One of the reasons I love Doctor Who—and love writing about Doctor Who—is that the show is such a fascinatingly difficult high-wire act. Other fantasy shows—and yes, I believe Doctor Who is fantasy, much more than it's science-fiction—have their own internal logics that stay relatively consistent. (The rules of the universe in Game of Thrones, for example—with its magics and dragons—are not the rules of our world, but they're consistent, and we can know what to expect from week to week.)
But each episode of Doctor Who is really its own genre, with its own tone and approach, and with self-contained rules and parameters that may not apply to any other episode. One week we may be in a cartoon, slapstick world like "Robot of Sherwood," and the next week we find ourselves in the solemn, evocative dream-logic of "Listen." (In this respect Doctor Who is almost an anthology series, having more in common with shows like The Twilight Zone than more consistent fantasy series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Supernatural.)
That flexibility pays off incredible dividends, but it's also challenging and risky. Every episode has to establish not just new settings, situations, and characters, but also new rules. It has to essentially teach us, each week, how to watch it, convincing us to accept the premise of the show anew.
And—in a 42-minute story—it has to do this very quickly. I've often thought I'd like, someday, to write a piece looking at just the pre-credit sequences of each episode: they have to very efficiently set the tone, and let us know what kind of show we should expect that week, and instruct us in how seriously we should take it.
"In the Forest of the Night" is a good example of what I mean: the opening scenes—filmed with a gauzy beauty by director Sheree Folkson—show us a little girl in a red hood running through the woods, and we know instantly that we are in a fairy tale. But what sort of fairy tale? The 2011 Christmas special, "The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe," was a fairy tale, but a particular, Christmassy sort of one: we knew from its madcap, deeply silly start that we weren't meant to take it very seriously, and that we should adjust our Willing-Suspension-of-Disbelief dials accordingly.
But "Forest" isn't that kind of fairy tale. It's more serious, attempting to play with some of the deeper, more archetypal elements of these childhood stories. It wants us to take the story more seriously, while still being willing to accept fairy tale logic.
That's a very tricky line to walk. Stephen Moffat loves to straddle that line himself, and usually does it fairly well. (For example, the Season Five two-parter "The Time of Angels" and "Flesh and Stone"—which also consciously played with the Red-Riding-Hood-in-the-woods imagery—mostly worked as a Doctor Who fairy tale. Its pseudo-science edged even closer than usual to pure magic—"An image of an angel becomes an angel?"—but the overall tone of the story made us accept explanations we almost certainly would reject in another kind of story. It felt right, somehow, because we'd successfully been transported to a fictional paradigm where those things could happen.
But it's always a difficult, complicated bit of television witchcraft: to mix text and tone and theme and aesthetics, in just the right balance, to achieve acceptable magic. And I'm thinking about all of this now because, for me, "In the Forest of the Night"—written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce—doesn't quite get it right.
"Be less scared. Be more trusting." — Maebh Arden
Throughout the episode, we're asked to see with a child's eyes. Maebh Arden (Abigail Eames), the little girl lost in the woods, isn't surprised to see a forest in the middle of London, and she isn't shocked to see a police box standing in the middle of the forest, and she isn't impressed that the box is bigger on the inside than the outside. "I just thought it was supposed to be bigger on the inside," she says, when the Doctor wonders at her lack of wonder. Later, another child, Ruby (Harley Bird) has a similarly casual reaction to the TARDIS. "There's wasn't a forest, and then there was a forest," she says. "Nothing surprises us anymore." Children just accept that there are things they don't understand and can't explain, the episode reminds us. ("Everyone seems to know everything about everything, apart from me," Maebh says.)
And, on the surface, this is a fair argument for how we should watch Doctor Who—which is, after all, a children's show. Why are we willing to accept one preposterous thing (such as a man who flies through space and time in a police box) while rejecting other preposterous things (like, for example, a golden arrow that makes a spaceship go faster)? And you'll see this argument, frequently, used by defenders of one episode or another to counter criticisms of the show. ("Why are you questioning the logic? It's Doctor Who!")
But here's the problem: I hate that argument, because of our old friend internal logic. Stuff doesn't have to be possible, but it has to be probable, within the established rules of the fiction. So says, at least, the man who more or less wrote those rules: "With respect to the requirements of art," says Aristotle in the Poetics, "a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible." (From this, I think we can all agree that Aristotle would think that time-traveling aliens are perfectly fine, but that the arrow thing was just goddamned dumb.)
