I’ve written this story up for Doctor Who Reviews, the Doctor Who News site’s reviews section. The review was based on an advance viewing copy. I didn’t find
room for the line of continuity between Invasion of the Dinosaurs, The Beast Below and Robot of Sherwood (compilations of images and sound on a screen depicting unpalatable depictions of the truth) and might read Samuel Butler’s Erewhon tonight, as Frank Cottrell Boyce has Tweeted that it was an influence – but I’m not displeased with this review, nor with the story.
What immortal hand or eye?
The 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.