In a slightly unusual earth-bound story, this week’s episode of Doctor Who, ‘In The Forest of the Night’, conceptually at least, was something a little bit different.
One morning, the human race, and specifically for our story, those living in London (an interesting pairing with last week’s Bristol specific episode), wake up to find that the entire city and indeed the entire world, has been taken over by a giant forest, seemingly overnight. This includes Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Danny (Samuel Anderson) who have taken some of the children of Coal Hill School’s bogus ‘Gifted and Talented’ group for a ‘Night at the Museum’ style sleepover. It isn’t long before they realise that, not only is the outside world not quite how they left it the night before, but that they are missing a child, one Maebh, played excellently by Abigail Eames.
Maebh is in actual fact with The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) having found her way to him after being plagued by thoughts she can’t be rid of following the trauma of her older sister’s disappearance – a strong, complex idea to place in the hands of a child actor, but Abigail deals with it extraordinarily well. The Doctor, characteristically displeased that he, once again, appears to have been left babysitting one of Clara’s students, albeit a potentially interesting one, calls her, and in so doing beings the two groups of the story to the Tardis together, not to mention several more schoolchildren.
But what are the trees? What does their presence mean for the Earth? And what exactly has this got to do with Maebh?
The episode sets about to answer these questions, the first two of which are answered well, the latter lesser so. In concept, this was a strong episode, with ‘everyone’s nightmare’, of the dark forest (although this felt a bit of a steal from the common nightmares of ‘Listen’, earlier in the series) serving as just one of the fairy-tale tropes of an episode which also featured CGI wolves and a little girl in a red hooded coat. This glorious sense of the uncanny is heightened further by the lovely shots of vine covered London landmarks, as well as the escaped animals from London Zoo, which themselves blended in well with the episode's ecological ideas.
Speaking of which, I for one would have liked to have seen far more of those. The fact that The Doctor is unable to use his sonic screwdriver for help against natural organisms, including the trees themselves, citing, "Not everything can be fixed with a screwdriver. It's not a magic wand", added a strand of genuine peril to what was an otherwise monster free zone.
Meanwhile, other areas of the episode just seemed to have been set up as giant solar-flare shaped plot devices designed to reveal the current state of the various relationships in the series at the moment, namely Clara, The Doctor and Danny. The endless lies and bickering about The Doctor, which seems to form the centre of Clara and Danny’s relationship is starting to grow tiresome, although fortunately it does seem as if she’s going to be forced to make a decision soon, if only when she’s finished her marking, whilst The Doctor’s view of Danny seems unchanged.
This was, however, an episode which gave plenty more opportunities for the consistently brilliant Capaldi to act alongside children, a rewarding running theme of this series, with him disappointed that they don’t seem especially interested in the fact that the Tardis is bigger on the inside. This showed us that, whilst in character, Capaldi’s Doctor is much harsher and colder than previous incarnations, in Tardis at least, he is much more welcoming.
The subplot of the missing child worked reasonably well as an emotional pull, but we weren’t left feeling terribly clear as to how exactly Maebh fit in with it all. I’m willing to bet that this will become a memorable episode in years to become, but as ‘that one with the forest’, rather the one with a missing older sister.
Still, it was great to learn just a teensy but more about the link between Clara and the enigmatic Missy (Michelle Gomez), as we get the sense that this episode was very much positioned as the relative ‘calm before the storm’, next week’s episode being the beginnings of finale territory.
All in all an enjoyable forty five minutes of television, just not necessarily the most successful and enjoyable episode of Doctor Who.
Although it seems we will FINALLY learn more about Missy next week to make up for it – look out for Becky’s review of the action…