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Doctor Who: “In The Forest Of The Night”

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The line between fantasy and science fiction can be vanishingly thin, particularly with Doctor Who’s extremely loose definition of what the latter even is. There is an entirely reasonable and justifiable argument that Doctor Who has never been—or at least only very rarely been—science fiction, and that goes double if you happen to believe that proper science fiction should be at least somewhat concerned with scientific accuracy. By that standard, most of this season’s episodes don’t just fail but fail most hideously, with “Kill The Moon” first in line. But scientific accuracy has always seemed rather beside the point with Doctor Who’s approach to storytelling; its conception of science fiction fits far better in the Twilight Zone tradition, in which the specifics of the future and its technology matter less than what those things reveal about the human—and, on occasion, Gallifreyan—condition.

As such, it feels fitting to look at Rod Serling’s definition of the two genres: “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.” A lot of Doctor Who stories represent a kind of conflation of those definitions, as they use the trappings of fantasy to create an impossible mystery, then have the Doctor deduce the logical, rational, if still completely alien and incomprehensible explanation beneath it. He takes the impossible and makes it just improbable enough for the whole thing to become possible, or something like that. The real determinant here is the tone of the story: Sure, just about everything that happens in “Kill The Moon” is utterly preposterous from a scientific perspective, but it still tells its story with the framework and trappings of the science fiction genre. The logic is wonky because it’s all so unrealistic, but the episode still wants us either to ignore that fact in favor of the character-based storytelling or to examine this ludicrous situation from a rational perspective, hence why we get the lengthy conversation about what the loss of the Moon would mean for tides and satellites.

Tonight’s episode, by contrast, pushes Doctor Who about as close to outright fantasy as we’ve seen since the show returned, and you might have to go all the way back to the Patrick Troughton serial “The Mind Robber” to find a story less concerned with rational explanations. Yes, we get an approximation of the show’s typical hand wave toward a scientific explanation when the Doctor starts talking about solar flares and planetary airbags and the Tunguska event, but this is undercooked even by Doctor Who’s generous standards, a kind of hand wave toward a hand wave. This is an episode that operates on a dream logic, or more accurately the kind of logic that makes sense to a child. Maebh’s reaction to the TARDIS—nothing makes sense to her anyway, so she just assumed it’s supposed to be bigger on the inside—is a useful hint as to how the audience should respond to all that unfolds here, as is Ruby’s subsequent observation that nothing seems that shocking after the entire world has become covered in forest. If you can accept the episode’s insane premise—and yes, that’s definitely a big ask—then everything else fits together, or at least it all makes the same amount of nonsense. Well, give or take the return of Annabel at the episode’s end, which I suppose makes sense to whatever extent you’re satisfied by the fact that it makes sense to Maebh.

More than anything, “In The Forest Of The Night” is a fairy tale, and Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script is clever in how it explores and deconstructs the deep fear, the primordial dread of the forest that drives so much folklore. As Clara realizes, losing a child under her care isn’t that scary, because she’s fairly certain she and the Doctor will find Maebh eventually, but finding herself trapped in a demented version of the Hansel and Gretel story? That’s enough to unlock a very primal kind of terror, despite the fact that Clara herself insists that humans love trees, even if they do spend an awful lot of time chopping them down. Cottrell Boyce doesn’t overplay his hand here, but the episode presents some fascinating ideas about the tension inherent in the magic of the natural world: People are enchanted by it, but it’s just too big and wild and scary to bear to look at for very long. That all ties in with the Doctor’s closing observation that the human race will use its great superpower and collectively forget that anything ever happened: The fear of the forest and of the apocalypse that almost was will be enough to banish the memory forever. The line offers a counterpoint of sorts to the end of “Kill The Moon,” where the hope and wonder at the sight of the Moon creature at last unleashed humanity’s potential; here the fear could have ended all wars, but it would have ended everything else too.

It’s not just the writing that sets the episode apart, as director Sheree Folkson—the first woman to helm an episode since 2010, and previously the director of, among other things, the David Tennant-starring romantic goof The Decoy Bride—keeps the audience off-kilter, mixing up perspectives and camera angles to bring out a child’s-eye view of the proceedings. This approach has its charms. Certainly, it lends “In The Forest Of The Night” a distinctive feel that complements Cottrell Boyce’s script. The episode generally gets the most out of its young cast—and it really shouldn’t be underestimated how much of a technical and logistical challenge it is to have most of an episode’s actors be preteens—and Folkson deserves credit for that, although this episode does appear to bring out the absolute goofiest from Peter Capaldi, and not always to good effect. In particular, his recitation of “Trees!” is an odd moment, as is his earlier frantic search for Maebh among the schoolchildren. Capaldi almost buys back that particular bit of wonkiness with the Doctor’s entirely earnest reaction to Ruby’s pronouncement that Maebh is going to die in the forest, but this is the risk with portraying such a fiercely alien Doctor: Sometimes his conduct will seem strange and mysterious, and sometimes it just comes across as a bit silly.

“In The Forest Of The Night” marks a tonal departure from the past several episodes—it shares some of the whimsy of “Robot Of Sherwood” and school-focused dramedy of “The Caretaker,” but it uses both to very different ends—yet it retains the same narrative preoccupations that the show has come back to over and over again in recent weeks. After relegating Danny Pink to cameos in the previous few episodes, he’s very much the third lead here, and his expanded presence allows the show to examine not so much why specifically Clara is lying about continuing to travel with the Doctor but rather what would drive her to make that choice in the first place. This episode dusts off the standard argument that new series companions always make about why they travel with the Doctor: The TARDIS offers the opportunity to see new and incredible things unlike anything ordinary life has to offer. It’s a fine argument and one that new Doctor Who has always implicitly accepted as correct—give or take some muddled efforts in stories like “Army Of Ghosts”/“Doomsday” to suggest chasing such sights could undermine one’s very humanity—because to argue against the allure of seeing impossible things would be to argue against a central tenet of Doctor Who’s own appeal.


