This story in a nutshell: Killer shadows and songs from the river…
Tempestuous Temp: One of my favourite companions in one of my favourite stories, it really doesn’t get much better than this. Donna has been travelling with the Doctor for some time now so that tingle of ‘OH MY GOD!’ has diminished slightly but she’s still in awe of the places that he takes her. She makes intelligent observations, gags (‘maybe everybody is really, really quiet’) and compliments David Tennant’s Doctor by simply getting along with him and enjoying the ride without over emphasising either. Donna can tease the Doctor over a cry for help ‘with a kiss?’ without it coming across as a snide remark because there is no hint of sexual tension between the two characters. When the sonic screwdriver fails to open a door (‘It doesn’t do wood?’) Donna is capable of kicking it open, a skill developed over time to surprise straying boyfriends. The majority of the Doctors companions over the last couple of regenerations haven’t minded being handled by the Doctor but get too cosy with Donna and you’ll get a slap. Her reaction to the Doctor being called ‘pretty boy’ is spot on hilarious and it’s the effect that it has on her that makes ghosting so memorable. To her it is the most horrible thing she has ever witnessed. One of the reasons that Amy failed to work was because she failed to be affected by so much of the horror that she confronted but Catherine Tate never forgets that she is the audiences eyes and ears and makes every shock count. Unlike Amy, Donna knows when to stop being smart mouthed and shed a tear for those who are lost in their adventures. Having River recognise the Doctor but not Donna is the first (and very clever) indication that things aren’t going to end up well for my favourite temp. It works within the context of the story because it sets up the cliffhanger but once that is resolved it leaves the thread hanging ominously. Companions just don’t scream any more (everyone is far too sassy for that) and I had echoes of Elisabeth Sladen proudly declaring there was a reason for it (to let the audience know its time to be really scared) when Donna’s terrorising shriek sounded as she was snatched away from the TARDIS by the system. They got it so right with this companion. Whilst Turn Left is my favourite Catherine Tate performance, Forest of the Dead is probably her greatest challenge as an actress and she rises to the occasion magnificently. She has to convince in a very short space of time that Donna’s life with Lee and her kids is something that she is willing to cling on to for real life in order for the climax to impact when it is all wrenched away from her. Tate enjoys terrific chemistry with Jason Pitt and amongst all the chilling imagery and freaky edits there is a real warmth shared between them. Few scenes in Doctor Who have disturbed me as much as when Donna’s children are snatched away from her…and that is all down to Tate’s shocked performance. Despite the fact that they are separated throughout the second episode, the few scenes between Tennant and Tate during the climax reveal a chemistry between a Doctor and a companion the likes of which I haven’t seen since Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen.
Winding River: I never knew at the time just how important this story was going to turn out to be. River Song walks into the series with apparent foreknowledge of the Doctor’s future in what felt at the time to be astonishing nerve on Steven Moffat’s part. We would probably never get to experience the relationship with him that she describes. It still astonishes me that Moffat has had the opportunity to plot out her story over several seasons, telling the chronicle of her life backwards at the same time as playing out the Doctor’s subsequent meetings with her in a linear fashion. The complexities of time travel have never been more apparent than in the handling of this barmy relationship. It's Matt Smith’s Doctor that we associate with River Song but it pleases me that it all began with David Tennant, crossing eras with a confident stride. And to this day there has been nothing in Moffat’s cats cradle of plotting of River’s timeline that contradicts her death in this tale. It makes The Silence in the Library not only a terrific story in its own right but also a vital part of the shows future. Not many stories can boast that. In a moment of tension River tells Lux to put his visor on because she doesn’t fancy him…that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about her personality (if not her character). I love the mention of the crash of the Byzantium because Moffat would never have known at the time that he would have the chance to realise that story. Unburdened by later complications, obfuscations and disappointments, you might just feel more of a bind between the Doctor and River here than at any point in the future. I’ve heard people suggest that River is basically the female version of Jack (or built from the same Moffat mould) and when she touts a squareness gun, gets to kiss the Doctor and even sports a vortex manipulator in subsequent episodes its hard to fight the argument. At some point in the future River is going to be somebody that the Doctor trusts completely, so much so that he will give her his sonic screwdriver and tell her his name. Until she reveals that last piece of information the Doctor is sceptical but the disquieting look on his face afterwards sees a man who cannot fight the future that River describes. River isn’t lying when she says she has seen entire armies run away from the Doctor (A Good Man Goes to War) but I try and forget about that. Although I didn’t know it at the time, River punching the Doctor’s lights out and sacrificing her life for him proves to be her finest moment in the series. All the time the Doctor has known River he knew that she was going to end up dying in library and yet she only learns that upon her death. The catch with his first meeting with her being her last meeting with him is that he has to live with that knowledge with every subsequent meeting. Dressed angelically, River winds up in a technological version of heaven with all of her friends. As an ending to a character who would go on to have great significance, its gloriously transcendent.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘A 1000,000,000,000 lifeforms and silence in the library…’
‘There’s the real world and there’s the world of nightmares. What I want you to remember is this…the real world is a lie and your nightmares are real.’
