Monthly Archives: October 2014

Doctor Who XXXIV(8).10: In the Forest of the Night

What immortal hand or eye?

Intheforestofthenight_RTThe light between the cracks, of course; the stardust of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, perhaps, crossbread with Gaian notions of a self-healing planet which humanity has to restrain itself from unbalancing. In the Forest of the Night was another exercise in non-literal storytelling, with not only London’s cityscape transformed, but its geography collapsed to suggest a ‘Zoological Museum’ existing in the vicinity of both the Natural History Museum and London Zoo and Trafalgar Square, Cromwell Gardens and the suburbs pulled closer together by tightening creeper, branch and root. The effect has annoyed some, but I found it expressive of sinister magic.

In the Forest of the Night kept us guessing. How real, how human, was Maebh? teased the tale, emphasising her as a collision of symbols, a Queen Mab in a red hood rising from a forest family. This was no Dawn from Buffy or Adam from Torchwood, but a real live girl with specialised and underappreciated talents. Stuart Manning’s Radio Times illustration (inset) shares the same girl-reaching-to-circle-in-sky iconography as the cover of M.R. Carey’s zombie novel The Girl with all the Gifts, and while Maebh does provide a way to unlock prohibited knowledge (she was able to escape the museum before anyone else could, having the key to the box) she doesn’t bring disaster but becomes the spokesperson for reconciliation between humanity and the forest. The symmetry between the disruptive children and the disruptive forest was an obvious device but effective, though if there was an appeal for understanding the needs of the educationally excluded here it was buried.

The central flaw of a lot of forty-five minute Doctor Who is that theme and narrative don’t have enough time to breathe, and In the Forest of the Night often felt like a series of set pieces with not enough connective material. The wolves and the tiger were recorded in a different location to the other participants – I had no idea that there were such wild beasts roaming the Chipping Norton area – but it would have added some unity to the whole to glimpse them later on in the episode, or even hear of zoo staff rounding them up. As in Kill the Moon, with which the audience was encouraged to make a direct connection through dialogue, the Doctor disappears with apparently no hope of finding a solution to a problem, then returns having done so. I don’t mind having to infer the process, but felt the dramatic potential in the Doctor’s reappearance after Clara’s farewell to him wasn’t brought out in the way it might have been.

After several weeks where the programme seemed to be working hard to alienate viewers from the Doctor, the last few episodes have worked to reconcile followers to the Time Lord, and Peter Capaldi fascinated in this episode. The Doctor’s dualities were very apparent here – both introvert and empath in his initial responses to Maebh, keeper of forbidden knowledge but traditional and natural schoolteacher, an alien whose ‘terrestrial navigation’ seems to be incompatible with time-space functionality. Of Earth, and not of it.

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

Clara can twist the sinews of this tyger’s heart, but hers, too, is a double inheritance. Danny and Clara continue to be shakily presented as a couple who are either complementary opposites or fundamentally incompatible and driven by physical attraction and denial. Samuel Anderson and Danny have not had a lot of screen time apart from in The Caretaker and much depends again on what the viewer infers; he’s remarkably understanding of Clara here and obviously remarkably calm where one can imagine other boyfriend characters being written to be visibly and angrily jealous. There’s a character arc developed off-screen, one must oresume, of which we have not seen enough; no doubt the finale will put everything into a fuller context.

In the Forest of the Night was softly photographed and its low angles suggested both the overhanging trees and the short size of many of the participants. Director Sheree Folkson extracted believable performances from her young cast and seems to have co-ordinated her team well; I’d like to see her return to another Doctor Who engagement. The juxtaposition of the soothing and the displaced throughout the visuals helped add a lyrical quality which overcame the discontinuities in the narrative and strengthened the sense that while this series of Doctor Who has been the most consistent in quality since Matt Smith’s first if not David Tennant’s last, it’s the second half of the run, where the Doctor has learned enough about himself to be a less divisive figure, which has provided the more memorable episodes. For all Steven Moffat’s protestations, Doctor Who has not left the world of fairytales yet; and there are consequences in those too.

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Doctor Who XXXIV(8).9: Flatline

This week's Radio Times online poster, by Stuart Manning

This week’s Radio Times online poster, by Stuart Manning

An accomplished piece of television, which managed to be genuinely disturbing, pick up on the idea of two-dimensional beings which I think was discussed back in the planning stages in 1963, and advance the character arcs. In the latter case, we are being asked to infer a lot about the relationship between Clara and Danny, which seems more and more superficial. I was watching with my sister who found the two characters incompatible, and perhaps that’s what we are meant to think, after all. Clara plays at normality, but after one has had the experiences she has had, the Doctor’s life is her normality. Her ability to ‘be’ the Doctor is an obvious indicator and emphasises the ‘alienness’ which first Danny and now Rigsy recognise.  This is an old theme of twenty-first century Who, reminiscent of Jackie’s ‘You won’t be you any more’ speech to Rose in Army of Ghosts. The Doctor didn’t seem to think the acclimatisation of a companion was good then, manipulating the situation so Rose would have a family and home to go back to (albeit in a parallel universe) at the cost of her company and undervaluing his own love for her (or underappreciating his obsession). This Doctor can simply say that being him is nothing to do with being good. What sort of person sets himself up as the defender of a planet or (now) a plane?

