In the Forest of the Night
In the Forest of the Blight or,
Something tedious this way grows
|The Doctor really isn't comfortable with kids. Screenshot from "In the Forest of the Night". Screenshot from "In the Forest of the Night." Doctor Who copyright © 2014 BBC.|
You might not think it possible, but Steven Moffat's Doctor Who keeps getting dumber.
It's not the ersatz science and history, or that the story has no lasting consequences (though that Moffat trope has grown really tiresome), nor even that all but about a dozen of London's teeming millions are nowhere to be found during the greatest calamity in recent memory, that make this episode so profoundly terrible.
I could accept any of those elements for the sake of a decent story; even all of them, for a good one. But a good story — even a fairy-tale or fable — needs some verisimilitude to permit our suspension of disbelief to hold; if a fable has no characters who bear some resemblance to actual human beings, it should at least have an explanation as to why it does not.
Frank Cottrell-Boyce's "In the Forest of the Night" (which is unaccountably set almost entirely during the day) provides none of those things. Nobody in this story reacts to anything in a recognizably human manner.
Clara and Danny are chaperoning some of Coal Hill's problem kids on an over-night "camping trip" at the London Natural History Museum. (Can someone tell me: is this really a thing? Update 2014-11-16: A comment below strongly advises that, yes, it is a thing, and quite widespread, at least in the UK.)
They wake to find that a forest has sprung up overnight, shrouding London in a blanket of green. What they don't notice, because Clara and Danny are such excellent teachers, is that one of the kids is missing.
Fortunately, for Reasons, young Maebh Arden, whom Clara will later note is "barely functional", has made her way straight to the Tardis.
Back at the museum, our educators and their kiddies look out upon the impossibly transformed city.
Clara's used to this sort of thing, so her lack of reaction is (barely) plausible. But Danny and the kids? Do they shout? Do they scream? Do they run about?
Er, not as such. One particularly excitable child says, "Wow," while another calculates, "We can't have been asleep for that long, can we?" while a third calmly documents the transformation with his mobile before we cut to a convenient montage of universally un-panicked television reporters showing that, yes, the whole world has gone green.
Back at the Tardis, "barely functional" Maebh — whom Clara will also note later is "on medication [...] hears voices" and is "very vulnerable" — introduces herself. "I thought Miss Oswald told me to find the Doctor," she infodumps, sounding quite functional indeed, "but it wasn't her, it was only in my head." The Doctor jumps to the conclusion the girl means his Clara and describes his companion for confirmation. The girl nods and adds, "Everyone says she's in love with Mr. Pink."
Because of course she'd say that, just in case we'd forgotten about the torrid romance. But onwards.
Cut to Clara, who has snuck out to place a call while the others laugh it up in the Museum. The Doctor one-ups her on the Green Revolution while also letting her know he's got her missing child.
Missing child? Oops! Call me Butterfingers! Naturally, Clara seizes on that information to deflect Danny's suspicions when she awkwardly lies about who she'd been calling. The old How many kids are you looking after gambit; it never fails.
Anyway, having lost one child while inside a locked (and barred!) museum, our brilliant pedagogs lead their charges into the impossible forest, heading not for the Tardis (Clara is still pretending she's not in touch with the Doctor) or back towards the Coal Hill School, but for "the river". For Reasons.
Self-appointed leader Mr. Pink offers sage advice like, "If you find yourself falling behind, don't," and then rushes on ahead, ignoring his much longer, grown-up's legs. Clara is girlishly happy to let him lead, despite her extensive experience with the uncanny and the alien. (Now don't anybody mention sexism!)
Mr. Pink seems to find the transformation no more interesting than a power-outage and the "gang" follows his lead, staying amazingly unaffected. Only Clara shows some human curiosity. "The question is," she wonders, "how did these trees get here? Did they just appear, or have we been asleep for years, like Sleeping Beauty?"
Danny ignores the trailing non sequitur. "No," he says, "the question is, how do we get these kids home?" Another question might be, have either of our geniuses looked behind them recently. But I digress.
Clara at least acknowledges Danny's weird lack of interest in root causes, but he charms her without once changing his inflection: "I am curious. I'm bewildered. I am in fact, enchanted. But ... I'm not the priority here. The kids are," he says as they disappear behind a bush.
Danny's monotone makes Clara go weak in the knees. "You see, now, that attitude is" — for just a mo', I wondered whether Clara wasn't going to give her MaryAnne a tickle, but she mastered her urges — "actually very attractive."