"In the Forest of the Night" just asks me to accept too many things that are both impossible and improbable, even for Doctor Who.
I don't, for example, object to Maebh being psychic, precognitive, and extra-sensory; I do object to her magical powers coming about just because "people who have lost someone, they're always listening, they're always looking, they're always hoping, so they notice more." (Really? Must be a lot of psychic, precognitive, extra-sensory people on the planet, all of them batting little fireflies away from their faces.)
I don't object to the idea that humanity could completely forget the Great Global Tree Invasion of 2014. (Well, I do, actually: Moffat usually needs a smile-shaped rip in the fabric of time and space to erase big dumb events like this.) But I take serious issue with the explanation that we'll forget it just because that's what humans do. ("If you remembered how things felt, you'd have stopped having wars, and stopped having babies," the Doctor says. Well, yes, but see, we still remember all those wars and babies happened, even if we didn't learn anything from them…)
And the trees have done this before, every time there was a natural disaster? (That must be why all those dinosaurs are still alive and well.) Meanwhile, the combined scientific community of the Earth can't notice a massive solar flare heading our way? (Weird, because even the little ones fuck up my cell-phone service.) But they can assemble a plan to denude all the trees within a couple of hours. (Very efficient: but you know that defoliant shit is carcinogenic, right?) But they won't, because an anonymous little girl hacked into all the cell phones—good thing the solar flares didn't fuck 'em up after all!—and told everyone the trees were nice. (I'd like to think that, if there were ever a giant asteroid or something heading our way, NASA wouldn't tell Bruce Willis and his drill-team to stand down on the word of a weird, highly medicated third-grader.)
Oh look, I'm getting snarky. (Sorry. I really didn't mean to: I just kept moving forward, and, lo and behold, there snarkiness was.)
So let's back off of the snark: yes, all of this nonsense bothers me, especially delivered without even the usual feint at a pseudo-scientific explanation. (One of my pet peeves, as both a fan and critic of this show, is a writer who comes in thinking his script doesn't have to be logical, because, you know, it's Doctor Who.)
But the larger problem has to do with that alchemical mixture of tone and theme and aesthetics and plot and performance that I mentioned before. It is just possible that some version of this story might have worked if a few more elements were working together, but this story that wants to operate on fairy-tale logic never quite feels like a fairy tale. Folkson's direction is lovely, and she does what she can to achieve a fairy-tale feel, but too much elsewhere is working against it: the presence of the other children (who actually ask good, science-based questions); the extraneous conflict/romantic-subplot between Clara and Danny; the lame set decoration, which never for a moment convinces us that it is anything more than a plastic traffic light stuck randomly in a forest. (Did the forest grow up between the buildings and cars and people of a major metropolis, or did it disintegrate them?)
All of this sounds like nit-picking—and it is—but it all combines to undermine the delicate illusion that would be necessary to sustain this tale. We just don't believe any of it enough to justify the willing suspension of disbelief we would need to make.
And Cottrell-Boyce's screenplay seems to want to play with fairy tales without wanting to think about fairy tales too deeply. Fairy tales are quests, fairy tales are transformative, fairy tales are about facing archetypal fears and overcoming them. "In the Forest of the Night," on the other hand, is rather shapeless, not particularly scary, strangely impersonal, and thematically shallow. (The sudden appearance of Maebh's missing sister at the end is an afterthought to give the story a phony sense of fairy-tale structure, but it isn't earned, and it isn't enough.) The forest is a powerful and profound mythopoetic image, and it's a crying shame Cottrell-Boyce didn't find anything more interesting to do with it here. The trappings of a fairy tale alone are not sufficient: fairy tales should resonate on a deeper level than logic—especially if you're asking us to disregard logic—and this one never does.
(Even the takeaways don't make sense: we fear the trees because…we subconsciously remember all those times the trees saved our asses? And if there was supposed to be an ecological message, it's a terrible one: yes, by all means, lets teach the children that trees are here to serve us, and it doesn't matter what we do to them: more magical trees will appear whenever we need them to save the planet. Hooray!)
Sorry: I stepped in snark again. (That keeps happening: there seems to be snark everywhere I step.) So let's just say that none of this worked for me, and move onto the few things that did make sense in the episode.
"This is my world too. I walk your earth, I breathe your air." — The Doctor
Usually, the challenge with stand-alone, non-Moffat-scripted stories is to fit them into the overall season arc. (As I wrote in my review, I thought "Mummy on the Orient Express" suffered from this awkward requirement.) "In the Forest of the Night," however, is the rare episode that actually works better as a piece of the arc than it does as a stand-alone story.
