Posts Tagged With: in the forest of the night

The Kasterborous Archives, #3: How I Learned To Enjoy Love & Monsters

Author’s notes:

I’ve always been a champion for the underdog, and of all the Doctor Who episodes that had a generally unfavourable reception over the years, it was this story that struck me as being perhaps the least deserving of its unsavoury reputation. There’s a lot to unpack here: for one thing it’s billed as a kid’s episode, as if that were some unforgivable transgression, rather than a programme deliberately trying to cater for a large part of its target audience. But it is – if you look a little harder – as ruthless and poignant a deconstruction of contemporary fandom as you’re likely to find anywhere, with Elton and his friends excelling in their role of new, enthusiastic fans, worn down by the experts who know their stuff, but who’ve lost that sense of unbridled joy that drew them to the show in the first place. And Victor Kennedy? Well, we know who he’s supposed to be…

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How I learned to enjoy Love & Monsters

Published: 29 June 2015

Two of my four sons have, in the last few years, learned to play the violin. If you have ever been in the same house as a small child who has just picked up a stringed instrument, you will know what excruciating torture this is, at least in the first couple of weeks. It is how I imagine a cat sounds when it is being strangled. But I never say anything. As a parent, you don’t. You smile and nod and offer supportive words of encouragement, and part your hair so that the earplugs don’t show.

The truth is that parenting makes you lower your standards. You find yourself watching films and TV programmes that, ordinarily, would be given the sort of wide berth that you usually reserve for charity collectors outside the supermarket. If you have ever sat through Horrid Henry: The Movie you will understand what I mean. Oh, I’ll bitch about these things afterwards. But at the time you join in with your children’s enthusiasm, because your engagement clearly means a lot to them. (I make an exception for stereotypical gender-based advertising, which I’ll routinely deconstruct, in the hopes that they’ll follow suit.)

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I have a very good friend who’s forgotten more about Doctor Who than I’m ever likely to know, and whose acidic quips and insightful observations turn up regularly on my blog. By and large his attitude towards nuWho ranges from general indifference to active dislike, and he’s annoyingly right about most things. But I occasionally wonder whether his worldview might be different if he had children.

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Let me unpack this: one of the things you have to deal with as both a fan and a parent of fans is the tendency for children’s views to not only conflict with your own but actively influence them. For example, when prepping for this article I asked two of my children (age 5 and 9) to pick their favourite nuWho stories. Both chose In the Forest of the Night – an episode I disliked intensely, partly because Frank Cottrell Boyce threw in all sorts of amusing gags and Gaiaist philosophy, but forgot to add any sort of plot; and partly because for the third time in Series 8, “Do nothing” becomes the answer to the problem. At the same time, the kids (particularly Maebh) are brilliant, and it’s hard not to join in with my eldest’s riotous laughter when Ruby shouts “Oh my God! Maebh’s lost in the forest! MAEBH’S GONNA DIE!!!!”.

And the funny thing is, when you’re watching a bad story with young people who are clearly enjoying it, you occasionally find their enthusiasm infectious. I don’t think there are many out there who would rate Fear Her among their top ten episodes – unless you turn the list on its head so you can read it upside down – but even I can’t stop myself grinning from ear to ear when the Doctor mounts that podium in front of the cheering crowd to light the Olympic Torch. Would I be reacting this way if I didn’t have children? Perhaps. But sometimes I don’t think so.

I’m not saying being a parent makes you more appreciative of bad episodes of Who. I’m simply saying I’m inclined to be less fussy than perhaps I would have been otherwise. That’s a personal benchmark, not a yardstick with which to generalise. Sadly there’s no litmus test. Somewhere there’s a parallel universe (several, in all likelihood) in which my wife and I never sired any descendants, and it would have been interesting to see our reactions to everything since 2005 in that sort of circumstance. As it stands, the only thing I had to go on was the Eccleston series – which wrapped up shortly before my eldest child popped out of the womb, two weeks late – and even that’s atypical in many respects.

