Doctor Who: Series 8
Episode 10 “In the Forest of the Night”
by Frank Cottrell Boyce
First broadcast: 25 October 2014
There is one problem with In the Forest of the Night.
Actually, I was being kind, there are TONS of problems with In the Forest of the Night, but there is one that stands out. There is no tension. No danger. Which means no story. I don’t enjoy being negative about one of my favourite TV programmes – one of the best TV programmes, and one of the jewels in the BBC’s crown. But sadly, so many things in this episode don’t quite work.
Frank Cottrell Boyce’s not-quite-magical yarn about trees suddenly popping up out of nowhere is all of the things nobody wants Doctor Who to be. It’s easy to mock, it’s lightweight, it defies even the loosest logic.
This was something I previously confronted in my review of Kill the Moon (go to http://wp.me/p3KHHr-m1). These two episodes of Who have tested some viewers’ opinions on the extent of scientific basis and logic that the show should have. Personally, this viewer is not scientifically minded at all, however if a story has no sense of inner coherence, then it cannot be properly followed or enjoyed. That’s the bottom line. I think, in the fantasy world of Who, you can just about buy that ‘trees grow to protect the planet, and then a collective gaseous amnesia means you forget’. But what about the pavements? Do the pavements forget? Surely every road in every country is shot to pieces? Yes, I’m sure that tarmac was not at the top of the production team’s list of dramatic possibilities with the story. But if it takes you out of the story to moan about it with your mother/friend/dog, then it’s a problem.
Are the trees in the sea as well? It looks like it from the green tint in the Earth shot we see… In which case, ironically the two questionable Who episodes of the year have come up against the same scientific problem: what about the tides? Never mind trees burning down and escaped wild cats – Clara, Danny et al should be drowning! We see the odd bollard, but where are all the buildings? Last time I checked, London was quite a jam-packed, built-up area… And busy! Where are all the people? Just one class of schoolkids and one irritating mum? Is that it?
If this was the only problem we might be able to see past it. The logic of Kill the Moon is arguably poor but everything else – the Clara/Doctor dynamic, the scares, the thrills – is strong. Unfortunately In the Forest of the Night falls down in more areas. This viewer could forgive almost any other problem, if it wasn’t for In the Forest of the Night’s aforementioned lack of tension. To try and alleviate this, various things are thrown at us. Escaped animals, men in protective suits starting fires… at one point Nelson is toppled for no reason other than to inject some drama. But all of these ideas turn out to be underdeveloped dead-ends. There is no villainous force in the story. There is no conflict of interests. There is no progression, development or change. All of which means there is no story. All of which means the episode is… dull, frankly. By the halfway mark, you are drained and dreaming of the end. (The end of the episode I mean, not the end of your life – it’s bad but it’s not quite that bad.)
Plus, I’m going to come out and say it: children don’t really work in Doctor Who. This may be a controversial decision, but I think over the years (particularly recent years) we have given them a shot, in varying forms… but they just don’t work. It may be a show designed to appeal to children, but that does not mean they have to be in it. The series almost always gives us precocious middle class children, who are also hardly endearing. Especially when they repeatedly backchat. Especially when they infiltrate the TARDIS. Another quibble comes in the form of the scene in which Danny exclaims that Maebh is troubled and on medication – in front of her entire class. If that isn’t breaking some sort of teacher OFSTED code, it is definitely breaking some sort of moral human being code.
The direction from Sheree Folkson has some lovely touches – the forest is often beautiful, but my favourite shot was when we walked into the TARDIS at a hesitant low angle, from Maebh’s perspective. Having said that, there are other moments where the visual flair vanishes – the tracking shot as Maebh and the Doctor circle the TARDIS gantry looks like they are doing some sort of Blue Peter feature, and the classroom flashbacks are filmed far too camply and cheaply for my liking.
