Doctor Who series 4 episode 9 review: Forest Of The Dead

Martin was a bit less enthused by the conclusion of Steven Moffat's two-parter than Simon...

Doctor Who

The closing episode of the Steven Moffat two-parter finds the revered writer broadening his territory out from episodic spookiness to weaver of mighty story-arcs – and arch-teaser to boot. We still don’t know exactly who Alex Kingston’s Professor River Song is, though her slightly off-colour comment about why she carries handcuffs on her person would firmly indicate that she is not the Doctor’s daughter, but more likely a future companion… in the conjugal sense of the word.

Is the huge effort that has been made to de-sexualise the Doctor/Donna relationship actually a path-clearer for a broad romantic arc involving the heretofore aloof Gallifrean? I fear so. Well, since he started out in the Hartnell era travelling round with his grand-daughter and seems to have avoided liaisons since the one that led to her birth, perhaps our time-travelling friend is due for some action.

But whose set of story-arcs is Moffat setting up in the faster-paced closer to Silence In The Library? Were this episode’s teasers (if not ‘spoilers’, a reference which quickly lost its cuteness in the two partner) beguiling us in the service of Russell T. Davies’s swansong series or Moffat’s own 5th season?

The resumption of the story from Silence constituted a jarring, almost Prisoner-like mindfuck, drawn heavily from the Philip K. Dick data banks (particularly from Ubik and The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch), as it began to transpire that Donna had been teleported into the same digital half-life as the other 4022 ‘saved’ denizens of the super-library (is it just me, or is 4022 a pretty low population count for an entire planet?).

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The idea of preserving a halfway-teleported person in stasis as an emergency measure has periodically cropped up in various versions of Star Trek, including a notable episode of TNG where Scotty (James Doohan) was preserved in the buffers of a transporter beam for a century after his ship was critically disabled.

I have no problem with Moffat re-using these ideas, as the sources are worth nicking from and he would be far from alone in the dock if charges were brought; what was a little more disheartening was to see him repeating his own output so many times, most notably his reprise of ‘everybody lives’ from series one’s The Empty Child, at the point where the library survivors were finally teleported back from the ether.

The ‘Girl In The Computer’ echoed somewhat Moffat’s The Girl In The Fireplace from series 2, and an agenda is slowly emerging in Moffat’s previously rare writing – he seems to want to pair the Doctor off (as he did with Sofia Myles’ Madame de Pompadour in Mirror) and he seems to share Dickens’ obsession with ‘lost’ or disembodied females (in Dickens’ case, due to the premature demise of his beloved sister-in-law).

Not all of Forest’s repeats were Moffat-isms, as Donna once again (again!) got to emote at the loss of tossed-in characters, this time her own fictional children. Catherine Tate played the scene very well. Again.

Additionally the death-scene of yet another character was played for all it was worth only to be negated in a frankly ridiculous rescue mission, as the Doctor sprinted to upload River Song’s failing data-consciousness to the teleporter mechanism before the charge died.

You know what, Steven, Russell…? Sometimes people die. Sometimes half the people are saved. Or three. Or twenty – it’s not just all or none. And the playing back of this pattern of human life and death in stories – even (hell, especially) in fairy stories – carries not only the resonance of the reality of our lives, but also the reaffirmation of the value of life. If you’re going to let your characters survive, great – but please stop rubbing those electric paddles together as a cheap trick in these Who scripts. Because it is a very, very cheap trick indeed.

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The ‘snap opening’ of the Tardis is just plain embarrassing, as were the acres of RTD-style Doctor-mythologizing that preceded it. Must Doctor Who recap the status of its hero in this way every episode in the service of those who have never watched and are giving the show ten minutes just to see if they like it? If The Doctor does heroic things, we get it. And he does. So why all this showboating, season after season? It actually diminishes the effectiveness of the character.

In Forest, the music has been turned up back to its familiar deafening pitch, and the pacing restored to 78rpm, as per usual. Was Silence In The Library written as a two-parter to ease us in from old to new Moffat, where the future of Who is far more focused on story arcs (and ones that will span not just seasons but years) than getting a good tale told in one or two episodes? Is the future going to be a lot like the past? I suspect it is, by now.

Since the start of season four I have been typing evil portents about this series’ morbid interest in the Doctor’s real name, and indeed that name was spoken in Forest Of The Dead, whispered inaudibly into the Gallifrean’s ear by River Song when she needed to quickly convince him that he will trust her in a future that is already in her personal past. The Doctor went fairly grey at this, and so did I. Who cares? Whatever build-up there is to the revelation of the Doctor’s ‘real’ name (and even on Gallifrey they always called him ‘Doctor’) can only be heading for anti-climax. I still wish the words ‘Endeavour’ and ‘Tiberius’ had never penetrated my lug-holes. What on Earth – or anywhere else – is the point of this?

So it has been disappointing for me to see Moffat depart so wildly in Forest from a character-driven story rich in invention to a smorgasbord of soap-style teasers. Sometimes, you don’t need a Tardis to see the future. And I’m not so sure about the future of Doctor Who now.

Simon liked this episode more…Also, check out Simon’s review of the previous episode, Silence in the Library here, and Martin’s take on it here.

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