Sunday, October 26, 2014

Doctor Who Is NEW!: In the Forest of the Night

"I am the Lorax and I speak for the trees." 

Anybody else think of that while watching Saturday's new episode of Doctor Who? A forest has sprung up in Trafalgar Square and indeed forests have grown in size and density all over the planet. Why? Have the forests declared war on humanity?

Here's another pressing question: what happens when Danny Pink confronts Clara Oswald about her lies regarding her continued journey's with the Doctor?

The fate of a world and other stuff hangs in the balance as we find ourselves In the Forest of the Night.

My review begins right after the spoiler warning.

You know, I've been running this graphic for 10 weeks now as my spoiler warning and while it is still a bit disconcerting, it's no longer the jump inducing image of fear that it once was so I've....



In the Forest of the Night
by Frank Cottrell-Boyce

Our story begins with a very young girl named Maebh who runs through a forest until she arrives at the TARDIS and knocks on the door. The Doctor answers and Maebh informs him that the voice of Clara Oswald in her head told her to seek out the Doctor. The Doctor has other problems as the TARDIS insists the Doctor is in central London and the Doctor insists he's in the middle of a forest. It takes the child to lay it out for our 2,000 year old Time Lord: He IS in the middle of London and in the middle of London IS a forest. OK, how did that happen?

But first let's pop in on the morning after a sleepover in a museum with some students from Coal Hill School chaperoned by Clara Oswald and Danny Pink. An exit from the museum reveals to the school group the forest overgrowing everything. The Doctor calls Clara to inform her that one of her students is with him and they compare notes about this giant forest thing going on. Clara once again lies to Danny about who is on the phone but Danny knows she's talking to the Doctor. Clara has not told Danny she has continued travelling with the Doctor but she chalks up this call to the rather unusual situation with all the vegetation. 

Danny, Clara and the kids meet up with the Doctor and everybody files into the TARDIS while the Doctor works out what's going on with a little help from a school workbook of Maebh's that shows a solar flare heading towards a very oxygen rich atmosphere. 


(How Maebh's workbook winds up in the TARDIS accurately predicting the arrival of a solar flare that even the Doctor did not know about it is a bit wibbly-wobbly.)  

But another matter must be addressed: Maebh is missing again. The Doctor and Clara go out in search of the girl while Danny watches the rest of the kids in the TARDIS. But the kids won't hear of it so Danny leads his team of students out into the forest in search of the Doctor, Clara and Maebh. 

We see Maebh running through the forest doing a weird waving thing with her arms like she's swatting at something invisible. Meanwhile the Doctor and Clara see some government types trying to do something about the situation, namely fighting forest with fire. Except the forest will not burn, the pesky thing.  

The Doctor and Clara catch up to Maebh but a tiger has caught up to them. However, Danny and the gang arrive on the scene and using a bright flashlight, Danny drives off the tiger. Everyone sees Maebh looking frantic, swatting at nothing and the Doctor discerns that there is something that only Maebh can see. Using the sonic screwdriver, the Doctor makes a twinkling energy field appear around Maebh and voices speak through the girl; they  reveal themselves to be an ancient entity that lives in the trees and vegetation of the world and has done so for a very, very long time. Unable to maintain the link, the Doctor releases the sonic and the entity vanishes from Maebh. 

The situation is hopeless. There's a solar flare heading for Earth and the whole planet is an oxygen enriched bomb. The Earth and all humanity is doomed. Clara implores the Doctor to save who he can so our assembled group returns to the TARDIS. But once there we find out that Clara has lied to the Doctor. She knows the kids will be broken outcast survivors of a dead world and Danny will not leave the kids behind. The Doctor tells Clara he can save her. She declines; she doesn't want to be the last of her race. 

Very, very reluctantly the Doctor goes into the TARDIS alone but he has an epiphany so he brings Clara, Danny and the kids back into the TARDIS where he tells them the Earth destroying solar flare heading their way...oops, the kids did not know that part! not going to be a problem because the trees are acting to save the planet as they have in times past. The overgrowth of trees is producing a shield of excess oxygen that the solar flare will burn off while the trees...the fireproof trees shield the planet below from the heat and fire.  

The Doctor is very excited about this and invites everyone up into space to see this once in a lifetime event. But the kids having been put through a lot just want to go back to their families and Danny must stay by their side. Danny does tell Clara that she needs to work things out and tell him the truth. Then the Doctor and Clara head into space and watch from the TARDIS as events transpose as the Doctor predicted which is a good thing because the Doctor would've felt very awkward if he had been wrong. 

Watching these events is Missy who describes what just occurred as "surprising". What exactly IS she up to? 

