Another week, another Doctor Who story that stretches the limits of the show's format — to the point where it's hard to say if it's a total work of genius, or just kind of a weird mess. Unfortunately, this week's "In The Forest of the Night" chases a ton of ideas that it never quite catches up with.
So a forest appears all over the world, just as Danny and Clara have been taking Coal Hill School's "gifted and talented" kids on an overnight trip to a natural history museum, in "In The Forest of the Night." (Whose title is a nice William Blake reference, cemented by the random tiger showing up as the story's only "monster.") And meanwhile, a little girl named Maebh Arden warns that a solar flare is coming.
This story is the work of Frank Cottrell-Boyce*, who has written some award-winning children's books as well as some of my favorite movies. I was sort of expecting it to be this year's "Vincent and the Doctor," a standout story which was the only Who script by the similarly illustrious Richard Curtis. Instead, this felt like a story that wanted to be a strange fairy tale and a polemic about modern life and a bunch of other things. But which never quite manages to be any of those things in any kind of satisfying manner.
Part of the problem is that this is another shapeless, experimental story in a season jam-packed with shapeless, experimental stories — if Cottrell-Boyce had written the only odd structureless tale this year, it would have felt a lot fresher. Plus this story had a lot of heavy lifting to do in the season's arc, which left it unable to spend time on the things it probably wanted to talk about.
That said, it's still got some beautiful visuals and some neat moments — there's a bit of magic in this muddled story, for sure.
Spoilery details ahead...
Its an odd counterpoint to "Kill the Moon"
Everything about this story seems designed to turn the earlier "Kill the Moon" on its head, to the point where it even references "Kill the Moon" at a crucial moment.
Once again, the Earth is in danger from an apparently natural event — except instead of the Moon hatching a giant beastie, it's a solar flare. There are strange phenomena, only this time it's trees instead of spiders and high gravity. And once again, the "solution" to the problem turns out to be "do nothing," because this is a natural phenomenon that will take care of itself without our intervention.
Except this time around, when the Doctor leaves at a crucial moment in the story (more on that in a moment), it's at the urging of Clara, not to her dismay. And when someone addresses the entire population of Earth, it's to reassure everybody, not to ask for a vote on whether to blow shit up.
(In the end, it turns out that the trees are a natural response to the coming solar flare, triggered by some kind of planetary consciousness thingy, because all the extra trees will generate an "airbag" of oxygen that the solar flare will burn off harmlessly. I eagerly await the howls of disbelief from astrophysicists and biologists to this episode's loony premise.)
The similarities seem too big to be accidental, and you have to wonder if Boyce and Peter Harness were encouraged to collaborate, or if showrunner Steven Moffat reworked one or both stories. In any case, as it is, the stories almost work like bookends, dealing with the problem of intervention in history as something that can sometimes do more harm than good. And stories where the Doctor-Clara relationship is reversed.
The problem is Maebh Arden
I feel like the main problem with this story is Maebh Arden, its ostensible main character. She drives most of the action — she goes to visit the Doctor, she leaves a warning about the solar flares, she runs away and needs to be found, she speaks for the glowy firefly-y spirits of the forest, and she addresses the people of Earth. And a big part of the story's final emotional payoff comes when Maebh's missing sister turns up, having heard Maebh's message to the people of Earth.
The trouble is, Maebh doesn't get a moment to breathe in this story. There's some lovely banter at the beginning between the Doctor and Maebh, when it's just the two of them. He tells her she needs an appointment to see the Doctor, and then is put out when she's not more startled by the TARDIS' huge interior. (Because she figures it's supposed to be that way, and just accepts it.)
But then Maebh gets lost in the shuffle, and the story spends more time on the other children (who are basically just stock archetypes like the kid with anger issues and the spunky red-head. And where's Disruptive Influence this week?) We get told lots of stuff about Maebh — she's been over-medicated since her sister went missing, she's fragile and disturbed, she blames herself for the trees cropping up because she telepathically "heard" the trees talking about it — but we never get much of a sense of her as a person, because the story is in a hurry to hustle to the next thing or to go back to the other kids taking selfies.
In particular, the thing where Maebh blames herself for the trees appearing, and then is relieved to realize that it wasn't her fault after all, feels weirdly rushed and has zero emotional impact.
Also, some details about the missing sister would go a long way to making that final beat work, as lovely and heart-warming as it is. Did the sister run away from home? Sure looks like it. What's that about? She seems a lot older than Maebh, and I was wondering if the big sister protected Maebh from something at home, while she was around. It's frustrating enough that I wondered if a scene or two had been cut from this episode at the last minute or something.
At any rate, a lot of the emotional power of this episode needs to come from Maebh Arden, and I felt like we never quite saw her as a character, after her great introductory scenes. (But Maebh's name is a great nod to As You Like It and the Forest of Arden.)
Here are some of the ideas this story bats around
Notions of wildness. The forest as some kind primeval fear that inspires fairy tales. Our relationship with nature and our habit of chopping down trees to make furniture and stuff, over the centuries. A worldwide spirit consciousness, like in Avatar, which has been here before us and will be there after us. We don't listen to children, and instead give them too much medication. In a related development, we try to burn or cut the trees instead of trying to understand them. We should trust more and fear less (except for the thousands of times when the Post Office Tower or plastic daffodils or friendly ghosts or harmless cubes turned out to be an evil scheme).
The Doctor randomly leaves us to die
This is one of the odd parts of the story — a previous incarnation of the Doctor gave his life in vain, purely because he couldn't leave a single woman to die in a spaceship crash. But the Twelfth Doctor gets talked into leaving Earth, the whole planet, for apparently certain destruction by solar flare. It's such an odd turn of events that it feels somewhat out of place in the rest of the episode.
