Reg hacks see the woods or the trees In the Forest of the Night
Is this Doctor Who episode an enjoyable romp or a namby-pamby feelings fest?
TV Review El Reg's resident Doctor Who fans – Brid-Aine Parnell, Gavin Clarke and Jennifer Baker – have come together to discuss the plot of tonight's episode, In the Forest of the Night.
Please note: THIS IS A POST-UK-BROADCAST REVIEW – THERE WILL BE SPOILERS!
After the tentative forward momentum achieved in Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline, Doctor Who has fallen to the bottom of the barrel again with namby-pamby, rose-tinted feelings fest In the Forest of the Night.
An entire class of children gets sucked into the fun, while Clara and Danny dance around her blatantly obvious lies (which I thought he surely would have figured out last week) and Danny and the Doctor barely look at each other.
Samson and Bradley with Danny Pink In the Forest of the Night. Credit: Doctor Who/BBC
Doctor Who is supposed to be family entertainment, so I’ve no problem in principle with kids on the show. But why do they have to so frequently be so unrelentingly annoying? The boys, Samson and Bradley (played by Jaydon Harris-Wallace and Ashley Foster), acquit themselves quite well. The bit where Samson says, “I slightly want my Mum too” is a genuine laugh-out-loud moment delivered with nice comic timing from the young actor.
But, those girls. The perfectly accented diction and round stage school eyes are utterly ridiculous, particularly when the lads in the group appear to come from more than one background. It’s like Maebh and Ruby walked straight out of the pages of Enid Blyton and wandered bewildered into a group of modern kids, where they proceed to enunciate every word clearly and almost emotionlessly. Ruby manages to rise above the parapet once or twice, but Maebh, the main kid character, is utterly grating. (Sorry kids).
Meanwhile, there’s the Danny/Doctor/Clara thing. We keep getting set up to believe that there’s going to be some sort of blow-out with these three and then being bitterly disappointed when everyone just doesn’t bother.
First Clara was angry with the Doctor and promising to never go anywhere with him again, then she wasn’t. The Doctor was angry with Clara for lying to him at the end of the last episode, but barely seems to remember this time. Danny has every right to be spitting mad at Clara’s pathetic lies, especially since he rubbish-ultimatum-ed her about lying to him about the Doctor in an earlier episode, but he just brushes the whole thing off.
“I deserve the truth,” he says, “but go home and do your marking first and here’s a snog to prove that absolutely nothing has changed between us despite this betrayal of my trust” – or something along those lines anyway.
Finally, there’s that ending. Out of nowhere, Maebh’s disappeared sister reappears without explanation, rhyme or reason in a cloying finale made all the more sickly by the rubbish acting from both Maebh and her Mum (sorry ladies). Did the trees bring her back? Was she just a teenage runaway? Why is she showing no signs of whatever she’s just been through, but just smiling benignly? Why tack on such a ghastly happy ending at all?
A girl with curly locks in a red coat is dashing through dense woods. She stumbles onto a small house from which pops a gnarled old figure: not a witch, but the Doctor.
'Tis me! The witch ... I mean, the Doctor!
This isn’t the dark woods of a middle German fairytale, this is central London and it’s been taken over by a mighty forest. So opens In the Forest of the Night. This week, the writers of Who blend Neil Gaiman (himself once a Who writer) and M Night Shyamalan (when he was – briefly – good) to tell a dark tale of mysticism and man’s tenuous foothold on the planet.
It’s a trippy telling of bright colours, dappled sunlight and soft edges with danger behind the leaves: escaped wolves and a snarling tiger.
“The forest ... is mankind’s’ nightmare,” the Doctor informs Clara. It’s a compelling canvas and nice tap into our eternal love/hate/fear of the fairytale.
Stylistically, tip of the hat to the Who writers this episode: That trippy look and feel and the playful visual on top of the writing comedy - use of wide angle camera for the children's interactions with the Doctor.
But to the plot: Why exactly has a dense wood sprung up in central London – and, it transpires, across the globe? An ancient and mystical life force on Earth is protecting the planet by throwing up trees to protect it against cataclysmic events from space.
The Who writers tied this into actual events - Tunguska, Siberia, and Curuçá, Brazil, sci-fi and conspiracy theorists’ favorites. I’ll go with that and leave it there, and gloss over the hokey bit about all those trees generating more oxygen as some kind of air bag. More like hot-air bag in this case.
But the plot’s pivot is that girl – Maebh – whose presence raised more questions than answers. Maebh has been hearing voices since her sister vanished, which turn out to be those tree-raising, planet-protecting Earth ancients. She's somehow tuned into their frequency.
