29 October 2014

TV: In the Forest of the Night

Early in this episode, Danny comments that he's enchanted by the surroundings he finds himself in. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about In the Forest of the Night. I don't mind a twist, in fact I usually enjoy them, but this episode is such a non-event that it's almost completely flawed in my opinion. I realise that in order to ensure its longevity Doctor Who must experiment with storytelling styles and genres, but this was frankly stretching credibility a bit for me. This might sound outwardly negative but the truth is that I was completely ambivalent to this episode for the most part. 

Many of the previews compared this to the tenth episode of the Eleventh Doctor's first series (Vincent and the Doctor), again written by an author best known for their big screen work. The parallels in production are obvious on paper, but the two stories are completely incomparable in my view. Frank Cottrell-Boyce's effort didn't really instil me with much confidence should his name crop up in the schedules again - although given the overall reaction to this episode I find that unlikely somehow. Certainly if Cottrell-Boyce makes a return before Richard Curtis, there's something wrong.

I think a lot about this episode can be ascertained from the trailer at the end of Flatline, unusually for this show. In particular I'm thinking of the moment when Baseball Cap (as he'll be known for the entirety of this review) responds to Danny's "Come on team!" with "We will - if you stop calling us a team.". Wow. What a way to make viewers tune into the next episode. I was filled with dread somewhat for these final three episodes, and only in one case was it unfounded for the most part. This was a relatively bland story and very much filler, not a label I attribute to many episodes. 

One function In the Forest of the Night did serve was to tie up the mini-arc initiated in Kill the Moon. There, Clara levelled the accusation at him that it was his responsibility to decide the fate of the Moon, given that he walks our Earth and breathes our air. Over the course of the successive three episodes, we've seen two intimate character examinations of the two leads of Series 8. In Mummy on the Orient Express, we were treated to a bumper crop of Doctor, and his slightly Machiavellian approach was examined closely for the first time, and in Flatline both he and Clara got a taste of what it was like to fulfil the other's role. I believe that they are now the closest they've ever been, knowing each other inside out, which means it would've been a perfect point for Clara to step aboard the TARDIS permanently and finally make the commitment. But instead what we're delivered is another episode in her natural environment.

Having said all that, I think this is possibly Clara's worst episode of Series 8. She is extremely selfish, indecisive, unprofessional and even more unrealistic than usual (this had better be leading somewhere...). All these factors contributed to her being totally unrelatable once again. She's been built up and explicitly declared time and again to be a control freak, yet given the perfect opportunity (controlling her group of schoolchildren) she fails dismally. And I must mention a line that actually made me quite annoyed. In reference to the gifted and talented group, she says something along the lines of "you don't think they're actually gifted and talented, do you? We just tell them that". This is just abhorrently wrong. There will be many children watching this who are in such groups. At such an early, impressionable age, they may not fully understand that this is intended as 'humour' and begin to question their own position. I can't believe this made it to the final draft let alone the finished episode. Completely wrong.

In terms of plot, Forest was pretty thin on the ground. It consisted mostly of people wandering around trying to find out what was going on, deciding what was going on and then realising what was going on. I didn't feel there was any point at which I was massively engaged. It all made sense and was logical, but that doesn't necessarily mean it was interesting. I thought the scenes between the Doctor and Maebh were electric; this is a pairing that I'd grow tired of long after Clara's gone. Harley Bird was simply brilliant - as was Peter Capaldi - throughout this. He was given many opportunities to show off the more comic elements of his character as well as the usual edge of charm Capaldi brings to the part. How much stronger would this have been without the troupe of kids? Imagine if they'd been locked in the museum (incidentally, how did Maebh get out? It took several people to open the door. Never mind.) for the whole thing, and we'd just had Capaldi and Bird at the forefront. 