The two-dimensional creatures were subtly conceptualised in such a way as to emphasise the Doctor as both rational and intuitive investigator and (after a run of episodes earlier in the series which encouraged interpretations of the Doctor’s behaviour as wilfully cruel) as generous, well-intentioned and hoping for the best in others. The monsters are only treated as monsters once they have exhausted all other possibilities. Their dispatch was perhaps a little too convenient; I’d not considered that the two-dimensional entity’s entire strength was concentrated in the tunnel, and I presume they had been weakened by pouring their energy into the TARDIS; but a magisterial performance from Peter Capaldi’s time wizard, paradoxically invigorated by universe-weariness, was perhaps enough to banish them from this universe. There’s an irony in that as far as viewers are concerned, the monsters of Doctor Who are always experienced in two dimensions, with the exception of The Day of the Doctor; Flatline therefore fictionalises and actualises the experience of the engaged viewer, two-dimensional strangeness made to seem like real threats in a three-dimensional world.

This was a remarkably strong episode, though; presenting Peter Capaldi’s Doctor as an object of faith, perhaps, for the first time. After painstakingly undermining viewer confidence in him in the earlier part of the series, the Doctor in effect becomes a relic of himself, to manifest himself through the faith of his devotee in the final act. The devotee, though, doesn’t get the affirmation she seeks, because she has not fully integrated the experience into her engagement with the world. Is Christopher Fairbank’s Fenton, an anti-imaginative denier who advances the cause of Survival‘s Sergeant Paterson into further depths of brutal ignorance, better off for wilful stupidity? As Dark Water/Death in Heaven approaches, Clara’s role in Missy’s plan gains an extra pencil line of detail, and presumably depends on how and what Clara has and has not learned. I wonder if this series will end with an Orpheus and Eurydice story, but will Clara or Danny or the Doctor have to be rescued from Missy’s Nethersphere, who will look behind them, and what will be the consequences?

Jamie Mathieson and Douglas Mackinnon can both come back, though; tonight the dark of the world is wandered by shifting, shambling revenants reassembled by beings unfamiliar with human anatomy, and until the magician can be freed to shine his supernatural light upon them, they will not stop.

Doctor Who XXXIV(8).8: Mummy on the Orient Express

MummyontheOrientExpressBusy with other things so again can’t manage a full review… but this was rather good. On one of the panels in which I partook at the last Nine Worlds, Laurie Penny said something along the lines that Steven Moffat writes both Sherlock and Doctor Who as addiction dramas. Mummy on the Orient Express made this explicit and provided another gloss on the Doctor’s reluctance to go back and see his old companions as expressed in The Sarah Jane Adventures: Death of the Doctor. The Doctor can’t go round for dinner because he would be returning to his drug; Clara can’t yet face this. Our travellers go off in varying levels of denial; Perkins (a deliberate echo of The Railway Children‘s Perks, surely, with Frank Skinner giving a performance with some echoes of Cribbins, and Perks was a man who knew more than he could explain to the young protagonists) can see what the Doctor’s life can do because he himself is someone with the maturity to know what life experience can do and someone who is comfortable with his identity in a way which the Doctor never can be. There was a lovely casting joke: anyone watching British television over the last fifty years could easily believe that Janet Henfrey must be well over a hundred by now. Lance Parkin observed at Facebook that Foxes’ rendition of ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, as released in advance on YouTube, was a spoiler of sorts, and he certainly had more than a point.

ETA: The motifs of the season were there too – soldiers, robots who are not quite robots but not yet/no longer quite people, deaths which are not perhaps deaths. Danny is left waiting and out of phase with Clara, rather like the mummy; and Doctor Who emphasises further its scepticism about the lifestyle of the Doctor and Clara. Once the companions wanted to go home, whereas nowadays at some level the viewer is encouraged to think that they should want to.

I’ve also been considering names. Seb, Chris Addison’s character, may be named after St Sebastian, one of the patron saints of soldiers; is Gus named after St Augustine of Hippo? I know little of him bar that most of his thought I’ve come across seems commonsensical in a way which suggests how far his theology is deeply embedded in western thought whether consciously religious or not; but I see from Wikipedia that he was deeply interested in the relationship of the body and the soul, and that the soul must respect the body. There have been a number of destroyed or refashioned bodies in this series of Doctor Who, no more than usual perhaps, but attention has been drawn to the Half-Face Man, the Sheriff, and all those people who have been killed only to turn up in Missy’s realm.

Doctor Who XXXIV(8).7: Kill the Moon

Did Lundvik say ‘What a prat’ as the Doctor left the Moon? While enjoying the highs and lows of Peter Capaldi’s interpretation of the Doctor’s character, his lack of empathy and possibly deliberate cruelty is very testing and hardly endears the Doctor and Doctor Who to an audience, or so I’d have thought. While I’m fascinated to see where the production team are going with this arc, their justification is questionable and Clara’s farewell dialogue to the Doctor suggests they know it. Kill the Moon convinces as drama, but I wonder whether it is the Doctor Who we, and BBC One on Saturdays, really want.