She serves as a perfect plot foil, adorable and giving Doctor Who and the frightened Clara something to chase through the ever thickening and menacing woods. The trio’s escalating encounter with first the wolves and then a tiger was dark-comic genius of timing akin to Han Solo's "I've got a bad feeling about this" from Star Wars. Good writing and more comedy. But the fact Maebh’s sister's re-appeared at the end from under a bush suggests the tree-raising creatures abducted her. Are they therefore malevolent or was the abduction simply a device to reach Maebh - in which case why did they need to do it? Or did they return her, in which case who took her and where and why? This feel-good ending needlessly knackers the preceding story, adding the baggage of a bigger story I feel won't be answered in later episodes.
Maebh’s real purpose brings us to this week’s episode’s crux: the relationships between Clara and Pink and Clara and Doctor Who.
It’s over Maebh that Pink and the Doctor lock horns – about the medication she’s been on to stop hearing voices. The practical Pink can see only bad in the Doctor and can't wait to rail she needs her pills and he can't "experiment" on her. The multi-dimensional Who sees things – correctly – differently. Clearly, Pink is as unwilling to cut the doctor any slack as the Doctor him. Are we building to a conclusion that, therefore, both are wrong choices for Clara?
But it’s the practical aspects of Pink’s personality we learn that the adventure junkie Clara loves: Mr Pink is safe and sensible. He’s had all the adventure he wanted in the army; so, no, he doesn’t want to see a planet-sized, once-in-a-lifetime series events from space in the Tardis. And, no, he’s not even letting his curiosity out of line on why London is suddenly full of trees. His priority, or duty number one, is seeing the children in his school party home to their parents. Priority number two: seeing what’s in front of him more clearly. Clara, that means you.
I’ve read plenty of times that women like Mr Adventure but want to settle down with Mr Safe. But is this supposed to apply to Clara, the Impossible Girl, too? I feel the Who writers are again selling her short.
As for the Doctor, once more we saw the limits of his power: accepting of Earth’s fate, then chewing his lip when Pink intervenes on the tiger, flummoxed the ancients didn’t call him to save Earth. Powerless, he’s sent away by Clara for a second time, this time to save himself as it seems Earth will get incinerated. For a second time - Kill the Moon was the first - the Doctor is left to decipher events rather than save them.
Is this credible for a Doctor such as this, with a heritage such as he has, or has it only become an issue thrown in to deliberate relief by the largeness of his personality? It feels like the latter.
Finally, the Who writers need to start involving Missy. Another episode closes on a Missy eyebrow-raiser – was she the author of the Sun’s plasma storm? Was she also behind the destruction of the planet that was home to the Bank of Karabraxos? It’s beginning to feel like she’s being bolted on for some last-minute dept effect or significance rather than integral to the story of the day.
Judging by the trailer for next week, it looks like the Who writers have decided that, too.
In the Forest of the Night was a surprisingly enjoyable episode despite the concentration of kids. Even Pinkie and the Pain (Danny and Clara) were bearable. Best line of the night? "We will if you stop calling us a team." Give that boy a medal.
So far this season we've had silly monsters and scary monsters. The most frightening were under the bed or in the walls. This week's peril was slap, bang in your face and as a result wasn't particularly scary. But the presence of by turns baffled, bewildered and bored Year 8 kept the atmosphere of unease ramped up. Despite the threat from wolves and a clearly photosensitive tiger, the children mostly seemed to be having a fun day out.
Capaldi's Doctor is really rather good at interacting with the small people – mainly because he can't really distinguish them from adults and so doesn't talk down to them like Patronising Pink and Condescending Clara. So this episode was going well and would have got an unmitigated thumbs-up until Clara made the unfathomable decision to let the class, Private Pink and herself burn.
WTF!? She's got a perfectly serviceable Tardis at her disposal but because of some guff about the kids missing their mums she reckons it would be best if they all just died. I love Capaldi, I'm enjoying most of most of the episodes, but the writing around the Impossible Girl is just ... impossible!
I feel sorry for Jenna Louise. She hasn't been given a character to play so much as a weekly moral conundrum. Perhaps this is building up to some sort of story arc related to the Promised Land. But I'll be very surprised if it's worth it. Like Missy, I love surprises, but it's going to have to be one hell of a reveal for me to forgive perfectly decent episodes being ruined by ridiculous decisions.
Time-travelling aliens? Fine. Killing the suspension of disbelief by undermining characters' internal logic? Not so much. ®