Thursday, November 20, 2014

"In the Forest of the Night"

With what desp'rate pleas or lies
Was this role put 'fore his eyes?
If you want a piece of speculative fiction that effectively references William Blake's The Tyger, read Watchmen, with particular reference to its fifth chapter, 'Fearful Symmetry.' But hey, New Who can do intertextuality as well, right? Its primogenitor, Doctor Who, did it all the time with regards to classical literature, the golden age of science-fiction and the infinite variety of the English canon. We even got to see some clumsy references to Eliot back in 2007's 'The Lazarus Experiment,' which despite being seven years and two Doctors ago as of my writing this hardly seems old because of how enthusiastically the show has been repeating itself, navel-gazing and treading water for the majority of the time since. So how does a New Who episode reference a pre-Romantic poem which ponders theodicy, the question of evil? Well apparently it doesn't. We begin with a red riding hood girl called Maebh (pronounced "Mave") hurtling through the woods looking for the Doctor. Appropriately enough, Capaldi's not having any of it, but she talks her way into the TARDIS anyway where she more or less reveals that she had some kind of vision or dream where Clara told her to find him. The Doctor drops some crap about being the last of his species which we know from 'The Day of the Doctor' isn't even true anymore, and then when he doubts that the TARDIS is actually in London it plays a satnav voice, which of course caused me to violently evacuate my contents with the hilarity of it all. Shut up, New Who. You suck.
To what goal did they aspire?
When did they editors fire?

We zoom out to discover that London is covered in forest, giving us an intriguing shot of the overgrown metropolis, but if you're expecting a properly post-apocalyptic 'Life After People' type scenario you're going to be disappointed. The Day of the Triffids did apocalyptic London. Why not Who? Well, maybe too many literary references would make their heads explode. Meanwhile, who knows why, Danny and Clara are supervising a very small class of school children at the "Zoological Museum," a place in London that doesn't really exist. Danny's a maths teacher and Clara's an English teacher. Why are they supervising what is surely a science excursion? What's more, why do they need two teachers for this tiny class? Well as we find out later these kids are supposedly what I believe tends to be euphemistically termed the "special class" in education systems throughout the world, although beyond Maebh I'm not sure how "special needs" any of them really are, unless at Coal Hill in 2014 "special" means "a bit annoying." Well, Bradley's first scene is annoying, and Ruby is pretty annoying, but I thought Samson was okay, mainly because he takes the piss out of Mr. Pink. As they're leaving Ruby points out a rather thick tree ring in some fairly clunky exposition. Okay, I'm sure you could justify it, but why would a tree cutting be a front-centre display at a "zoological museum," which one assumes ostensibly deals largely with animals, rather than plants?
And what meaning, and what art
Could hope to thrive in this show's heart?
There's some time wasting as an old caretaker struggles to open a door, with Danny going "No, no, no, no it moved!" in a very stagey way. Then we inexplicably cut to news reports about how the trees are appearing not just in London but all over the world. Who's watching this? Clara and Danny aren't. The Doctor isn't. Maybe Maebh's condition picks up satellite. Clara phones up the Doctor, who slags off Les Misérables. The novel? The musical? One of the many film adaptations? In any event it's of course always encouraging to see the Doctor, a man who notionally uses his brain to solve problems, anti-intellectually slagging off art. Knowing New Who's imperialist nostalgia it's probably because it's French. He does get a decent line here: "I'm a Time Lord, not a child minder," which I'm going to assume is a Star Trek reference. Clara pretends to Danny that she called the school but he swiftly susses that it was the Doctor. I know we're meant to see how irresponsible and self-centred Clara is over the course of this series so I guess this is a good thing in terms of characterisation? It kind of makes you wonder why on Earth we're meant to sympathise with her though. We also find out Maebh's on medication. Danny takes the kids on a wilderness ramble to try to get them home. Unlike Clara he doesn't give a shit about where the trees are coming from because a Taliban soldier shot his imagination during the war and they had to amputate it. The government announces their intention to use "carefully controlled fires" to clear the trees. I don't want to defend the British government in any way - I don't know a terribly large amount about them, but one assumes that like all major political parties of all Western democracies they're lazy, narrow-minded, self-righteous crony capitalist plutocrats who are only better than authoritarian states according to the lesser of two evils principle and who care more about tribalistic "us-and-them-ism" than actually governing, with a blistering contempt and disregard for the very people who elect them - but one assumes that even they would understand that cutting trees down with bulldozers or chainsaws is going to be an infinitely more efficient solution than waiting for them to burn down. So unless this was an active attempt to mock the government's incompetence, it seems like it wasn't terribly well thought through at the writing stage. They also recommend stocking up on fresh water. Are they worried the trees are going to crack the pipes or something? Maybe Frank Cottrell Boyce read Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide and assumed that it applied to all apocalyptic scenarios. There's probably a deleted scene where they recommend destroying any staircases so that the trees can't follow you to high ground.
