By the time Steven Moffat had wrapped up all he was willing to in Forest Of The Dead last night, it almost felt like you should stand up and clap as the credits rolled. For across the two episodes of his two-part story, there didn’t feel like a character had been wasted (right down to the supposedly dimwit corporate assistant of last week), or a piece of the story that didn’t, somehow, jigsaw its way into the plot. It was masterful scripting, and the man deserves every plaudit he’s given.
Take that ending. With the sonic screwdriver – for once a key component of a story, rather than a quick plot device to get from A to B – resting on the diary, the Doctor’s discovery that he’d modified it to hold the kind of data ghosts that had been creeping us out for two weeks was an ingenious way to save a character. It certainly put the survival of Jenny a few weeks earlier into the shade, and turned a good ending into a very good one (although you could hardly have argued had the credits rolled with the camera fixed on the diary).
It’s the little things too that ensured the spooks kept coming. Take suddenly the fact that there were six people in a room, after it had been clearly established that only five survived. It’s simple, but works immensely well. Or the fact that every boy and girl in Donna’s world was the same. I didn’t spot it, but was damn impressed when it was pointed out.
Then there were the shadows themselves, the Vashta Nerada hunting out fresh prey. Easily one of the most sinister foes we’ve met in the show since the 2005 revival, they not only continued to provide real menace, but were also beaten by, of all things, a bit of bargaining.
This shouldn’t have worked: after all, last week we saw them eating the flesh off people in a couple of seconds. Yet the Doctor’s “look me up” line was sublime, and superbly negotiated a stand-off between himself and the Vashta Nerada that avoided some contrived ‘fight’ between the two. The only penalty of this, to be ultra-critical, is the more you got to know about them, the less fearsome they became.
And for all the talk of shadows, Forest Of The Dead was less about them, and more about inflicting real, perhaps devastating emotional damage on the Doctor and Donna. Taking the latter first, her dream world was terrifically done, and to be dumped back in the library, with her mind filled with thoughts of a husband and fictional kids could well haunt her for episodes to come. That’s, surely, as torturous an episode as Doctor Who has put one of its assistants through in recent memory, and if our guesses about where Donna’s character goes over the next few weeks prove to be correct, she hasn’t got an easy ride ahead of her at all.
River Song, meanwhile, even while the swines won’t tell you who she is yet, clearly has left a mark on the Doctor. How does she know the Doctor’s real name? What was the one occasion where he would have told someone that? Are they married? Is she another Time Lord? An assistant? Something to do with Jenny? You can speculate all you like, but that was one answer they weren’t willing to pony up. They did, nonetheless, build up a convincing emotional attachment between the two, even if you’re still not quite sure why. It’d be nice if they could throw us a few more clues before the series is over, though.
Still, the episode did weave together the majority of answers from last week. CAL, for instance, turned out to be the little girl. As simple as that, and in one moment this also changed a character who looked like a stereotypical corporate bastard into someone simply trying to protect his family. I think it’s fair to say that most of us had guessed that the girl was something to do with the hard drive of the library, and that Doctor Moon was tied into that too, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t satisfyingly logical. Same too for the library being the forest of the title: it’s clever, simple and works.
This two-parter, replete with potentially unpleasant long term consequences for the main characters, has undoubtedly been the highlight of series four thus far. But, if we’re being frank, it’s not the best Mr Moffat has delivered. It almost seems churlish to note it, such was the quality on offer, but this wasn’t quite Blink. But you’d still be hard pushed to find something else to match it in the coming week on TV.
That includes next week’s episode, which looks positively dull by comparison. Here’s hoping the previews prove that one wrong, while this writer goes back and checks out the Forest Of The Dead again. Television this good demands to be rewatched…