When the episode titles and synopses were released at the beginning of Series 8, Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s In the Forest of the Night was the one that stood out, the only one that didn’t seem to fit. The others, Robin Hood and Time Heist and Mummy on the Orient Express, you could imagine how they were going to be Doctor Who. Episode Ten, not so much. And now that it’s here, the answer isn’t really any clearer.
Doctor Who has always been at its heart about premises and solutions, the premise generally being that somebody’s up to no good, and the solution the Doctor stopping them. Under Steven “Everybody lives!” Moffat, the series’ proclivity for disguising its fantasy as science fiction has taken a back seat, and as predicted before he took over, the fairy tale element had come to the fore. Until this year, that is. Series 8, in spite of the glimmer of magic existing just beneath its surface, has on the face of it been a bit of a return to the way things were. And now Frank Cottrell-Boyce has come along and composed an actual fairy tale, going so very much further than Moffat has ever dared; it’s like Matt Smith’s eleventh Doctor never existed.
It might have been an epic folly, though. Populating your story with children – as opposed to having just an occasional child guest star – was one risk, populating your city with trees and expecting the production team to make it seem real was quite another. Fortunately director Sheree Folkson is up to the job on both counts, although she only just about gets away with it with regards to the child cast. There are some shall we say eccentric performances tucked away amidst the junior players, but oddly they seem appropriate to the material and it’s the segments set within the TARDIS in which the sense of them is consolidated. There’s a Dahlesque sense of humour at work just beneath the surface of this story, and with the adult cast reengaging in their triangular dynamic on top of trying to save the day, it is the children who carry this sense of the bizarreness through the episode.
It’s an odd tone, drifting somewhere between Tim Burton and John Boorman and leaning one way or the other in a way that doesn’t feel forced. The photography, which emphasises the latter influence, probably won’t agree with those who’ve become tired of J.J. Abrams’ ubiquitous camera flares, but in the context of the episode it would seem churlish to disapprove when the result is so unique and so magical. Only in Doctor Who.
As a follow-up to The Caretaker, in the sense of the Doctor and Danny Pink once again coming to clash, In the Forest of the Night strikes an entirely different note. While Gareth Roberts’ story was ostensibly a comedy which occasionally emphasised the characters’ conflict, here the central trio are playing it entirely straight; there’s a respectful distance between the two men in Clara’s life, with both the Doctor and Danny grudgingly giving ground, and the result is an underlying verisimilitude in Series 8’s ongoing character narrative of the kind that Doctor Who – even under Russell T Davies – has never sought or achieved before. It has of necessity been truncated by being interspersed among the stories of the week, but every time it surfaces it feels entirely real, and a large reason for the success of that is Samuel Anderson’s superlative portrayal of the gentle but determined Danny. Jenna Coleman continues to excel as the woman caught between two such preeminent men, and she manages to play the real emotional beats beneath the comedy of her caught in the headlights character. These three have a lot of plates spinning this year, but they’re managing to keep the balance between them almost invisibly.
What In the Forest of the Night will mostly be judged on, though, is its plot, and there’s no doubt that this is what will irk a lot of fans. There’s no villain, only an act of nature, and in a far more ostentatious manner than the already contentious Kill the Moon undertook to do it, Cottrell-Boyce provides only a symbolic resolution to the dilemma that permeates the entire story, that asks for no forgiveness, and that offers no attempt at plausibility. In the Forest of the Night is perhaps then the least compromising and the most potentially alienating story in the series’ history, and how you react to it depends entirely upon whether you’re willing to accept its concepts at face value. Considering that Cottrell-Boyce throws one impossible thing at the viewer after another – albeit interspersed with some amusing logical extensions – there is only one way to accept the story as presented: it is a fairy tale, pure and simple. It is not a fable, allegory or parable; it is quite brazenly an authentic fairy tale, masquerading as Doctor Who. And it is therefore entirely impractical to try and suspend your disbelief and accept the events as shown; there is nothing “real” about how the episode unfolds and the last few minutes, as the newly-born trees dissolve into fairy dust, are the most striking evidence of this. Doctor Who has never attempted anything quite so mythical before, and this story will no doubt become one of those exceptional and distinct entries in the canon that can’t and should never be repeated.
Which is not to say that there aren’t a couple of duff moments, and the final act of the episode involving Abigail Eames and her screen mother, the usually reliable but in this case wholly culpable Siwan Morris, is embarrassingly badly played. Instances of this are unexpectedly few and far between though, and for the most part, if you’re willing to go on the journey, In the Forest of the Night more than delivers. Series 8 has exhibited an ability to surprise that even the eleventh Doctor’s tenure couldn’t manage, and this week was perhaps the most surprising Doctor Who has ever been. An astonishing, no doubt divisive, and yet completely enchanting episode.
SHARE YOUR COMMENTS BELOW OR ON TWITTER @STARBURST_MAG
Find your local STARBURST stockist HERE, or buy direct from us HERE. For our digital edition (available to read on your iOS, Android, Amazon, Windows 8, Samsung and/or Huawei device - all for just £1.99), visit MAGZTER DIGITAL NEWSSTAND.
CLICK TO BUY!
MORE FROM AROUND THE WEB: