TV Right, before we get into this, and be warned, I’m really, really not in the mood, I want you to watch the following...
As the various onscreen credits and business explain, that’s a promotional film for the World Wildlife Fund, directed by Stephen Poliakoff starring Bill Nighy and Gemma Arterton and if I can be so bold, and yes, I bloody am going to be so bold, it’s a better episode of Doctor Who, even though it’s nothing of the sort than In The Forest of the Night in which Frank Cottrell Boyce seems to have had similar aims but fails quite spectacularly simply because he is actually writing an episode of Doctor Who.
Doctor Who’s a flexible enough format that now and then it’ll take risks with its tone or premise to do something which is entirely outside of what it might be expected to do. The Short Trips and Side Steps anthology’s an example of this. Robert Shearman’s Scherzo. Kate Orman's Year of Intelligent Tigers. Anything by Paul Magrs. Vincent and the Doctor. The Natural History of Fear. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and unfortunately for In The Forest of the Night it’s the latter but for dozens of tiny reasons rather than one big flaw. Death by a thousand cuts, or as is the case here, splinters. I have a feeling I'm going to be here all night. Good job the clocks are rolling back and I'm getting an extra hour, I'll need it, not that I expect any of the following to be in any way useful for interesting, the textual equivalent of waving a white handkerchief in the air on a stick (which is promptly disintegrated by CGI stealth glitter).
As we saw last month with Listen, Doctor Who's a flexible enough format to encompass ruminations and mood pieces and In The Forest of the Night wants desperately to be one of those. But sadly it's the kind of episode in which the title itself is counter productive. It might be called In The Forest of the Night but the whole episode is catastrophically set during the day (even if it's suppose to be because it grew during the night, half of the world was in daylight anyway) (unless the writer is expanding the meaning of the lines in Blake's poem to suggest that the sun is the "Tyger, Tyger burning bright" and "the forest of the night" is space, but that doesn't work either) . Such stories need to have a point of view and in ITFOTN (whose acronym fittingly sounds like a brand of Ikea chair) seems like it wants to tell the whole story from the point of view of the children, ala ST:TNG's Lower Decks and perhaps it might have worked if it'd stuck with that. But throughout the format relentlessly reasserts itself, as to a large extent do this seasons's tedious character arcs, confusing the point. It's not explained, for example, why there's a bus advertising the fictional construct Doctor Who in full view at one point. Next week perhaps?
Arguably the premise isn’t actually awful. Covering the planet in forests is an interesting global threat and there’s always something evocative about cities overrun with plant life, with the film version of A Sound of Thunder a notable example. In the Whoniverse, Jim Mortimore’s Blood Heat offered up an Silurian ruling alternative universe in which London has been returned to the Jurassic period. Cottrell Boyce brings poetic license to his version as the forests are simply there, flouting logic in a way which tends to happen in poetry and art and has happened before in Doctor Who. If we’re ignoring logic for a week, which includes the missing population of London, the whole notion of these trees then being able to somehow cushion the planet from a sunspot isn’t entirely objectionable even if we then might worry why the giant space chicken at the centre of the moon hasn’t also been cooked.
The problem is that Cottrell Boyce then attempts to apply his expected audience reaction to such things to his characters which has the effect of making them all act like morons for the entire duration of the episode. While the world’s governments are attempting various schemes in order to try and destroy this woody invasion, and to be fair it is an interesting approach to have the Doctor working well away from the authorities rather than running headlong towards them ala Aliens in London in order to work alongside them, with the exception of him, our characters seem to embrace the idea, are quite happy with this new state of affairs, Cottrell Boyce deciding that for his big idea to work he has to effectively infect his characters with the spores from Star Trek’s This Side of Paradise, such that the whole things a big, crazy adventure, even as Nelson’s Column falls to the ground and shatters into pieces. Perhaps he's been watching Fight Club.
It’s in the opening moments in particular and Clara’s reaction that my sense of disbelief absented itself from our flat, went down in a lift, left the building and began running naked around Sefton Park and is probably still out there in the dark freezing its knackers off. On the one hand you could argue just as she does, that since the Doctor exists there’s nothing to worry about, but you’d think she’d have taken time out to phone her parents, other friends, family members and the like to see if they’re ok. The phones seemed to be working, after all. I appreciate that you can’t really hold a fictional construct up to realistic ideals and that it was rare in the past for a companion to be on the phone to their Mum every time there’s a global catastrophe, but it’s this thought which lodged in my brain and derailed my appreciation of the thing. Actually no, the whole thing derailed by appreciation of the thing, but this was probably the start.
