Review: ‘In the Forest of the Night’

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This morning, we watched the first episode of the new series of Dinopaws. It’s a show I’ve written about before, and I won’t elaborate here, but suffice to say it contained a tiny plant that grew (over the course of ten minutes) into an impressive grapevine, as our intrepid threesome guarded it from the intense heat of the desert and a small army of colourful slugs, desperate all the while not to give in to their own hunger. The moral was clear: if you nurture your babies (real and metaphorical) in infancy, they will eventually look after you.

I mention this now because there was more tension, story and excitement within that ten minute CBeebies broadcast than there was in forty-five minutes of Doctor Who on Saturday. ‘In the Forest of the Night’ may have had an abundance of greenery, but it had no roots whatsoever. Seldom have I seen the talents of a great writer (Frank Cottrell-Boyce, penning his first episode) so utterly squandered. Steven Moffat is quoted as saying “Frank’s script is pure magic – and everything I could have hoped for from the genius behind the Olympics opening ceremony. Doctor Who is born anew in the mind of a genius.” Presumably he’s either talking about some future episode we haven’t seen yet, or the first draft of this one, before it was butchered.

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There’s nothing wrong with the setup. Danny and Clara have just concluded a sleepover at a London museum (which raises all sorts of questions about what they might have been up to after lights out, but let’s not go there) and awaken, Sleeping Beauty style, to find that a forest has grown over their kingdom. It turns out, as is revealed by one of those generic newsreel montages featuring real reporters, that it’s not just London – it’s the whole world. (At least we don’t have Huw Edwards saying that it’s a forest of hope and love, which I suppose is something to be grateful for.)

Meanwhile, the Doctor is in town, having been alerted to the situation by a young girl called Maebh, who has wandered away from Coal Hill’s Gifted and Talented group (read: children in need of counselling) and found the TARDIS. She did this because the voices in her head told her to – specifically an imaginary Clara Oswald, or “Miss”, as Maebh refers to her, fuelling the fires of debate as the fans confuse generic classroom terminology for actual clues about the identity of the series 8 enigma. The Doctor’s response to the adults’ medical treatment of Maebh’s condition is typical moralistic obnoxiousness: the voices in her head are obviously real, he muses (and of course, this turns out to be true) and the adults’ wish to silence them is tantamount to child abuse. It’s a similar approach to the one that Richard Curtis employed in ‘Vincent and the Doctor’, an episode that worked better because it was about a long-dead artist, rather than a vulnerable teenager.

I’m overreacting. But it strikes me that dealing with important topics in this haphazard manner – as they did in ‘Kill the Moon’ – is borderline irresponsible. Maebh’s condition, indeed, turns out to be the catalyst for what is presumably supposed to be the plot: the forest, she insists, is her creation, coinciding as it does with the imminent arrival of a solar flare that threatens to engulf the Earth. By the time the Doctor’s figured this out, it may be too late to do anything – this sort of ‘catastrophe’ is a regular occurrence, he insists, and is necessary for planetary growth and development.

What basically appears to have happened is that Cottrell-Boyce read a pop science book on gaiaism and then forgot that his story needed an ending – either that, or he wrote one which was then swept away from him in favour of the juddering halt that’s used instead. Like ‘Listen’ before it, the monster-related twist in ‘Forest’ is that there is no monster, the trees’ plan benevolent to the last. It is we, the cruel humans, who are the monsters, epitomised here by the sort of sinister, faceless men in biohazard suits that turned up at Elliot’s home in the latter half of E.T. The last time Doctor Who waded this deeply into spiritualism was ‘Kinda’, a story that also deals with complex themes but which does, at least, feature a gigantic snake.

I wouldn’t mind if this policy of non-intervention were a one-off, but it’s the third time this series that the “do nothing and wait” solution has been presented, and it wore out its welcome even before ‘Kill The Moon’. As in that story, the only intervention necessary on the part of the Doctor and / or his companions is a frantic telephone call to the rest of humanity, echoing, in many ways, the nonsensical approach of Clara’s wide-eyed plea a few episodes back. “Everybody on the earth,” says Maebh. “You don’t know who I am or what I’m talking about and mostly don’t speak English but if you want to avoid a serious suntan, put your pesticide sprays away now. Also, don’t let the fact that I sound exactly like Peppa Pig put you off.”