Seeing as there wasn't really a plot to resolve, In the Forest of the Night is lacking a climax. There are several scenes that could potentially fill this role if the emphasis of the piece were actually placed somewhere. There's the scene where the Doctor makes pixie dust appear, or where Clara tells him to save himself, or where they watch the solar flare engulf the Earth. All of these could have the pivotal, memorable parts of the episode. As it is, all three come off as rather flat and inconsequential. I'll consider them in turn - bear with me. 
The first leads me onto a point about the general lighting and sound of this episode. I thought it was especially poor compared to normal and in some ways you can tell this was the last episode of the series. The usually sterling production values just aren't there this week, and that's showcased no better than in the scene where Maebh finally takes centre stage as the trees communicate through her. Watch how the lights skim across Capaldi and Bird's faces. It's so amateur it almost hurts; it's quite clearly some dissatisfied lampies just using torches. And the poor sound mixing of this series continues. On first viewing, I couldn't make out a single word the deep 'voice of the forest' said, and it took multiple attempts on iPlayer to truly hear the lines. It needn't be this terrible. I think the problem could be that mixers work with studio-level sound systems, and can't appreciate how it will sound on broadcast. All the nuances you notice when you go to the cinema just aren't feasible with just a television. But to consider the actual scene in question, yeah, it's quite poor. And it's devalued further by the fact it comes prior to the half-hour mark. It's not the 'big' scene it tries to be in any way.

Clara's 'gutsy' decision in the scene where she tells the Doctor to leave them all to burn is just illogical and ungrounded. Literally seconds before (from our point of view) she was telling him to save the kids, now she's had a Mummy-style change of heart, and condemns them all to what she thinks is death. But she starts off by saying that he has a TARDIS and so can save them, before reasoning that they'll miss their parents (and why doesn't she use the word 'parents'?). Yes, love. A TARDIS. You could take the parents too. In fact, you could save the whole world if you really thought this was the end - or has she forgotten the bit in Journey's End where the TARDIS dragged Earth halfway across the universe? There's so many flaws to this - both within and outside its own established parameters - it's shocking.
And for the third, the resolution is largely without merit. The Doctor and Clara stand and watch the planet be engulfed by coronal mass ejections before the trees all ascend into pixie dust. This was just cringeworthily terrible. I mean... What utter crap. I'm doing trying to do down the main raison d'etre of this episode; the plot strand about solar ejections and the trees absorbing all the oxygen is actually quite sophisticated and interesting. In fact, I did one of my pieces coursework for A Level Physics on a similar topic earlier this year. The topic I investigated was all about what caused the Aurora Borealis (flux ropes magnetospheres and so on), and I got 19/20, so it can't have been all bad. I've put it on my Google Drive here, if anyone fancies a read. As with a lot of Moffat-era stuff, I think the idea is sound but when put into practice, the execution just doesn't work. Why wouldn't the trees decay into nothing instead? It'd be more visually and narratively satisfying in my opinion.

And also, why did it take the Doctor so long to figure out that a flame-proof forest wouldn't burn? Perhaps he was just especially bewildered by Clara this week (and so was distracted) - I know I was.

To be honest, I don't want to spend any more time talking about this. It had quite a lot of things wrong with it, but I did enjoy the contributions of Peter Capaldi, Harley Bard, Samuel Anderson and Murray Gold particularly. This was originally rumoured to be called Child's Play and feature our four leads - believed at that point to include Danny and Courtney - being regressed to childhood. That sounds more interesting, to be frank. This wasn't overly poor, but there was no sense of immediate danger at any point and the meandering script was really the downfall of this story. Coming from the author of Framed (superior to the much-lauded Millions in my opinion) this was quite a disappointment. But all it takes is a shrug and this is forgotten.

In a Nutshell: I bet Cottrell-Boyce is praying there's some truth to his "humanity's great skill is forgetting" nonsense so that he may still find work. Ironically, this is entirely unmemorable.

PS: Oh, look at what's coming next time..! Something anticlimactic this way comes...

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