And when that heart began to beat,
What dread jokes! And what plot cheat!
Enough of my complaining. We get some indications that Maebh is psychic, and then cut to her mother freaking out about her absence. We also discover a few snippets about the student supporting cast with, needless to say, side-splitting cutaways to them being daft and poorly behaved at school which is pure sitcom, like something out of Family Guy. We learn that the trees grew overnight given that they have no rings, and the Doctor, joining the others, considers that it must be a natural event like an ice age, the Earth's history involving a "series of catastrophes." This one, however, seemingly involves messing with time, a fact the Doctor reveals after Clara muses on the way that "he pretends he's not interested," in this episode's serving of self-congratulatory self-referential pseudo-postmodern shite. Why don't they just have a bit where Moffat walks in, breaks the fourth wall and says straight to camera, "This is brilliant television and if you don't think so you must be a shithead," gives you the finger and then walks off again? Capaldi gets another amusing line, however, about an "arboreal coincidence," evocative of the "boyfriend error" of a few episodes previous. In the TARDIS, Danny finds Maebh's homework book, which is full of those stereotypical child's drawings that children never actually do, here depicting the sun and trees. Isn't she meant to be in year eight? Why does she draw like she's five years old? Anyway Capaldi starts running around like a fruit loop trying to figure out which one of the kids is Maebh who, much like Mario in 1992, is missing. We find out that Maebh hears voices, and has been taking psychiatric medication since her sister disappeared. The Doctor deduces from her drawings that a solar flare is heading for Earth. Clara complains that the sonic screwdriver isn't a magic wand, which is presumably the writers listening to criticism and ridiculing it. As the Doctor and Clara go looking for the missing small child-type person, Nelson's column collapses for no particular reason, which might actually, now that I think about it, be a reference to Shelley's Ozymandias, or even Horace Smith's Ozymandias, written in contest with Shelley, which specifically contemplates London becoming one day like Ancient Egypt.
What the pacing? How explain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
For reasons I didn't feel were entirely clear Danny hustles the kids back out of the TARDIS again, with smoke everywhere. Why did the collapsing column affect the TARDIS? Maebh's mother starts cycling through the forest yelling randomly for her. London's a pretty big place. What does she expect to happen? Unless somehow their suburban terrace is on a prime piece of real estate only a few blocks from Trafalgar Square, I can't help but feel that she might be being a bit optimistic. The Doctor and Clara find Maebh's phone, following a breadcrumb of clues, but instead of following it they veer off in an arbitrary direction. The Doctor claims that "the forest is mankind's nightmare." Is it, though? Or is that, actually, Mr. Cottrell Boyce, faux-poetic bullshit that doesn't really mean anything and is just meant to sound impressive? What about human societies that didn't develop in forested areas? Clearly New Who being Eurocentric. That's intended as sarcasm on my part, but it's actually worth thinking about in terms of New Who's tunnel-vision. I really can't help but feel that this would work more successfully as some kind of fairytale if the forest was better realised, rather than mostly looking like Peter Capaldi stumping around in a copse. The lighting doesn't help. It's just too bright and airy. I just looked up the place where the location shooting was done, the satisfyingly Welsh-sounding "Fforest Fawr Woods," and there are way more interesting looking bits than these, although I suppose they're meant to convey still being in the middle of London. Not sure where all the buildings went. The Doctor and Clara somehow find Maebh's stuff despite the fact that she's not moving in a straight line or leaving the clues in a straight line either, and they encounter some hazmat guys trying to burn the forest. This doesn't work, of course, their very "controlled" looking flamethrower failing to ignite the wood. Capaldi argues that "the whole natural order's turning against this planet." Is it? How? Against human infrastructure, maybe. He also tells off Clara for worrying about her relationship. The Doctor reveals that Maebh predicted the future in her homework book and Clara tells him that the "gifted and talented group" are actually the special kids. I think we would have been better off with Form K from Bad Education. Then some wolves start howling because the zoo's been broken open. Maebh gets menaced by the wolves but escapes through an unexpected gate, and the Doctor tells them to look big. From what I've read this would probably achieve jack shit. The wolves piss off nonetheless and he gets another good line: "Told you there were rubbish." Then the poetic references come to a head when what scared the wolves is revealed: a big stripy cereal-loving cat otherwise known as a tiger shows up looking surly, but Danny flickers a torch in its eyes and it too says "Blow this noise," and trots off, having no further relevance to the episode, not unlike the late war German heavy tank which took its name.
What the plotting? What sad cast
Dare its deadly script read past? 
