Thursday, 27 November 2014

In the Forest of the Night written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and directed by Sheree Folkson

This story in a nutshell: Betray paradise...

Indefinable: I honestly don't understand why the two extremes of humanity are ignored in favour of twenty-something young girls all of the time (actually yes I do, it is easier to write romance into the series that way) but I would love for their to be a child or elderly companion at some point in the series. The series flirted with the idea with young Amelia Pond and it does so again here with Maebh and the response from the Doctor is fascinating and very entertaining to watch. Capaldi's Doctor in particular gets on very well with children (as exemplified with his uncomplicated relationship with Courtney earlier in the season) simply because, like them, he says what he thinks and does what he wants. He doesn't want to get involved with the dreary mechanics of human relationships when there are the wonders of the universe to see. He'd rather ride a rollercoaster than have a hug. He understands children because he listens to them. It's the gentlest showing of Capaldi by far in season eight, the one where the Doctor behaves most reasonably and human. I missed the asshole. It's also one of those rare events where the Doctor has to do nothing in order for the planet to survive, just realise what is going on (see also: Warriors' Gate and Planet of the Ood).

Impossible Girl: Here's our chance to see how Clara and Danny would cope as parents in a sticky situation and the net result is an awful lot of bickering, some bad choices and a general desire to stick by each others decisions in the end. I think they would do fine.

Mr Pink: Probably the strongest showing for Danny in season eight because like the sun peeking through a rain cloud he is allowed to show sense of humour behind all that sulky dourness. Danny Pink the teacher is certainly more appealing than Danny Pink the lover. He's fun and he's absolutely rock solid when it comes to dealing with and protecting children. He would make a wonderful father, I think. Danny doesn't have to do a great deal beyond being brave and shielding the children and yet he performs both of those roles admirably. I think Moffat made a cardinal error in making him Clara's boyfriend above all else because that highlighted all the joyless aspects of his personality. He's come across as somebody who fails to see the excitement in having all of time and space at your fingertips. And yet in Forest we have a glimpse of a man who could have had adventures, who has real spirit and life in him. That's the Danny Pink I would have liked to have known. Before this episode I probably would have written him off as an entirely failed experiment but after this I'm left shaking my head at a missed opportunity. Who would have thought singing his way through a forest with children would have been his brightest moment.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Has he even been CRB checked?' - what a suspicious world we live in. What a lovely dig at that paranoia.
'I hope I'm right. It would be slightly awkward if the world was destroyed at this point.'

Dreadful Dialogue: 'So you think that's how Spring begins. With a group message on tree Facebook?'
'When I get stressed I forget my anger management' would be tough line for anybody to pull off, let alone somebody under sixteen.
'Can we take another selfie, sir?' - not a line I ever wanted to hear in Doctor Who.

The Good:
* I thoroughly enjoyed the pre-titles sequences and was perfectly convinced that we were onto a winner. In fact, I text Simon during the titles and told him that I thought he was going to really enjoy this episode. When will I learn not to tempt fate like that. Walking into the TARDIS from a child's point of view is something that has never been done before and Folkson captures the magic and the scale of the craft with real skill. She shoots from below so Capaldi seems like a giant through Maebh's eyes and the tracking shot around the gallery in the console room is gorgeous. I don't think there will ever be a time when this console room isn't a work of magic for me. The gorgeous, leafy location work is immediately stunning too, driving home the idea of Little Red Riding Hood being lost in the forest. And the pan up Nelson's Column is as bold and innovative as a similar shot up the statue of the Monoid in The Ark was in it's day, opening out onto a stunning landscape of modern day London engulfed in greenery. My jaw was on the floor, this was going to be something quite special indeed.
* Kids are given quite a hard time in fiction these days. Nobody wants to watch perfect children behaving in reasonable manner so more often than not soaps such as Eastenders and Waterloo Road sensationalise how dreadful kids can be. In essence, I like what Cottrell Boyce is doing with his group of students in this story. A bunch of misfits that don't fit in being brought together by two teachers that really care about their emotional growth (don't groan) and a situation that allows them to work together to prove their worth. Without ever bring gripping, that is a worthy journey to take these kids on. What hampers the experiment is the general whininess of the kids and the weaker performances. Ruby's facetiousness in the classroom is amusing but her panic attacks really start to grate after a while (it remind me of Catherine Tate's 'Oh my God children we're all going to die!').
* What a shame that Barry Letts wasn't around to watch this episode. He might have had some issues with how it was presented dramatically but I think he would have wholeheartedly approved of the ecological message that is spread. And so do I. I have no issues with the imaginative leap that the planet would rise up and try and protect us from harm. Trees already do a massive amount to allow the human race to survive so it isn't that much of a leap in the Doctor Who universe (where anything can happen, trust me) to assume that they would step up and protect us. If I'm honest I would have had the danger build up and strike throughout the episode and saved the pop up forest for the climax - it would still have it detractors but it would at least be a dramatically satisfying piece instead of an extended coda of a story that has already taken place. Trees are cool seems to be the message and I endorse that 100 percent. Doctor Who with a moral message doesn't have to be a lecture. I thought the dig at all the tree chopping was handled with quite a light touch...until the 'be less scared, be more trusting' phone message. That encouraged my dinner to reappear.
* There were some playful moments of music that reminded me strongly of Sherlock.

