Contains spoilers for the aired episode.
I wasn’t able to watch the latest episode of Doctor Who as it went out live, but I certainly saw the aftermath break out on Twitter. On this admittedly limited sampling of viewer reaction I think it’s safe to say that “In The Forest Of The Night” wasn’t so much disliked as it was actively loathed with lashings of vitriol. It meant that when I finally came to watching the story I did so with some considerable trepidation, wondering what utter disaster I was about to experience.
Strangely enough, however, for at least 30 minutes this story actually worked for me – and rather well at that. I’ve written before about how I miss the days when the Doctor would just go wandering around a new world finding things to explore like he used to do on Skaro or Vortis during William Hartnell’s tenure; the modern series usually has no such time for such aimless meanderings and every second of every single scene now has to earn its place in the running time by being forced to carry highly condensed industrial quantities of plot exposition and character development. But not this week: during “In The Forest Of The Night” we finally had time to breathe, and it was rather pleasant – at least for a while.
The bizarre alien world that the Doctor and Clara were discovering and exploring was 21st century Earth, but it was unlike any incarnation of London we’ve ever seen before. If ever an episode of Doctor Who has been inspired by a single image, then it’s surely here with the vision of the modern metropolis completely overrun by trees and plants to the point where Trafalgar Square is a dense forest. It’s kind of the inverse to the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics which depicted England’s green and pleasant lands being torn asunder by sprouting industrial chimneys; here, the trees got their opportunity to take their revenge for that affront. Surely that link can’t be just a coincidence, since this week’s writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce was Danny Boyle’s collaborator for that seminal occasion. Overall it’s the kind of thrilling notion that sends a shiver of delight rather than of fear down your back at the thought, but the question is whether the episode can bridge from this striking imagery and successfully transition into an engrossing story, and the unfortunate answer in this case is … Not really.
Oh, it certainly tries, and that first half hour of exploring the unfamiliar landscape and coming under threat from wolves and tigers sprung from their life sentences in London Zoo was certainly engrossing enough to keep me thoroughly gripped and even rather enchanted with the whole ‘haunted woods’ mise-en-scène. The further development between the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Danny (Samuel Anderson) also worked very well, with this being much more of an even ensemble piece than any previous outing this season where we’ve tended to alternate between having the Doctor or Clara take a clear lead role for an episode.
There’s also a load of guest stars this week, although they’re all rather short in stature being as they are the children in Coal Hill School’s “Year Eight Gifted and Talented Group” who were on a sleep-over at London’s National History Museum (and I’m genuinely amazed that there really is such a facility for schools to do this) under Danny and Clara’s supervision when the foliage got a bit uppity overnight. Normally, having this many child actors in the cast can be problematic and in truth it does makes this episode feel like a juvenile version of the late, lamented The Sarah Jane Adventures, but at the same time they do just about avoid becoming unbearable even en masse. The featured performer is Abigail Eames as Maebh Arden, who is unfortunately lumbered early on with some mad hand-flappery that looks very silly indeed and it’s only when you discover this has actually been a major plot point that it’s possible to finally sit back an appreciate a very solid performance overall by Eames.
The whole thing is going along rather nicely, with Clara’s lies to Danny about not seeing the Doctor anymore now completely exposed leading to further discussions between the pair that leads to some very interesting revelations about their differing world views: while Clara still wants to get out there and see the wonders of the universe, Danny simply wants to appreciate the everyday things in front of him more clearly and deeply. That’s by no means a bad message to the viewers at home, since we’re never actually going to get to travel in the Tardis ourselves but we can all benefit from the reminder that the familiar things and people all around us can be just as magical and exciting. It likely won’t win Danny many fans, since the self-selected audience for Doctor Who are people who would absolutely jump into the Tardis at a second’s notice given half a chance and who can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t; it’s like the pre-enlightenment Mickey Smith of Russell T Davies’ era who needed to be upgraded before he was worthy of joining the team. But here in this context it’s really very commendable that while Clara is getting all excited about what’s going on in the overgrown capital, Danny’s focus never shifts from looking over the children in his care (even though he’d managed to lose Maebh at the beginning and never even noticed until the Doctor phoned up!) Arguably it’s been done for an interesting switch of the traditional gender roles with Danny taking on the more caring, ‘maternal’ function while Clara is the one seeking adventure and excitement, but it’s an effective set-up all the same.
So far, so good. However, having gone this deep into the “Forest”, we arrive at the point where we need something of substance to add to the pot in order to bind all the strands together in the final 15 minutes. And it’s here that the episode sadly falters and wilts, because just when it needs to pick up the pace and give a breathless and fast-paced denouement, the episode runs out of material and momentum and consequently ends up as rather a sludgy mess. The Doctor realises that he’s superfluous to requirements (never a good thing to have happen in a Doctor Who story, frankly) and the kids take over to broadcast a message of somewhat dubious necessity and effectiveness to the entire world to leave the trees alone and leave them to do their jobs, resulting in an awkward and obvious ecological sermon being rammed into the resultant hole marked ‘plot’.
I could rail against the ‘bad science’ here just as I did a few weeks ago for “Kill The Moon” but that feels rather pointless when it comes to “In The Forest Of The Night” since there’s never any attempt to root the episode in any hard science in the first place, instead just rather airily ignoring the whole issue. In some ways that’s better and more tolerable than making a complete hash of it as “Moon” did; and given that the one scientific element the episode does use is the government’s extraordinarily dumb idea to burn pathways through the forest it’s probably just as well they didn’t try any more. (Can you imagine the uncontrolled wildfire that would have resulted if the trees hadn’t had supernatural built-in fire suppressants? The whole of London would have been razed to the ground in hours, and hundreds of thousands if not millions of people could have died!)
