In eager anticipation of brand new Doctor Who, the Gallifrey Times team is revisiting Peter Capaldi’s debut season as the Doctor. We’ll be covering an episode a day from Deep Breath to Last Christmas, the perfect build up to The Magician’s Apprentice on September 19th.
Last year, when Series 8 was only a fuzzy collage of leaked information and set pictures and certain episodes were shrouded in secrecy, Frank Cottrell Boyce’s episode ten was very near the top of my ‘most anticipated’ list of the series. The concept seemed original, the writer had a strong pedigree and the title was encouragingly poetic – how could it have gone wrong? Unfortunately, due to a frustrating number of creative missteps, In the Forest of the Night is little more than a misfire that refused to inject any kind of urgency, threat or character depth; the Doctor Who equivalent of this year’s Fantastic Four reboot.
There’s a lot to criticise In the Forest of the Night for, but this episode’s main Achilles heel is that… well, it’s just dull. It’s dull for a multitude of reasons, and perhaps the main one is that the episode never presents a threat of any kind – I say ‘threat’, because Listen had no antagonist and still went down as my favourite of the series. Here, there’s absolutely nothing. The solar flare that threatens Earth is introduced in a reasonably nondescript manner halfway through, retreats to a background element while the forest’s origins are dealt with, and then surges to the front for a horrendously rushed and unrewarding climax. The solar flare is this episode’s ticking clock, but it fails to actually use this ticking clock in a particularly exciting manner – the tension should have been slowly ratcheted up throughout the episode with the flare continuously approaching, with the climax acting as the crescendo of 45 minutes of careful build-up. As it is, it’s easy to forget the flare is even there, so that’s hardly a threat. Aside from that, all there really is a tiger that pops up in a way that adds nada to the plot… and that’s it. This episode is a fairytale, and, as Jim Moriarty once said (admittedly not the best guy to quote), every fairytale needs a good old fashioned villain. Here, there’s nothing but a tiger and an eco-message that manages to be vague and clumsy at the same time.
In the absence of any threat, you might expect a bit of momentum to fill the gap, with the mystery continuously building as the heroes learn more about the forest, but there’s very little of that either. The episode merely meanders, inserting an unnecessary scene with wolves and tigers in a half-hearted attempt to introduce some tension, and settling on a reveal concerning Maebh and tree spirits (?) that’s unremarkably delivered and maddeningly vague about how Maebh helped to create the forest. It’s essentially a story that never really concludes its first act until it’s time for the mandated ‘world is ending’ conclusion, skipping ahead to the third act and skipping the middle section entirely – in short, it suffers from sluggish, lethargic pacing that eschews sensible storytelling ideas like building tension and continuous threat for something entirely different.
Doctor Who has been running for 52 years now, and as a consequence I generally welcome original and innovative ideas to spice the show up. On paper, I love the idea of In the Forest, and I like what it’s trying to do; to present an episode that doesn’t follow the formula and instead acts as a lyrical, poetic homage of sorts to the environment. Unfortunately, Cottrell Boyce doesn’t really succeed in doing this, and that’s a little frustrating, especially considering that Boyce gets really close to nailing it at certain points, yet misses the mark entirely. An example of this is the climax – the idea that the trees were benevolent all along and the way the day is saved is by encouraging people to stop harming them is perfectly fine, but these two ideas instead come across as, respectively, implying there was very little point to the episode by explicitly underlining that nothing the Doctor did really helped, and almost patronising in how condescendingly the eco-message is delivered (okay, this is a nitpick – this is clearly an episode aimed more squarely at the younger end of the viewing demographic who probably would be less patronised by the end of this episode than I was). There’s seeds of good ideas in there, but they never really reach fruition. And then there’s the final scene – a potentially heartfelt and triumphant end note as Maebh’s sister returns that ends up as laughably random and entirely inexplicable.
This episode, no matter how frustrating it can be, is not a car crash, and there’s some legitimately good stuff buried in there. Ironically, the facet that people complained about the most before the episode are actually used rather well; the kids. They’re a little grating at times, but Cottrell Boyce clearly has a knack for the idiosyncrasies and behaviour of kids, and the nonplussed reactions to the TARDIS are some of the funniest moments of the episode. The juxtaposition between Clara and Danny is well-handled, culminating in a genuinely excellent scene where Clara invites Danny to watch the solar storm, only for Danny to reply that he is more interested in seeing the wonders on Earth. It’s heartfelt and meaningful, and feels like one of the very few scenes in which Cottrell Boyce achieves his poetic, lyrical ambitions. It actually lays the groundwork nicely for the fateful opening scene of Dark Water where Clara prepares to confess all, which is a surprisingly accomplished bit of serialised storytelling. What doesn’t work, however, is Missy, whose brief appearance feels half-hearted and token rather than exciting and intriguing; strange, considering this lead directly into the two-part finale.
In short, In the Forest of the Night aims high, and doesn’t achieve much in return – it’s a mediocre, plodding slog that fails to conjure up any excitement or urgency and pins far too much on a simplistic and anti-climatic conclusion. There’s merits, but it’s clear here that this episode could have been so much more – in the end, In the Forest of the Night… ahem, can’t see the forest for the trees.
Tomorrow, Ben takes a deep dive into Dark Water as TGT’s reviews continue.