It is one of the great tragedies of television that just when a season is beginning to pick up steam, it comes to a close. Or in the case of Doctor Who, it comes to a mind-bending, game-changing, emotion-wrenching close. But, alas, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself; I seem to have misplaced my TARDIS, so I’m not privy to what happens in this season finale.
I only bring up the end as an excuse to look back from the beginning, to attempt to address this season in retrospect. I’ve been throwing a bit of a season-long online temper tantrum regarding the new coldness of the Doctor, lamenting the fact that an argument that has been festering for years seems to have finally found new ground: that Doctor Who is no longer a show for kids. I don’t necessarily subscribe to this latter argument, but in light of my despondency over the former issue (i.e.: the Doctor’s explicit darkness), it makes sense that my favorite episodes of the season thus far all prominently feature children in main roles: “Listen,” “Kill the Moon,” and “In the Forest of the Night.”
Many times Coal Hill’s Gifted and Talented serve to function as pure comic relief, which is laugh-out-loud hilarious in itself. The “Find ‘x’” / “It’s right there” gag is nearly as old as time itself, but as someone who has always struggled with mathematics, it elicits a chuckle out of me every time. Each word that emerged from Maebh’s mouth is precious, ditto for Ruby and Bradley. And this scene, in which the Doctor pretty much turns into one of the kids? Priceless.
But aside from the belly-laughs, having kids play a role is a patent way of reintroducing that childish wonder and that clear-eyed goodness that is present in many children before the world has its way with them. Director Sheree Folkson (one of two female directors this season; Rachel Talalay directed the two-part finale written by Steven Moffat) artfully captures the theme of the child’s gaze by dropping the camera angle to reflect the view of the child in the scene, as in the beginning of the episode when Maebh meets the Doctor.
In terms of “favorite” (reboot) Doctor Who episodes of all time, “In the Forest of the Night” may not crack the top 10, but I liked it a lot as a contrast to other episodes of season 8, which were, on the whole, a lot darker. This episode marked a return to a world of glass-half-full whimsy—trees are our friends! kids say the darndest things! the TARDIS has GPS!—while also hearkening back to the original intent of the show’s creators, in that the focus of the episode was a truly educational class trip.
If Doctor Who was always supposed to be about exploring the wonders of the universe, and morphed into exploring the wonders of the universe as an allegory for the celebration of the wonders of humanity (we are, after all, “made of star-stuff”), then “In the Forest of the Night” has its cake and eats it too. This time, splendor and goodness can be found right here on Planet Earth. “There are wonders here,” Danny tells Clara, who in this episode fixates quite obviously on being the Doctor’s companion rather than the children’s teacher. How better to convey this message than through the eye (and the mind’s eye) of a child? I certainly wasn’t surprised to learn that the script was actually penned by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, a renowned and award-winning children’s book author. Cottrell-Boyce invokes a whole host of classic fairy tales in order to color the episode with this theme, including Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Sleeping Beauty. (The original versions of which were actually nauseatingly gory but, um, nothing to see here….) And the forest itself oozes Once Upon a Time—even Danny uses the word “enchanted” (albeit grudgingly) to describe his view of the situation.
Interestingly enough, those three favorite season 8 episodes of mine share another feature as well: each culminates with the enemy becoming the hero, and weakness morphing into strength. In this episode, the planet-wide infestation of photosynthetic is revealed to be not an invasion, but a defense, in order to protect all living beings on Earth from an otherwise devastating series of solar flares, while the dragon-thing in “Kill the Moon” ended up being inspirational, not harmful. And “Listen” preaches the most humble but perhaps most memorable lesson of the three, as fear becomes a superpower.
It’s fitting, then, that “Forest” contains several lines of dialogue and important themes that relate back to “Listen.” In addition to Clara asserting that “Furious, fearful, [and] tongue-tied” can all be superpowers “if you use them properly,” Maebh tells every human on Earth to “be less scared” and “be more trusting.” Looking back to “Listen,” I think this nugget puts a nice twist in the whole “fear is a superpower” speech. Rather than contradicting it, Maebh’s words actually connect the dots—fear can be a superpower, but only if it “makes companions of us all.” Fear must bring us together, not drive us apart.
In fact, this episode served as a near-perfect lead-in to the finale in the sense that it has references to several other season 8 episodes sprinkled throughout, plus some key themes: fear, as mentioned above, and the mystery-that’s-not-really-such-a-mystery of “who frowned me this face?”, as pondered by the newly regenerated Doctor back in “Deep Breath.”
Another notable quirk of this episode is the further (and continuously disturbing) development of the Doctor-Clara relationship. Although Clara may have overtly “played the role of the Doctor” in the previous episode, “Flatline,” she seems to actually become an element of the Doctor’s persona this time around. She tries to turn the tables on the Doctor by calling him up to show him “something amazing,” but the Doctor, buzzkill that he is, has obviously already discovered it (via Maebh). When discussing the appearance of the overgrown forest with the kids, Clara says, “The question is, how did we get here?” mimicking the Doctor’s phraseology and curiosity—while the more pragmatic-minded Danny corrects her: “No, the question is, how are we going to get these kids home?” And when the group finally meets up with the Doctor, Clara feels the need to provide color commentary on his every move. But the Doctor, in turn, seems to finally be learning something from Clara, by taking her caustic words from her powerful speech at the end of “Kill the Moon” and throwing them back at her. But his appropriation of her exact terminology– “You walk our Earth, Doctor, you breathe our air” in “Kill the Moon,” and “I walk your earth, I breathe your air” here—is apologetic and accepting rather than mocking. Perhaps the Doctor is at long last recognizing his responsibility to others. “This is my world, too,” he admits.
Oods and Ends
- Maebh Arden…sound familiar? Shakespeare made use of the “Forest of Arden” in his play As You Like It. The tree connection is obvious, but there is also the fact that Shakespeare’s forest was no ordinary forest as well, but a magical, exotic, and often befuddling place.
- Maebh’s sister’s name is Annabelle…also familiar? Edgar Allen Poe’s famous last poem was titled Annabel Lee. In it, he mourns the loss of a young woman who was taken from him because “the angels, not half so happy in Heaven / Went envying her and me.” Hmmm. Paging Missy…
- Vocab lesson: The sunlight filtering through the trees is pretty gorgeous, right? There’s a word for it: komorebi.
- River Song Watch: “People who have lost someone, they’re always looking, they’re always hoping, so they notice more, they hear more.” This is a beautiful line in itself, but it also made me think of Eleven’s line from “The Name of the Doctor,” when he tells River: “You’re always here to me.”
- “The human superpower: forgetting. If you remembered how things felt, you’d have stopped having wars. And stopped having babies.” Wowza. Truth bombs and literal bombs.
- Doctor: “Okay, who would like to witness a once in a billion years solar event at close quarters? Maebh: [looks at the scanner] “Mum! There’s my mum!” Awwww, I knew the kids would be the wise ones in this episode. And it suddenly got really dusty in here—maybe it’s all the pollen?
See ya’ll in the Nethersphere!