Sunday, June 08, 2008

Doctor Who: Forest of the Dead

So often with Doctor Who these days, when we have a two-parter, the second part seems to not live up to the expectation of the opening instalment. This seems to especially afflict the 'big monster' stories which is a great shame as Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans deserve better. The season-enders especially seem to have suffered, with the final episode in each case having to do a lot of work to try and wrap everything up neatly and failing somewhere in the attempt.

Luckily, the more low-key two-parters on the whole have succeeded admirably. 'The Empty Child'/'The Doctor Dances' is a great example, as is 'Human Nature'/'The Family of Blood'. 'The Impossible Planet'/'The Satan Pit' however dropped the ball.

Now we have another to add to the roster of successes, with 'Silence in the Library'/'Forest of the Dead' managing to feel like a wholly rounded story, something that Doctor Who used to do time and time again, and yet which seems to be missing from this new, fast-paced, CGI crammed, 45 minute episode format. We either get something whimsical and knockabout (eg 'Partners in Crime', 'New Earth') or something which is a glorified runaround (eg 'The Doctor's Daughter', 'The Lazarus Experiment', '42'). It's rare to come across an episode which feels like and works as a complete adventure in 45 minutes, though thankfully it has happened ('Dalek', 'Father's Day', 'The Girl in the Fireplace', 'The Idiot's Lantern', 'Blink'). What's interesting to note is that every one of these episodes which feel like 'proper' stories has not been written by Russell T Davies ...

But back to 'Forest of the Dead', an episode concluding an adventure begun with 'Silence in the Library', in itself one of the best, most exciting and chilling episodes of Doctor Who we have seen to date. It had a lot to live up to.

If you remember, last week we left our heroes trapped in the darkened Library, with a shambling, reanimated corpse heading towards them, Donna apparently dead, and no way out ...

Of course there's a way out! River Song has her squareness gun, and so the team escape by making their own way through the bookcases. This is a little bit of a cop out I suppose, but in keeping with the nature of cliffhangers.

More important were some of the revelations in the episode. Last week we had no idea who the strange little girl with her father was, who the mysterious Doctor Moon was, and what River Song's relationship with the Doctor was. Personally I wanted answers to all but the last one. I really found I could care less about River Song and this whole future relationship guff. It was interesting, and well played by the actors, but as some sort of big arc-like revalation? No, just not interested. So I was very pleased indeed that we discovered who the little girl and Doctor Moon were, but were left with no real clue as to the Doctor and River's relationship.

The episode managed to fill in the blanks, with a nice televisual conceit of showing Donna apparently arriving at a hospital/home, getting better, meeting a nice man, getting married, having two kids and living happily ever after ... but all in the space of about two minutes. The idea of the cutting between scenes and locations happening in the way we see on television and on film all the time, but having Donna experience it in 'real time' so to speak was inspired, and made for fascinating watching. I did wonder what younger children watching might make of this, or how their parents might explain what was happening to them if asked.

So as Donna starts to realise that all is not as well as it seems in her idyllic world via a visitation from a strange cowled figure, so the Doctor and the team of archaeologists back at the Library try and find out what's happening. Most of these scenes are enlivened by the performances of David Tennant and Alex Kingston, as the Doctor and River try to come to terms with each other. River whispering an unheard word to the Doctor to force him to realise that he can trust her was a nice touch - I hoped we would not find out what that word was ... and we didn't (it was the Doctor's real name which is a little cliched I suppose, but miles better than: 'Doctor ... I am your mother').

There's lots more running around. First Other Dave is eaten by the shadows, and the Doctor falls through a super-convenient trapdoor and ends up monkey-swinging under one of the Library building spurs. This was rather naff and I didn't really get the point aside from a chance to use some more CGI. Finally Anita gets shadowed as the Doctor races to try and get everything sorted out.

The idea that the little girl was the computer core (CAL being her initials: Charlotte Abigail Lux) and Dr Moon was a virus checker, protecting and supporting the core, was well handled if a little predictable, and the performances from Eve Newton (CAL) and Colin Salmon (Moon) were exemplary. What was less believable was that the girl would throw a hissy fit and activate the destruction of the Library in 20 minutes! But then I suppose the episode needed some artificially engineered tension to give it all something to work towards.

Donna meets with the cowled figure, and it's Miss Evangelista from the first part - assumed dead, but now a hyper-intelligent computer recreation, with a twisted face as a result of some data corruption as she was 'saved' by the computer from her Data Ghost. The resultant breakdown of Donna's world was nicely handled, and her reaction when her two children vanished was superb. This is the very best we have seen Catherine Tate so far - not playing some caricature of her comedy persona or overegging the pudding.

I liked very much the idea that the Vashta Nerada came to the Library in the books, as the books were made from the forests in which they lived. It explains why all the books in the Library had to be newly-made reprints at least (I did wonder about this last week - surely a library would generally have actual editions of the books rather than going to the expense of printing new ones, and if you were going to print new ones, then why not just keep them all digitally and only print a copy when requested by one of the library users?)

