DOCTOR WHO: “In the Forest of the Night”

Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane…and everywhere else, in this kid-centered, not entirely satisfying palette cleanser.

Some things are too boring to go see. Even with my long life. Like “Les Miserables.”

–The Doctor

Well, that was a bit different.

After a streak of (mostly excellent) episodes that focused on the darker aspects of the Doctor and traveling with him, this week we take a step backwards into outright fantasy, suggesting that after this and “Robot of Sherwood,” perhaps we should avoid stories set in forests for little while. “In the Forest of the Night” (the title coming from William Blake’s famous poem “The Tyger”) was written by well-respected children’s author Frank Cotrell Boyce, who brings a fairy-tale sensibility to the table. Something I suppose we needed, as next week’s “Dark Water” is part one of the highly dramatic season finale. But instead of terrifying aliens and gruesome disposals of side characters, our Monsters of the Week are…trees?

Sure, trees!  Why not? “There are always forests in the scary stories of your childhood,” the Doctor says. Let’s do it.

So Clara and Danny are chaperoning an overnight field trip to the London Zoological Museum, where a group of their “gifted & talented” students (spoiler: they are not, except they are, or whatever) spend the wee hours shining flashlights at each other and marking thin character beats. Unfortunately, one little girl — the impossibly-spelled Maebh (seriously, that’s a name?) has left the museum, driven by an unknown force to find the Doctor. (“Do you have an appointment?” he asks.) Why? Because overnight, the entire world has been turned into a forest! The famous statues of Trafalgar Square are covered with vines; street and sidewalk are indistinguishable from forest floor; strangest of all, there are literally no other humans around because this is all an enclosed set and the show needed to save some money this week.

Anyway, its isn’t long before the Doctor realizes that the precocious Maebh is special; she takes all the strangeness of the TARDIS in stride, and seems to believe she is responsible for the sudden appearance of the trees. When he connects with Clara and a not-quite-happy-to-see-him Danny, this first point is confirmed; Maebh is usually on medication, it’s true. She tends to see things and hear voices, and run around like her head is surrounded by Wrackspurts. This gives the Doctor the opening for his Rant of the Week: You humans and your child medications! If Maebh, according to her illustrations of an enormous solar flare about to hit the Earth, knows what’s going on, listen to her, don’t ply her with pills! (Is he saying that autism — assuming that’s what it is — is a kind of superpower, as Clara suggests later? Not the first time a program has made the analogy.)

And somewhere out there is Maebh’s mother, in an entirely extraneous subplot that only emphasizes the bizarre emptiness of the forest (seriously, where did all the people go?), as she rides her bike, apparently, towards where she thinks her daughter is. I’ll not mention her again as she has no bearing on the story whatsoever. Maebh herself, meanwhile, has disappeared again, and several competing interests collide at once: The Doctor, eager to solve the mystery, jiggers Clara’s phone to locate the girl. Danny elects to stay with the rest of the kids, and is upset with Clara for jumping back into the front seat with the Doctor like they never stopped traveling together, which he now realizes they have not. And Clara, caught in a significant lie once again, does not apologize right way, though she admits she is annoyed AND attracted by Danny caring more about the kids than the mystery. That concludes our inter-personal drama for the week; I hope you enjoyed it.

“In the Forest of the Night” featured not only a rookie (for Who) writer but director as well, in Sheree Folkson, who keeps things moving along swiftly and slightly off-kilter. Some of the shot framings and lens choices are are unusual, but cool (I point to the Doctor’s lecture near the end of the episode, where he repeatedly looms into frame like a professorial gargoyle); she even utilizes some handheld camerawork while inside the TARDIS, which provides a jittery energy. (Though I’d like to issue an industry-wide moratorium on the “swish-pan to comedic flashback.” They should have been retired when 30 Rock did.) But most importantly, she coaxes good performances out of the group of child actors, especially Abigail Eames as Maebh. Doing a kid-centric episode on such a tight production schedule must have been a logistical nightmare, so it’s a minor miracle anything about this episode works at all.

