“In the Forest of the Night”
I’m not sure any of you are still out there, given the lack of commentary on either of the last two episodes (which were among the best of the season). But in case you are I’m going to finish out this season of Doctor Who – though truth be told I’d probably do so even if I knew no one was reading, because this show was really the first fictional thing I was ever a true fanatic for.
The funny thing about this episode is that even as I was reading the poor reviews (sometimes I do read them before watching, sometimes not) I had a gut feeling this was an instance where I was going to part ways with mass opinion. And so I did. It’s written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, who’s famous in Britain at least if not in America – one of the bigger names ever to write for Doctor Who, in fact. In addition to TV titans like Coronation Street FCB also wrote the superb film Hillary and Jackie, and a good number of children’s books. And this episode is very much in the spirit of a fairy tale, and as such, very much in the spirit of the early days of Doctor Who. Which sort of fits a story of an irascible Doctor played by an actor in his 50’s running around with kids and teachers from Coal Hill School.
The title comes from the very famous poem “The Tyger” by William Blake (“Tyger tyger burning bright, in the forest of the night”) which even most Americans know. Blake is a perfect muse for Doctor Who and Cottrell-Boyce – who knows his Blake – knows it. This is an episode entered on some rather preposterous notions like little fireflies representing the essence of life who save the Earth whenever it’s in trouble (the trouble this time is a solar flare), but the critics who lampoon the episode are utterly missing the point. Cottrell-Boyce makes it eminently clear in the words of the Doctor himself that he’s not going for realism here, he’s telling a fairy story both literally and figuratively. And in my view, he tells it very well indeed.
The plot – giant solar flares, a little girl who hears voices, a worldwide forest that grows up overnight – is really just a pretense for this tale, and the tale a pretense to ponder the myth of the Doctor. Danny and Clara are growing ever more insufferable, it must be said, but at least Danny was given a bit to do this time. As usual it’s Peter Capaldi who makes by far the most of his slice of the pie, showing a wonderful rapport with the cast of kids while never dropping his cloak of grumpiness. I’d much rather see him traipse around the universe with this little group of guttersnipes than their teachers, truth be told, though that would admittedly never happen (and pose some significant challenges for the writing if it did).
We’ve reached the end now, the two-parter – quite naturally written by Moffat – that will close the season, and “ItFotN” acts as a nice whimsical bridge to those sure-to-be dark and heavy episodes. His work has been uneven in S35 to say the least, but Moffat tends to get the big moments right so I have high hopes. There are really two MacGuffins hanging out there, both centered on Clara – the first being the whole Missy deal and Clara’s true identity. And the second is the more human question of what Clara really wants – to see what’s in front of her more clearly, or to stand in the open doorway of the TARDIS and watch giant solar flares collide with atmospheric air bags at the Doctor’s side.
From my perspective, this has to end – the series desperately needs a fresh start, and Capaldi needs a companion (or two) with whom he can build a rapport from the ground up. And my sincere hope is that Moffat takes the series in a different direction than another good-looking girl in her teens or 20s, giving us the far more rare spectacle of the Doctor teaming up with an older woman, or a male, or perhaps even two full-time companions. It’s worked quite well most of the times it’s been tried, and with an actual grown-up in the role now it seems a perfect time to distance the series from the of-late de rigeur sexual tension and explore a less well-trodden aspect of the Doctor-Companion relationship.