Beware of SPOILERS, folks! Do not read unless you’ve seen the episode or you don’t care about getting spoiled.
There’s a very strange trend in Series 8 of Doctor Who, and that is to have threats in episodes not actually be threats. It hasn’t happened in every episode, mind, but it has been happening a fair amount. Of the ten episodes that have aired, four of the episodes have turned out that the big thing that needs stopping is actually nothing bad at all, three have had villains who were simply misguided automaton-like creatures who were just doing what they were programmed to do, and only three have had actual, honest-to-goodness antagonists and in one of those cases it was the Daleks. Not that I have anything against episodes that kind of work themselves out on their own, but it just strikes me as odd that so many this year have been misunderstandings by the Doctor. That’s the theme of the season, it seems. The latest of these is Frank Cottrell Boyce’s “In the Forest of the Night” in which a field trip doesn’t go south and nobody dies.
“In the Forest of the Night,” which is a reference to a line in a William Blake poem, is perhaps the most about children this series has gotten, and that’s rather saying something. A little girl is at the center of all the action and the other children comment on the goings-on in a way only children can. It’s often been said, by me and by others, that when Doctor Who introduces children into the narrative, it saps a lot of the dramatic tension because there’s no way a BBC program made for families would legitimately kill of a child. So here we are with our leads and a group of children, so pretty much nobody’s going anywhere. Any kind of threat the episode puts forth is conceptual, removing of course the wolves and tiger who were in the episode for about 5 minutes total and were defeated by a flashlight.
The synopsis of this episode is very straightforward: one day, everybody wakes up and finds out the Earth has been covered by plants and trees that have sprung up overnight, and nobody knows why. Danny and Clara are leading a sleepover at the Natural History Museum (I’m guessing) and had no idea this had happened. The Doctor gets a knock on the TARDIS by a little girl named Maebh and he discovers she’s one of the students who’d gotten away. She hears voices in her head since her sister ran away a long time ago and is given pills to quiet them. Everybody meets up and the Doctor tries to figure out what Maebh knows about the trees and what the voices could mean, and also how to save the Earth from a solar flare that will destroy everything. And then he does do that, but he doesn’t actually have to do anything except realize what’s going on and tell everybody else in the world not to do anything also.
If you’ll recall from my review of “Flatline” last week, with regard to the trailer for this week, I called it one of the most boring trailers I’d ever seen. I also mused that a boring trailer does not always a boring episode make. Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say this episode was boring, it was just very devoid of things occurring. It felt a lot of the time like we were just watching the characters walk around to eat up minutes until the revelation could happen. And as I said, aside from the wild animals, the only other “uh oh” moments came in the form of Lord Nelson’s Column falling over, Maebh running away, the forest just being big and foresty, and people almost dropping plant killer on everything (in the whole world?!?!?!). My heart sure was pounding when people we didn’t see nearly did a thing that would have taken infinitely longer to figure out the logistics of than 8 hours.
In fairness, there were definitely things I enjoyed. I liked the idea of the ancient terrestrial entities that control the plants and have protected the planet for millions of years. I love that they have no idea what the Doctor is and will continue to exist long after he’s dead. That was a really neat idea. I also liked little character moments between the Doctor and Clara, especially at the end when all hope was lost and Clara tells the Doctor to leave, that an Earthling can save him for once. He’s perfectly willing to save all those kids and Clara and Danny, but she talks him out of it. She doesn’t want to be the last of her species, but she definitely wants to see the craziness of the solar flare, solidifying her being on both sides of things, loving Danny and the Earth, but desperately wanting to see more of the universe. When Danny catches her in her lie, he doesn’t seem to mind, or at least hasn’t yet minded. I honestly don’t know what to make of Danny Pink. I also didn’t MIND the children. They could have been a lot more annoying. Maybe because I was prepared for all the kids from the trailer and pictures, and because I know school kids are the worst, I had my defenses up.
But, friends, hands down my favorite aspect of this entire episode, with a bullet and a half, is the direction of Sheree Folkson. My GOD was it gorgeous. She’s a brand new director to the show and she really showed what she could do here, from the handheld stuff inside the TARDIS, complete with warped or different lenses to show the POV of the children, to seeing the eyes of the wolves in the trees, like in a fairy tale (which are at the center of the “legend” of the tree entities), to just generally shooting people walking in a forest like every step was dangerous and could spell disaster. She did an amazing job all around, and I really, really hope she comes back to do more.
“In the Forest of the Night” is not a bad episode, I don’t think. I definitely didn’t dislike watching it. The acting is good, and Capaldi and Coleman are endlessly watchable, as was Folkson’s brilliant direction, but by the end I couldn’t help saying to myself “Oh… so the planet had this on lockdown? The Doctor’s only real achievement was making sure humanity didn’t do anything? Like ‘Kill the Moon’ but without the troubling allusions?” It just kind of occurred.
Next week, though, we’re getting the first of the two-episode finale, both written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay. It looks like Clara’s not having a good time and Missy definitely is. UNIT’s back, and also CYBERMEN ON THE STEPS!!!!!! It seems so strange that it’s already almost over. Seems like we just started. Enjoy the trailer for “Dark Water” and we’ll talk soon!