Credit then to tonight’s episode for finding the first truly effective rebuttal, and much of the moment’s success comes from how the creative team and Samuel Anderson have developed Danny over the course of the season. His wartime experiences lend crucial weight to the notion that he wants less to see new and wondrous things than to see the things in front of him more clearly. It’s a well-balanced moment, as the scene doesn’t overemphasize the conflict in Clara and Danny’s views; Danny isn’t arguing that Clara is wrong to want to travel with the Doctor, but instead just explaining why his own perspective is different. There is a straightforwardness to Danny’s thinking that eludes Clara here: He knows what he wants from his life in a big-picture sense, and he knows that his immediate responsibility for the children’s safety overwhelms whatever curiosity or enchantment he might be feeling about Earth’s global reforestation crisis. Clara admits she finds his attitude very attractive, but that doesn’t mean she’s ready to adopt it: She still goes off with the Doctor to watch the solar flare, after all. The takeaway in all this is that Clara has yet to resolve the conflict that drove “The Caretaker”; she still wants the best of both possible lives, and the trouble comes when she tries to fit it all into one coherent worldview. Maybe she lies for no other reason than because her truth is too complicated for even her to understand.

As the last episode before everything explodes in the big two-part finale, “In The Forest Of The Night” feels like an early culmination of the episode’s various plot threads. The story quietly builds on the point made in “Flatline” that Clara is becoming more like the Doctor. While I still wouldn’t say last week’s episode really landed the Doctor’s point about how being the Doctor and being good aren’t the same thing, tonight’s entry does a nice job contrasting Clara and Danny’s reactions to the impossible mystery unfolding around them. Clara can’t help but speculate about what has happened, as she tries to enlist Danny and the students as de facto companions much as she did Rigsy and company in “Flatline.” Danny won’t bite, however, and his response is a general echo of Clara’s insistence in “Kill The Moon” that she has a responsibility of care. Crucially, this episode doesn’t just suggest Clara is curious for curiosity’s sake, though there’s an aspect of that to some of her questions. Much like the Doctor himself, her desire to know what’s going on also comes from a desire to solve the problem at a global level, whereas Danny believes that they can’t do that without endangering the children who are their actual, absolute responsibility.


The episode also circles back to the pivotal final scene of “Kill The Moon,” as the Doctor accepts Clara’s argument that he is just as much an Earthling as any human. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman give their all to the scene where Clara convinces the Doctor to leave humanity to its fate, but this is an instance where the episode’s more lyrical, less concrete approach to storytelling does it a disservice. “In The Forest Of The Night” focuses so much on its twin goals of developing a sense of magic and serving the character drama between the Doctor, Clara, and Danny that the imminent destruction of the entire planet becomes a bit of an afterthought. Doctor Who’s willingness to have the Doctor be wrong can often lead to confused storytelling, and here the shift from trees as killers to trees as shield is subtle enough that it’s possible to miss the fact that both theories are in response to the imminent, planet-destroying solar flare. The episode is so good at defining its small-scale stakes that it ends up obscuring the much bigger-picture concerns.

As such, Clara’s decision to send the Doctor away from her—no, their—doomed planet doesn’t land with the force that it could. It wouldn’t take a lot of tweaking to make that an epochal moment in Doctor Who lore; at the very least, it really ought to be the defining aspect of the episode in which it appears. But “In The Forest Of The Night” isn’t telling that story, and so Clara’s decision becomes something of an afterthought, particularly when the story almost immediately reverses course and has the Doctor recognize what’s really about to happen. Here we see the tradeoffs between fantasy and science fiction, or at least Doctor Who’s particular brand of the latter. This episode sets out to tell the audience a fairy tale, and it largely succeeds at that. It is even able to couch within that fairy tale a very effective further exploration of this season’s big ongoing character relationships. But in those moments where “In The Forest Of The Night” most needs to be a Doctor Who story—when Clara and the Doctor make a decision that could reshape the course of all human history—we’re just too far away from our normal narrative expectations for that to really work.


“In The Forest Of The Night” is a bold exploration of uncharted territory, and I’m glad Doctor Who tried out such a bold experiment in the run-up to the big finale. Its willingness to verge far afield from the show’s normal genre reveals one of the great paradoxes that makes the show so perversely compelling: There are more than a few moments tonight in which the episode is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and that includes Doctor Who. This episode sometimes doesn’t feel like Doctor Who, and that fact is occasionally to the story’s detriment. And yet it’s that very quality of utter unfamiliarity that makes this feel like quintessential Doctor Who, for better or worse.

Stray observations:

  • So, the shadowy government organization designed to solve the forest problem is called Cobra, eh? Nope, that’s not an ominous name at all. (Also, in a very odd coincidence, I watched this episode right after finishing off Batman Beyond’s Kobra two-parter, so I guess I was primed to find that worrying.)
  • I continue to enjoy the flashbacks to various moments of in-class silliness, this time featuring Bradley and Ruby. Although Steven Moffat doesn’t have a co-writing credit on this episode, it seems worth remembering that his pre-writing career was as a teacher, and his first television show was the acclaimed school-set drama Press Gang. So maybe it isn’t that surprising that this season has gotten such good mileage out of two of its key characters being teachers.
  • Well, the big moment is finally upon us: The finale kicks off next week, and it looks like the show might be dusting off some of its old mysteries about who Clara really is. Or it’s all a ruse and Clara is just doing some damn fine acting to buy the Doctor some time. Either way, time to get speculating!