A fairytale science-fiction adventure written by the man behind the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, featuring a forest overgrowing the entire world with a title straight from William Blake. What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot actually.
This series of Doctor Who has proved to be the most thematically coherent since its 2005 revival. It’s a real shame then that the show now has to suffer a truly sour note. Despite some wonderful performances from its leads, some superbly imaginative set designs and some earnest scenes, this was an episode which never really found its drama, and could never find its purpose.
This entry from Frank Cottrell-Boyce, veteran writer of Danny Boyle’s films and penner of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, fails to capture the real high-fantasy and psychedelic outlandishness that could have propelled the story forward. The idea of a forest overruling all of humanity is seeped with rich potential, but none of it is capitalised upon by Boyce. For a worldwide catastrophe, even with shrubbery afoot everywhere, London is so oddly lonely. There’s no sense of a wider impact beyond a few random extras, a cheap newsreel and some mentions of the outside world. For a world trapped in by the trees, there really was no sense of danger.
Doctor Who is a family orientated show, despite some of its new rougher edges and literary questions, and having a group of kids along for a school trip into the TARDIS is a pretty cute idea. In practice, however, it sits on the edge of cringeworthy in this particular episodes with scenes involving the line “Can we take another selfie sir?” and the Doctor running about frantically making sure they don’t blow up the TARDIS.
It’s thankful that even without a real sense of drama, Capaldi, Coleman and Samuel Anderson managed to get in some fair performances. A bewildered, powerless Doctor is a wonderful setup rarely captured, and Capaldi plays this with a sense of sombreness not seen in his run so far. His heel-turning speech, a direct rip from 'Kill The Moon’s' final scene, in which he finally admits a sense of familiarity with Earth – “this is my world too; I walk your earth, I breathe your air” – was one of the sweetest spots of this episode and a neat dovetail with some of the themes for this series. Jenna Coleman’s opening preamble, in which she seemed to be playing the Doctor’s role without the Timelord in sight, in line with the events of 'Flatline', was a great turn and it’s now possible to see a genuine character complexity develop in Clara, something that wasn’t seen at all back in Series 7. Clara’s own admission to the Doctor that she doesn’t want to be the last of her kind was a wonderful moment before the oh-wait-everything-is-okay nonsense. Anderson’s playfulness really gets a good show this week, a turn away from the sturdy and controlled Danny we’re used to seeing.
In the end, however, this was a story that simply fell utterly flat. The impending solar flare disaster never felt truly real, and it was obvious from the word “fireproof” that everything was going to be okay anyway. No characters felt in danger, while the Doctor and Clara largely spend the episode wandering around a forest being a bit confused. Even Capaldi and Coleman’s wonderful presence could not elevate a script without style. For such a bizarre premise, the entire story felt strangely flat with a distinctive lack of connective tissue with no real threat, no gripping dialogue and no sense of humour besides a few one-beat jokes. I wasn’t expecting A Midsummer Night’s Dream level of nature based absurdity, however some pinpoint but playful silliness would have been very welcome.
By the time that the ‘lost child’ sub-plot was resolved with some last minute and left field nonsense, all the potential of 'In The Forest of the Night' was lost. This was simply a dull affair and despite some charm and whimsy it was all without any gripping substance. It’s the biggest misstep for a series that felt like it had a real golden pace – like the show had turned over a new leaf. Ha. Ha.
Do you agree? How did 'In The Forest of the Night' rate for you?