26 October 2014

TV: In the Forest of the Night (Michael)

review by Matt Michael (Twitter | Season to Taste Podcast)

Some Doctor Who stories have the capacity to massively divide opinion. Kinda (another story set partly in the forest and partly in the world inside the characters’ heads) was hailed as a masterpiece at the same time as it plummeted to the bottom of that year’s DWM poll. More recently, Love & Monsters provoked a totally marmite response. In the hours since In the Forest of the Night aired, I’ve had some friends who’ve generally loved this year mail me to say how awful they thought it was, and others not yet sold on the Capaldi era delighted by what they saw.

Let’s be honest: there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t quite work, or feels like the author wasn’t thoroughly briefed on the preceding episodes. So, for example, none of the children recognises the Doctor as the funny caretaker from a few weeks ago. Clara’s eleventh hour decision not to save the children is sort of understandable, but hard to swallow. London’s oddly deserted, except for the one mother searching for her daughter in the forest. The Tinkerbell creatures have such over-processed voices that key bits of dialogue are about as comprehensible as one of McCoy’s monologues. The climactic reappearance of Maebh’s sister was an unnecessary touch, and along with the Doctor urging Maebh not to take her medication, suggests that Frank Cottrell-Boyce has become so caught up in his fairy tale that he’s become irresponsible

However, the impression I got at the end is that this episode largely achieves what The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe was striving for: a child’s fantasy of the forest, of Mother Nature and the mythical history of England, where ancient spirits lurk in forgotten corners, to be summoned in our hour of greatest need. The threat was broadly the same: fire from above that triggers a Gaia-type response from the planet. Even the villains – humans hiding in hazmat suits – looked like the bad guys from Androzani, as out of place in this forest of London as a yeti in the loo.

This wins out over the earlier story partly because the set-up is more gripping: a forest growing overnight across the whole planet, with imagery lifted straight out of JG Ballard – Trafalgar Square wreathed in creeping vines and vast jungle canopies, and escaped zoo animals lurking, menacingly, in the undergrowth. Partly its because the fables invoked are so much more primal than Narnia – Little Red Riding Hood running from the wolves; the trail of breadcrumbs; the brave woodcutter who arrives, with a torch instead of an axe, to save the day. 

But ultimately, I think the episode works because it’s subversive in the same way as the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony was: Clara offers Danny the majesty of travelling the universe, but his retort is that it’s what you make of the world you have that’s important. The Doctor doesn’t need to save the planet from the storm, humanity just needs to save ourselves from our own short-sightedness. The astonishing power of the TARDIS becomes a science museum for kids – kids who aren’t really the most gifted and talented, just ordinary British children doing the best they can. The Olympic Ceremony said, ‘Britain gave the world all these awesome things – but the most important of them is what we made here. We built Jerusalem – or at least the NHS – in England’s green and pleasant land.’ In that respect, Cottrell-Boyce has been channelling the spirit of William Blake for a long time.

I think, like Kill the Moon, this was a story about the choices we make for ourselves. It explicitly positioned the Doctor as a cranky outsider – the mythical Last of the Time Lords – and placed the future of Earth in the hands of its children. Capaldi’s still a spiky, unpredictable presence – he’s not become mellow and cuddly as many predicted he would across the course of the season, but is still half Tom Baker in Horror of Fang Rock and half Sylvester McCoy on steroids. Brilliantly, he makes no allowances for children – but then, I guess to a thousand-year-old alien we must all look like toddlers.

Clara has changed though – preferring death with Danny over a life with the Doctor as the last human. The moment when she decides – without offering them a say – that the children will die with the Earth is a genuinely, and I think deliberately shocking moment: a kind of pay off to Kill the Moon and Flatline. Clara’s been forced to think and choose like the Doctor, on behalf of the whole human race – and what does that make her?  Which leads in to that ridiculously overblown and utterly brilliant “Next Time – The Finale Begins!” I have no idea where this season is heading, but I definitely want to be there.

many thanks to 
Matt Michael (Twitter | Season to Taste Podcast)

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