On the D/L – Doctor Who
Season 8 Episode 10 – “In The Forest of the Night”
In a plot so uniquely Doctor Who, a mysterious forest springs up in the middle of London as well as across the entire world. It happens to coincide with Clara and Danny taking some kids out on a school trip.
This episode was actually a refreshing change of pace for this series. One way or another each episode has had a villainous force to take down so far whereas this one doesn’t. Some of the most interesting science fiction stories are those where the environment and the situation is the threat rather than a singular villain that needs to be taken down.
Something similar was attempted in Listen but for me that really didn’t work where this episode kind of did. The story was well paced and built the intrigue of why the world has been covered in foliage really well. Since there was no direct threat in the episode other things had to be done to carry the run time as well as some side threats like escaped carnivorous zoo animals or focusing on the available characters. I liked that there was actually nothing nefarious about what was happening and the whole situation would have been the same without The Doctor’s presence. Normally downplaying The Doctor is a shortfall of a given episode given how ineffectual he has been this season but it really works here. The question as to how and why the Earth became covered in trees to save it from a solar flare is left unanswered but it never feels like an answer that needs to be given. There’s an interesting speech from The Doctor where he questions why the human race can’t just leave things alone. It is a bit of a contradiction as he is the man who can’t leave things alone but the speech itself is a good one.
The key character here is the young Maebh (Abigail Earmes) who initially seems like a collection of fairytale stereotypes in a really obvious way. It turns out that what seems like a lazy way of creating a sense of familiarity to the audience is one of the cornerstones of the episode. Ever since the Matt Smith run of Doctor Who began The Doctor has been somewhat recharacterised as a fairytale figure who exists in a magical world unlike our own. With Amy he was her mysterious childhood story figure with a magical box and to Clara he is the man who takes her away from her ordinary life to have a magical adventure before bringing her home.
As such, the show has become less science fiction and more fantasy based. Everything is cast in a wondrous light without worrying about the how or why things work and happen. Tonally this has been something I’ve had problems with as it often results in poor explanations and resolutions to the stories that make me scratch my head in utter confusing. For those who love fairy tales this will be fine as there’s often an expectation that it’s just how things happen in this magical story.
To get back to the point, Maebh is the personification of that fairy tale innocence that makes this story work. She starts off the episode as being naive yet unphased by the notion of the TARDIS being bigger on the inside. As far as she’s concerned magical things just exist and she doesn’t need them to be explained to her. This creates a fascinating contrast between Maebh and The Doctor who tries to scientifically quantify this thing and it could mark a transition in the style of the show. This season has been so uneven that I still don’t know what they’re going for stylistically but I suspect it’s supposed to be a return to a more science fiction based way of storytelling even if that hasn’t come across yet.
If that’s the case then this episode would be a nice bridge between those two styles as The Doctor fails to understand or explain anything going on around him as much as he tries and Maebh not caring to have an explanation. It provides both sides of the stylistic argument where some fans will want better explanations -i.e. me- and others are just happy to go along for the ride. It’s very nicely done and I appreciated the internal commentary on how diverse a show Doctor Who can be.
Another interesting aspect of this episode was the differences in Danny and Clara in terms of where they are in their character arcs. Danny is effectively at the end of his arc that happened off screen and represents a possible end point of where Clara is now in hers. Danny has been the soldier moved from place to place seeing and experiencing things but now he’s had enough of that and is happy just settling down and enjoying what he has in his life now. His speech about seeing the things in front of him more clearly was an interesting one and helps to explain why he doesn’t care about traveling the universe like Clara does.
In general Danny was used really well here and this marks the first time his usage in an episode hasn’t had me rolling my eyes. There is an interesting guy in there somewhere and we’re finally beginning to see it. I liked how imbued with common sense he seems to be in figuring out the obvious truth that Clara is still traveling with The Doctor and lying to him as a result. I also appreciated how calmly and maturely he took it. All he wants is for her to make up her mind and be honest with him.
In contrast, Clara is still struggling with figuring out what she wants from life and still has that decision to make about what she wants to do. For now she is traveling with The Doctor to experience different things which makes her somewhat neglectful of her life back on Earth. The old saying “jack of all trades master of none” rings somewhat true for her at the moment. Her sense of devotion to the three disparate parts of her life -traveling with The Doctor, her relationship with Danny and her career as a school teacher- don’t fit together very well. Her career and relationship are two things that can work together as evidenced here but The Doctor is the part of her life that doesn’t fit in easily. I sense that there’s a choice coming up where she’ll ultimately have to pick normality or the fantastic.
The marked contrast in Danny and Clara is possibly best shown through their priorities. Danny is laser focused on keeping them safe where Clara has to constantly be reminded that they are in charge of protecting them. Clara is so focused on the bigger picture around her that she forgets where her true responsibilities lie and it’s interesting to see this subtle corruption in her mindset brought on by the time she has spent traveling with The Doctor. She is also becoming somewhat less compassionate shown when she tells The Doctor to save some people if he can’t save all of them. This does make sense from a utilitarian point of view but there’s something unsettling about how coldly she suggests such a thing.
It’s unusual for me to watch an episode with such a large child actor presence and not be annoyed. The kids did well here and were a good addition to the story. Clara and Danny’s students have been a mainstay of this season for better or for worse so an episode like this was inevitable. The kids as characters are handled somewhat awkwardly like Bradley, a character that the episode begins to build up but then quickly abandons with no real explanation as to why or Maebh’s -supposed to be- tearful reunion with her sister that didn’t have the emotional heft that writer Frank Cottrell Boyce clearly wanted it to.
In general the problems the show has haven’t gone anywhere. The Doctor is as always unevenly characterised and seems to act completely differently every week. This week he’s compassionate towards Earth, humanity and in particular, children. He makes mention of the fact that he walks this Earth and considers it to be his planet too which directly contrasts with what he said in Kill the Moon and generally contradicts other things that have been said about this series. There’s still the annoying habit he has of acting like a rambling teenager some of the time. I’m still waiting for the more mature and sophisticated Doctor that was promised
A strong outing for this series that really benefits from not having a central antagonist for The Doctor to play against. The mystery is an intriguing one and the resolution was actually really well done. Clara and Danny’s relationship is put under the microscope in an interesting way and the changes in Clara’s character as a result of her traveling with The Doctor are shown very clearly. The supporting child characters are fairly well used for the most part but suffer from some uneven character stories. Problems sill generally exist in the uneven Doctor characterisation but the episode didn’t suffer too much as a result.