Bit of a lumpy final line to be honest, but endings are difficult.
As best we can, we devoted ones guard against our show ever being embarrassing. Thankfully, it happens rarely, but it’s the top line under which you’ll find all our fan fears nestling. We don’t like to think of the programme appearing dumb, or looking under-resourced, or having someone in it who comes across as hammy. Any of those things is slightly shaming. And so should it ever let us down, we smother Doctor Who. We get the jokes in first, take ownership of the Myrka and send it crashing on ahead to stomp on any criticism. Maybe kitted out in a ‘Not you too, Bob!’ t-shirt. In that way it all turns into a merry sport.
But what to do when Doctor Who is dull? When it’s absent-mindedly-checking-your-phone, dull? What happens to fun?
In the Forest of the Night is written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Already a hugely successful and critically acclaimed writer across TV, film and books, he needs no additional buoyancy from DWM Review. Which is lucky. His debut script for Doctor Who comes with the potent idea that “the forest is mankind’s nightmare”, but then fails to imbue that concept with any sense of jeopardy. It’s a trail of breadcrumbs that leads us around and around and around, before dropping us off back where we began. Older, definitely, but no wiser.
In last month’s issue, Cottrell Boyce revealed how he first pitched the tale by presenting a scrapbook of related images. This mood board approach indicates that in its first conception, the story was about capturing the essence of something. Perhaps a core image of tree tops crowding out the sky and cocooning in the darkness. On those terms alone, it succeeds and the sense of place is often impressively strong. The camera whistling up Nelson’s column to find a view of overgrown London is maybe one of the greatest visuals in Doctor Who history. Similarly, who can argue with the beauty of seeing the police box in a glade? It’s like an etching from folklore, even more so when a little lost girl in a red coat comes knocking.
Spiraling out from that is an unusually lyrical feel to the production which, akin to a poem – maybe even a Blake poem – serves to continually inform the central theme. However, this is also a contemplative quality, bordering on passive. It’s something that just doesn’t work on a Saturday night when we need assertiveness. In fact, let’s not worry about sounding crass, we need monsters. Granted, there were some escaped snarly canines stalking around the woods, plus a desultory lone tiger – all far too easily moved on – but in its darkest spot what we really hoped for was a Big Bad Wolf. Not some shiny midges in a tizzy.
Such earnestness blunts even the sharpest dialogue. Look back on the thing now, and it doesn’t feel as though there was a single laugh to be had, but in fact there are some very nice jokes in there. There’s the Doctor’s waspish: “Even my incredibly long life is too short for Les Misérables.” Or Clara’s rightly mocking: “London has just been taken over by a gigantic forest, who do you want to talk to? Monty Don?” By the same account, the most risible lines – real Twitter-bait– are also diminished. It’s a crime that all the accidental fun is drained from: “Why would trees want to kill us? We love trees.” And how about, “We’re going to call everyone on Earth and tell them to leave the trees alone!”? In a normal, knockabout Doctor Who context, both would become clarion calls for beautiful naffness. Animated GIFs would blaze in their glory. But Forest is so committed to its cause these howlers just seem leaden, the heavy gravity of the environment making it impossible for even them to take flight.
This, friends, is what’s so fearful about Doctor Who being dull. It’s de-energising. We can’t even console ourselves with the thought we might have been gifted a couple or three new fan-jokes. John Lumic, we needed you tonight.
If there is anyone who’s on a path towards a story, it’s Maebh Arden. Played most competently by Abigail Eames – who manages to suppress any of the potential comedy in a little girl running around flapping at the air – I can broadly vouch for the character because I approve of the programme empowering those normally considered vulnerable or odd. Part of Coal Hill School’s euphemistically named ‘Gifted and Talented’ set, we’re told she’s been on medication since her sister disappeared. That longing for her errant sibling, it seems, has made her receptive to the whispering of the (we’ll call them) tree mites, and thus she’s privy to a secret hidden from the rest of humanity. That’s where her journey should have finished. Someone ignored and misunderstood who becomes central to the future of earth – to the point she gets to make that global phone call on the TARDIS’s party line. But then, as if Cottrell Boyce feels she can’t be left in what would be the partial darkness of a Grimm fairytale, we have a tag scene where, apropos of nothing, lost girl Annabel is returned, stepping out from behind a dissipating hydrangea bush… or whatever that is. (Who do you want writing this, Monty Don?) It’s a turn that means absolutely nothing to the viewer. We’ve never even seen a photo of the youngster, resulting in Maebh’s Mum – and that’s her name – having to connect the dots for us: “Annabel, my Annabel!”
This is an odd enclave Doctor Who has wandered into. A place where a reforested London throngs with bulbs and roots, but not people. Seriously, what has happened to the population? I get it that the rise of the forest has made the city uninhabitable, but how can you displace eight million folk overnight?, what state is the world left in when the trees turn to glitter? One would imagine pavements have been uprooted, buildings destabilised and roads ruptured by the insurgence. Vandalism that will impact upon generations to come. Or maybe, next week, it’ll just all be okay.
Again, it feels like In the Forest of the Night is so busy venerating itself, those kind of details are left for someone else to worry about. Same goes for the dodgy science behind vegetative O2 emissions acting like massively over-sized airbags. I’m no expert, but when the Doctor says “the impact burns off the excess oxygen”, well, erm, surely oxygen itself does not burn? Kids, don’t take this learning into school with you on Monday morning. To me, the whole thing has the whiff a very different gaseous discharge.
Should I, could I, offset any of this criticism by a kind of compensatory list of bits I think the production gets right? Because, actually, director Sheree Folkson does a sterling job on her first Doctor Who, setting the cameras creeping nicely, and finding pace in the Time Lord’s “Doctor Stupid!” realisation with effective jump-cuts. The regular cast continues in convincing form. And I liked Clara’s stark rationalisation of why she didn’t want to escape the seemingly doomed earth. “I don’t want to be the last of my kind,” she says and the Doctor agrees, both of them momentarily forgetting he’s in possession of a fully working time machine of infinite capacity, meaning, actually, he could literally save everyone… Ah. I did try.
Oh, there’s no fun here. No fun to be had on its terms or ours and I find it moderately depressing. Because, genuinely, I don’t doubt the belief and commitment that’s gone into weaving together this fairy tale. The problem is, in creating a story that’s so introspective and inward looking, I feel Cottrell Boyce has lost the point of what a Doctor Who adventure should be. I’m going to say it – he can’t see the wood for the trees.