So, the trees: are they kindly Lord of the Rings trees, or evil The Happening trees? (Aside: if only M. Night Shyamalan was still a good writer. I wonder what kind of Who episode he’d have made…) The Doctor thinks he knows, especially when they encounter a group of Hazmat-besuitted dudes who fail to kill a single tree with fire. “If this is an invasion, it’s over,” the Doctor says. “They’re here — they won!” Even his screwdriver has no effect on the trees, because they are TREES. So that’s not an unwelcome powerlessness, on his part. Meanwhile, Maebh encounters and is swiftly rescued from CG wolves (something something Little Red Riding Hood reference), and then Danny rescues her, Clara, and the Doctor from a CG tiger. Maebh leads the entire group to the heart of the forest, where the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to slow down the Wrackspurts (screw it, that’s what I’m calling them) enough for them to appear, and speak, creepily. “WE WERE HERE LONG BEFORE YOU, AND WE WILL BE HERE AFTER YOU,” they intone through the girl. “WE HEAR THE CALL, AND WE COME. WE ARE THE LIFE THAT PREVAILS.” Alright then.

Therefore, the Doctor supposes, the trees are taking back the planet after centuries of being chopped down by humans, and the glowing firefly creatures are calling down a human-nuking solar flare. Maebh thinks it’s all her fault, but she is just receiving the messages, not sending them. And there’s nothing anyone can do. But wait, you ask, moments before Clara does (and did, in “Kill the Moon,”) haven’t we been to the future half a hundred times? The planet’s not destroyed by trees. Well, that was one possible future, the Doctor says (in a way you know means he’ll be proven wrong in less than fifteen minutes). And so, like in “Kill the Moon,” Clara tells the Doctor to leave the planet, but so he can be saved from the impending hellfire. “You don’t want to live?” the Doctor asks her. Of course she does, but as the kids need their families and Danny will never leave the kids, “I don’t want to be the last of my kind.” Ouch. Double ouch.

But unsurprisingly, as the Doctor prepares to vworp-vworp away (or “home,” as Clara says, like she or anyone else knows where that is), he has his grand epiphany. “I am Doctor IDIOT!” he shouts, and quickly gathers everyone back inside the TARDIS for the reveal: the trees, duh, are saving the planet, as they have done many times before. They’re pumping so much oxygen into the atmosphere, the solar flare will dissipate(?), because as you surely recall, these magic trees are flame-proof! But oh no, they hear on the television that misguided government scientists are about to spray defoliating chemicals over the trees! (They never say how, and I assumed all planes were grounded, but okay.) And so, AGAIN like “Kill the Moon,” Maebh must put out a call to the whole world: hey, don’t do that! Because the best course of action all along has been to do absolutely nothing.

I guess we’re left to assume that the gambit worked, because the flare comes and goes, fizzling away ineffectually. (To top it off, the Doctor tells Clara, all the humans will forget this even happened, because magic.) The crisis over, Danny once again (and rightly) calls Clara out for lying to him. He offers the best articulation yet for why someone like him would not want to travel with the Doctor: after his military experiences, “I don’t want to see more things; I want to see the things right in front of me.” This brings up an interesting aspect to Clara’s character that separates her from previous companions: more than any other in the modern Who era, Clara seems to embrace the heroic aspects of being the Doctor’s sidekick. She gets a buzz out of saving the world just as much as he does; she’s addicted to the adventure. Where Rose, Martha, and Amy Pond followed the man (and Donna just saw it as a non-stop laugh), Clara is all about the mission. You get the impression that if she had a TARDIS of her own, she’d keep on doing the same thing, Doctor or no Doctor. It’s not hard to leave him — it’s hard to leave the thrill, and the satisfaction at the end of another successful adventure.

But leave she must, because there’s only two episodes left. Missy, we see, still has Clara in her sights: “That was surprising,” she sighs. “I love surprises.”

Oh yeah, and Maebh gets reunited with long-lost sister somehow. That was weird and dumb. I do honestly hope Boyce comes back to write another episode; I also hope it will be a bit better than this one, which wasn’t up to the newly-raised standards of Season 8.

NEXT WEEK: It gets real.

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