Dr. Moo has been saved.
In the year 2008 Steven Moffat was announced as the next showrunner of Doctor Who, due to take the reins from Russell T Davies for the fifth series. It’s a situation not unlike where we are today, which makes it only more relevant to take a look back at the first Moffat script to broadcast after this news. The two-part story was one that fans would be expected to rip apart and devour over and over again, examining every last detail in hope of getting a clue as to the show’s new direction.
So is Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead up to the job? Let’s find out.
Hey, I remember that scene from Blink!
The answer is… not really. It’s not the resounding success you may have been lead to believe and there are a lot to of problems I have with it. Take the story’s Big Bad, the Vashta Nerada, for example. There’s a good concept here – having made us deathly afraid of statues Moffat goes in another direction and makes us scared of shadows. Yet while the Weeping Angels were a “lightening in a bottle” moment of inspiration these piranhas of the air just fall short and come off as trying too hard. They’re underdeveloped and lack any internal logic. For example: why do they need to walk around in a spacesuit when they are perfectly capable of moving around without one? It would’ve been nice to sacrifice the excessive scenes in the data core and allow more time for these monsters to develop, as it is they’re little more than a neat idea badly executed turning what should be a horror story into an overly-long runaround.
Then there’s the supporting cast. Beyond River Song, Cal and Dr. Moon there’s not much to like here. Having characters named Proper Dave and Other Dave comes across trying too hard to be quirky, Miss Evangelista is a cliched “lovable airhead” type that is not as likable as she should be and is in fact off-putting, Donna’s children are difficult to care about since it’s so clear that they’re not real and do not exist… and that’s just for starters. In fact these characters are almost included exclusively to be picked off one by one and you’ll have no difficulty predicting which one will fall next.
And this is an early Moffat script so there has to be a catchphrase. While nobody will ever forget such gems as “Are you my mummy?” or “Don’t blink!” this story falls short here with “Hey, who turned out the lights?” lacking that instantly iconic status or quotability.
Overall you get the impression that after the unprecedented success of Blink Moffat wanted to do it again only to try too hard. I guess it’s because Blink wasn’t a story that tried to be a classic but achieved that status through simply trying a different approach to storytelling, whereas here the story actively tries to create the same effect and as a result it just isn’t the same.
But despite all that it has one thing going for it: the mysterious Professor River Song, an enigmatic figure from the Doctor’s future. The idea that a time-traveller could meet someone who knows him in the future but who he hasn’t met yet is something so obvious that it’s a wonder nobody thought to do it before, and you can bet your life Moffat will get lots of mileage from it! River’s story starts here (for the Doctor at least) and it would continue until Christmas 2015 – a full seven years after we first met her. The way it played out wasn’t to everybody’s tastes but that’s a discussion for another time so I won’t go into that stuff now. Here she’s presented as a mystery for fans to obsess over and theorise about and he gives us just enough hints for us to work with that you should be able to make a pretty good guess at what she is. Cryptic references to a future Doctor, or two of them as we later learnt, whom River has shared adventures with abound and there’s also the small matter of her diary and her own sonic screwdriver that the Doctor must use to save her.
Whatever you may think of River Song one thing you can’t deny is Alex Kingston is perfectly cast and her chemistry with David Tennant is fantastic. Speaking of Tennant I have to mention his performance in this story. He’s on top of his game here and so comfortable with the part that you forget you’re watching an actor and not the Doctor himself (yes he’s real, don’t tell me he isn’t!). It’s no secret that the 10th Doctor is far from my favourite version of the character but Tennant is never anything less than a joy to watch, especially on a good day.
And this certainly is a good day! As River’s moving epilogue puts it…
“When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it will never end. But however hard you try you can't run forever. Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark, if he ever, for one moment accepts it. Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day. Not today. Some days are special. Some days are so, so blessed. Some days, nobody dies at all. Now and then, every once in a very long while, every day in a million days, when the wind stands fair, and The Doctor comes to call... everybody lives.”
Your enjoyment of this two-part adventure largely depends upon which way you choose to watch it. Do you want to compare it to Moffat’s earlier Davies Era contributions and be disappointed or do you choose to see it in the larger scheme of things as setting up the future? Me, I have to choose the latter option.
While this story is hardly Moffat’s finest hour there’s still a lot to get from it if you make that same choice. Watching it today is a strange feeling – we know what all the cryptic teasers are about now – but the result is an improvement. The mysteries this story provides gave it an edge in 2008, the knowledge of what they’re all about raises it in stature since 2015. Moffat’s ambition is to be admired for sure and while Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead is of lesser quality to a lot of his other stuff it still proved that we had nothing to fear in replacing RTD with him. The future was in safe hands.
(I do love the idea that books will still be around in the far future. But what are the odds you could go to this library and get a copy of Lungbarrow?)
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.