Even Peter Capaldi’s mighty Doctor sort of sags under the dead weight of this tale. This is through no fault of his own, as Capaldi manages to summon the enthusiasm to scamper through the undergrowth, elfin and interested. Lines like “Even my incredibly long life is too short for Les Miserables” are delivered with great wit, and he once again plays against his own cantankerousness by showing an affinity to children. Those touches of the script are, admittedly, pleasing.
Danny Pink adds little to proceedings, which is a shame given this was the last chance before the events of the finale to properly flesh him out. His function in the series has started to grate on me, as will be analysed in the next article. For instance, the scene in which he has figured out Clara is lying, but very kindly tells her to go home and think about whether to lie to him some more, makes about as little sense as the magical trees.
Clara, too, is surprisingly irrelevant despite her being the teacher of the children who are basically the subject of the episode. Until, that is, we come to the weekly shoe-horned bit of Twelfth Doctor Being Mean and/or Clara Argument. I’m being facetious because secretly I really enjoy those moments – they still feel new and exciting as we aren’t used to them from recent Doctors. Some weeks it’s worked very well, Deep Breath being the obvious one, and it’s become an integral part of the story, a la Kill the Moon. Other weeks it’s just been like a defence mechanism for critics saying “this could have been a Matt Smith story”. But I suppose the whole season should be commended for taking the introduction of a new Doctor so seriously. However this episode’s Mean Moment, with Clara attempting to push away the Doctor and simultaneously save him from decision-making this time, makes minimal sense. This is mainly because, with absolutely no sense of danger in the episode, what is Clara saving him from? A falling magical tree?
The “ANNABELLE. MY ANNABELLE” ending is the best. As if we are watching a parody of a children’s Saturday morning show, the longed-for girl steps out from behind a chrysanthemum… and we couldn’t care less. It was so obviously going to be the conclusion, and so laughably staged, that it lost any impact it could have had. And that is the cliff-hanger that leads you into the grand finale. At best that is a wasted opportunity, at worst that is a bad dramatic decision.
Let us get away from the negativity for a second. By far, the best thing about In the Forest of the Night is the imagery of Trafalgar Square swamped with trees. There’s some commendable CGI here and even better – an actual full size lion statue model, well done art department! Maybe this is the problem – maybe that single image came first and then the rest of the story tried and failed to slot in around it. It’s a good visual, it’s a very Doctor Who visual – the ordinary in the extraordinary. A red telephone box in an enchanting forest. But if there’s no story supporting it then that’s just a nice art card and nothing more. It might have made a good comic book story. But as an episode of the series proper – a lead in to the finale no less! – lamentably, it doesn’t convince.
The other great plus of the episode is that, despite presumably being shot in Wales, the whole thing is sunny! Show me another episode where the sun doesn’t dip for even a second! What a triumph. Next time you think “In the Forest of the Night couldn’t possibly be any worse”, remember this: it could be worse, it could have rained!
Showrunner Steven Moffat has gone on record saying that he adores this one, and that in time it will be reassessed. Let’s be fair: maybe he is right, and maybe this is a knee-jerk reaction because it is a very different interpretation of the show than we have largely seen. The defence for In the Forest of the Night seems to be that we’re not getting it, that it’s a beautiful fairy tale, that it’s not supposed to be anything else. But the truth is, even as a fairy tale it simply doesn’t stand up. Fairy tales have darkness and intrigue, villains and conflict, lightness and comedy. In the Forest of the Night doesn’t really have those things.
Frank Cottrell Boyce – a renown and acclaimed writer – clearly had a lot of sound ideas about the animal kingdom, and the natural world and its relationship with humankind, and about fairy tales. But none of them actually came off, unless you really, really squint. Without any sense of danger or development, this just isn’t a Doctor Who story.
It is a shame to be so negative about something that a group of people put a great deal of time and effort in to, and it gives me no pleasure. Thankfully, we can all cling onto that fantastic, striking, intelligent image of London and Nelson overcome by trees, and see that the story is not completely irredeemable.