The defenders of this sort of damp squib would point out that it’s churlish to criticise such implausibility in a story that deals with a forest that grows overnight and then vanishes, leaving roads and pavements miraculously intact with no collateral damage. I might have been willing to let it go if it had felt like an ending of any sort – even a ridiculous one – but as it stands I was refilling my glass, checking my watch and wondering what I’d do with the extra hour when the clocks went back overnight. (See this one again with the children? That’s that sorted then.)

The worst thing is that ‘Forest’ isn’t a complete disaster. The last time we had one of those, it was mid-2013 ad I was tearing my hair out during ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’, an episode that failed catastrophically on just about every level. I couldn’t say that about ‘Forest’, which smacks instead of a good idea done badly, and which (despite its multitude of flaws) I almost enjoyed in places. Structurally it never gets off the ground, even though the trees do – but visually it works reasonably well, establishing a young, impromptu forest that’s decently rendered and effectively lit. The fairytale aspect of Maebh’s pursuit through the woods also draws deep from the Grimm Brothers’ well, although why the Doctor chose to establish this in a tedious and unnecessary monologue is anyone’s guess.

Tedious signposting aside, Cottrell-Boyce has a flair for dialogue that’s borne out through some decent production choices. Cleverly, the producers have cast child actors who manage to inhabit their characters without quite straying into stereotypes (although they occasionally come dangerously close), with the net result that the Gifted and Talented kids are easily the most watchable thing about this week. Abigail Eames, in particular, shines as Maebh, while Ashley Foster does a very good job as Bradley (“When I’m stressed, I forget my anger management”), and Harley Bird – who plays Ruby – is downright hysterical. I suspect these children are best utilised as one-story characters – but if Moffat chose to bring them back, I don’t think I’d object.

Danny’s discovery of a pile of marking in the TARDIS, meanwhile, is a lipstick-on-your-collar moment that thankfully isn’t overplayed – indeed, Danny is easily the more likeable of the two sidekicks this week, leading the kids with flair and enthusiasm, eventually dispatching a tiger with a torch. It’s more than can be said for his girlfriend, who is clearly always going to be a companion first and a teacher second: for someone who was ranting about duty of care while she was on the moon, Clara’s behaviour this week is borderline irresponsible, and her drippy affirmations that the uncertain Doctor is simply ‘playing for time’ are irritating in the extreme.

Curiously, Clara’s developmental arc this series mirrors that of the Tenth Doctor and Rose in 2006, whereby they became increasingly reliant upon one another in order that the pain of separation on the beaches of Wales Norway would be that much greater. Unfortunately in the process of doing so they also became smug and irritating to an extreme, and so too the adulterous, deceptive Clara demolished the last vestiges of her appeal long before the apparent ‘twist’ hinted at in next week’s trailer (although I suspect there’s more to it, and that the twist is that she hasn’t turned at all). I don’t like the idea of companion-centred developmental arcs, but if we must have them, then Coleman deserves better than this – and so, for that matter, does Clara herself.

I suspect that regular readers of this blog are probably getting a little tired of the whinging that constitutes my review section at the moment. Even the compliments I make about “good” episodes are usually backhanded (last week was a particularly potent example). A friend of mine said the other day – not to me directly, although I’m sure I fall within his intended audience – that “if a TV show makes you repeatedly cross, it’s probably better to watch something else. Life’s too short.” He has a valid point, although I said in response (and yes, it basically is the same thing) that you don’t give up on your football team simply because they’re not playing very well at the moment.

It’s the wasted potential that irritates me. Years ago, Arsenal (whom my younger brother has supported ever since he was a spotty teenager) signed David Platt – a decision that came back to haunt them, when they were unable to utilise him effectively. In the same way, Doctor Who has a talented production team, a decent set of actors and some talented writers who (this year at least) seem to make it their life’s mission to spin gold into straw. It’s frustrating because when ‘Kinda’ came out it had to achieve the impossible on a far smaller budget (even allowing for inflation) than Who has now, and still managed to come up with an imaginative, effectively rendered story, even if the snake was the sort of thing that makes the comedy clip shows. Thirty-two years later, ‘In The Forest of the Night’ took an interesting idea and then forgot to take it anywhere. It’s fundamentally pointless, neither a good story nor an effective game-changer, instead abandoned and lost and aimless, wandering around the unstructured confines of its own jungle.

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