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But the patterns I see on forums and Facebook pages – “I hated it, but my children liked it” – and so on do suggest that having children present for both the series itself and the media storm that surrounds it makes for an entirely different viewing experience. As parents, we’re the ones who complain when the Beeb goes too far (which I’ve never done, although I did have serious gripes about the 2014 Christmas Special that I’ll save for another day). As parents, we’ll often find we relate to the weirdest things (I hold A Good Man Goes To War, for example, in higher regard than perhaps I should, because it plays on my fears of losing a child). And as parents, we’re the target market (or a part of it) for the stuff in the show that’s Obviously Geared Towards Children.

Let’s take the Slitheen. To a great many of us, the Slitheen were ridiculous; about as irritating as the Ewoks, and as popular. Let me tell you something: if you’re ten or under (and perhaps even older than that) the Slitheen are hysterical. More to the point, if you’re the parent of someone who’s ten or under, and if you squint, the Slitheen are hysterical. They’re comically bulbous aliens who fart a lot. They make jokes about nakedness. They spend entire stories acting like children, and Davies deliberately writes them that way. The idea that the grotesque, clinically obese teacher you despise might secretly be an alien is one that finds its way into most playground games, and beyond. (I have almost forgiven my now six-year-old for the time we visited the Cardiff exhibition a few years back, and he looked up from his buggy at the enormous Slitheen mounted on the podium, pointed, smiled in recognition and shouted “Daddy!”.)

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And while we’re at it, let’s deal with a very large, Peter Kay-shaped elephant, because there’s a moment in Doctor Who Series 2 that seems tailor-made (although it frays at the edges) for the younger members of the audience, and I think it’s unfairly maligned as a result. Here’s the truth: whatever anyone says, Love & Monsters really is an episode for kids. You can say that it isn’t – you can talk about the darkness of a man losing both his mother and the memory of the occasion, or the in-jokes about fandom, or the fact that the death toll almost reaches Eric Saward proportions, but it’s clearly designed for that post-Sarah Jane Adventures audience.

Love & Monsters opens with a chase from Scooby Doo, for pity’s sake. Marc Warren monologues to camera in the manner of a Saturday morning children’s TV host (for fairly obvious reasons, he reminds me more than a little of Boogie Pete). And the Abzorbaloff is the token fat monster in the short story homework assignment of every kid under twelve – and designed by a nine-year-old to boot. This may be the reason why the love scenes feel off (although the lack of chemistry, which I suppose is part of the point, between Coduri and Warren doesn’t help). It’s light and relatable and it’s a great shame when Davies undoes much of his good work in the closing scene with a completely unnecessary oral sex gag.

But I just mentioned The Sarah Jane Adventures, and I do wonder how much of this is about expectation. Because my other half and I blanche at dreadful plot holes and ridiculous dialogue when they occur in Who, whereas when silly things happen in Sarah Jane we’re far more inclined to let it go (and you didn’t read that, you sang it). The fact that Doctor Who is billed as a family show – therefore, much like the BBC itself, both feted and cursed to be all things to all people – is the very thing that sometimes undermines its success. It has to be funny and scary and often succeeds in doing neither: it is lukewarm television, of the kind that I am inclined to spit out of my mouth. So perhaps that’s why the episodes that are clearly geared towards children work better, because they can be appreciated on a different (not better) level. It’s just a level that – irrespective of empathy – you may not be able to relate to fully unless you’re watching it in a house where you can’t hide behind the sofa, because the kids are already there.

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In the Forest of the Night Garden

Let me tell you why, in the grand scheme of things, I’ll back the BBC to the hilt. It stems from the winter of 2009, when Daniel was quite literally a babe in arms, and on the occasions he had trouble sleeping at night (which was often) we would be beset by a screaming child, thrashing in his bed, at two or three in the morning or any other time of night that suited him. Absolutely nothing would comfort him apart from episodes of In The Night Garden on the BBC iPlayer, which had an inexplicably mesmeric effect. The inconsolable baby would become instantly calm and serene as he stared at the colourful characters and the gentle stories in which they were embroiled. I don’t know how Kay Benbow did it, but after that, I’m willing to forgive the BBC for just about anything.

