Monday, October 27, 2014

Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 10: In The Forest Of The Night

This week the Doctor goes green as we get a filler episode before the big two part season finale.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this episode. It doesn't really fit the usual Doctor Who formula. Heck, it doesn't even follow basic narrative structure at all. There's no antagonist (unless you count the solar flare). The two leads are virtually ignored as one of the guest stars becomes the ostensible hero of the story. There's not even a plot to speak of, as the characters flit from one scene to another with no well-defined goal in mind. The Doctor doesn't even save the day at the end, reduced to simply standing by and witnessing the proceedings.

Once again we get an episode with "science" that would make Ed Wood blush. A massive solar flare is heading for Earth, so the trees take it upon themselves to grow and cover the entire planet– overnight, mind you– releasing an enormous oxygen "air bag" that will absorb the brunt of the cosmic firestorm and save all life on the planet. Oy gevalt!

As ridiculous as that is, I guess it's still not as stupid as the outlandish happenings in Kill The Moon.

As I've said before, Doctor Who has never concerned itself too awfully much with scientific accuracy. But this episode falls firmly in the realm of fantasy. And not even realistic fantasy like Lord Of The Rings, but "once upon a time" fairly tale fantasy.

That would be fine if this was a standalone film or TV special, but as part of a continuing series? I find the radical change in tone jarring. It's hard to generate suspense or high stakes when the writer can solve any plot complication by literally pulling anything out of his ass.

Kudos to the show for taking a risk I guess. Too bad it didn't pay off.


The Plot:
In present day London, a troubled young schoolgirl named Maebh stumbles upon the TARDIS. She knocks, and when the Doctor emerges he sees that all of London, in fact the entire world, is covered by a thick forest that sprang up in the course of one night.

Clara, Danny Pink and a group of students are on a field trip when the forest appears. Clara seeks out the Doctor, believing he'll have all the 
answers. Unfortunately when she finds him, he's as much in the dark as everyone else. 

Eventually the Doctor discovers there's a massive solar flare heading towards Earth that will wipe out all life. He tells Clara there's nothing he can do, despite the fact that this is the kind of problem he's solved on a weekly basis for the past fifty years. Clara asks the same thing the viewers are thinking, namely how could she have seen Earth's future if it's scheduled to die today? The Doctor mumbles something that sounds like "timey whimey" as the writer paints himself into a corner.

Eventually the Doctor realizes Maebh holds the answer to the mystery. The forest is speaking through her, and tells her that the trees are taking it upon themselves to save us from the flare. And that's exactly what happens. The flare hits, but instead of burning off the atmosphere and roasting everyone alive, somehow the preposterously thin layer of oxygen supplied by the trees causes the firestorm to burn itself out, and Earth is saved.

• After taking a break for a couple of episodes, this week the Doctor starts up again with the disparaging remarks aimed at Clara, saying she has a round face. Of course she does have a round face, but it's pretty rude of him to point it out.

I'll be glad when this particular trend burns itself out.

• The TARDIS apparently now has GPS, complete with the default feminine voice telling him he's reached his destination. A few seasons ago we saw the Doctor secure the TARDIS door with his sonic, complete with the little "chirp chirp" sound as the doors locked.

Next he'll be rotating the tires and taking it in for its 50,000 year oil change.

• It probably didn't mean anything to most Americans, but the giant stone lion and the column with the statue on top are prominent features of Trafalgar Square in London. The statue on the column is of British national hero Lord Nelson, complete with missing right arm.

Nelson's column, the central feature of the square, is over 200 feet high and is guarded by four enormous sculpted lions.

• The Doctor wears his horrible top again in this episode. The one that looks like it was sprayed with battery acid. I really hope he retires that thing after this season.

Doctor Who's modern budget is much, much higher than that of the Classic Series, but there are times when it's still not enough. That budget limitation rears its ugly head in this episode. A forest pops up overnight in Trafalgar Square, but the only inhabitants we ever see are the Doctor, Clara, Danny and six or eight kids and one worried mother as they tromp around through the trees. 

C'mon! Trafalgar Square is a huge tourist destination in London! Probably the equivalent of Times Square in New York. That forest should have been crawling with panicked citizens and tourists alike!

They tried to gloss over this with a TV news announcement that everyone should stay indoors. Nice try, episode. 

•  The Doctor uses his sonic to try and analyze the forest for anomalies, with no luck. Eventually he figures it out and says, "Because they're actually made of wood. No circuits, no mechanisms. Wood."

This is a nice bit of continuity, as the sonic has long been shown to be ineffective against wood.

• Speaking of the sonic, at one point Clara tells the Doctor, "Not everything can be fixed with a screwdriver. It's not a magic wand."  

In recent years a lot of fans have complained about the ever-increasing abilities of the sonic, actually likening it to a magic wand that can get the Doctor out of any jam. I wonder if this was some sort of meta-comment on those complaints?

It was also interesting to make the "wand" comment in an episode that's so heavy on magic and fantasy.

• Clara really shouldn't be put in charge of children. When the forest appears, her first action is to try and find the Doctor. Meanwhile, Danny's first action is to try and protect the kids he's in charge of, and to try and contact their parents.

