Friday, 31 October 2014

I like Doctor Who episodes to be bold. This is a show that can go anywhere and anywhen, but it’s too easy for stories to stick too firmly to a safely established formula, or, in the case of the Moffat series, mimic a cinematic genre too closely. My favourite episode of all time is Vincent and the Doctor, which uses the show’s format to tell a heartbreaking story about depression, and one of my favourites from this series has been Listen, a story like no other in its use of nothing but fear itself as a villain. 

This week’s In the Forest of the Night had all the hallmarks of a great, unconventional story – a high-profile guest writer (children’s author Frank Cottrell Boyce), a cracking concept (the whole world comes to a sudden arboreal stop), a modern take on the fairytale, incorporating issues of mental health. Hey, for us pretentious arty types, it was even named after a great poem.

So, it could have been a brilliant episode. In execution – not so brilliant.

OK, good things first. I loved the idea of the forest as a nightmarish place, the inspiration for our scariest folklore. Very true, and the references were handled nicely – while it took imagery from Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, it self-reflexively wove these into the narrative, an exploration of what these tales mean to us. And showing this through a child’s perspective made it all the more scary. A big, bad forest is no safe place – and yet it is “lovely”, as Maebh recurrently points out. Like the Tyger of Blake’s poem, the forest is at once brutal and beautiful, and the direction of this episode really showed that off. It’s amazing how much you can do by plonking a few traffic lights and a London taxi in the middle of Welsh forest, and child’s-eye-view camerawork built a great sense of wonder, including one of the greatest ‘entering the TARDIS’ shots I’ve seen.

And thrown into the depths of this forest we have the Coal Hill Gifted and Talented school trip. Except they’re not really gifted and talented, they’re the failures of Coal Hill. Aka the underdogs – the real heroes of any Doctor Who story. In Maebh Arden, we have a vulnerable child, on medication to suppress the voices she hears. Now, the message the Doctor spouts regarding Maebh – we should listen to what children have to say – is commendable, but many people have understandably seen the episode’s stance on medication as somewhat problematic (see this guy, for example) – some kind of ‘she may be on medication, but that’s fine, it helps, it doesn’t make her any less special’ speech from Clara could have rectified things but never came. I did like the missing sister element, a very sad and believable edge to Maebh’s story; it’s just a shame that the sister’s return had to be so awkwardly twee.

The other kids in the group are much more weakly characterised. The episode attempts to set up one kid as the bully and one kid as thick, in a couple of fast-paced classroom flashbacks, but this only appeared after Clara had commented on how the adventure in the forest had made the bully say please and had made the thick kid work something out. And this is about ten minutes into the episode. The problem solved before it’s set up, and a wasted opportunity to develop these characters over the course of the episode. Plus, the actress playing the ginger kid is really shit. I cringed whenever she talked.

On the plus side, I do think Clara and Danny’s relationship is progressing nicely, as Clara’s deceit is revealed and Danny’s secret is yet to emerge. I like how there’s a solid development of their relationship in each episode. It feels planned out, whereas character arcs in recent years have felt like an afterthought, or, in last year’s case, non-existent.

My main problem with ITFOTN, however, is the lack of tension. The invasion resolves itself. Which leaves the Doctor and pals doing absolutely nothing of any purpose. Well, Maebh makes that phone call which apparently stops governments from destroying the trees – but come on, really? I find it very hard to believe that the world’s governments just put down their acid sprays and abandon the plan that, as far as they’re concerned, will save the earth, just because a little girl tells them to. Maybe the threat and its resolution would seem more real had we seen some of these government planes in action – as it is, there feels like little connection between what we see in the TARDIS and the rest of the world, and so the episode’s final act falls dramatically very flat.

My other major quibble is with the science behind this story. Now, I know this is a fairy tale, and I know Doctor Who is science fantasy not hard science fiction, and I hate to be that guy who points out any inaccuracy, but there’s a point where suspension of disbelief fails, and this episode, like Kill The Moon before it, crosses that line. More than anything, the bit which grated with me was the “You’ll forget all of this” resolution. Hmm. Really? At least come up with some bullshit sci-fi explanation and not just “oh, humanity just forget anything traumatic that happens”.  No, we absolutely don’t. We have a day called Remembrance Day, and we complain to the BBC when our news presenters fail to wear memorial poppies. And even if we did forget, would people not notice the loose tiger and the collapsed Nelson’s column, and all the selfies and TV news broadcasts with the trees clearly on show?


Maybe I'm being overly critical as this is an episode I really wanted to be good. I honestly had high hopes for In the Forest of the Night, and it let me down. OK, there's a lot to love – the enchanting visuals, the message about listening to kids, the fluffy old tiger. But it could have been so much better.



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