"There are very good, solid, scientific reasons for being really quite frightened just now."
For this season of Doctor Who, Ross Miller and Kwame Opam will be sounding off on each episode in a series of emails we'll be publishing on the site. This week it's "In the Forest of the Night" (warning: spoilers ahead). Check out our previous recaps: "Deep Breath," "Into the Dalek," "Robots of Sherwood," "Listen," "Time Heist," "The Caretaker," "Kill the Moon," "Mummy on the Orient Express," and "Flatline."
Ross: I'd love to know who got to watch an entire forest pop up out of nowhere — if not in London overnight then maybe the United States in the middle of the afternoon. But sure enough, that's what happened in this episode, and no one is sure why except maybe for a girl who's been taking medication to get rid of the voices in her head.
That's the episode in a nutshell, and it's a fun idea. The Doctor doesn't know what's going on because the sonic screwdriver can't read wood. Are the trees getting ready to take over the world... or is something less sinister and cynical? In the end, it's a "shield" (c.f. the scene where flamethrowers prove futile) and the best course of action is nothing at all — just let nature run its course and be happy humanity gets to be saved in the process.
I'm gonna limit my nitpicks to two broad points. Narratively, there's a lot of fluff in this episode, from a recurring concern about nut allergies to a mother that is presented as if she knows more about what's going on (but is really just a concerned mother... probably like everyone else's parents that we didn't see) and the dead sister that either gives the little girl psychic powers or... I don't know what, that was very bizarre. That's nitpick one.
Two, there's too much false drama here. Is the Doctor really going to abandon earth? Is Clara and the human race really going to die, negating all future inalterable "fixed points in time" that necessitate the human race live on? The reason I nitpick is because we had a pretty strong concept that's been weighted down by all this excess, as if no one was confident enough to let the plot stand on its own.
As much as I wished for Danny to be a future companion, it seems clear that's not where this is heading. I admire the steadfast characterization and the need to provide Clara a foil, but I have a hard time personally believing Danny (and in fact all those schoolchildren) have virtually no interest in traveling through time and space. He was a soldier who's seen the worst of humanity, and that's soured him from exploring the universe?
Random thought: if trees can recreate themselves en masse, why does anyone care about deforestation in this reality? Is it now just a concern of not pissing off the Lorax? Is M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening a documentary?!
Kwame: I liked this episode enough, though as you mention there are some weird problems. That's probably this season's cardinal sin, trying to tell big stories that feel a little all over the place. What's most important, though, is that this was a companion to "Kill the Moon." We have a similarly bizarre problem that seemingly threatens Earth's future in all possible timelines. We have a similar resolution, wherein the best course of action is to do nothing, despite humanity's resolution to basically kill it with fire Hank Scorpio-style.
The big differences here are 1) the plot is Earthbound, making the stakes feel that much more intimate, and 2) Clara's decision to absolve the Doctor of his protector status by saying it's ok for him to save himself. On its face, I thought the moment made a lot of sense for Clara's character and her arc, especially since this season is so clearly a character study of our two leads. After stepping so confidently into the Doctor's shoes last week, she outright rejects his way of life by saying she doesn't want to be the last of her kind. She's willing to accept humanity's fate, however cruel it is. She's her own person. I can respect that. That moment was only accentuated by the Doctor parroting her words: "I walk your Earth. I breathe your air." By asserting herself, she (knowingly or not) puts the Doctor in full on Doctor mode. She's doing what she's done so well all season, which is to make the Doctor do some heroic good. Or at least want to, since it didn't matter in the end.
And then I just thought to myself, Jesus, Clara, way to just give up there. For someone who brings out the good in the Doctor, that's kind of a crappy tack to take. I wanted her to figure it out. I wanted her to come humanity's defense, as opposed to the Doctor lamenting our abuse of our planet's trees (which really came across as ham-fisted and message-y). I wanted her to get it right in a way she failed to do in "Kill the Moon."
With that in mind, it's amazing how much energy the episode expended on painting her in a pretty poor light, especially compared to our white knight Danny Pink. She's kind of a neglectful, unsupportive teacher, whereas he's diligent in his duties to his kids. She lies a lot, especially to those she cares about. Danny may be a little hapless, but he'll at least be there for you with a flashlight and a well-timed front-flip when you need him, and you can count on him to be straight with you. At the end of the day, both the Doctor and Clara are dark characters, even if Clara is a little bit more human. All this makes me wonder what Big Bad Missy has in store for her, because it can't be good.
Two more things. First, yeah I have no idea about Maebh and her sister. I'm not sure if she died, but that last scene made no sense to me. Which feels like a shame, since we're made to want a lot from the character and the narrative never really lets her deliver. Second, in an episode with so many random kids, where the hell was Courtney?
Ross: Courtney has transferred schools to get away from all the monster madness of this one.
I don't really have much else to say. So let's talk about next week: Clara the Impossible Girl — the girl we first met far into the future as a failed Dalek conversion — is once again apparently impossible (in that she never existed or is fake or is acting or is a moon egg monster baby hatchling or...?).
I'm excited for the two parter. Finally! Answers! Well, I'm hopeful at least. I have a lot to say about Doctor Who finales but I'll save that for next time.
Kwame: Yes! I kind of figured there would be more to the multiple histories of Clara, but who knows? Anytime things can supremely timey-wimey, I get a little worried. Did last season's events change her more than anticipated? We'll just have to wait and see.