Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Directed by Sheree Folkson
Starring: Peter Capaldi (The Doctor); Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald); Samuel Anderson (Danny Pink); Abigail Eames (Maebh Arden); Jayden Harris-Wallace (Samson); Ashley Foster (Bradley); Harley Bird (Ruby); Siwan Morris (Mrs. Arden); Harry Dickman (George) & Michelle Gomez (Missy)
Here There Be Spoilers.
Here there also be a touch of confusion and tangling plot threads to go along with our weekly serving of all of time and space, except In The Forest of The Night features neither time nor space (well… just a wee bit of space). No, this week the threat is entirely home grown (quite literally) and the Doctor and his pals (which consists of Clara, Danny, a half a dozen kids and, strangely enough, nobody else in the whole of London) have to answer the question as to why the world is suddenly covered with dense trees and vegetation. And when they finally do answer that question, they discover that heavy foliage and the occasional tiger are the least of their troubles. In The Forest of The Night (I hate typing that title as much as you hate reading it) is a romp through a global crisis that eventually gets solved by our heroes doing absolutely nothing. This is a difficult one to call; on the rather lush and green surface ITFOTN (as it shall be referred to until we get to the final paragraph) has all the makings of an exciting adventure, but what happens when we dig a bit more?
To start with, the TARDIS, apparently sitting in the middle of a dense forest, gets a visit from a rather worried little girl, Maebh (I hate typing that name as much as you hate reading it). She tells the Doctor that a voice in her head, which she believes belongs to “Miss Oswald,” told her to find the Doctor. The Doctor is having trouble with the TARDIS navigational circuits (what else is new); it keeps telling him that he’s in the middle of London when he obviously is not, but a quick look out the door at Nelson’s Column tells him that something else is afoot: all of London (and indeed, the Earth) is covered by forests that have sprung up spontaneously. Maebh is part of a group of children sleeping over at the London Museum (why?), being chaperoned by Clara and Danny. Clara gets word from the Doctor that he’s got Maebh and off they all go to collect her. On the way, Danny and Clara continue their ongoing debate about Clara’s infatuation with the Doctor, while the children display the quirks that tend to appear in child characters-who-are-destined-to-appear-in-only-one-episode: one’s got anger-management problems, another’s not too bright, etc. And then there’s the Doctor, who knows a problem when he sees one, but is at a loss when it comes to what to do (he’s surrounded by wood and regular viewers will know the one thing the sonic screwdriver is useless against).
In many ways, INFOTN is a continuation of themes begun in The Caretaker; the Doctor is still disrespecting Danny, Danny is still trying to get the truth out of Clara, and Clara is still trying to live a secret double life. I must say that I was little disappointed to see that the episode was taking place on Earth; watching the “Next Week” trailer at the end of Flatline led me to believe that Danny finally took a trip on the TARDIS and ended up on some heavily wooded planet. It seems quite clear that, with only two episodes to go in the series, Danny is not going to become a companion; his dialog near the end, where he explains that he’s looking for the wonders on Earth (and in one person in particular) rather than in the universe tells us that he’s not going to be even a reluctant companion like Rory was. In terms of time and space travel, Danny is strictly a landlubber and it’s going to be up to Clara what to do about their relationship. Danny is quite obviously a good man – even though he has caught Clara in further lies about her travels with the Doctor, he is good-natured and understanding – but it’s a shame that the eternal mysteries of time and space hold no charms for him. And he’s not alone; when the Doctor invites the students to come along and watch the solar flare hit Earth from the safety of the TARDIS, every one of them turns him down. When in the world did the human race get so BORING?