There’s a chain reaction because I then noticed just how unrealistic the school group is, which is odd considering Cottrell Boyce’s many awards for children’s literature. Apparently modelled on Kelsey from The Sarah Jane Adventures rather than pretty much every other subsequent tween character on that series, I can only imagine that what’s happened is the writer’s taken what works on the page when writing for a particular demographic and reproduced it in a script for Saturday night television, which means that nothing they say sounds like anything a human being, even a small human being would and even though they’re often gifted with moments of inspiration, there’s not a moment when you don’t wish that this group of presumably clever younger actors hadn’t simply improvised their dialogue Outnumbered-style on the expectation that they’d produce something more reasonable.
Even having rationalised Clara and Danny’s behaviour, especially his door impatience, as reefer madness, there’s really no excuse for the lobotomy carried out on the Doctor. For all my comments about the brilliance of Capaldi, the Doctor really doesn’t come out well here either, mostly because the story is structured in such a way that he spends half of it ignoring the evidence which is right under his nose and the other half simply waiting for a thing to happen. It’s ambiguous as to whether he really thinks that the voice of a small child broadcast across a phone network would be enough to stop a global calamity, but given that most of the forest seems to be covering parts of the globe which would be incapable of destroying the forest anyway it doesn’t feel like it matters much. I’m also now worried about that family, in general. No way the media’s going to leave them in peace.
There’s also a cloying mawkishness; from the moment we’re told little Ruby’s sister’s gone missing we know full well she’s going to be available for a teary reunion at the end. This sugary sap is layered throughout making an especially big deposit when Clara telling the Doctor to leave and let her and the rest of the planet burn to a crisp apparently quite happy for him to bugger off and leave them to it, which is quite the turn around from Kill The Moon. The Doctor’s protestation that it’s his planet as well should be lovely, and Capaldi tries his best with it, but within this episode it becomes a real teeth rotter. Plus the whole scene’s undermined in seconds anyway because it’s simply a reason for the Doctor to finally put two and two together. Another of the episodes problems is the preponderance of apparently meaningful encounters which are nothing of the sort.
Perhaps it this point I could and should acknowledge a few things, notably that other opinions are available. Glancing around on the Twitter post-broadcast there were a few people who seemed very satisfied with the episode and good for them. Even as I think about what’s in the previous thrumpty paragraphs, I know that some of it comes across as mean spirited especially towards its writer and that it’s entirely possible that in a different mood or indeed a different context, for example in a specially built theatre at the Natural History Museum for which this is surely aimed, I would have been better disposed towards it in the same way you tend to be when franchise properties are utilised for educational reasons (though it’s important to note that there was predictably less science in this than Search Out Space, the special Doctor Who episode of Search Out Science).
It’s also worth noticing just how beautifully directed the episode is, Sheree Folkson, who in her long career has given us three episodes of The Young Person's Guide to Becoming a Rock Star, half of RTD’s Mine All Mine, all three episodes of RTD’s Casanova, The Decoy Bride and an Ugly Betty and her DP on this Mark Garrett also in his Who debut off the back of the last series of Silent Witness filling the screen with lustrous green vistas which look extraordinary across 50 inches on BBC One HD (yes, I have a new television) (it’s a long story), a technicolour version of the Mandalay films logo, including tiger, stretched across forty-odd minutes. But they even managed to find new ways of shooting the TARDIS interior, wide angle lense from point of view of a child, the Doctor’s attack eyebrows swooping in from above. If ever there was an episode which demands a score-only option it’s this.
The episode’s other great benefit is Peter Capaldi who catches the spirit of what’s trying to be accomplished and goes with it offering us a version of his Doctor filled with relaxed benevolence even as the script is working against him. Again, I wonder about the order in which the episodes were recorded and whether there has been some grand plan in relation to soften the edges of his incarnation, Hartnell’s arc across the year, from joking about human remains floating across the top of a pool to being deeply unhappy about being unable to save a group of children from certain death. More and more, the absent Doctor is returning and a lot of that has to do with Capaldi finally finding a way to temper the harshness of what he’s being asked to do underpinned by modes of written behaviour, which show a clear transitioning from C Baker to T Baker.
The rest? Honking, absolutely honking, best left to decompose with the rest of the compost which will surely be one of the by-products of all the vegetation which has to be left over once the majority of the global forest’s been disappeared by the least convincing Clarke’s Law testing alien substitute for magic since the fairies in Torchwood’s Small Worlds. It’s ironic that the writer of the London Olympics 2012 opening ceremony would produce a Doctor Who script worse than Fear Her which itself featured the actual London Olympics 2012 opening ceremony, but that’s precisely what Frank Cottrell Boyce has managed. Reading back through his preview interview in the party newsletter, unlike some of the Pelican authors last year he seems like he’s seen Doctor Who before, so it’s unfortunate that he’s turned out an episode which fits in perfect with some of those Kindle misfires. Sigh.