Steven Moffat’s writing for Doctor Who often has a bit of fairy tale quality to it. Just think of how many times in the past few seasons we’ve seen that love is the most powerful force in the universe, that love really can conquer all. Therefore, the idea that Doctor Who was going to take a closer look at fairy tales was intriguing. “In the Forest of the Night,” however, was not what I was expecting. Visually, it was incredible, but I’m still not exactly sure what it was all about.
Basically, Danny and Clara have taken a small group of children (with special needs? emotional issues? I wasn’t completely sure how they assembled this particular group) to spend the night in a museum. When they wake up, they find that a forest has sprung up all over the earth, overnight. One of their students, Maebh, has also wandered off and found the Doctor. Maebh believes that she is responsible for the forest, because, ever since her sister disappeared, she has been hearing and seeing things, and she saw the forest in her mind, before it appeared. There is also a solar flare headed towards the earth, mysterious fairy-like creatures, wolves, tigers…
The story wasn’t bad, but it was a bit too fantasy based for me. It started out with an intriguing premise, but I felt like the story just fizzled out, instead of coming to a satisfying conclusion. I know that Doctor Who is more fantasy than hard science fiction, but I was looking for a bit more of an explanation that the fairy-like spirits were protecting the earth. The story also was lacking in dramatic tension for me; I never really felt that the characters or the earth were really in any great peril. The only real threat came from the wild animals, but they weren’t even a danger for long. There was the one time that the wolves, and then the tiger, threatened the Doctor, Clara, and Maebh, but they were never in fear of wild animals again. In fact, the teachers and children simply ambled through the forest, with no fear of stumbling upon another wild animal, for the rest of the story.
There was also a reoccurring theme of fairy tale references: Maebh’s red cloak (in fact the whole idea of the little girl in a red cloak being menaced by wolves in a forest), her “breadcrumb” trail, Clara’s mysterious fear in the forest… Unfortunately, much like the story, I didn’t feel like they added up either. Why was Clara filled with so much dread in the forest? Plus, the forest itself was there to help the earth, so why is it remembered only as fear? Shouldn’t humans have a memory of safety and protection? Why would these encounters result in the creation of scary forests in fairy tales? Again, the origin of fairy tales was an interesting premise, but it just didn’t add up.
Since I might as well get all of my story criticisms out of the way, I will also admit that I had zero investment in the storyline with Maebh’s missing sister. The big “happy” ending, that her sister miraculously came home, wasn’t really a satisfying resolution to the story. The whole situation was rather puzzling to me, because the sister looked like a runaway. Why would she have run away? It’s not really typical behavior for a teenager, unless there is something terribly wrong. And, in that case, was it really good for her to come home? I know I’m not supposed to think about any of this, but in a story in which I thought the children were fairly well-written, this really stood out to me as nonsensical behavior for a teenager.
This leads me to what I enjoyed about the episode (yes, despite the previous three paragraphs full of complaints, there were elements that I enjoyed). First, I liked the children in this story. This has not always been the case for me with children and Doctor Who (“Nightmare in Silver” jumps to mind here), but they were one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story (even if the fact that the supporting cast was almost entirely children contributed to the complete lack of tension in the story). While they were a bit quippier than normal children, they acted very much like regular kids. Unlike many other children we’ve seen lately, they weren’t bored by what was going on, they just were still at a point where they could accept magical happenings as normal.
The children also had interesting interactions with the Doctor. While it was fun to see him annoyed with a group of children taking over his TARDIS, it was also great to see him develop an understanding of Maebh. It makes sense that this Doctor could relate to children (albeit in a very different way from Matt Smith’s Doctor) because they are some of the few people who will be as blunt as he is. More often than not, children will speak their minds. I’ll admit to loving Maebh’s response to entering the TARDIS:
The Doctor: The TARDIS. It’s bigger on the inside than the outside, or did you not notice?
Maebh: I just thought it was supposed to be bigger on the inside, so I didn’t say anything.
The Doctor: Well, of course it’s supposed to be bigger. Most people are confused by that.
Maebh: I find everything confusing, nearly. So, I don’t say anything.
I loved Maebh’s character. While she had a special gift that was setting her apart, she stayed refreshingly child-like. Everything she dealt with, she faced with the logic of a child. Nothing fazed her, not because she was incredibly brave, but because that was how she thought things were supposed to be. While this isn’t how every child would deal with the remarkable circumstances in which she found herself, her character was very clearly established and the writing stayed true to her character at all times.
The episode was also gorgeously filmed. This was, perhaps, another reason that I couldn’t understand why the human race would take fear away from their experience, because I kind of wished that I could cross over into the episode and walk through the forest of London myself. Visually, the episode kept me engaged throughout. A great job was done of juxtaposing London landmarks with the trees in the forest.
Character-wise, I have a few final bones to pick. The first was Clara’s decision to not save the children and instead have the Doctor fly off alone. At this point, she thought the earth was doomed. Why wouldn’t you save the children by putting them in the TARDIS? Would it really be better for the children to die with their parents, rather than to survive, but have to miss their parents for the rest of their lives? I bet just about every parent would rather have their child have to learn to survive without them, than die with them. It was just an excuse to turn the tables on Clara’s speech from the end of “Kill the Moon.” Instead of the Doctor leaving humanity to fend for itself, here he wants to stay and help, only to have Clara, representing all of humanity again, tell him he isn’t needed and that he should save himself. While I can appreciate the inversion, I wish it could have been reached in a way that made better sense.
Lastly, just a brief point about Danny Pink. I have no problem with him being upset at Clara for lying to him. I actually thought he handled finding out the truth surprisingly well (although he must have had some idea after that phone call in “Flatline,” right? I mean, he’s not an idiot). However, I did find his speech to Clara at the conclusion of their time in the forest rather condescending. It’s fine for Danny to not want to travel in the TARDIS (although I will admit, I find it rather small-minded of him to not even want to try it once). What I really objected to was the way that his speech made me feel like he was putting Clara down for wanting these new experiences. At this point, I was asking myself, why are these two people, who seem to want such different things out of life still together?
Overall, this episode would rank in the average category. It wasn’t bad, but nothing much really happened in it. It’s so low-key that one of its most interesting ideas is kind of thrown away in a line or two from the Doctor at the end. He mentions that human kind will forget this magical forest, just as they have forgotten the other times the trees have come to the planet’s aid. That is “the human superpower,” forgetting, because if we didn’t, if we remembered everything that happened, we wouldn’t be able to continue. It’s an interesting idea, but it kind of comes out of nowhere and it seems like a terribly dark note for the Doctor to end on, after an episode that was light on anything feeling like a real menace. Perhaps an episode that really earned an ending line like that would have been more memorable. Instead, I feel like I’m using my “human superpower” already because this episode has already started to fade from my mind.