In the Forest of the Night is a rather different episode from the rest of Series 8. It certainly embraces fantasy way more than science fiction which was a recurring Steven Moffat motif during the Matt Smith era and has not completely disappeared with Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. The concept of a planetary forest that guards the Earth in times of cataclysmic disaster is very firmly rooted (pun not intended but hey, good one, huh?) in an almost magical point of view rather than a sci-fi one.  

And there is nothing wrong with that as a variation on the theme of Doctor Who. The expansion into fantasy as well as science fiction and horror seems only natural when you have a character who can go anywhere in space and/or time. But it does open the show to a criticism that the limits of what the Doctor can do is determined by the needs of the plot*. 

That's true of almost any genre show. Ex: Why does the Enterprise on Star Trek get to Planet X in 20 minutes but Planet Y takes 20 hours? 
  • The trip to Planet X occurs after the last commercial break and it's time to wrap things up. 
  • The trip to Planet Y is set up in the first act and we can't have the episode end too soon.
But when science fiction sits side by side with fantasy, it can be a bit disconcerting how the Doctor can save the Earth by reversing the polarity of the neutron flow in one episode but saves the Earth in another episode by telling everyone to think happy thoughts.  

Or in the case of In the Forest of the Night, don't do bad things and let the trees do their thing and everything will be cool. The message that Maebh sends out from the TARDIS to every communications device on Earth is exactly that message. While the Doctor does work out some things that are important to understanding what's going on, ultimately the Doctor is reduced to a bystander in his own story. Mostly its a lot of running around in some admittedly lovely looking forests and some awkward yet cute interactions between the Doctor and the kids. 

There are some things that I quite enjoyed about the episode but in a bid to end this post on a positive note, let me address one really badly handled thing at the end. Earlier in the episode, it was established Maebh has been a bit...weird ever since the disappearance of her sister a year ago. In the very last scene of the episode because somebody remembered "whoops, shouldn't we do something about that?", the trees spirits reveal her sister hiding in a shrub. 


Oh, and this may be a thing or maybe I'm just nitpicking but why does an episode entitled In the Forest of the Night take place entirely in the daytime?

OK, some good things: 

  • The interaction between the Doctor and Maebh is delightful. While Matt Smith's Doctor got on fine with children because of his childlike empathy, Peter Capaldi's approach to the Doctor and children is markedly different but no less effective. This Doctor talks to kids the same way he talks to everyone else because he really doesn't see a difference between human children and human adults. And kids like it when an adult does not talk down to them. 
  • Speaking of the Doctor and Maebh, that opening bit in the TARDIS was a technical marvel of directing thanks to Sheree Folkson. The tracking of the Doctor and Maebh as they walk about the periphery of the TARDIS control room and the wide angle upper shot as the Doctor and Maebh leave the TARDIS was amazingly effective at conveying the scope and wonder of the TARDIS interior. 
  • Except for Danny and Clara losing track of Maebh (twice!), Danny is seen as a resourceful guide as he leads the kids through the impossible forest. He also immediately correctly reads the actual situation between the Doctor and Clara as being different from what Clara had lead him to believe; that he doesn't totally blow up at her because of it is a testament to his grace and good character. Still, it has been established that a major button to push with Danny is someone lying to him. Sooner or later, Danny is going to make a decision that Clara is just too much drama for him if Clara doesn't stop misleading him. 
  • In addition to having adventures with the Doctor, Clara is also using the TARDIS to help keep up with her school job...such as grading student workbooks.  (Add this to the list of other things that Clara has used the TARDIS for such as keeping up with TV programs and cooking turkeys.) 
  • We see the events of Kill the Moon reflected in a different perspective as the Doctor uses Clara's words from that episode about walking the Earth and breathing the air even as Clara is telling the Doctor to go and save the next planet. 

Overall, In the Forest of the Night is an enjoyable episode as long as one is prepared to accept this as fantasy, not sci-fi. And not mind the none too subtle environmental message. This is not a particularly strong episode of Doctor Who, especially when compared to the last two from Jamie Mathieson. Ultimately, it is a unique diversion. And we're going to need a diversion. 

Because next week comes...Dark Water.


Next Saturday: We have David Tennant on Gracepoint, Karen Gillan on Selfie. How are they and other alums of Doctor Who doing on their respective post-TARDIS projects?

Next Sunday: It is the beginning of the end. 
  • Missy makes her move. 
  • The Cybermen strike. 
  • Clara Oswald's at the heart of a terrible secret. 
What does all this mean for the Doctor? We'll review Part 1 of the Series 8 finale, Dark Water.

Until then, be good to one another, And also be good to the trees.

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