In The Night Garden burst onto our screens almost a decade ago as the spiritual successor (and, in many ways, direct emulator) of Teletubbies. It featured a beautiful, tranquil forest populated by a cast of happy creatures of varying shapes and sizes. There’s the cave-dwelling Makka Pakka, whose stone-stacking and face-washing borders on obsessive compulsive. There is Upsy Daisy, who has a skirt that flares up, Marilyn Monroe style, when she wants to dance, and a bed that follows her around (which is surely a Dragon’s Den patent in waiting). There are the Tombliboos, who live in a bush in a sort of multi-tiered structure, playing loud music and constantly having to hitch up their trousers. There are the Pontipines – a family of ten, dressed a little like Catholic cardinals, living in a tiny house under a tree – and the Wottingers, their rarely seen, blue-garbed neighbours. Most intriguing of all is Igglepiggle, who doesn’t appear to actually live in the garden, given that he travels there at the beginning of every episode, security blanket in hand. There is thus the speculation that Igglepiggle is some embodiment of the consciousness of the sleeping child seen in the opening credits, perhaps an avatar of some sort. Well, they got the skin colour right.

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The formulaic approach to In The Night Garden is part of its charm. The star-swept night sky bursts into flowers just as Igglepiggle’s boat ascends into the heavens, and then we’re in the Night Garden itself, where we are told to hang about while the Pinky Ponk catches up, or run in abject fear from the Ninky Nonk (why? Is it some kind of terrifying self-driving truck intent on running over whichever Pontipine gets in its way? Is this Duel, dressed up for the bedtime hour?). The characters have some sort of inconsequential adventure, they may or may not have a dance on the carousel, there’s a peculiar chant from the Tittifers (stop sniggering at the back there) and then we spend ten minutes saying goodbye to everyone. Nonetheless, particular episodes stand out. There’s ‘Sad and Happy Tombliboos’, in which the Tombliboos play free jazz, which makes everyone in the garden miserable. There’s ‘Mind the Haahoos’, an incredible high octane chase through the garden as the Ninky Nonk weaves in and out of the trees, only narrowly missing the giant balloons that inhabit the spaces in between. And then there’s ‘Igglepiggle’s Tiddle’, in which – oh, you figure it out.

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The whole thing is voiced by Derek Jacobi, who does a cracking job, particularly with the singing. In The Night Garden contains the sort of nonsense language that would have made Spike Milligan proud, and those who level criticisms against both the characters’ apparent gibberish and the overall strangeness of the experience have broadly missed the point: this is not for you. It’s for your children, and children love it. They don’t just foist stuff like this upon an unsuspecting audience without checking it over. Kay Benbow knows what she’s doing. The phenomenal success of Teletubbies is testament to that.

“Honestly, though,” said my father, who mostly knows him as Cadfael. “All those ridiculous words. What must Derek Jacobi have made of it? What was he thinking when he recorded it?”

“The money, Dad?” I suggested.

(Side note: how to freak out your children, class 101. You show them the series three episode of Doctor Who in which Jacobi turns out to be the Master. And then you put them to bed with the songs and music from In The Night Garden playing on the iPod. On a loop.)

Anyway: I don’t know why I didn’t think of mashing up In The Night Garden with Frank Cottrell Boyce’s ‘In the Forest of the Night’ when it aired last autumn. Perhaps it was Edward’s recent fascination with the show (that’s In The Night Garden now, not the Doctor Who story, although he does like the tiger). Either way I spent much of Wednesday evening busy with Fireworks (my image manipulator of choice, although at some point I really ought to learn how to use Photoshop). It wasn’t plain sailing: I spent almost an hour getting the one with the Haahoos not quite right, but it is here anyway as an experiment gone wrong, and the rest aren’t too bad. At any rate they made my children laugh. Ultimately, isn’t that why I do this?

 

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God is in the detail (part xxi)

As the series draws to a close, the conspiracy theories come thick and fast. What’s Missy’s endgame? Is Danny really dead, or has he just had an out-of-body experience, like Bill Cosby in Ghost Dad? And how did Clara’s face get so improbably round?

