“The forest was in all the stories that kept you awake at night. The forest is mankind’s nightmare.”
“A long time ago, when we all lived in the forest and no-one lived anywhere else…”
Much has been made of Doctor Who’s tendency, under the aegis of Steven Moffat, to veer explicitly into fairytale territory. Stories like The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (also largely set in a forest), overtly recall the sometimes darkly magical tales we’re all told as children. However, In the Forest of the Night is an interesting attempt to not only evoke a traditional fairytale forest, but to analyse and explain the archetype and its place in folklore.
In so doing, celebrated writer Frank Cottrell Boyce is only partially successful, and the result, while interesting, jars somewhat – principally because it doesn’t really work in the context of Doctor Who. True, the idea of providing a novel, scientifically based explanation for our race memory of dark forests is in keeping with the show’s sensibilities, as is the Gaia-like premise that the planet will protect itself. The trouble is that, while invoking science, the script does little to back it up, leaving us once again only with magic. And while that is an essential component of any fairytale, in Doctor Who it usually gets at least a handwave to being some form of advanced science, which was absent here.
There are a lot of positives to the realisation of Boyce’s intriguing idea. The juxtaposition of all the traditional street furniture – bus stops, traffic lights, keep left signs, with the thickly tangled primeval forest makes for a memorable visual concept. The government’s unthinking kneejerk response to the crisis – burning the forest – rings all too true as a depiction of the utter incompetence of our current political class. And the escaped wildlife from London Zoo was a perfectly reasonable way to include that most classic trope of fairytales – the ravenous wolves stalking the forest. It can’t have been a coincidence that little Maebh, on whom the story hinged, had a Celtic name and was wearing a red hooded coat.
So, an ambitious idea, with the Doctor taking on the Gandalf role of wise old man while Clara and Danny functioned as the archetypal ‘good parents’ guarding a troupe of children lost in a primeval forest. The trouble was that, for me, Boyce’s script had the feel of not having properly thought this premise through. An ‘overnight forest’ is a terrific idea; but this is London, very much a 24 hour city served by rolling 24 hour news (the same could be said of New York or Berlin, but it’s London we principally see). So, unless the forest literally grew in an instant, it seems hugely unlikely that everyone would be greeting with amazement ‘the next morning’. As soon as the phenomenon began it would have been subject to massive media coverage.
We do get to see news coverage of the event, from all over the world, but it’s shown very much as breaking news – and all at, apparently the same time, despite the world’s many time zones. It’s in keeping with the trad fairy tale for something amazing like this to happen overnight, greeting those waking the next morning with a changed world; in the real world, with many time zones and cities that never sleep, it just doesn’t make sense.
For that matter, in the real world, London is a vibrant, busy, heavily populated city, with people out on the streets in varying quantities pretty much round the clock. Where were all the people? Apart from the Coal Hill gang and the government tree burners, the only person on the streets was Maebh’s worried mum.
There’s an uncannily similar story in Alan Moore’s classic run on DC comic Swamp Thing, in which the titular plant elemental, enraged at the Gotham City authorities’ unjust treatment of his wife, turns the city into an overgrown jungle, literally overnight. Unlike Boyce, Moore did seem to have thought about how his concept would work in a real world setting; Gotham’s population was very much in evidence in this startling new world, some terrified, some exhilarated. What they didn’t do was all stay indoors.
Now, I’m not saying Boyce was even aware of Moore’s story (though it’s notable that both include a reference to the William Blake poem which gave this ep its title, in the form of an escaped tiger roaming the forest). No, it’s a prevalent enough archetype for both to have come up with it independently. But Moore’s version realistically shows how a real world (even one with Batman in it) would react to such a situation; Boyce’s doesn’t. It might actually have worked better had it been set on a world other than Earth; like, for example, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, which also featured a ‘Green’ message imparted by a sentient forest.
Unfortunately, the Earth setting was pretty much mandated by the need to use the story to further develop the Doctor/Clara/Danny narrative, which couldn’t have been done on another planet. If the internet is anything to go by, a lot of fans rather dislike this ongoing subplot; that’s a matter of personal taste, and as it’s obviously a key part of this season’s plot, those people will find much to dislike in most episodes.