It's only right at the end that the questions start to come. When rescuing all the people who had been saved (as in literally saved, to the computer hard drive), why didn't the core have enough storage meaning that the Doctor had to try and use his brainspace as well? And they said that River's brainspace was not big enough and would kill her (which it did) so how did all the people get retrieved then? And in retrieving the people, where did their flesh and blood bodies come from? What material was used to make them? I can accept that their personalities and minds were stored on the computer, but I can't see how their bodies could be physically stored as well? Maybe I missed something.

The final scenes between the Doctor and River were awesome. Pitch perfect performances from both actors, well balanced and giving nothing away. I found myself wondering how much better '42' could have been with someone decent in the lead role rather than the woefully mis-cast Michelle Collins. Alex Kingston was totally believable as River Song, taking charge, enjoying the challenges ... a true Doctor-like figure which was, I suspect, the whole point, as in her the Doctor had found himself. Of course Lux's line that they were arguing away like an old married couple was a deliberate plant to make the fans think she therefore was his wife ... personally I suspect not. That would be too obvious.

So the story concludes, and there are some wonderful, soul achingly beautiful lines of dialogue. I adored Donna asking the Doctor whether 'all right' was a special Time Lord code for 'not all right at all', before admitting that she too was 'all right'. I loved the 'some days nobody dies at all' line, which is of course what happens here - everyone is saved, either literally, or on the computer hard drive. I even liked the concept that the Doctor that we see now, today, is not a patch on the Doctor from the future, the one from whom whole armies will run, and the one who can open his TARDIS doors by clicking his fingers. In the accompanying Confidential episode, this was explained as a take on a trait of fandom where fans always look back to the golden days and moan that '... it's not as good as it was in my day.' Here we have the show saying that it's only going to get better, which is no bad thing. However they have a lot to live up to.

With the author of this story, Steven Moffat, now announced as the new showrunner for Doctor Who, taking over from Russell T Davies for the 2010 series, I feel that the show is in safe hands. Moffat seems to have an instinctive grasp of what makes Doctor Who good, and certainly his writing for the show has given us the best episodes of its run to date. Personally I hope he can keep up the quality, and the darkness. Remembering that Doctor Who is, at its heart, NOT a science fiction show, but a horror show, plundering the depths to bring us thrills and scares in equal measure. If he can manage that, then I'll even forgive him 'The Curse of Fatal Death'!

Next week: goodness knows! Something on a space tour across a diamond planet called Midnight ... death ... horror ... screaming ...


Anonymous said...

A very interesting review,Mr.
Howe, and certainly in line with
the feedback from other DW
review sites like Digital Spy,
the Anorak Zone and Behind
the Sofa. I agree with your
comments about Alex Kingston's
excellent performance, and
Colin Salmon and the actress
playing the little girl
were also superb.

However,I have to take issue
with "Remembering that Doctor Who is, at its heart, NOT a science fiction show, but a horror show, plundering the depths to bring us thrills and scares in equal measure."

I always considered Doctor Who
to be a science-fiction show-
not a "techie" one like Star
Trek, but using the device of
the Doctor and the Tardis to
place the characters within
sci-fi stories. Some of those
stories would be horrific ones
("Spearhead from Space",
"Pyramids of Mars") some of
them would be comedies ("The
Romans","City of Death" "Delta
and the Bannermen") some would
be action-adventure stories (like
"Earthshock"). We tend to forget
that there was often a lot of
humour in the "horrific" Hinchcliffe years as well (The "I'll kill him with my deadly jelly
baby!" scene in Face of
Evil, for instance).

The scarey bits are an
important part of Doctor
Who,but I don't believe
they're the show's heart.I
think that comes from exploring
and meeting new ideas (even
during the earth-bound
Pertwee era, the
Doctor was always meeting
interesting alien cultures
like the Silurians).

But I suppose each fan has
his/her own vision of
Doctor Who...

Matthew said...

I did find it a little strange that the largest hard drive ever had somehow managed to run out of space, and how did the Doctor not get that when the computer kept saying they were saved but 0 survivors it meant they were saved in the hard drive. I realised that really early in the first episode, it seemed fairly obvious to me, especially as the "largest hard drive ever" was bigged up fairly often.
The way I understand it, the computer didn't just store their personality and memory, but their entire configuration. After all, where does the body go when it's being transported? Presumably stored in some sort of pattern buffer (Star Trek I know), so rather than immediately transporting it, it was just stored indefinitely.

Kopic said...

But I suppose each fan has
his/her own vision of
Doctor Who...

Quite right, Mr or Mrs Anonymous. But only my vision is the right one ;)

On the whole, an excellent review and I whole-heartedly agree with your comments about the general malaise afflicting the majority of two-part stories. I, too, especially liked the scenes of Donna's alternate life. She is a fine actress, for sure.

I reckon that the show is at it's best when being scary, but it can't and shouldn't be scary all the time. We need the light relief to emphasise the darkness - whether that relief is within the scary story or a separate story on its own is an argument for another day.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, yet again, David. While I felt the pacing of the episode was a bit erratic, I enjoyed it hugely.

I am slightly suprised that some comments on your review have disagreed with your belief that the show is at heart a horror show.
Surely the Hinchcliffe/ Holmes golden era showed that Whovians love good scares as well as improbable plots.

Arguably, when Who is at its most whimsical,"Invasion of Time" etc ..., it is at it most poor. (Rewatch "Partners in Crime" and disagree with me.)