The Doctor insists that they not give Maebh her medication - make of that what you will - Danny cracks out some "funny racism" when he claims that she's been "abducted by a Scotsman," and then she runs off with everyone else in pursit. "You won't find your sister out there!" Shut up Ruby. They come upon a poky-looking ring of saplings and the forest starts communicating with Maebh, although the Doctor reassures her that she wasn't responsible for it. Bradley has to shoosh at one point in this as well. The problem with the kids isn't so much that they themselves are bad as that the writing and editing is clunky and lacks timing. Somehow the Doctor "turns up" the gravity or whatever with the sonic screwdriver, and this in turn somehow causes some firefly-looking things to appear which represent the consciousness of nature or something to that effect, which claims that it's answering a call from the sun. Clara wonders why the trees want to kill them. What gave her that impression? Isn't the solar flare the thing that's going to kill them? The Doctor's toothless response is "you've been chopping them down for furniture for centuries." Were they scared of upsetting climate change deniers or something? He believes that Earth's future is going to be erased. They go back to the TARDIS, Clara tricking the Doctor into thinking that he's going to save them when actually she wants him to just save himself. She doesn't want to be the last of her species and thinks the kids will never be able to cope with the loss of everything. He declares, however, that "this is my world too," in a resolution of the issue from 'Kill the Moon.' I still don't fully understand why they assume everyone's going to die. The Doctor, however, realises that in fact the forest is filling the atmosphere with extra oxygen which will be burnt off by the solar flare. Uh... okay. Right. Well, no, it makes no sense whatsoever, but what do we expect from New Who, really? Capaldi has a few chances where he could have completely hammed it up here and he doesn't, which is all we can be grateful for these days. He compares the situation to the Tunguska event, which was a meteor strike and therefore almost totally irrelevant to the matter of oxygen and solar flares.
When these trees ate solar spears
And Moffat drank the fanboy tears
There's a minor panic when they realise that the government is planning to start defoliating. Surely, given that they know the solar flare is very soon to hit, it's unlikely that they'll be able to do enough to make a difference? Nonetheless Murray Gold's comedy music starts playing as the kids write and recite a lovely message to the world about courage and trust. The Doctor offers a trip to check out the flare in all its glory, but the kids don't give a shit about going to space and just want their parents. Danny doesn't care either, outright stating "I don't want to see more things," and arguing that "one person is more amazing than universes." So are we, as Doctor Who viewers, meant to agree with that sentiment? It's a typical false dichotomy where notionally you can't both experience new things and simultaneously appreciate them with depth. Lao Tzu said that the farther one travels, the less one knows. Then again, Sarah Jane said that travel broadened the mind. Anyway, let's not give Danny any further unnecessary airtime and join the Doctor and Clara in space where a big fire gushes harmlessly all over the Earth. Missy is watching this too for no particular reason. Back at Clara's apartment our dashing protagonists observe the trees vanishing in clouds of typical New Who all-purpose golden fairy dust, the hallmark of quality plotting. The Doctor argues that humanity's super power, among the many we've heard about this series, is forgetfulness, and that they'll put the event into "fairy stories." Spare me. He also cracks out the inexplicable remark "if you remembered how things felt you'd have stopped having wars and stopped having babies." Not even going to touch that one. Maebh and her mother go home and, clumsily, we end on a shot of a random extra playing Maebh's missing sister who appears out of a bush. Not only is the shot of this young woman whom we've never seen before totally devoid of meaning or profundity, but the music and Maebh's mother's reaction makes this one of the most embarrassing and cringeworthy moments in all of Series 8.
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who wrote 'Blink' showrun thee?
I'm afraid to say that at least in my books "In the Forest of the Night" is probably going to go down as one of the weaker episodes of Series 8. It's lacking in structure, poorly paced for the first half and simply insubstantial. On the other hand it has some nice moments for the Doctor, some decent imagery and it's a good indicator of the fact that the show doesn't need an identifiable monster, or even the idea of one, as in 'Listen,' to at least be in some respect functional, but 'functional' is probably the highest compliment I can give it. The kids are a bit pointless but nothing worth worrying about, and the dilemma doesn't seem to be terribly well thought through, but if you like your New Who with loads of arseing about then this is the episode for you. It may seem a bit rich for me, Old Who devotee that I am, to criticise arseing about, but at least Old Who's arseing about generally involved some kind of plot. This just has lots of meandering back and forth. As an experiment it's okay, but I think if you're going to do this kind of thing it needs to have a good deal more atmosphere, which ironically this episode rather lacks, the brightly-lit forest and humdrum supporting cast making the whole thing feel like nothing more than a traipse in the woods. Maybe this is what they were going for, and maybe some people like it, but for me this didn't even function as a "fairy tale" because it was all too vague. Being the second in a hat-trick of three present day Earth stories doesn't endear it a great deal either. I took a break for about a week or more in between watching halves of this episode and I found that very telling. It's not offensive particularly in dramatic terms, although you can take your pick when it comes to matters like mental illness, but it's not exactly compelling either. Maybe you could torture parallels to Blake's poem out of it, but in my view this is less "problem of evil" and more "problem of budget."

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