‘Who’s the Doctor’ ‘The only story you will ever tell. If you survive…’
‘The forest of the Vashta Nerada. Pulped and printed and bound.’
‘This isn’t the real me. This isn’t my real body? But I’ve been dieting!’
‘I’m the Doctor and you’re in the biggest library in the universe. Look me up.’
‘Why do you even have handcuffs?’ ‘Spoilers…’
‘Time can be rewritten’ ‘Not those times. Not one line, don’t you dare.’
‘Is all-right special Time Lord code for really not all-right at all?’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I’m all-right too…’
- I adore libraries and the notion of having one on a planetary scale thrills me beyond compare. What’s especially great is that this could easily have been realised in classic Doctor Who with a few simple sets, a cloth backdrop (like, say, the one in The Aztecs that impressed the idea of space beyond the few sets) to suggest a little scale and some clever, world building Robert Holmes-esque dialogue (ala The Ribos Operation) to fill in the evocative background detail. However we are in the days of CGI and seamless matte work and as a result we are treated to some of the most majestic visuals yet seen in show. The curtain-raising shots of vertiginous stacks of books opening out to an impressively detailed planetscape of towers, spires and monorails drags you straight into this setting. Charlotte flying over the spiked towers and looking down is so effortlessly realised it might just give you vertigo. I can think of very few Doctor Who settings that have had me so immediately gripped like this; a supernaturally silent, planet wide library devoid of life. Lashings of atmosphere, ripe for nasties hiding in the shadows and evoking that classic series feeling of an adventure just waiting to happen. It somehow manages to be an agoraphobics nightmare (few locations have been afforded such a luxury of space) but by losing the characters inside a labyrinth of terror and capitalising on that feeling of desolation by removing all sense of population its also stiflingly claustrophobic. Huge spacious rooms with light bleeding through the windows and cutting through the dust. Forest of the Dead takes the CGI shots to another level, offering several gorgeous, dizzying pans across the library planet at dusk. The effect of the Doctor hanging from the bridge way should be goofy (it looks seamless but I also find super human acts like this hard to swallow – see all Horror of Fang Rock) but cutting to Charlotte watching it on television and smiling at his heroic nature makes it work. The library planet lit up at night is truly something to behold. My other half has been complaining about alien planets not looking alien enough but I think even he would be satisfied with this.
- Moffat just loves telling his stories out of sequence, doesn’t he? At this stage it was an endearing idiosyncrasy rather than an overused irritant and having Donna and the Doctor burst into a little girls dream is a fascinating way to open the story. Immediately there are several mysteries posed to be explained. When we eventually catch up with this point in the story we expect to see a little girl and the mystery deepens as the Doctor and Donna are confronted with a security camera.
- Interfaces posing as modern art with a real head implanted into the system to convey the information. Not only a whopping great clue as to the identity of CAL but proof that that Moffat is continuing his macabre mixture of the horrific and the mundane (gas masked zombies, killer statues).
- Colin Salmon. Steve Pemberton. Alex Kingston. David Tennant. Catherine Tate. Few Doctor Who stories can boast a cast that phenomenal and it’s the only time since season two’s The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit that the cast has been bettered (with The Fires of Pompeii only just lagging behind).
