Tony doesn’t do camping.
All good things come to an end. If you need proof of that, just remember that Series 8 gave us Mummy On the Orient Express and Flatline, and then slammed In The Forest Of The Night onto screens everywhere. At the time it was broadcast, In The Forest Of The Night vied with the ‘Moon’s A Freakin’ Egg!’ story, Kill The Moon, for the position of ‘story that most made heads explode.’
But a year of hindsight was kind to Kill The Moon. Can it bestow the same kind of beneficence on the story that brought us instant forest, twee resolutions to teen runaway issues, and the teeth-suckingly sweet message ‘Fear less, trust more’?
In the pre-credits sequence, it doesn’t look good for In The Forest Of The Night. Yes, the idea of people waking up one morning to find the world is suddenly, inexplicably overgrown with a planet-sized forest is good fairy tale material – what is it if not a giant-sized version of Jack and the Beanstalk? – but the skip-along hand-fluttering Maebh Arden feels almost too sweet right from the get-go, and the hand-holding ‘Come and look’ scene where she and the Doctor discover the effect of London under the forest smacks more of the Peter Cushing movies than the general tone of Series 8 and its attendant Grumpy Doctor. What’s perhaps more, it genuinely – and rarely enough for it to be noticeable - doesn’t look good as an effect. While Series 9 has won or won back many fans by its ‘Classic Who with a New Who Vibe’ approach, the forest-covered London looks Classic in mostly the wrong ways. When you compare the opening sequence of In The Forest Of The Night to those of either Mummy or Flatline, you could be watching an entirely different show, and as the credits roll, there’s a sense of sighing inevitability about the whole thing. That’s probably unfair though – it’s sometimes important to check your grown-up fan instincts and remember that Doctor Who is a family show, aimed chiefly at children. On that basis, Frank Cottrell Boyce might be said to have hit the brief with his arboreal excursion – it feels like a story aimed firmly, squarely at the younger end of the fan spectrum, as perhaps should come as no surprise, given the thick ladles full of fairy tale iconography and mystery heaped throughout the story.
Waking up in the museum are – oh gods – more Coal Hill pupils. Again, the feel of the story being aimed at the younger end of the spectrum is reinforced by this motley Breakfast Club of Coal Hill’s ‘Gifted and Talented.’ We’re shown enough of some of their backstories to make us care, but somehow manage to resist the urge to do so. Danny Pink, likewise, does many of the right things here – admitting to being enchanted but focusing on the childrens’ welfare – but he manages to do so in that Boy Scout Leader way that just makes you yearn for him to drop his torch when he encounters the tiger. The search for Maebh through the forest (the Forest of Arden – Shakespeare fans, you got that one, right?) feels like it could be about to develop some actual chills when the trees immediately re-grow to obscure the pathway, but Cottrell Boyce overplays his hand, the Doctor and Clara both vocalizing the ‘this is a fairy tale’ idea, just in case we didn’t get it on our own. The scene where Maebh comes over all fairy-sparkled and the trees apparently declare their mission statement to endure beyond the human race is actually not badly done – again, there’s the glimmer of a good idea here, but it harks back to the least successful Eleventh Doctor Christmas Special, The Widow and The Wardrobe, where mysterious tree-sprites animated trees and the King and Queen to…do something (honestly, it’s that forgettable). To be back so soon in the territory of an idea that should have worked but didn’t gives us further reason to feel despondent, and the introduction of first the wolves and then the tiger (yes, yes, tyger, tyger, burning bright, in the forest of the blah, blah, blah…) has a sense of ghastly inevitability to it. The simmering domestic dynamic of Clara and Danny, with her lying to him again about traveling with the Doctor simply underlines in this episode the fact that they’re chronically ill-suited (he’s Craig Owens with a troubled past, she’s…well, Clara ‘show me something amazing’ Oswald), and why despite him being good with kids, we fail to warm to him, as he seems intent on pressuring her to choose between him and the universe of time and space. The idea that the trees are bringing the fireball, if you really look at it, is one of those insane conclusions about which, sometimes, it’s best not to think too hard, and the drama of ‘this time, we can’t save the world, and we all want to stay here and be fried to a crisp rather than escape’ pushes credibility to the point of snapping. What’s more, it shows Clara, who not so long ago in Kill the Moon sweated through the ramifications of the life and death of babies, as horrifically high-handed, effectively condemning the children of Earth to a fiery death simply because she knows they badly need to see their parents.
The Doctor having read the situation wrong seems to happen far too early in the episode, too, leaving the children to compose and send the note to all humanity not to hurt the trees because they’re all that stands between us and fiery oblivion (could we get a more blatantly green metaphor crammed in, do you think? Still, if you’re going to cram a metaphor in, it’s a good one). And with the crisis averted by tree power, the ending is actually the most irritating aspect of the whole thing with hindsight – yes, we understand that the trees grew up over the course of one night, but that they would then simply dissolve into fairy-spangles, apparently just because it closes the circle of the storytelling, feels like a disservice to the story itself. The reappearance of smiling Annabelle, who’s been missing since last year, looking clean and untroubled, as if, maybe, she’s nothing but a ‘they all lived happily ever after’ plot device needing to be used feels staggeringly oversweet – girls who go missing for a year are sadly in our real, non-fairy tale world, unlikely ever to return home, or if they do, are likely to bring the baggage of the real world’s claws with them. The Doctor’s though, that if we remembered how things felt, we’d have stopped having wars and stopped having babies is a good character moment, but it feels tacked on to an ending that shows Cottrell Boyce’s philosophy of wonder.
We’re not against wonder by any means – we’re Who fans, and there’s no series on TV that more espouses the idea of wonder within the human spirit and the universe as a whole than Who – but with a year of hindsight, it feels as though In The Forest Of The Night belongs to that special sub-group of Who stories that don’t work because they don’t challenge, because they present a universe where good things happen just because good things are needed. In that universe, you actually don’t need a benevolent alien, meaning Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote a perfectly good fairy tale, but not in any real sense a Doctor Who story. Ultimately a year on, In The Forest Of The Night feels like a good kernel of an idea, chronically underdeveloped and allowed to substitute sparkle for substance as a result.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk