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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review: Doctor Who, "In the Forest of the Night"

This week's episode is the culmination in a trilogy of brand new writers to Doctor Who. This was an exciting time in the history of the new series, as it's often rare to see new voices creep in beyond the established writing crew that makes up the "Moffat team" (Mark Gatiss, Steven Thompson, Toby Whithouse, Chris Chibnall, Gareth Roberts). While this approach was a good deal different than the Davies era (where old Russell T. would just re-write everyone's script to his liking, producing wildly disparate results), it provided a sense of quality control that kept each series from entering the embarrassing low-lows of that previous tenure.

This latter half of Series 8 has been a bit of a startling break from tradition in that sense. Peter Harness, Jamie Mathieson, and Frank Cotrell Boyce are all new to the series, and the fact that their episodes have all been presented in this large a block is the first time I can remember new scribes being showcased back to back to back in this particular show. It's an exciting time for somewhat more experimental storytelling and is right in line with Steven Moffat's guiding writing principle for this season: challenging oneself. 

How did they all stack up? Harness' "Kill The Moon" had a nice atmosphere and dug into an interesting moral quandary, both of which I felt overcame a couple of execution issues, particularly in the episode's third act. Mathieson's work was an outright home-run, which our team has spoken about ad nauseum, but I will reiterate, "Mummy on the Orient Express" and "Flatline" were both THAT good. Now we come to Boyce, the screenwriter of movies like Millions and 24 Hour Party People and a novelist, whose take on the Doctor was the one that I felt held the most promise. The last time we had a screenwriter of some film renown, it gave us the incredible "Vincent and the Doctor". In retrospect, I guess someone had to fall on their face.

When first reading about the premise of "In the Forest of the Night", it sounds very similar to the M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening, with trees and plants as the central problem. Though despite how utterly awful that film is, its still less stupid than the offering we got last night from Boyce. Sadly, every series of Doctor Who has one big low point. Series 7 had "A Town Called Mercy", Series 6 had "Night Terrors", and I could continue ad nauseum all the way to the beginning of the show's run, its unavoidable that a misstep would occur eventually, particularly given just how strong Series 8 has been thus far.

Just what exactly does Boyce's effort get so wrong? Unlike the aforementioned "A Town Called Mercy", or its preceding and equally not strong "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" which both suffer due to being an singular idea that's stretched into 42 minutes of television with little else to support it, "In the Forest of the Night" is actually bursting with ideas that never get an opportunity to breathe. Let's examine everything the episode tackles: a world covered in trees mysteriously, a young girl suffering from a possible mental illness regrets the disappearance of her sister, that same girl is the medium by which an ancient power communicates with the rest of the world, Danny and Clara's relationship drama gets examined just a bit more, the Doctor-Clara relationship gets some play, there's a Red Riding Hood theme, and a misfired subplot related to animals escaped from the London Zoo. Any smaller combination of these (short of the last one) could have made for a workable episode worth exploring. But when they're mixed all together in a confused mish-mash, you have one of the most formless and unsatisfying episodes of Doctor Who in quite some time.

Beyond a terribly confused and overstuffed narrative, there was a matter of execution that also fell to the wayside. Its fairly understood that when Clara and Danny were cast into the role of teachers at Coal Hill School, the students would play a considerable part in the proceedings this year. With Courtney's appearances in "The Caretaker" and "Kill The Moon" we were given a pretty well-rounded character that conveyed her own agency. Conversely, there was little of that present with the more anonymous supporting child actors in Boyce's script. The dialogue given to them, and the way in which its presented, is the sort of cloying stuff you'd see in the Sarah Jane Adventures and falling into an "all ages trap" of tone-deafness in their individual voices. Each student sounds more like what a middle age man thinks a child should sound like, rather than forming a naturalized voice for the varying characters. This is a dreadful cardinal sin that many seasoned writers fall into, even very good ones, and Boyce is just the latest victim.