Without a doubt, INFOTN is an incredibly good-looking episode with its bold colors and stone lions of Trafalgar Square sitting amongst the trees like we took a wrong turn and ended up in the forests of Narnia. And the wolves and the tiger provide some good suspense and danger for our heroes. But there is also some degree of monotony involved; Maebh disappears from the museum to find the Doctor, only to disappear again, which means that she has to be found again. As good as the forest looks, it does get a bit tiring seeing the cast in the same type of set throughout nearly the entire run of the episode (it’s almost as bad as the old cliché of Classic Doctor Who when characters are stuck running along the same length of corridor shot from different angles). And as humorous as some of the children are, the two flashbacks showing Bradley and Ruby in class are just there to fill up the running time (although I do love Ruby’s answer to “How do we find X?”). Maybe all of this is to distract the viewer from the fact that, while there is quite a lot of character development going on, there isn’t really that much story. When the Doctor finally catches up to Maebh, a little screwdriver jiggery-pokery gets her talking in an alien voice, which doesn’t really tell us much and is a bit difficult to understand in any case. The trees are there and, despite the fact they have toppled Lord Nelson and let some rather dangerous animals escape from the zoo, they’re not that threatening. In fact, they seem to be a distraction to the Doctor, who learns of the solar flare that will wipe out life on Earth and can’t seem to put it in perspective. Despite his insistence that finding Maebh will lead to all the answers, he learns nothing from her and only guesses the correct answer later on. As exciting as the chase was, it’s a bit of an eye-roller to see that it was all a waste of time.
I can’t fault the sequence near the end when, convinced that the heat-death of the Earth is coming, Clara tricks the Doctor back to the TARDIS with the sole purpose of him saving himself… and only himself. The children will not be happy survivors and Danny will never leave the children. When the Doctor offers to save only Clara, she demurs and says that she doesn’t want to be the last of her kind, like the Doctor (it’s interesting that her reason is not that she can’t leave Danny). The Doctor offers to share in the destruction of Earth, throwing Clara’s own words from Kill The Moon, “I walk on this planet, I breath its air,” but whatever anger Clara felt for him in the past has melted away. The Doctor doesn’t belong to the Earth; he belongs to the universe and it’s going to need him. Clara has been a difficult character to track, sometimes she says and does things that don’t completely add up, but this is her finest moment since she has been introduced and, for once, there isn’t a bit of comedy to undermine it. She’s the only person on Earth who knows what is going to happen and she accepts it with grace. Truth be told, this moment deserved to be preserved in a better episode.
And so the Doctor figures out that the trees are there to actually save the planet from the solar-flare and the only thing they really need to do is to send out a message telling the world’s governments to leave the trees alone so that they can do their job (in a really unbelievable sequence: seriously, if you heard a little girl’s voice coming out of a phone and telling you to stop destroying trees that you believe are choking the planet, would you stop?). So basically, the Doctor and humanity simply had to sit back, do nothing, and let nature literally take its course. And so there is no world-wide catastrophe, planet Earth is safe to live another day, and all we’re left with is… questions, questions and MORE BLOODY QUESTIONS! Does Maebh have visions truly because she’s looking for her sister, as the Doctor says, or is she psychic? Why does she seek out the Doctor at the beginning? Did she hear Clara’s voice in her head, and if so, how could she since Clara didn’t know there was even a crisis at that point? What exactly are those points of light that flutter around the trees? Why will the human race forget the entire incident? And why did Maebh’s sister disappear a year before, where has she been, how can she just return, and is that really her? Does it matter? Are these questions and some of the others that have been left dangling this series (such as the true identity of Gus the computer from Mummy On The Orient Express) going to be answered in the next two episodes? Does it have anything to do with Missy, a plot thread that will finally be addressed next week? These simply aren’t the type of things that should be going through a viewer’s head during the last minute of an episode.
In The Forest Of The Night has a lot going for it; it’s good-looking and exciting in places and gives us more of Clara and Danny’s relationship (although it seems that it hasn’t progressed much further than The Caretaker) and some good development for Clara (who is last seen in the Next Time trailer saying “Clara Oswald never existed!”), but it seems like much ado about nothing. Listen traveled this path masterfully, with the Doctor practically inventing a creature to chase (or did he?) but here it seems like a bit of a rehash, and there are far too many tangling threads for the episode to feel complete or satisfactory. It’s a shame, since we seemed to be going well there for a while. It is not the most disappointing episode of the series (Robot of Sherwood still holds that title) but it is an exercise at the fine art of chasing your tail. I can only hope the two-part finale, beginning next week, can shake off the problems this episode had and relieve at least some of these dangling plot threads. If it can, then maybe In The Forest Of The Night might be re-evaluated as a rocky transitional episode. As it is, it seems, like our heroes, lost in a vast wood.