Instead, this is the episode of Doctor Who where you really have to admit that you’re in Never-Never Land. Even before the foliage problem evaporates into glittering fairy dust at the end of the episode it’s clear that Cottrell-Boyce is writing a children’s fairytale pure and simple, one to rival the directly-cited Hansel and Gretel among others. Famously Steven Moffat said he was going for a more ‘fairytale’ feel to the series back in series 5 when he initially took over, only to then roll back from that into harder timey-wimey science fiction high concepts in the seasons since; but “In The Forest Of The Night” returns to the original idea and goes for it in such a full-throated way that even Moffat would never have dared to match. And with good reason to be honest, because it doesn’t really suit the Doctor.
And if you are going to go full-on fairytale then you have to remember that those enduring stories succeed precisely because there is darkness to set against the light. Sadly, “In The Forest of the Night” forgets to supply any real sense of danger or menace, save in the single riveting scene where we realise that Maebh is behind stalked by a pair of wolves whose eyes we see glinting in the shadows. (In case you missed it, Maebh is wearing a long red coat; she is the the Red Riding Hood of our story to add another not-at-all-subtle fairytale reference into the mix.) The main threat of the story is the solar flare about to decimate Earth but this is so far off and abstract that it’s only briefly brought into focus when the Doctor tells his own scary children’s bedtime story to his impromptu assembled class of students (including Clara and Danny) sitting on the Tardis stairs. Even here it’s used more as a comedy beat with the Doctor quickly reassuring everyone that actually everything will turn out just fine. Unfortunately it seems that Cottrell-Boyce really is writing this mainly for seven-year-olds and is worried about upsetting them even for a minute.
Otherwise there is no sense of danger to the episode, which really is sorely needed to kick it into life. Even the way that director Sheree Folkson shoots the forest is rather a misfire, as it’s all sunny and cheerful and bright and green rather than possessing the ominous, threatening, dark and broody character that the script itself repeatedly suggests that it should have. The whole adventure feels like a rather pleasant school trip out into the countryside: while the production team does a pretty decent job of scattering some London street furniture around the forest location I’m afraid at no point did it really convince me that this was actually an overrun city. There were also some of the most egregious blow-up photo backdrops of buildings that I’ve seen since the last time I cracked open the DVD of the budget-challenged 1964 story “The Keys of Marinus”.
Talking of budget-challenged, I feel mean but I have to say it nonetheless: where was everyone? This was Britain’s capital city, home to millions, and pretty much the only people we stumble across in the entire time of traversing one of the most heavily populated areas in Europe are the Doctor and the party from Coal Hill School. True, this sense of isolation did result in one of the episode’s more unsettlingly eerie aspects, but it also makes no sense – it’s not like 28 Days Later where the deserted streets were acceptably explained by the fact that everyone was either evacuated, dead or zombified. Here we’re just supposed to assume that everyone’s staying indoors and watching TV instead rather than coming out to play like they would if it was a snow day and everyone had the day off work and school.
But of course it all comes back to the fact that “In The Forest Of The Night” isn’t supposed to make hard, logical sense. It’s a mood piece to be experienced, a work of poetry rather than of prose. Ultimately you have to sit back and just let the feeling of the episode wash over you and hopefully at the end of it you’ll just feel joyous and uplifted. If the intention wasn’t sufficiently clear then you have the magical fairy dust restoration of the normal world, followed by the entirely predictable (but totally unexplained and unfortunately rather ridiculously presented) reappearance of Maebh’s long-lost sister in the final scene to emphasise the resolutely feel-good spirit of the whole endeavour. Maybe this sort of upbeat outing felt like a good idea to showrunner Steven Moffat at this stage of the season, coming as it does off the back of three very heavy and horror-inflected stories and just before the high-drama two-part season finale; but I suspect that even he didn’t realise just how much of a sugar overload it would end up being.
Even so, for all its flaws I rather admire the spirit of “In The Forest Of The Night” and its good intentions even if they don’t all come off. It’s also another example of Doctor Who doing something different and pushing the boundaries of what’s known or expected, and that’s surely also always good. It’s why I end up giving the episode a heavily qualified thumbs-up, and I certainly can’t agree with all the nay-sayers who were so vicious about tearing into the episode overnight. I feel about this story much as I felt about season 7’s “The Rings of Akhaten” which had many of the same problems as “Forest” but which similarly attempted to tell a story of awe and wonder: it’s not going to be my favourite story of the season, but I rather like the fact that it’s there all the same, and suspect that in years to come I’ll re-watch it with a greater sense of appreciation and enjoyment just for the fact that it’s different and that it’s simply trying to be nice for once.
Perhaps the best review of the episode came from Missy, whose identity is surely about to be revealed as we roll toward the end of the season. Like us, she’s been watching the whole thing on a TV screen – I guess that the Nethersphere has its own iPlayer catch-up on-demand service? – and as the story ends she sits back and says, “Now that was surprising. And I love surprises.”
Maybe we should also appreciate the surprises Doctor Who gives us just a little bit more than we tend to do.
A housekeeping note: I won’t be posting a review of “Dark Water” next week, because it’s the first of a two-parter – the first really since 2010’s “The Hungry Earth”/”Cold Blood” – and I think in such cases it’s necessary to see the whole piece before commenting. That means the next Doctor Who post here should be round about November 11 and will include not only “Dark Water” but the season finale “Death in Heaven” as well.
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings, with episodes repeated on Sundays on BBC Three and also available on demand on BBC iPlayer. A ten minute ‘behind the scenes’ feature is also available on the iPlayer and on the red button. Series 8 will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on November 17 2014, and series opener “Deep Breath” is already available as a standalone release.