Returning to the Tardis, Maebh's mobile informs us that "the government emergency committee, COBRA" (COBRA? Yes, COBRA. You can't make this stuff up; at least, I hope I couldn't — Edit: Thanks to an anonymous commentator, it turns out COBR is a real thing. Mea culpa) is about to start setting fires in order to permit emergency vehicles to get around. Not to worry, but folks are advised to stock-pile as much water as they can. #WhatCouldPossiblyGoWrong.
At the same time and apropos of nothing but a still-born plot-line, Maebh's mum has a chat with a neighbour. The only civilians we will see in this whole episode, both seem more annoyed than shocked or frightened. Maebh's mum then sets out on her bicycle to randomly ride about in search of her daughter. (It never occurs to Mum to try her daughter's mobile. 'Cause she's kind of stupid, I guess.)
Before the gang finds the river, the Doctor (and Maebh) find the gang. The Doctor explains that (a) he probably can't solve the problem because you can't lie to trees and (b) that trees can too just grow up overnight — because that's how ice-ages start! By glaciers appearing over-night!
"That's how this planet grows. A series of catastrophes. Farewell to the ice-age, welcome to the tree-age." Ooooh-kay.
Nevertheless, everyone piles into the Tardis (except for Maebh, who once again gives Danny and Clara, those minders extraordinaire, the slip). Peter Capaldi capers like some geriatric ape as he tries to herd the young'uns, but that pleasure is negated by yet another variation on the already-spent deconstruction of the "it's bigger on the inside!" gag.
Besides this gang has all the curiosity of a shrub in winter, so why would they be surprised?
The important thing the Doctor finds a stack of homework assignments Educator of the Year Miss Oswald forgot aboard the Tardis, including one of Maebh's, which allows the Doctor to realize the "vulnerable" girl is in some kind of communication with the trees and that the Earth is about to be fried by a ginormous solar flare. Also, that Maebh is missing again.
The Doctor and Clara go out in search of the girl. There follows a long and tedious stretch in the forest, being chased by wolves that are being chased by a tiger, until Danny scares that beast off at the last second by annoying it with a flashlight. In the daytime. Even though he and the kids were supposed to stay in the Tardis. Oh well.
Before that, Clara and the Doctor ran into some COBRA operatives dressed like wannabe cybermen. These worthies were failing to set fire to the forest by use of flame-throwers. "Trees aren't responding to flame, sir! I mean, they don't catch fire, they don't just catch." Lucky that our heroes ran into what must have been the very first test of COBRA's brilliant plan.
The Doctor gets it. "Trees control the oxygen on this planet. They withhold it, they smother the fire." (It was about this point at which I boldly typed, "Is it me, or is the answer really obvious? The trees are going to save the planet from the flare?" Well, it was obvious to me; the Doctor took a little longer to catch on.)
"I would like to hug all the women who have written for Doctor Who since 2008. All of them! I would start with ...
"What, nobody? That can’t be right... (goes off, puzzled)." — Neil Gaiman's Tumblr, October 7, 2014
The Doctor then sonics an interview with some sparkly dust-dudes that I guess are tree elementals or something. This being Steven Moffat's Doctor Who, the sparkly dust-dudes make only vague, gnomic statements instead of simply saying, "Yo! Yo! We're going to save the world, will you let us get on with it?"
(There must be a clause in the Terms of Service Steven Moffat gives his writers that insists no character can come out and say something clearly if by doing so it will require the writer to think harder about his plot (see sidebar at left).)
Did I mention this is all very tedious? Oh, it's tedious. Thank god for the occasional scene of Maebh's mother bicycling aimlessly through the forest. No, wait. Those are tedious too.
|Terrified kids and furious Danny learn that Clara thought the world was doomed but decided they would all be better off dead. Screenshot from "In the Forest of the Night". Doctor Who copyright © 2014 by the BBC.|
Clara insists the Doctor must be able to do something, but the former is despondent.
"Stars implode, planets go cold. Catastrophe is the metabolism of the universe. I can fight monsters but I can't fight physics!" quoth the Time Lord who once declared that "my people practically invented" black-holes. The futures that Clara has visited are "about to be erased."
But Clara's not ready to give up everything. "Save who you can," she says. "The Tardis, it's a lifeboat isn't it? Not everybody has to die."