Two GIITD posts to do before Saturday. Let’s start with ‘In the Forest of the Night’. Here’s Trafalgar Square.

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Things we can observe here: first, have a look at Nelson. Significantly, Nelson is missing his right hand, which he lost at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797, along with most of the arm attached to it. Viewers of New Who will recall that the Tenth Doctor also lost his right hand in a battle with the Sycorax commander, above the Earth on Christmas Day 2006.

Tenerife is in the Canary Islands, which ostensibly means nothing, until you remember that the Tenth Doctor fought the battle of Canary Wharf, which he won, although it led to the (temporary) loss of Rose. This all points towards I. Nelson Rose, author and world expert on gambling and gaming law, and also the Horatio Nelson Rose, the sort of thing that Harrison Chase would have in his collection.

And significantly, Harrison Chase encountered the Fourth Doctor. THE FOURTH DOCTOR. Conclusions? We’ll meet the Curator again, inside a casino.

It gets better. The digits in 1797 can be rearranged to form 1977, which was the year that the Brigadier ran into Nyssa and Tegan at Brendon Public School. Things get really interesting when you rearrange the letters in ‘Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife’ only to get ‘Abacus trident zealot efferent’, a CLEAR AND UNAMBIGUOUS reference to Kate Lethbridge-Stewart’s plan to drag UNIT away from its occasionally violent past, as well as her father’s teaching career in ‘Mawdryn Undead’.

Curiously, you can also see the London Eye, which itself has an eye on the (unseen) National Gallery, which featured in ‘Day of the Doctor’, which also starred David Tennant. I leave the conclusion to you, dear reader.

Let’s move on. Introducing Clara Oswald, Lord of the Rings.

Sorry. I mean this.

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The number of vertical lines in this picture is 63, the year Doctor Who started. The number of horizontal lines is 26, the total number of Doctors if the Doctor ends his life at the end of this regeneration cycle. Significantly, the large red line is THE TENTH ONE UP. Perhaps Tennant got to be ginger after all, even if it was only in a tree.

63 multiplied by 26 is 1638, the setting for ‘Silver Nemesis’, WHICH INCLUDES THE CYBERMEN. Even without the publicity for ‘Death in Heaven’, only an idiot couldn’t have seen this coming.

Trees figure significantly in ‘Mark of the Rani’, in which –

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If I’d been writing this before ‘Dark Water’, I’d have concluded that MISSY IS ACTUALLY THE RANI. However, seeing as Moffat’s put that one to bed, we may now theorise that THE RANI IS RETURNING NEXT YEAR IN THE BODY OF A MAN. My money’s on Ross Kemp.

Now, here’s a lovely picture, courtesy of Maebh.

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“We were supposed to draw a picture,” says Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. “Anything we wanted. I drew a man. He got hurt in the neck by another man with a screwdriver. Everyone got upset. They had a meeting. Mom started crying. I don’t draw like that anymore.”

[…]

Sorry, I copied down that quote fifteen minutes ago, and then got distracted watching YouTube videos of Haley Joel Osment. Where were we? Yes.

Three (well, almost three) red dots. Three (well, almost three) Doctors. ‘The Three Doctors’ (1973)? Yes, because ‘The Three Doctors’ sees an end to the Doctor’s exile, setting up his next story, ‘Carnival of Monsters’, in which he spends quite a lot of time on a boat. AND THE WORD BOAT IS PRINTED IN THAT PICTURE.

However, we may also look at ‘Day of the Doctor’, which includes THE TENTH DOCTOR, but also a cameo by Tom Baker. Baker’s first adventure was ‘Robot’. And in order to deal with the rogue lump of metal causing havoc around the English countryside, the Brigadier (mentioned earlier) deploys a tank.

AND THE WORD TANK IS PRINTED IN THAT PICTURE.

Lastly: you will recall that the opening of ‘Day of the Doctor’ sees the TARDIS airlifted to The National Gallery (which we’ve already discussed) by helicopter. AND THE WORD HELICOPT-

Oh, you really don’t want me to go on, do you?

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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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