I, though, think it’s an interesting idea whose execution has been variably successful. Danny not only provides a link for Clara to Earth and her ‘real life’; by doing so, he serves as a sort of ‘anti-Doctor’, pulling her in a completely opposite direction. His most revealing line this week was, “I don’t want to see more things… I want to see the things in front of me more clearly”. That’s a man for whom knowledge alone means little without meaning; a contrast to Clara’s ‘wonder-seeking’ in the TARDIS. It was also an interesting callback to the Doctor’s earlier, seemingly throwaway line about how he too sometimes doesn’t feel the need to see more (though he then frames it with an amusing pop culture reference: “even my long life is too short for Les Miserables”).
Pulled in both directions, Clara is still trying, unsuccessfully it seems, to balance a double life. But she too seems to be learning from a cautionary voice about the Doctor. Nowhere was that more evident than when, faced with Earth’s imminent destruction, she still refused to escape in the TARDIS. Her words to the Doctor – “I don’t want to be the last of my kind” – were deceptively cruel, carrying as they did the unspoken connotation of “I don’t want to be like you”. For someone who spent the last week revelling in substituting for the Doctor, that’s a surprising development.
And as has obviously been the intention throughout, the Doctor too is developing. His concession to Clara that he does have a responsibility to Earth – “I walk your Earth, I breathe your air” – was even framed in the exact words she used to castigate him at the end of Kill the Moon. As part of an ongoing narrative, this was well-written (though I wonder how much of that was Boyce and how much Steven Moffat). There’s so much more to it, dramatically, than just a romance subplot. But it’s that too, and I fully understand if some fans find that objectionable after Amy and Rory, or the Doctor and River. I think this is cleverer, and more subtle; but if you object to romance subplots in the show per se, I doubt that will sway you.
The school trip was an intelligent way to not only accommodate this subplot, but also to include a group of children to take part in what was, essentially, a childrens’ fairytale. I’m a trifle suspicious that museums allow school outings to stay overnight; but the Coal Hill kids were quite convincing, however much any group of child actors in a drama always carries the whiff of a stage school outing. Still, this lot were well written and well enough played; especially Abigail Eames as young Maebh, who was so pivotal to the episode. It did seem rather a shame, from a continuity perspective, that the “gifted and talented” group didn’t also include Courtney, though.
That the ultimate threat to the Earth was not from the enveloping forests but a massive, unanticipated solar flare was also in keeping with a common theme this year – that the ‘villains’ may in actuality be nothing of the sort. However, I’m unconvinced by the nods towards scientific plausibility. If the trees are going to save humanity by starving the fire of oxygen, isn’t there also the slight problem that they’re going to starve people of it too? And if they’ve always been on hand to save Earth from extraterrestrial impacts, why did they let the dinosaurs die off?
Come to that, why didn’t they stop the threats in various previous Doctor Who stories, like The Ice Warriors (the second Ice Age), Earthshock (those dinosaurs again) or Attack of the Cybermen (Halley’s comet being used as a weapon)? The Doctor could have just sat back and done nothing, if the trees were ready to step in. Which is sort of the problem with trying to incorporate such a world-changing concept into a long-established show – it’s always going to contradict some part of its mythology. However casually you treat continuity (or rewrite it), that’s going to stick out for some, especially when some of the stories it contradicts are so recent.
New director Sheree Folkson gave the episode a dreamlike quality, along the lines of the similarly themed 1984 film version of Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves. Unfortunately, that dreamlike quality, and the generally languorous pace of the script, lacked any real sense of menace or jeopardy. The escaped tiger seemed more real and more threatening than the imminent destruction of the planet, news of which all involved seemed to take remarkably sanguinely. This may have been a “forest of the night”, but (unlike Company of Wolves) it was far too sunny and brightly lit throughout to convey the air of menace of a traditional fairy tale.
Ultimately, this was a frustratingly uneven story whose reach exceeded its grasp. It was a very ambitious concept which didn’t seem to have been properly thought through despite some excellent characterisation and the usual faultless performances. Like Kill the Moon, it required a suspension of disbelief that the script couldn’t support, and left me with a similar feeling that, with more thought, it could have been so much better. Generally speaking, Frank Cottrell Boyce is a very good writer, but what it felt like this also needed – and didn’t have – was a very good script editor to make it more like an actual Doctor Who episode.