But when they reach the Tardis, Clara tells the Doctor he's getting on-board alone. Clara intends to go down with the planet — and incidentally, she's going to take Danny and the kids with her.
The Doctor's cool with leaving the kids to die, but suggests, "I can take you and Danny."
"Danny Pink," says Clara primly, "will never leave those kids so long as he is breathing." One wonders if maybe caring Danny would prefer that he and the kids keep breathing, but consultation's not on the agenda. Which is probably just as well; even if they got a vote, recent history suggests Clara would over-rule them.
Possibly feeling a little uncomfortable enabling the narcissistic morality at play, the Doctor sidles up to Clara to whisper a final offer into her ear. "I can save you," he bargains, but Clara's having none of it. "I don't want to be the last of my kind," she says. Ooh, burn!
Amazingly, Jenna Coleman manages to bring some pathos to the scene. "Well, you know what, Doctor. This time, the human race is saving you. Make it worthwhile."
The Doctor gives up, thus missing a report that government crews are about to embark on a planetary defoliation campaign. None of the kids seem to find the Tardis' disappearing act remotely interesting, which I guess is par for the course.
The Doctor flies into orbit to watch the solar flare fry his favourite planet when he finally figures it out! "Doctor Idiot!" he ejaculates, then rushes back to Earth to spread the Good News. Though Clara doesn't want to turn back from her pointless walk to group suicide, the Doctor can be persuasive and soon everybody is back on-board the Tardis.
The Doctor explains that a giant solar flare is about to Kill Them All. Danny raises an eyebrow at this and Clara sheepishly admits she had condemned them all to death . The Doctor asks what the upcoming event has to do with the Tunguska blast in Siberia in 1908, which, "should have blown the whole planet off its axis."
"They're really, really scaring us?" Ruby suggests, but the episode's really only good line falls flat, since the kids look more bored than frightened.
Good thespian Peter Capaldi soldiers on through his ludicrous paces. "I was wrong," quoth the Doctor. "The trees are not your enemy; they're your shield. The trees have been saving you since forever."
But — ruh-oh! — the governments' defoliant campaign! How to stop that?
Why, a class project, of course! Maebh will be the voice of a massive phone spam project. They're going to call "everyone on Earth" and tell them to "leave the trees alone."
Even Maebh's Mum, still roaming the empty forest on her bike, gets the call. "Be less scared, be more trusting," the little girl says. And governments throughout the world call off their poisonous plans.
Problem solved, the Doctor wants to watch the light-show from orbit but can't get any takers.
Not even Dashing Danny Pink is interested. "You, you go," he tells Clara. "This, this is enough for me [...] I was a soldier. I put myself at risk, but I didn't try too hard to survive, but somehow, here I am. And now I can see what I nearly lost. And that's enough. I don't want to see more things, I want to see the things that are in front of me more clearly. There are wonders here, Clara Oswald [...] One person is more amazing — harder to understand, but more amazing — than universes."
After that speech, Clara kisses him (the kids thrill to the transgression) and promises Danny that, soon, she'll tell him the truth about something. Then runs like hell for the Tardis.
|I think I have never seen, a force field as unbelievable as a tree. Screenshot from "In the Forest of the Night." Doctor Who copyright © 2014 BBC.|
The Doctor and Clara watch the fireworks then return to Earth in time to see the sudden forest evaporate like a dusting of CGI frost in the morning sun. "How will they explain this tomorrow?" Clara wonders.
Despite all the videos and phone calls that will be on hand, the Doctor assures her that, "You'll all forget it ever happened [...] You forgot the last time. You remember the fear and you put it into fairy stories. The human superpower: forgetting. If you remembered how things felt, you'd have stopped having wars, and stopped having babies."
At least, I think that's what he said. In any case, I imagine there's some sort of Heavy Philosophical Question trying to crawl out from beneath the incoherence, but I haven't the patience to figure it out.
To add treacle to our high-fructose corn-syrup, the episode ends with Maebh's long-lost sister stepping out of some bushes festooned with sparkly dust-dudes.
Really. That's it.
This program is approaching Torchwood: Miracle Day levels of incompetence. Can it be that Steven Moffat is trying to kill it, or that higher-ups at the BBC have given him his lead in hopes that he'll do it by accident?
No. No, that way lies madness. Simple incompetence is explanation enough. I guess ...
Thank god there are only two episodes left to go for this series; I don't think I can take much more of it.