Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night

“Stars implode. Planets grow cold. Catastrophe is the metabolism of the universe.”

Doctor Who

SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS.

It’s episode 10 of the Capaldi Administration (seriously, how did that happen?) and there’s a slightly surprising surprise in store: the wonderfully whimsically-titled In the Forest of the Night (after William Blake’s poem “The Tyger”, FYI) was written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, author of Millions and director of the Olympic Opening Ceremony.

How cool is that?

Clara and Danny (who? oh, him), accompanying a school sleepover at the Natural History Museum or some such, open the doors to find London covered with – well, trees. There are trees on Trafalgar Square and all along the Mall and, apparently, in the Thames as well. Meanwhile, the Doctor runs across a lost child, Maeve Arden (A Shakespearean Clue, obviously), dubbed “vulnerable” by the school authorities – “she hears voices,” says Clara hysterically – who appears to hold the key to the whole mysterious catastrophe.

I have a feeling that the Internet will hate this episode, mainly because the Internet never holds the same opinion as I do, and I…quite liked it. Some of it, anyway. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Cottrell Boyce’s Olympic credentials, In the Forest of the Night works very well on a symbolic level, at least. It’s composed of a host of images familiar from fairytale and myth: the deep dark wood full of lions and tigers and bears, the tree-choked city/palace, the lonely child, the voices of the lost and damned and sad, the nature-spirits, the human capacity to stand in the face of titanic and mysterious forces…it’s all powerful storytelling stuff, and if we watch In the Forest of the Night purely as fairytale, it works. It does. It’s atmospheric, allusive, well-paced and slightly surreal; Doctor Who visits Faerie.

That’s not to say the episode is flawless, however, because it plainly isn’t. Like all fairytales, it contains its own share of illogicalities and annoyances: in the face of what seems like certain death for all humanity, Clara refuses the protection of the TARDIS for her charges on the basis that they would miss their mums.

Um. Yes, but the human race would also survive. I’m sure they’d understand. Are we supposed to admire Clara for this bit of theatrics? Because I don’t. The TARDIS is, as Clara puts it earlier, a lifeboat. You can’t save everyone, but you could save some. Is that not the whole point of the Doctor’s existence? Not everybody has to die?

The visuals tend a bit too much towards the sparkly-magic style for my taste, too, although the solar flare at the end is spectacular. And it’s a little hard to believe that everyone will just forget the Invasion of the Trees, certainly in the age of smartphones and Internet – besides which, Nelson’s Column has fallen over. Good luck forgetting that.

I think what I’m driving at is simply the fact that In the Forest of the Night works as fairytale, but not as Doctor Who. Doctor Who demands a little too much cynicism from its viewers to overlook the inherent anti-realism of traditional fairytale, which is essentially what this is; a compromise between the old tales of Red Riding Hood and Briar Rose and the kind of modernised fairytale which works so well in The Girl Who Waited or The Last of the Time Lords. It’s a combination that doesn’t quite sit well with the show’s overall tone. Which is a shame, because there is much to love about In the Forest of the Night.

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