- Often my favourite Doctor Who monsters exploit or personify something everyday to make their invasion into the audiences nightmares all the more insidious. Dummies, doppelgangers, statues, maggots, spiders, nightmares themselves, memory…all exploited by Doctor Who. It astonishes me in a show that was as low budget as Doctor Who that nobody has capitalised on the horror of nasties embodying shadows. Like all the best ideas, it is so obvious and so simple but only when somebody has pointed it out. Given that light is vital to out very existence we can never escape the presence of shadows and so it is one monstrosity that kids cannot escape when the TV has been switched off. There must have been children who were terrified to turn their lights off when this was aired, afraid to be lost in the darkness of their bedrooms. Again it's something that classic Doctor Who could have had a field day with – considering they had access to some of the most prodigious lightning designers of the time (check out Genesis of the Daleks) and it seems a shame that nobody thought of the idea sooner. Piranhas in the shadows is an evocative description, stepping into one will see your flesh ripped clean off your bones. Suggesting that the dust in the sunbeams are the Vashta Nerada gnashing their teeth is enough to make anyone’s skin crawl on a sunny day. You’ve got the perfect explanation for a missing persons case (‘not everyone comes back out of the dark…’) and the assertion that it is not every shadow but it could but any shadow solidifies this as one of Moffat’s creepiest ideas. Walking skeletons in spacesuits with the final words of the victims ringing out over and over and shadows spilling out from its feet…on occasion that man is a genius.
- Having Charlotte experiencing her life within the system as the normal life of a little girl, spending time in her living room colouring and watching television and waiting for dinner, is an inspired idea. Throughout the first episode it’s a complete mystery and a wonderfully jarring wrench out of the main narrative. The way the two storylines invade each other (the Doctor appearing on the television screen, Charlotte floating into the library) provides some great moments.
- Few Doctor Who episodes have the time to indulge in a hair raising set pieces like the death of Miss Evangelista these days. They whip by at such a pace that there is little time for moments of unnerving silence and atmosphere. If you think back to classic Who (something that I am doing an awful lot throughout this adventure and with good reason) it is packed to the brim with characters like Gantry (The Daleks’ Masterplan) Van Letyens (Fury from the Deep), Ransome (Spearhead from Space), Chub (Robots of Death), Stimpson (The Leisure Hive) and Grigory (Revelation of the Daleks) with memorable death set pieces. It’s an atmosphere building art that the new series has slowly let slip through its fingers.
- Ghosting is another intriguing and haunting idea that Moffat throws into this script and utilises it to make the Vashta Nerada as terrifyingly memorable as possible.
- In a time when we have to grasp a hold of pre credits sequences as mini episodes so we can enjoy a cliffhanger of sorts, the closing sequence of The Silence in the Library is something to be cherished. A scary monsters, tension, excitement and the potential death of a companion. It's insane and uniquely terrifying and I had the imagery rattling around in my head for an entire week in a way that few Doctor Who episodes manage. Bravo.
- Donna’s virtual reality nightmare inside the system comes out of left field and proves to be a riveting divergence from the main storyline. I love the way that Charlotte flicks through the channels like so many viewers do at home (although hopefully not when Doctor Who is on), watching the action in the library unfold from various locations before switching suddenly to what appears to be a hospital drama with Donna Noble being admitted and convalescing. The imagery this thread boasts endures; Miss Evangelista cloaked on a dark street corner, the play frame being menaced by clones of the same children, the portentous red light bleeding through the front room windows to signal Armageddon’s a’callin.
- ‘That is how time progresses here in the manner of the dream…’ Within this scenario Moffat gets to comment on how television cuts out so much flabby padding within a story by jumping to the important events. By having Donna comment on how she always seems to be where the story needs her to be rather than living her life in the usual linear pattern, Moffat is showing how television employs section breaks to keep things moving. By showing us snapshots of Donna’s life from meeting Lee, getting married and having children in less than a minute he also gets to observe how domestic scenarios are handled unconvincingly on television. Viewers don’t have the patience to watch these events unfold at the laborious pace that they do in real life and want to get to the good stuff as soon as possible. With Charlotte switching channels and hiding behind cushions when things get too scary this script is saying a lot about television conventions and the habits of the audience watching. There’s also something to the idea that because Miss Evangelista is intelligent in the virtual reality scenario, her looks have been wiped clean. That genius comes at the price of character flaws.
- I will never get bored of that Squareness gun. Askew squares cut out of set walls is a visual that will never get stale.
- The sudden reveal of the Doctor Moon hanging in the sky linking the two stories comes at exactly the right moment. This is a magnificently structured script.
