This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
8.10 In The Forest Of The Night
“You need an appointment to see the Doctor”
So this one’s a bit different. Coming off the back of a run of Doctor Who episodes where new monsters, big jumps and horror undertones have been regular features, In The Forest Of The Night heads off in the other direction. In doing so – and this is its gamble – it sacrifices things that generally matter to a Doctor Who episode.
Firstly, there’s no strong monster, although Who has managed without those in previous stories and still come up trumps. Secondly, it doesn’t have a tangible threat, that feels like something to push against. That’s an obstacle that In The Forest Of The Night has more trouble with.
It’s not that there isn’t disaster on the horizon. There’s a solar flare heading to Earth, and it could kill everyone. Furthermore, a forest has basically grown all over the planet Earth, bringing with it ultimately an ecological subtext that’s not buried too deeply.
Yet when Clara, in the midst of the episode, declared that they’d been to the future and everything turned out okay – as she did earlier in the series – she was accurately reflecting what had gone through our head at roughly the same time. Earth wasn’t really in peril here, even accepting that the Doctor had argued that he didn’t know what was going on. Instead, the episode delivered its message, but never had us thinking about moving to the edge of our seat. Arguably, of course, that wasn’t its intention anyway.
“I don’t want to see more things, I want to see the things that are in front of me more clearly”
Fortunately, Frank Cottrell Boyce’s maiden Doctor Who story had other matters it wanted to deal with, and it dealt with those, on the whole, a lot better.
It got down to business very quickly, kicking off by introducing Abigail Eames’ Maebh, who knows about the Doctor, and is making strange hand gestures that will become important later on, after being ignored by those around her for most of the episode. That said, it’s a lonely life she seems to be leading.
Maebh, we learn, is lost, and is being chased. She’s not fazed by the TARDIS for some reason, and she keeps things mainly to herself. Yet she’s had a thought she can’t explain that she needs to find the Doctor. So she does. Only thing is, the Doctor is in the middle of London. And also, in the middle of that aforementioned forest.
“You have reached your destination”
Continuing the on-off theme of series 8, the Doctor is apart from Clara at the start of the episode, as she’s with Danny Pink and his Coal Hill School trip out (also continuing a theme, Clara is the more central character again). They’re having a sleepover in a museum, and at one point, we thought the episode was going to head into Night At The Museum movie territory.
It didn’t, though, and instead, the school trip was frequently used to highlight the division in ethos between Clara and Danny. More interestingly, the episode looked at why they’re divided.
For Danny reveals, towards the end of the episode, that he’s basically lived a version of the life Clara has. He’s been the soldier, he’s made the difficult choices, and he’s actively decided to go the other way now. Remember: there are still secrets about Danny we don’t know, with regards just what he did in his military career. Are those set to play out in the final two episodes of the series?
Whether they do or don’t, Clara hasn’t quite gone through that same arc as Danny, and thus is in a different place. She still wants to explore, to see wonders, and to absorb the Doctor’s world. Danny’s focus meanwhile, at all times, is on his young charges, and getting them home safely. The Doctor’s isn’t. Clara ultimately seems to fluctuate position as the episode progresses.
As with last week, it does feel a little that the development of where the Doctor, Clara and Danny are all standing in relation to each other is more about moving sideways across the board here than really progressing. The lines between them remain pretty much the same as they were a few weeks’ ago. The only variation (and it is a crucial one) is where between them Clara sits. That’s been the recent priority, at least. Meanwhile, a week or two back we were teased that Clara was something to do with Missy’s plan of doom, and yet we’ve not had a peep about that since. Deliberate? Yes. Mildly frustrating? Yes.
“Not everything can be fixed with a screwdriver. It’s not a magic wand”
While we’re being a bit grumpy, a word on the special effects here. It’s testament to just how spoiled we’ve been with the look of modern Doctor Who that the quality of visual and special effects work is taken for granted as being consistently good. It’s easy to imagine In The Forest Of The Night being made back in the 1980s, in a cramped studio at Television Centre, with a quick trip to the garden centre being used to put across the necessary greenery. And we’d have eaten that up, as we tended to do in such cash-starved times.
The problem arises when something falls in between. The effects work has been strong this series, to the point where we find ourselves mentioning it less and less, as it regularly enhances, and never seems to distract, from what’s going on. Yet it’s inconsistent here, to the point where it’d be easier if it was all bad or all good. Let’s go blunter: when CG animals start appearing in this one, they look like very much like CG animals. There is no doubt whatsoever. They take you out of the episode, and become a distraction. And that’s before you get to the point where you wonder why Danny is able to wave a tiger away with a torch.
That said, it’s the first time the effects work has proven problematic all run for us, but it’s still a pity. It doesn’t help that said animals don’t really seem vital to the story. The wolves appear, then disappear. That tiger heads off too. Why were they there? Perhaps a longer cut of the episode might explain their appearance.
We suspect there is one, as a few other elements of In The Forest Of The Night do seem truncated. The big emotional bang at the end, for instance, is the reuniting of Maebh with her sister. But we can’t really say we felt much there. The crumbs leading to it weren’t sufficient, and what should have been the emotional high point of the episode left us thinking, well, is that it?
“The child is speaking. Listen to it”
Doctor Who series 8 has played with logic and asked us take a leaps of faith on a couple of occasions. The ending of Kill The Moon is probably the most divisive example. But what helped there is what came before in the story. Where this one has gaps though, they’re just a bit more obvious. Bradley the school bully, for instance, seems to disappear into the background, after being built up to be someone really quite interesting. But he never got a chance to fully develop.
Yet whilst In The Forest Of The Night is far from the highlight of the run, there are still things that worked well. The best parts of the story were seen through the eyes of the lonely Maebh, the emotional heart and highlight of the episode. She got our sympathy early, and in her, you could see Cottrell Boyce’s unquestionable skill at bringing rounded young characters to life (check out Millions – book or film – for further proof of that).
With his focus on Maebh (herself layed with hints of fairy tale characters), Clara and foliage, Frank Cottrell Boyce also makes the Doctor about as powerless as we’ve seen all series (even including Deep Breath). That’s an interesting choice in itself, and very much in keeping with a series run that’s been willing to take the Doctor out of the limelight. Peter Capaldi, is you don’t need us to say, remains wonderful.
A quick word too for Debut Who director Sheree Folkson, who works with a varied toolkit to bring the story to life, but she consistently finds interesting, engaging ways to frame it.
“This time Doctor, the human race is saving you”
Still, mixed feelings on this one. On first watch, as we reported in our spoiler-free review, we enjoyed In The Forest Of The Night. We watched it with a Who-loving ten-year old as it happened, who got an awful lot out of it. Watching it again, in solitude, we still enjoyed it. But the evident plot problems were more prominent.
Yet for these issues, we’re a long way from Doctor Who at its weakest, and more towards Doctor Who with its courage pants on. Thus, we’ve got an episode that takes as many, if not more risks than any adventure this series. And while it doesn’t really get away with them all, it tries its damnedest to do so.
Where next, then? We’ve two episodes left, and we should be back on the main series underlying arc from next week. Everyone now knows that Danny and Clara are an item. The mystery of Missy has been set up. There’s little we’ve seen that extinguishes the speculation that it’s building up to a big ending, and possibly an exit, for Clara (not least when she’s made her big decision once her marking is done). And it’s now over to Steven Moffat to end one of the best runs of Doctor Who in some time with a two episodes that can really do Capaldi’s maiden series as the Doctor justice.
On the strength of that teaser for next week, the rug is about to be pulled…
Our review of last week’s episode, Flatline, is here.
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