‘In The Forest of the Night’, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, presents a fairy tale version of Doctor Who and not in a good way.
Clara and Danny have taken a group of Coal Hill School children to a sleepover at the National museum only to find that London, along with the rest of the world, has been taken over by a forest that has grown overnight. For once the Doctor hasn’t a clue what has caused this or if the world can be saved.
This intriguing premise is completely wasted. As with ‘Kill The Moon’ the lack of basic scientific understanding ruins the story taking the show from the realms of science fiction into pure fantasy. The apparent lack of familiarity with some basic principles of Doctor Who making this a hard to watch.
There are seeds of some good ideas but they aren’t worth the search to find them.
Spoilers From Here On In!
While some are confused about this Doctor Who is a family show. Unfortunately when a large portion of the cast are children an episode can resemble something from CBBC. Such is the case here, where the perspective of the pupils of Coal Hill School blur with the logic of the story.
The principle idea of the episode is fine, with Clara and Danny having to protect the children in an overgrown London. There are even wild animals on the loose that could provide some threat and menace.
There is something to be said about the fact that the adventure has found them this time. This could prompt the realisation that they will be in danger, whether Clara travels with the Doctor or not.
Yet because the focus is so firmly on the children the inherent darkness and mystery is lost. They are unimpressed by nearly everything they encounter, either due to their confusion about the world or because they are disinterested. It is hard to feel excited or concerned about the events on screen when the characters themselves don’t care.
While this is part of their character arc, showing that they are troubled before eventually coming together, this is never done convincingly. These characters don’t act like real people, they act like 2 dimensional characters in a (bad) children’s drama. Only a few have any characteristics, with the rest remaining silent through the whole affair.
The tone of the episode is firmly comedic but the jokes fall flat. Funny sound effects and music beg us to laugh at the irritating antics of the Doctor failing to identify the little lost girl Maebh from a line up or an old security guard (apparently unaware that children were sleeping in the museum) slowly type in a security code while the pupils groan.
These moments, part of the joke, only make the story more unbelievable. From the news broadcasts, recalling one the most frequently used methods of exposition in the RTD era, to Maebh’s mother and neighbours’ mild annoyance at the sudden appearance of the trees everywhere (something that has caught them by surprise despite the television broadcasts and the fact that Maebh’s mother is speaking to someone on the phone who should also be aware of the current crisis).
The brand-new forest (as the Doctor calls it) never feels like it really has grown over London. There is a worrying lack of people, making the city feel strangely deserted. While there is a broadcast asking people to stay in doors there should still have been many people wandering around, especially early on.
While this is probably a question of budget and an attempt to isolate the main characters it again harms the logic of the story. We are supposed to feel that the characters are alone but there should be many people nearby they can go for help. Since communication systems are working they could also contact others or arrange a place to meet.
This could have been handled better if they’d taken the approach shown in ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ with much of the city evacuated. It could be that they authorities overlooked the museum, explaining why they were the only ones left.
In some shots it appears as if the forest has just grown up amongst the buildings but there are long sequences in which there is nothing but an expanse of trees. London is big but not so that at least a few buildings shouldn’t clearly be visible in every shot.
There is a distinct lack of menace in this story. There are attempts to inject some danger, such as the fall of Nelson’s column and escaped zoo animals but not enough. Again the problem is the characters relaxed attitude, allowing them to slowly meander. This is a mild inconvenience rather than a fight for survival.
One tiny tweak could have solved this and many other problems and the answer is in the title of the episode itself. Why is ‘In The Forest of the Night’ not set at night? While the title is a quote from William Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’ (hardly worth it for its brief appearance) setting the forest in moonlight rather than the bright light of day would greatly increase the mystery and threat provided by shadows and moonlight.
There are Doctor Who stories where it can be argued that it is the Doctor himself who causes the problem. That if he hadn’t been there then nothing bad would happen. There are also a few stories in which despite his actions things turn out fine.
The problem is that when you watch a show called ‘Doctor Who’ you hope that he will have some impact on the story. Worse is when the message of the story is to do nothing and hope for the best.
Such is the case here, where magical fairies (the Here) create the forests to protect the world from a solar flare, which the Doctor was unaware of. The Doctor’s contribution to saving the day is allowing children to read out their collaborative speech to prevent the government from removing the trees (this scene alone made me wonder whether Blue Peter had run a competition for a school to write an episode).
There is a curious sense of fatalism from the Doctor. He almost immediately decides that he can’t do anything because trees are made of wood so he can’t use his sonic screwdriver and because they are plants he can’t communicate or reason with them. This ignore all the times in which the Doctor has fought against plant based life forms or that science can provide knowledge of how to deal with the natural world.
The message is firmly that we shouldn’t try to influence or control the natural world. This worryingly includes using medication to deal with mental illness. While Maebh’s condition is shown to have some connection to the Here it is concerning that the Doctor makes a generalised statement about not interfering. We can only hope that children who do require medication don’t decide to stop their treatment because the Doctor told them to.
While previous stories this season have explored a darker take on the Doctor here his lack of involvement, kindness, hope or intelligence damages the character. After the previous episode ‘Flatline’ seemed to finally identify who this 12th incarnation is this is a step backward.
Science also takes a heavy blow in this science fiction series. Just as ‘Kill the Moon’ didn’t seem to understand how eggs work ‘In The Forest of the Night’ doesn’t understand how solar flares work. Solar flares aren’t a meteor impact and pumping out extra oxygen would only make the situation worse. This is basic scientific principles horribly mangled that is just embarrassing to watch.
The latter half of the story, where the Doctor believes that the Earth will be destroyed, does some have some intriguing ideas. The concept that this could be the moment that the Earth was destroyed, erasing the future and forcing the Doctor to find another planet to frequent, has promise.
An episode focusing on who the Doctor can save in the life boat that is the TARDIS has promise. Here it is rushed with Clara deciding the children are better off dead than living without their parents and that Danny should die with them.
For a tale which is, at its heart, very simplistic there are too many ideas and plots thrown in that don’t go anywhere. Maebh and her condition (implying at one moment she is the source of these events like in ‘Fear Her’ only to reveal it the Here), Maebh’s missing sister, the unexpected solar flare (which might be caused by Missy) and Clara’s disregard for the children contrasted against Danny’s concern. None of these really connect or pay off, either in terms of story or theme, leaving the whole thing a sorry mess.
While I generally like to accept as much as possible as canon I wish this episode wasn’t. It serves as an example of what happens when almost every level of the production misfires.