Of course, part of what happens is that Clara manipulates the Doctor into leaving everybody for dead — once he's apparently decided that there's no way to stop the solar flares, she tricks him into going back to his TARDIS, with the idea that they could save the children and Danny from death. Once back at the TARDIS, she admits the truth: he's not going to save them, he's going to save himself.
Although, sure, the children would miss their parents — but they'd be alive? Is it really better for them to have a few hours with their parents and then die? Wouldn't the parents want their kids to be saved?
Also, the time-travel stuff in this episode is perplexing. The Doctor says all of the futures they've visit where Earth is intact are about to be snuffed out. But what's changed? How is this timeline different from all the timelines where the Earth wasn't destroyed by solar flares — you'd think someone with a time machine would at least be curious about why the Earth wasn't destroyed in 100 percent of timelines, assuming that the solar flare is an inevitable event?
But the point of the "Doctor leaving everyone else to die" sequence isn't really about plausibility, it's intended to ratchet up the tension. And it's aimed at showing how things have changed with Clara.
The Doctor-Clara relationship has evolved a lot since "Kill the Moon"
As a story that flips "Kill the Moon" on its head, "Forest of the Night" shows how the Doctor-Clara relationship has evolved — in a nutshell, she's playing him, rather than him playing her. I guess a big focus of the early episodes with Capaldi's Doctor was how Clara couldn't manipulate the Twelfth Doctor as easily as she could the Eleventh Doctor, but those days are over.
Now, all of Clara's interactions with the Doctor are about how well she can predict or control him. When the Doctor professes to be baffled by the brand new forest, Clara keeps telling Danny and the others that this is just what he does, and any minute now he'll start spouting off answers. And meanwhile, Clara keeps getting caught between the Doctor and everyone else, because nobody else gets why he's acting so weird and is so interested in Maebh (a vulnerable student that Clara and Danny failed to keep track of.)
So the thing where Clara manages to maneuver the Doctor into going back to the TARDIS, and then talks him into abandoning the planet he's been protecting for centuries, is the ultimate demonstration of her power. And a role-reversal of the situation in "Kill the Moon." The Doctor even quotes Clara's own words from that episode back to her, and she basically tells him what she told him back then as well: Clear off.
Does Clara know that once the Doctor has accepted defeat, he'll be so rankled that he'll have no choice but to come up with some solution? Or does she just want to spare him everyone else's fate? Hard to say. I did really, really love the part where Clara tells the Doctor that she doesn't want to be the last of her kind. The look on the Doctor's face is really gut-punching.
Also, I love the Doctor's "I am Doctor Idiot!" when he realizes the truth, after he's already fled Earth.
The Danny-Clara relationship is suddenly odd
This is a big episode for Ozzie and the Squaddie. Danny finds out that Clara was lying to him about ending her travels with the Doctor — because apparently, he didn't figure that out when she lied to him on the phone in the middle of an attack by two-dimensional beings, last week.
And Danny takes it surprisingly well. I was sort of under the impression, after "The Caretaker," that if Clara lied to Danny again, he would kick her to the curb. But instead, he seems pretty zen about the whole thing and tells her to take a week to figure out how to be honest with him. Even though Danny's First Maxim ("You only really know what people think of you when you find out what lies they've told you") is pretty damning in this instance.
As Danny points out, even when Clara thought the world was ending, she still couldn't be honest with him. (And it's not even Danny she's trying to deceive, it's herself. Danny still seems basically okay with her traveling with the Doctor, but she wants to blame Danny for her own doubts about her dual life, instead of taking responsibility for her own feelings.) Meanwhile, she's more upset that Danny might have seen Maebh's marking books aboard the TARDIS than that the marking books accurately predict an apocalyptic solar flare.
One of the brilliant moments in this episode comes when Danny tells Clara that he doesn't want to go into space in the TARDIS to watch the solar flare up close, because after he survived being a soldier he realized he wanted to appreciate what he almost lost. "I don't want to see more things. I want to see the things in front of me more closely," he says.
And meanwhile, the episode keeps underscoring that Danny is better at his job than Clara is. She's happy to run off with the Doctor at the slightest hint of adventure, while Danny's attention is entirely focused on getting the kids home safely. He assumes she's been calling the school or the parents, when in fact those ideas never even occurred to her. Danny would never leave these kids for any reason, and once the adventure is over, he's back to the marking.
It feels like we're being nudged towards the realization that Danny is actually too good for Clara. Which is something I never got from the Rory-Amy relationship — Rory was more devoted to Amy than she was to him, but Amy was also placed on a bit of a pedestal. With Clara, we're constantly reminded of her character flaws, while Danny is more or less a paragon.
And then there's Missy
This being the final episode before the finale, it's also our last chance for a brief appearance by Missy "Misdemeanor," the season's presumptive Big Bad. She's seemed pleased with Clara's progress towards being a lying, manipulative savior. But she professes to be surprised by the outcome of this week's episode — although it's not clear what part. Did she expect the solar flare to consume the Earth? Did she think Clara and the Doctor would make some foolish attempt to destroy the trees, and doom the Earth in the process? Was she impressed by Clara trying to get the Doctor to leave them for dead? Unclear. But she says she likes surprises.
In any case, she's apparently living in the Nethersphere — not to be confused with the Nightosphere — and she's almost ready to make use of Clara.
* Apparently he asked for the hyphen for his work on Doctor Who.