The Bad:

* Apparently sleepovers at museums are a genuine event that takes place...but that doesn't make the idea any less hokey. It's a rather bizarre way of keeping all the kids together away from their parents as the disaster strikes.
* I love the ambition of Doctor Who. It is something that you have to admire even when you are watching through your fingers as the giant ant creatures of Vortis clank into cameras, big man T-Rex bursts from a wooden brick wall in Central London, a giant squid rises from the depths and mounts a refinery or a lumbering sea creature slops green paint all over the pristine walls of a Sea Base. It has been suggested that the show has always been under funded, which is probably true but has anyone taken the time to consider that that might be because the writers aren't tailoring the stories to the amount of money that is available? I guess if you never try and push the boat out you will have a very safe show but sometimes you have to wonder if the writers have ever seen an episode of Doctor Who before. I can't bring myself to dislike the show when it tries and fails because frankly it has spent so much of life trying and getting it right (or nearly right). What I do object to in the new series is when the show is tailored to a specific (and far more impressive than the classic series) budget and it still attempts to try something that it will never pull off. In the Forest of the Night is supposedly set in a Central London that has been contaminated with foliage - that is the sort of notion that a big budget film would have difficulty trying to bring alive. The lack of imagination is staggering - this feels as though it has been filmed in a forest with a few random props strewn about to convince that it is Central London. Invasion of the Dinosaurs might be staggeringly over ambitious for the time but they went to the effort of filming a deserted London for the first episode and creating wonderful miniature environments for the puppet dinosaurs to roam about in. There is no such creativity here. And where are the people? Cottrell Boyce tries to cover this with a line about everybody being told to stay at home but would that really be adhered to by the entire population of London? Really? Roaming gangs of people, that's what was needed. I know it would fight against the lyrical, poetic atmosphere that the episode is promoting but it would feel a hell of a lot more convincing. My trouble with how the scenario is presented (and it could have been a gripping one) was that it was so unconvincing that I was dragged out of the story too often. It is the effects shots of London streets under a canopy of trees and the Earth stained green from a distance that do most of the work but these are scant seconds of this episodes running time. It isn't often that I will criticise a new series production for its visuals but a lack of inventiveness on this scale is pretty inexcusable. I never felt I was in London with a forest dropping by to visit, I felt as thought I was in a forest with scant elements of London dropping by to add some colour.
* Maeve happens to be from Danny's school party and happens to stumble upon the TARDIS during the point when this crisis has struck? That's a whopping great co-incidence. If I was a paranoid man I would detect the hand of Missy guiding this but I think this genuinely a eye rolling piece of narrative flukery.
* Maebh's mum didn't realise that her entire street has been swamped with a forest until she opened the door? No wonder she lost both her daughters. Even the cubes were noticed faster than this. Is it reasonable that the only other person that we see exploring the dense forest of Central London is this woman? Like night following day you predict that Maebh and her mother will meet up before the climax despite the size of the Capitol and what a maze of foliage it has become. Nothing that has been through a half decent script editor should be this predictable.
* It was quite a bold idea to front a Doctor Who story that had no big bad to fight. I can't think of a single time when that has been done before so kudos for trying something completely new. Saying that I think it was a mistake because once you have gotten over the shock of the setting there is relatively little else to hang your interest on. There's a token wildlife issue at the heart of the episode which is so throwaway I wonder why they bothered (oh yeah because this would literally be 45 minutes of wandering around a forest chatting otherwise) and brings with it its own problems (Why would the forest appearing mean that they suddenly escaped from the local zoo? How does an iron fence stop a tiger and a pack of wolves? How does a small girl out run pack animals?). Aside from that the danger of this episode has been dealt with before the story even began. The forests arrival was the solution. So it's three quarters of an hour hanging around with kiddiewinks waiting for the characters to realise that the work has already been done for them. Hardly the most gripping way to spend a Saturday night. Ultimately what In the Forest of the night proves is that Doctor Who works best when there is a palpable threat at the heart of the story. At one point Cottrell Boyce does try and present the deforestation team as something for Maebh to fear but since we have already been warned of their arrival the shock of this moment is completely blunted. It's the equivalent of saying 'I'm going to jump out at you' before doing it. A bit like Nelson's Column falling over (sacrilege, darling) - false tension.
* What is up with the solar system? We've had the sun and the moon try and take us out this season.
* The whole scene of Clara telling the Doctor to leave is peculiarly characterised. Is this an acknowledgement that the Doctor was right in Kill the Moon to leave the Earth and its people to their fate and make their own decisions? Has this Doctor suddenly developed a conscience and a need to protect the planet?  Because the way this is presented is the polar opposite of the climax of Kill the Moon and the two do not sit comfortably in the same season a few episodes apart. And as for Clara's admission that she doesn't want to be the last of her kind...just bizarre. I felt this was contractual obligation to add some character depth to the story rather than something that sprung naturally from the story. Not every episode has to say profound things about the regulars, especially when it is handled as half-heartedly as this.
* Simon walked out of the room at the school project moment where the kids gathered around the console to save the Earth, exclaiming 'oh fuck off!' It was the point where I thought he had given up on Doctor Who altogether. Fortunately, he really enjoyed Dark Water. The less said about his reaction to the final scene the better.
* The forest just vanishes when it is no longer needed? This is the closest the show has ever come to embracing magic because there is relatively little science to back it up. Why didn't the trees have something to say during all those invasions? Apparently the human super power is forgetting these miraculous events. That wouldn't be a problem if they weren't becoming more epic in scale as the series continues. By the end of this season a dinosaur roamed Victorian London, a forest consumed the Earth and the dead return to life as Cybermen. That is some selective amnesia.
* Is the return of Annabel the nadir of NuWho? Has an narrative trick ever been both this predictable and irksome?