The one character who is given a solid focus, Maebh, the young girl whose potential mental illness is instead revealed to be her communication with the ancient spirits of the planet, is problematic. Not so much in the way she is portrayed but in the underlying message that is formed around her. From the on-set of the episode, we're led to believe that she is suffering from a mental illness, and when the Doctor is informed by Clara that she is being medicated for this condition, he is immediately aghast that treatment is even considered an option. Darren Mooney, in his review of the episode, states that this stance of the Doctor is worrying in that it underlines a wrong-headed philosophy that if we treat a person's mental illness, it removes "what makes them special". I agree with this analysis, and while I'm okay with the Doctor taking this stance in a roundabout way, I can't quite abide the fact that Clara and Danny's characters are somewhat sacrificed in order to prove that the Doctor is right and that they are in turn trying to stifle Maebh's "gift". It's an uncomfortable stance for the series to take, and unlike the debatable metaphor of "Kill The Moon", the screed is much clearer here, particularly given all of the allusions to William Blake that are hammered home throughout, his seminal poem, "The Tyger", and his own history of mental illness.

"In the Forest of the Night" also displays a sense of resignation throughout that seems out of step with the series as a whole. While the Doctor is certainly a darker character in this incarnation, it's awfully hard to imagine him ever so willfully giving up on humanity, even for the split second he did in this episode. The Doctor as "the man that fights the monsters" would never immediately turn his back on humanity as completely lost just because he's uncertain as to how he can stop mass destruction. Nor would Clara, the very person who wanted to find another way from killing the beast inside the Moon, send the Doctor away, assuming the worst. And while we have seen Clara's capacity to lie increase a bit over the past few episodes, to portray her as someone that would actively deceive her students, plays equally falsely. Even Danny's character swing feels a bit inauthentic, though I appreciate the overall lack of dramatic tension between he and Clara regarding her adventuring with him, his serene attitude somewhat rings an odd note, if not a wholly unwelcome one. To be fair, I appreciate Danny pulling back on the "if you lie to me, we're done" hard-line that seemed to be hanging over Clara's head the past few episodes.

This is an episode that is attempting to replicate the feel of a fairy tale, down to even including literal fairy like creatures buzzing around a child's head. It's an admirable effort, and furthers the idea, as always, that Doctor Who can literally be any kind of show it strives to be, But at the same time, the quality has to be there, and to be frank, "In the Forest of the Night" is an outright mess, from its narrative lack of focus, to some painfully out of character moments, and a downright cheeseball ending that would make even biggest sap retch in horror. A good argument could be made that "In the Forest of the Night" is a direct counterpoint to "Kill the Moon" with its two celestial bodies acting as a threat to Earth's survival, and some varying levels of moral subtext. But the key factor that places the two episodes as diametrical opposites is that Harness' script is right in line with the spirit of the series and enjoyable on its own terms. Boyce's work here is not. I guess that really does make them perfect counterpoints.

Despite a few visual touches and allusions that I found appealing, "In the Forest of the Night" is the kind of episode that makes me wonder why I even watch this show.

Thoughts to Ponder:

- As much as I'm ripping into Frank Boyce, debuting director Sheree Folkson was really no better. One particularly painful shot came when the Doctor is explaining the trees presence to the students on the TARDIS. It takes a really bad director to make Peter Capaldi look like a hammy performer. 

- There's nothing really worth discussing here, so instead how about that preview for next week?

- Is it possible that we might be returning to the Doctor's timeline from "The Name of the Doctor"? One particular setting looks a lot like it.

- We're going to learn who Missy is finally as well it seems!

- Also, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and Osgood are also making their return.

- Either way, I imagine the Anti-Moffat crowd will probably hate what's on offering next week, particularly if it returns to Clara's "Impossible Girl" status or questions surrounding it. But for me, this could be REALLY promising as someone who holds that arc as one of my favorites from the entire series.
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