• Clara brings Danny and the schoolkids inside the TARDIS for safety. A few minutes later the Doctor and Clara exit the TARDIS to explore the forest. Suddenly the statue of Lord Nelson topples over, almost crushing them. Just then Danny and the kids exit the TARDIS. When they see no sign of Clara, one of the kids says, "She's probably dead now anyway. Crushed by Nelson."

How the hell did the kid know that? How'd he know the statue fell if he was holed up inside the TARDIS? Were they watching it fall on one of the viewscreens?

• A crew of emergency workers tries using a flamethrower to burn a path through the thick, instant forest. They torch a nearby hardwood, but because trees "control oxygen" (the Doctor's words, not mine), the fire is quickly extinguished. 

Even if the tree could magically snuff out the flame, it took it several seconds for it to do so. What about the heat from the flame? Surely that had to be bad for it. At the very least it a few leaves should have curled up and died.

• The Doctor, Clara and Maebh are nearly attacked by wolves and a tiger who've apparently escaped from the London Zoo.

First of all, Danny Pink miraculously (and permanently) scares the tiger away by shining a flashlight in its eyes. In the daytime. OK, I'll give them that one, as who can say what a wild animal would do?

Secondly, I see what you did there, Doctor Who. You put a tiger (or should that be "tyger?") in an episode titled In The Forest Of The Night. Well done.

Thirdly, let's hope that after the forest disappears somebody remembers to track down the pack of wild wolves and the tiger than are now roaming through urban London!

• I really wish I had closed captioning when I watch this series. The various accents sometimes makes it hard to understand what's being said. 

For example, Maebh thinks she somehow conjured up the worldwide forest by simply thinking about it. She starts wailing, "The forts! The forts!" Honest to god, due to her accent it took me a couple of minutes to realize she was actually saying "The thoughts! The thoughts!" 

• Any time you have a series about time travel, you're going to run into trouble. Especially when your characters jump back and forth from the future to the present.

As in this episode. In the present day, the Doctor says the solar flare is going to wipe out all life on Earth. Clara quite rightly points out that that can't be, because she's been to the future and Earth and its inhabitants are fine, thank you very much. 

It's tough to get the audience to care about Earth's destruction when they've already seen the future. In order to generate any suspense at all you have to muddy the waters with things like flexible timelines and alternate futures and the like. As they do here.

• The Doctor likens this Happening (heh) to the Tunguska Event. I'm guessing neither the Doctor nor the screenwriter ever bothered to read the report on that occurrence, because it was absolutely nothing like this one. And the idea that trees could somehow cushion the blow of an incoming asteroid is preposterous to say the least.

• Last week Danny called Clara at the most inopportune moment, as she was being attacked by 2D aliens. Hearing unusual noises, along with a male voice in the background, he asked her what was happening. She blew off his concerns and outright lied, telling him everything was fine and assuring him that she wasn't still traveling with the Doctor.

This week we find out that Danny apparently believed her. Only when he found a stack of tests she left behind in the TARDIS did he finally realize she lied to him.

Danny's either very stupid, or very good at denial.

His reaction when he finally finds out Clara's been lying to him for weeks seemed pretty unrealistic too. He says something to the effect that he doesn't care what she's been doing, as long as she tells him the truth right now. Again, nice try, episode. I ain't buying it. 

I get the feeling Danny's not long for the series. Whether Clara leaves in the Christmas Special or not, realistically I can't see these two ending up together. 

• In Kill The Moon, Clara was so fed up with the Doctor's lies and manipulations that she told him to leave Earth forever. Here she tells him to leave once again, but this time for completely different reasons (mainly to save himself before the flare hit). It was a nice moment, and sort of a bookend to that earlier episode.

• This entire episode feels very disjointed and incomplete, so much so that I wonder if it was running long and a lot of it ended up on the cutting room floor. Tons of concepts are tossed out, but most are touched on briefly at best and left undeveloped. 

The main plot point-- that a massive solar flare is heading toward earth– is given so little attention that it almost becomes an afterthought. No one ever seems particularly concerned about this impending doom. Clara even worries more about whether Danny knows she's been lying than she does the fact that the Earth is about to be destroyed.

The Maebh's Missing Sister subplot is also severely underdeveloped. Maebh mentions her missing sister a couple of times, and then at the very end of the episode she reappears– apparently having been brought back by tree fairies or some such nonsense.

This could have been a powerful, heartfelt moment if we had even the slightest idea what was happening. Why'd Maebh's sister leave? Was she a runaway? Abducted? Dead? Who knows? It's apparently none of our concern, but somehow we're supposed to care when she magically appears before Maebh and her astonished mother.

I don't need to have every little detail spelled out for me, but I shouldn't have to write the script in my head either.

• Once again Missy is apparently watching the same episode we are on her monitor. She's viewing the exact same scenes from the exact same angles as we are! I guess she's a BBC America subscriber.

Maybe Missy is really a character who's somehow gained sentience, and is aware that she's on a TV series and isn't happy with the quality of recent scripts. She's gathering an army of dead characters and soon will break out of the show and into our world, where she'll march on the BBC offices and destroy Steven Moffat and steer the series back on course.

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