Result: I suppose I should be careful what I ask for. It's no secret that I was starting to find the Moffat era of Doctor Who an extremely tiresome experience, especially during the latter half of series seven and that that ambivalence infected the first half of season eight (and with gems such as Deep Breath, Robot of Sherwood and The Caretaker it is easy to see why). However something rather miraculous happened around the middle of the season that took my breath away - the season (and era) started to get a second wind. I was asking for new writers with fresh ideas rather than relying on the old hacks who have had their day. I was asking for edgier, more innovative storytelling that push the envelope and did something original. I was asking for writers to engage with the characters of the Doctor and Clara. The triple whammy of Kill the Moon, Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline was the best run of episodes we have had for simply ages and my faith in the series was starting to build again. Then came In the Forest of the Night. Me and my big mouth. A new writer? Check. Innovative storytelling? The whole world gets turned into a giant forest - check. Something original? There is no danger whatsoever - check. And yet these things become weaknesses, not strengths. In the Forest of the Night feels as though it is about five drafts away from being something very special. However you would need to times the budget by ten, jettison the climax and completely revolutionise the narrative and characters in order for it to work. And tone down the kids. It's not all a disaster though or certainly not as much of one as some people have made out. Whilst the money doesn't support the bold concept there are still some lovely moments of direction. Capaldi relates wonderfully to children and there are some amusing moments. Danny Pink even cracks a smile and starts singing. And you have to give credit for trying something this different even if they don't manage to pull it off. Ultimately it feels like a waste of an hour. Cottrell Boyce has written a puzzle where the solution is that the problem has been solved before the story even began. We're just waiting for the Doctor and chums to catch up. Building to something this anti-climactic is never a smart move. In the Forest of the Night is being compared with Fear Her and The Doctor's Daughter as one of the worst episodes since the show returned. I'd say it's too inoffensive for such a bold claim but it is still a pretty lackadaisical hour of television. Frank Cottrell Boyce spends an hour trying to convince you of a danger that isn't there: 4/10


Anonymous said...

I think this review is fair enough, although I'd probably give the episode 5/10 myself for daring to be different. On the other hand, I do think this was the only weak episode in the excellent second half of Season 8. I hope the reviews of "Flatline" and "Dark Water" will be up soon because I think they're some of the best of New Who and would be interested to hear your thoughts.

JB said...

To me, it felt very CBBC, what with the London setting, not much tension and lots of kids. If the timing were different, it would have been better suited to Sarah Jane Adventures.

Edward Azad said...

What strikes me is how Doctor Who is beginning to resemble the uneven quality of American TV, despite airing fewer episodes. With such long hiatuses one would think you'd have unlimited time to refine the scripts.

I, too, felt Dark Water held some redemption even though the series badly needs some new blood!

Samwise said...

I feel there is one point that you missed that I really want to point out, which is the episodes secondary message, which I loved. As you mentioned, the story does focus on the emotional growth of the children with...mixed results. but I loved that it also highlighted how wrong it is to assume these different, or even what we would call disabled, children, aren't broken. The Doctor berating the two teachers for their dismissiveness of Maebh's voices and intuition was a moment I very nearly applauded. it's Smith and Tennant's "Everyone is important," but applied on a specific and tangible scale, and one that needed to be said. it's just a shame nobody will be watching it again.

David Pirtle said...

"He would make a wonderful father, I think."

And you said you didn't see what Clara liked in Danny Pink. I think that what you like about him in this episode and what you dislike about him in previous episodes are precisely the same things. He's not interested in adventuring through time and space. He's grounded. While Clara and the Doctor are obsessed with figuring out what's going on and how they can stop it, Danny just wants to make sure his charges are safe, which, in retrospect, was the only actual thing that needed doing.

I also really enjoyed the Doctor's scenes with Maebh. Again I agree that the Doctor with a child companion would be very interesting, especially this Doctor, but of course that won't happen. I don't think it's so much because of wanting romance to be shoehorned into the show (though there is that, too) as it is because the showrunners are worried that a child regular would make adult viewers see the show as too CBBC, and an older companion would make young viewers tune out.

Big Finish proved that a mature companion can be incredible, of course. I'd love to see what they'd do with a preteen actor, if they could find one that could convincingly read the lines.