In The Forest of the Night sees The Doctor find Earth taken over by trees. Our review of Episode 10 of Season 8…
What is Doctor Who? Frankly, given that this is a series about a face-changing alien who can go anywhere or anywhen in a police box, it is whatever you want it to be – and that goes double for the people who write it. This is a series that is that its best whenever it gives free reign to the particular imaginative vision of whoever happens to be behind that week’s script; and at its worst when it parcels out the commissions to efficient, workmanlike professionalism.
This is something that Steven Moffat has understood perhaps more than most, daring to approach established writers just to see what they might bring to the show. Some, like Neil Gaiman, you’d expect to show up at some point. Others, such as Richard Curtis or Simon Nye, proved to be inspired tangential leaps. With The Forest of the Night, Moffat might have outdone himself by asking novelist and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce to ‘do a Who’.
This is quite unlike anything the series has done before, although, like any mighty oak, the acorns are traceable. The theme of a mythic duel between mankind and nature has been dealt with in killer plant epic The Seeds of Doom or, more obliquely, environmental fable Kinda (in which “the trees have no mercy”). Dystopian visions of London have witnessed the Doctor discover an overgrown Marble Arch station in The Mysterious Planet, or the capital ravaged by T-Rex and co in Invasion Of The Dinosaurs. The child’s-eye view of the world, and the inevitable placing of trust in child actors to carry a story, has been a mainstay of the new series, although this is the first time that the voice of Peppa Pig has been involved.
But the mix here is beguiling, a kind-hearted but sneakily satirical celebration of life that utilises Doctor Who’s special place in the TV schedules. Viewed as a straightforward drama, In The Forest of the Night looks absolutely deranged. Yet Doctor Who isn’t straightforward. It is allegory and fable; a window into the imagination. Simply by transforming the everyday world into a forest, Boyce taps into much deeper roots than Strictly Come Dancing or Casualty – or even Who’s contempories in the cult TV canon.
What other show can do a story like this, steeped in an evocation of England’s green and pleasant land? The title, and the tiger, come from William Blake. The setting, and the surname Arden, brings Shakespeare to mind. With the characters following Cromwell Road to Trafalgar Square, there’s an awareness of British history to go with the literary references. These are not idle, throwaway Easter eggs, but the mark of a writer who understands that, after 50 years, Doctor Who has a place in this tradition. Don’t forget that Boyce helped to mastermind the London 2012 Olympics ceremony. Some of that event’s sweeping sense of the magic within the reality of life is at work here.
This is one writer’s manifesto for Doctor Who, and Boyce nails the Doctor so thoroughly it’s like seeing the character anew. Peter Capaldi responds with his best performance in the role, revealing the layers of compassion within that testy, Tucker-esque shell, and director Sheree Folkson shoots the TARDIS interiors from such striking angles it feels more mysterious and wondrous than ever. This Doctor is an alien but also an honorary inhabitant of Earth. He’s a prickly loner but easily melted by human contact. He’s a logical thinker, who is quite content to permit the inexplicable. Best of all, he’s a scientist once more, posing and reshaping hypotheses until the truth clicks into focus. Boyce even allows himself the brilliant touch of acknowledging – and subverting – criticism of his sonic screwdriver as a “magic wand.”
Obviously, it is magic, but the science doesn’t get in its way. This is a story that dares to see no contradiction between the two. The plot is at once a flight of fantasy and an exaggeration of real-life scientific thinking, notably the theory of Gaia – and a lot more plausible than finding out that the Moon is an egg. This is a way of looking at the world that is uniquely Boyce’s yet hugely sympathetic to strains that have always existed in Doctor Who. As such, it is likely to be divisive, dismissed by some as filler or a failed experiment, as we wait for the season’s two-part finale. Yet, to other minds, the opposite will be true. The big blockbuster ending, with its inevitable revelations and explosions, typically places Doctor Who within a conventional genre framework that aligns it with all of the other modern sci-fi shows. But In The Forest of the Night is what happens when you ignore what everybody else is doing and allow ideas to grow wherever they land. What is Doctor Who? On this evidence, it’s less a TV show than an enchanted (and enchanting) dream.
Doctor Who Season 8 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. Want to keep Capaldi’s Doctor for longer? You can download Doctor Who on blinkbox and Amazon Instant Video, or on iTunes – where buying a season pass will also give you all of Doctor Who Extra.
Where can I watch Doctor Who: Season 8 on pay-per-view VOD?
Photo: BBC/Adrian Rogers