- Moffat’s playing creepy games with his audience again. I never thought he would better that moment in The Doctor Dances when the Doctor reveals that the tape has come to an end the child is still talking…but ‘there are five people still alive in this room…so why are there six?’ made my skin crawl in a wonderful way. I hadn’t realised at all despite the figure being clearly visible in some shots.
- Lots of Murray Gold magic this time around. The stirring cliffhanger music never fails to rouse me, the flute score winningly introduces us to Donna’s virtual world and just how creepy is that electronic sting when she meets Miss Evangelista in the park?
- What a bloodthirsty lot we have become. After Moffat’s glorious ‘everybody lives!’ conclusion to The Empty Child two parter I have heard groans that he has been trying chase that feeling ever since. Here he gets to have his cake and eat it. The Doctor saving 4000 odd people here feels like a moment of triumph but littering the library are also the skeletal corpses of the victims of the Vashta Nerada.
- A gravity platform might feel like the show taking advantage of its new found effects triumphs but let's not forget that this idea has been stolen from Underworld. Doctor Who has always been this ambitious when it comes to effects even if it hasn't always had the money to realise them this well.
- There’s something magical about the fairytale notion of Charlotte Abigail Lux being plugged into a system where she can wander every storybook ever written. Long before the whimsical tales of Amelia Pond, Steven Moffat was toying with that dreamlike concepts. Given that Charlotte is family, it makes perfect sense that Lux would have kept her identity a secret.
- The (first) climax to this story features some of my favourite moments in the show since the show return to our screens. The performances of David Tennant and Alex Kingston as River sacrifices her life for the Doctor and thus cements their future relationship are sensational (as good as Kingston and Smith can be there have never reached a high of this magnitude). The sequence of Donna screaming that she will find Lee as her world is torn away from her is seared onto my mind. The two braided together sees the series reaching an stirring apex, one of the few times it has reduced me to tears.
- The cruel irony of Lee’s stutter preventing his reunion with Donna…
- Just when you think Moffat cannot possibly throw anything more at you and River’s narration closes the story the director slowly glides towards the sonic screwdriver to reveal one last, celebratory twist. The Doctor gave River the screwdriver for a reason. To save her life. Charlotte’s smile to the Doctor mirrors my own every time I watch this. It’s a massively triumphant climax.
- My one complaint about this otherwise peerless adventure is that Steve Pemberton is wasted on a somewhat thankless role. Watching The League of Gentlemen you can see what a brilliant, versatile actor this man is. To have him play somebody that features so heavily but doesn’t stretch his acting muscles feels like a waste of talent.
The Shallow Bit: Lee McAvoy can stutter my name any day of the week.
Result: Bridging the gap between classic and NuWho like so few contemporary adventures do, this is something very special indeed. If there was ever an argument to be made for keeping the two part stories an integral part of the show then this blockbuster is all you need. The first part is the perfect scene setter; packed full of mysteries, introducing us to all the major players, brewing a stifling atmosphere and relishing in some terrifying notions. With the advent of Donna’s ‘death’ the concluding part is one knock out scene after another as the narrative insatiably unravels and the surprises keep coming. As an overall piece of work, it remains my favourite Steven Moffat set of scripts; every line and every shot integral to the greater whole. When you look at what he is juggling; a library planet, killer shadows, virtual reality, the Doctor and Donna facing their own futures, a post dated love story, the fairytale adventures of a dying child…this is a remarkably packed script that brings all of these elements together for an unforgettable conclusion. At the same time Moffat throws in lots of ideas like ghosting, the nodes, walking skeletons whilst still having time to make some intelligent comments on the conventions of television. Euros Lyn directs with his usual panache but handed a script this dense he rises even further to the occasion, packing the story with unforgettable imagery, a terrific pace and some spine tingling performance pieces. David Tennant, Catherine Tate and Alex Kingston were rarely better than they are here and the remaining guest cast provide excellent support. This is the astonishing standard that Steven Moffat can reach when he is not propping up the entire show and only contributing one story per season. Unburdened by arcs and seasons that rely on non linear madness to protect their surprises, this is when he had the chance to simply revel in being creative. In a way I wish we could go back to those days because he has rarely achieved anything quite this unique and beautifully formed since. Series four notches up another top ten story for me: 10/10