This weekend’s Doctor Who episode, “In the Forest of the Night”, did a lot of things. Some of them were done quite well. Others were… less perfectly used. But overall, it was quite enjoyable, and when one looks at the context of where some of the choices came from, it might even have been brilliant.
This episode featured a brand new director, Sheree Folkson, a brand new writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and some brand new child actors, including Abigail Eames as the troubled but insightful Maebh. British director Sheree Folkson’s previous credits include 3 prior outings directing David Tennant, though none were anywhere near the style of a science fantasy show like Who. She did a great job with the many kids in the cast, and the use of perspective shots was spot on. Writer Frank Boyce admits to having been a Who fan since childhood, which explains the many child perspectives we saw in the episode (he wrote a lovely piece for the Telegraph about the experience). And Abigail Eames’ wonderful acting as the troubled Maebh reminded me a bit of Caitlin Blackwood’s young Amelia Pond back in the Smith run.
The setup for this episode was pretty compelling. Forests sprung all over the planet overnight. A young girl (Eames’ Maebh) was running to the Doctor for help. And the episode title itself referenced one of the creepier poems of all time related to the fierce beauty in the deep darkness of the forest, William Blake’s “The Tyger”. We had Clara & Danny overseeing a field trip of children, and we had a solar flare about to wipe out the Earth. All very good things to put into a Doctor Who episode.
Now, granted, certain things did not quite hold up as threats… the idea of wild animals in the forest (escaped from the zoo) was scary when they appeared, but totally forgotten about after the wolves & tiger had their sub-par CGI moments. While the Doctor had a spectacular line about the “Forest always being the nightmare of mankind”, there really wasn’t very much scary about the forest. And while there was the potential for kids to be in danger, we all know that this BBC family program will never allow a child to be killed (unlike, say, the Torchwood episode “Small Worlds”, which, though connected to the Whoniverse, went places no Who episode would ever tread… though I did keep hoping that maybe those faeries would show up in some way this episode). Oh, and the Big Bad reason the forests appeared turned out to be benign ancient Nature spirits protecting the Earth from the solar flare.
The episode also attempted to deal with mental illness/distress, with Maebh being put on anti-psychotic drugs ever since having to deal with the trauma of her sister disappearing. The Doctor reveals that Maebh is not crazy, but is tuned-in to a different frequency that “normal” people could not hear, and she ends up providing many key explanations for what is going on in the episode because she is off her medication. However, I’ve heard both sides regarding whether or not this was a “good” thing, from a mental health professional point of view. While the concept that over-medication is running rampant in our health industry is certainly worth exploring, putting forth the idea that every mentally distressed person actually IS hearing voices from a legitimate source that is not made-up could end up being a detriment to some folks who have legitimate conditions to work out. This is not the first time the show has dealt with mental illness (the incomparable “Vincent and the Doctor” being the best prior example), this time it felt much more preachy. Maybe I’m just overly sensitive since I have many friends who work in the mental health field, but I’m always wary of overly broad statements about something that is very individual, like mental illness.
But back to the episode, we saw a lot of Clara & Danny interacting, and learned quite a bit about why they see things differently so often. Danny once again displayed his “most understanding man on the planet” side when Clara’s lies were again revealed, and he told her he wasn’t angry, but that he wanted her to take some time to think about telling him the truth before actually deciding to say “Okay, this is the truth.” Seriously, Danny is probably the most positive non-Doctor male I’ve seen on the show in its 50 years of existence. Is he too good for Clara? Absolutely. But the heart wants what it wants.
Perspective in general was a strong point of this episode. Not just Danny’s forgiving wisdom, but also the many kids’ perspectives. Even in little things, like when they’re trying to climb over a fence, and Maebh instead walks over to the gate to open it & walk through easily. Maebh’s parents, though not key to the episode, were still well-played, and seeing the events through her mom’s eyes gave the audience a chance to realize the oft’ ignored consequences the Doctor’s (mis)adventures can have on other people.
The idea of ancient tree beings that are so old they haven’t bothered to pay attention to the Doctor because he’s ultimately inconsequential was also an interesting perspective. And the appearance of the wolf eyes in the forest… have I mentioned the awesome camera directing already? The Doctor’s perspective, of not having any clue as to what was going on, was a big departure… but one that I do not mind. I’ve written before about how much I dislike the Doctor-Ex-Machina showing up Gandalf-style to fix everything with ultimate knowledge, so a befuddled or not-omniscient Doctor is never an entirely bad idea.
The scientific and continuity-craving nay-sayers will have plenty to nit-pick with this episode. If all the forests appeared around the planet simultaneously, what about the many places where it wasn’t night on Earth? What did they experience? Were there crashes, deaths, etc as a result? What about the many parts of the planet that cannot support forests? Did they really just claim that trees could reverse-photosynthesize to reduce oxygen in an area, or that an “oxygen bubble” would somehow absorb the fires of a solar flare? And what about the radiation that accompanies a solar flare? How could the same Doctor who knew all about the tree-dwelling microscopic Vashta Nerada (Forest of the Dead/Silence in the Library) not know about planet-wide beings that control forests, and how could such beings form on a planet that was designed as the shell around the spaceship of the Racnoss Empress (Runaway Bride)? And what was up with the schmaltzy magical return of the sister at the end? Nay-sayers gonna nay, what can you do?
In all, I was fairly happy with this episode. Some of the individual moments were perfect, while as a whole it still held together, despite any leaps of scientific faith we were asked to take. While I was disappointed that the Blake poem didn’t play more prominently into the episode, there were still enough creepy moments that I suppose I can let it slide.
The previews for next week seem to reveal that the series-long Big Bad “Missy” is probably an older Clara from some alternate timeline, but that neither surprises nor bothers me. Heck, maybe when she went into every aspect of the Doctor’s timeline in Trenzalore, that included the Valeyard life, which could have easily corrupted & turned an aspect of her evil. Then again, my theoretical plot machinations are often more complex than where the show ultimately goes, so maybe it’s not that complicated. Either way, while season 8 has done a lot to make me like the up-till-then annoying Clara, it’s also added enough additional problems with her that I don’t mind seeing her as a villain, and I don’t mind a 2-episode build-up to her eventual departure in the Christmas special. Also, we’ll have Cyber Men next week, so there’s that to look forward to.