it does all this almost exclusively using just Face the Raven as its text.  Yes, Hell Bent goes on to change some of the tragic consequences (though no more than Russell T Davies did with, say, Rose) but Groenewegen mostly ignores this, focussing instead on Raven as its own thing, its own episode.  An episode broadcast before the rest; before diamond walls and Gallifrey.

That the book can do so is testament to how good a script and story Sarah Dollard wrote, and how good an essay Groenewegen has written here.  Obverse Books should be proud of the output they give us with The Black Archive and the list at the book’s ending of what’s to come makes me only more excited.  I hope it is not too long before Groenewegen is persuaded to return to the fold.


❉ ‘Black Archive #20: Face The Raven’ by Sarah Groenewegen, published June 2018 by Obverse Books. RRP £3.99 – £7.99. Click here to buy!

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