TV Review: Doctor Who 8.10 “In The Forest Of The Night”

Doctor Who
Season 8, Episode 10 “In The Forest Of The Night”
Directed by Sheree Folkson
Written by Frank Cotrell-Boyce
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson, Abigail Eames
BBC America
Air Date: Saturday, October 25, 2014

Beware of the forest. That’s where evil witches with candy houses cook and eat lost children. It’s where little girls are stalked by wolves. It’s where magic happens, and fear lives for those who venture within its confines. It is this fairy tale forest primeval that we explore on last week’s Doctor Who, Episode 8.10 “In The Forest Of The Night.”

The world is suddenly covered in trees that appeared in a single night. Where have they come from? What do they want? Does one of Clara’s students at Coal Hill School hold the key?

In any story of this sort, the motivations and back stories of the characters are key. By traveling and leaving ordinary life and coming to the forest, individuals are freed from impediments that might otherwise hold them back and allowed to become more of who they really are. Why have they come to the forest? In the case of this episode, we have plenty of possibilities. We have uncertain relationships between Clara and the Doctor, and Clara and Danny Pink. We have Danny’s baggage from his time as a soldier. Plus, we have a group of Coal Hill School students along for the ride, including one very sad, lonely girl who mysteriously lost her sister but gained real insight into what’s going on with the trees.

That’s all fertile material to draw upon, but it doesn’t quite add up this time. The script by Frank Cotrell-Boyce does not quite get us to where we need to be. There are some emotional high points, such as Clara telling the Doctor to leave in the face of what could be disaster for the Earth, but those are too few and too far between. Instead, we have the more irrational notion that the Doctor and Clara, seasoned travelers, get spooked in the woods, but a group of school kids isolated from their families (to a large degree) are not. Danny’s character in particular shows great potential for a sharp point of view given his mysterious past in the war, but his actions remain both unpredictably rewarding and frustratingly vague. He seems to be whatever the story needs him to be at the moment and infinitely patient in spite of his talk of “lies” in “The Caretaker.” Taken together, this episode does not come up as strong as any in the previous three and is one of the weaker links in a strong season of stories.

It has to be tough developing scripts for a one-hour television show with few fixed sets, and the need to continuously develop the bulk of your supporting cast every week. One of the more fascinating things in the extra commentary of the Jon Pertwee serial “The Time Warrior” is some discussion of how the episode got made and by whom. The show during the 1960s had nothing if not time to tell a story; with 39-44 half-hour episodes to fill and the desire to reuse sets and costumes to limit cost, serials often stretched to six or more episodes (or 3+ hours.) By “The Time Warrior” in 1974, that had changed; programming practice at the BBC favored the 20-30 episode season more familiar in the United States, Barry Letts and Terrence Dicks figured out how to produce the show more quickly and cheaply, and a more condensed production schedule required shorter serials of four parts. An entire season might be made up of just 3-4 serials otherwise.

The people making the show in 1974 recognized the cost of that change. It was now impossible to sufficiently develop secondary characters in a way that was previously done because there just wasn’t the screen time available to develop their characters. The commentary track points this out for the character of Lady Eleanor in “The Time Warrior.” If the serial had been longer as it was in the 60s, the track states, the character of Lady Eleanor would have gotten her own Lady Macbeth-like plot line but instead, she only gets a few motivating scenes that push her husband to drive the plot.

That same sort of compromise for an hour-long format is much on display this episode. In addition to the Doctor and Clara, we have several other characters who need screen time: Danny, a group of students on an overnight field trip, a lost student named Maibh who finds the Doctor, and Maibh’s mother (who acts as a proxy for all the other parents). Where “Flatline” and “Mummy On The Orient Express” did a fairly skillful job of juggling screen time for casts of similar size, character development this time feels uneven and sometimes illogical. These characters wake up that morning, only to discover that central London is filled with trees and wild animals. That’s a shocking event, but the hour of screen time cannot effectively deal with that because there just isn’t time to give characters the chance to react individually, except in fairly superficial ways.

At the same, there are some longer term plot arcs to deal with. Clara is caught in two competing relationships. She enjoys her life with the Doctor and doesn’t want to give that up, but she is also attracted to Danny, who has given that life up in favor of a different set of values. So, she hides her lingering affection for the Doctor and the life he leads from Danny and the fact that she’s hiding it from the Doctor. Some intriguing possibilities were set up for this competition would play out in “The Caretaker,” “Into The Dalek,” and “Kill The Moon,” but where are they now? Danny seems extraordinarily patient with Clara regarding her choices, and quite forgiving about her deception. Likewise, any prejudices that the Doctor has for Danny seems to be worn out by this point, in spite of the fact that the two have barely met.

Finally, the last few episodes have alternated between letting the Doctor and Clara drive the plot. Here, the aim is for something like balance. Let the Doctor wrestle with the question of the “big bad trees” and let Clara represent the Earth and all human relationships. The results are not extraordinary. You do get Clara telling the Doctor to leave his adopted home, so he can be “the one who survives and can remember.” At the same time, you’ve got Clara trying to manipulate the two men in her lives to some degree without enough screen time to deal with it effectively.

This episode comes up as something of a miss, especially after the strength of the last two. That is something of a shame because only two episodes remain in this season. After an inevitably uncertain start to the season because of the change from Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi as The Doctor, the series built up some solid momentum by the season midpoint and beyond. That momentum is not completely dissipated, but it would be nice to go into the season endgame feeling strong. This is episode was more of a stumble. It wasn’t a bad one, but a stumble nonetheless.

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