Russell T Davies, in retrospect, did himself very few favours when he confirmed in an interview earlier this year that the scripts he doesn’t touch whatsoever were those written by Steven Moffat. And in spite of the unnatural levels of anticipation that preceded Silence In The Library, fuelled in no small way by the announcement that Moffat would be taking over the show from series five onwards, Saturday night’s Doctor Who proved to be the best episode of the series so far. And it was some way ahead of second place, too.
The grounding idea was very simple, and as with the likes of Blink and Girl In The Fireplace, Moffat starts with something very straightforward, and very day to day. But instead of weeping angels and ticking clocks, his choice here are the shadows that lie in the darkness. He then turns them into creatures themselves, transposes them to the quite brilliant setting of the universe’s biggest library (and didn’t the special effects for that look superb?), and begins to add the layers from there.
And plenty of layers there are. We first meet the library, for instance, as a young girl dreams about it, relaying the story to what appears to be a psychologist, played by Colin Salmon. Yet by the end of the episode, it’s clear that there’s a lot more both to the dream and the shrink, and – as all good two-parters should – this throws up a good few questions to be answered, hopefully, next week (it ain’t Lost, after all). Is this little girl the central computer of the library, for instance? Are the people in ‘her’ world the people she has ‘saved’ from it? Is that how Salmon comes to know about it? Questions, questions, questions.
Back at the library itself, a team of archaeologists throw up some further posers of their own. The character of River Song, in particular, is intriguing. Given her knowledge of the Doctor, and given the fact that he hasn’t got to the point in his timeline where he’s properly ‘met’ her yet, what are we supposed to conclude? Is this another Time Lord? Is she a future Mrs Doctor? Could she be some strange villain in disguise? Is she there to sacrifice herself at the end of the next episode? And didn’t the Ood tell the Doctor that his song would be ending soon? Is this what they meant?
All valid possibilities, but the beauty here is that I’ve no idea which way it’s all going to go. You can’t help but feel, though, that somewhere along the line there’s going to be an element of tragedy about the character.
There was certainly tragedy about the first killing of the episode, though. In any other episode, a little bit of cannon fodder is just lined up and got out of the way. But the sudden way in which they killed the whining personal assistant established a brutality to the shadowy nemeses that underpinned the rest of the episode.
But then, unexpectedly, we’re introduced to the concept of a ghost death, which turns a seemingly requisite death scene into something really quite wonderful and borderline moving. Not bad for something the equivalent of killing off a Star Trek extra. Donna talking to a woman who has already died, but not quite died (if, er, that makes sense) was brilliantly done, and all done with a crash-bang fanfare from Murray Gold either.
The shadows themselves were genuinely a little unnerving, and the still, quiet scene where one of the crew was found to have two shadows was terrific. Directed with subtlety by Euros Lynn, it sent chills down the spine. Likewise, something as simple as lights being systematically shut off was as exciting and heart-pounding as two episodes of Sontarans and an episode of the Ood put together. I like Russell T Davies’ stuff, but there’s little doubt on this evidence that Mr Moffat is in a different class.
It also had a cracking cliffhanger. Turning Donna into one of the eerily-faced pedestals in the library was one moment of genius, but to combine that with a good old-fashioned monster lurching towards you moment as well (with the skeletal face in the space suit) is the kind of cocktail that leaves you waiting for the ‘Next week’ trailer, scanning for clues. Clues that couldn’t be found, commendably.
There were a few downsides. Catherine Tate, who I still maintain has been one of the heroes of this series, slipped into one or two of her easy Tate-isms, in an episode where they simply weren’t needed. Plus it seems more and more likely that she’s building up for some big sacrifice or something of that ilk. And I can’t decide if the haranguing about spoilers – presumably some kind of light dig at the show’s fanbase? – was a little too laboured (although, to be fair, it was integral to the plot).
Yet it’s really quite hard to grumble about much where Silence In The Library is concerned. It felt quite old-style Who in places, gently putting all its pieces into place and benefiting enormously from the slow pacing, and gentle, still direction. It’s also thrown up a multitude of questions that’s going to make the coming week until the concluding part is broadcast feel very long indeed. A superb piece of television, and one that indicates a bright future ahead for Doctor Who.
Read Martin Anderson’s take on the episode here.