Apropos of its Blake-inspired title, "In the Forest of the Night" sets up some fearful symmetry: it's practically a mirror-image of "Kill the Moon." In both stories, the Doctor and Clara and one of her students encounter a threat that really isn't a threat at all, but a natural phenomenon that will work itself out without their interference. In both stories, a global appeal is sent out across the globe, appealing to humanity's best, most optimistic instincts. In both stories, the Doctor is largely ineffectual, even powerless, and gets into his TARDIS to escape the impending disaster.
These similarities can't be coincidence, and in fact "Forest" even calls back to Clara's climactic speech to the Doctor in "Moon." "You walk our earth, you breathe our air," she accused him in the earlier story, when he tried to say the fate of the Earth was not his problem. Now, he echoes those words back to her, when she tries to tell him to leave the Earth to its fate.
Though "Flatline" was, for me, a far more satisfying Graduation Day episode for Clara, "Forest" ties a nice bow on this aspect of her sometimes troubling character arc this season. In Season Seven, Clara began as the person who saved the Doctor—and was eventually revealed to be the person who saved all the Doctors—but in Season Eight she became less powerful and more problematic, culminating in her fury in "Moon" when the Doctor refused to save her and made her save herself (and everyone else). "Flatline" saw her step confidently into the Doctor's role, and now she becomes once again the person that can save him. "This time, the human race is saving you," she says. "Make it worthwhile."
And Clara repeats again the lesson she has—for better or worse—learned from the Doctor this season. "If you can't save them all, save who you can," she says. "Not everybody has to die." This is one of the key themes of this season, and ties in with the very essence of the Twelfth Doctor. ("It's like I'm trying to tell myself something," the Doctor said, when he wondered why he chose the face he now wears. That face, of course, is the face of the man whose family he saved—after Donna begged him to "just save someone"—in "The Fires of Pompeii.") I'm not sure yet where Moffat is headed with this theme, but I'm absolutely certain it's going to be important as we go into the finale.
So Clara has become more like the Doctor—Danny keeps challenging her on her willingness to neglect her responsibilities to the children in order to solve the mystery—but she draws the line at becoming the Doctor. "I don't want to be the last of my kind," she says. The troubling aspect of the Twelfth Doctor's "save who you can" philosophy is his sometimes callous lack of concern for the people he can't save: he has occasionally been a little too nonchalant about letting some people die in order to save the rest. The Doctor's actions in the Time War were the ultimate expression of that philosophy, but Clara, ultimately, is unwilling to surrender that much of her—for lack of a better word—"humanity." Even when it looks like the entire Earth will be destroyed, she recognizes that saving a few children would be doing them no favors, and she realizes it would be impossible for her to just jump in the TARDIS herself and move on to the next adventure. Rose or Amy Pond might have done so, but—when push comes to shove—Clara chooses to remain human, and hitches her fate not to the Doctor but to the people of Earth.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- "I don't want to see more things, I want to see the things that are in front of me more clearly," Danny says. "There are wonders here, Clara Oswald." With the shape of Clara's character arc, and the dynamic being established between her and Danny, I am now officially upgrading the idea I had last week from a Crazy Theory to a Serious Prediction: Clara will leave the TARDIS at Christmas, and there will be a spin-off show set at the Coal Hill School, aimed at younger children (a la The Sarah Jane Adventures). Clara and Danny will be the stars, leading an adorable group of funny students, and together they will all face a constant influx of family-friendly alien threats drawn by Artron energy…or a rift…or a Hellmouth…or something. You heard it hear first.
- I'm not sure who has the bigger gripe: parents whose children will now refuse to take their medication because the Doctor told them not to, or animal-rights advocates who have been trying for years to counter the misguided notion, largely born from fairy tales, that wolves are a threat to humans.
- A minor theme worth noting: the Doctor twice refers to catastrophe as a good thing. "That's how this planet grows: a series of catastrophes," he says, and later he refers to catastrophe as "the metabolism of the universe." This echoes nicely with Danny's comment at the end of "Kill the Moon" that wisdom is always the result of someone having "a really bad day," the point from "Listen" that "fear is a superpower," and the general arc of Clara being tempered and made stronger through this difficult season.
- Let us all remember the wise words of the Doctor this episode: There are very good, solid, scientific reasons for being really quite frightened just now; there is no such thing as an arboreal coincidence; and life is always too short for Les Misérables.
- Are we really at the two-part season finale next week? In many ways it feels like this season has just gotten underway…