In the Forest of the Night

Story No. 272 Urban London
Production Code Series 8, Episode 10
Dates October 25, 2014

With Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Written by Frank Boyce Cattrall Directed by Sheree Folkson
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: The Earth has been covered by trees.


Catastrophe is the metabolism of the universe by Hugh Sturgess 27/5/16

No suspense about this: I really quite love this episode. I am actually enchanted. It's kicking loose and going gonzo in a completely charming way, telling a story unashamedly from the point of view of a child, a literal fairytale. That Steven Moffat felt compelled to publicly defend this episode as one of his favourites shows that the general fan reaction to In the Forest of the Night was not overly positive. That is not in the least bit surprising. It's exactly the kind of story a large segment of fans would despise. It's "silly". It has a ludicrous premise that it doesn't even have the decency to be dark and scary. After vigintillions of years, the world forest has awoken, but the trees are there to protect us! No adult wants to feel like they have invested a great deal of time and emotional capital in something silly for children, so the easiest way to get fans in general to hate a Doctor Who episode is to make it "silly" and "for kids".

But treating this like Fear Her, something crap made "for kids" without any respect for children as an audience, is absurd. Frank Cottrell Boyce is not a lazy hack churning out a bit of fluff for the kids. The script is clearly very deliberate in everything it does. The science is indeed so far beyond anything approaching reality that it would make Neil deGrasse Tyson's head immediately explode, but it's not as though it doesn't acknowledge that. The script makes the effort to name the solar flare a coronal mass ejection, which is almost taunting in this context. It knows the science, and is writing something entirely unscientific anyway. References to the ice ages and other things invoke catastrophism, an outdated scientific theory for how the Earth changed over time. The story is based on a firm intellectual foundation.

Criticising it for being silly when it's announcing its silliness (if you want to call it that) is effectively saying that silliness has no place in Doctor Who. At the risk of invoking the Doctor Who equivalent of Godwin's Law, a determination to make everything serious and grim was behind the endless Aliens retreads of the Saward era. The best-regarded stories of that period are, in general, the ones that step out the hard-edged sci-fi and tell something more lyrical - Enlightenment, Kinda, Snakedance - that are, in short, sort of silly. The world forest rising from beneath the skin of the world to protect us from "the sun that creates and the sun that destroys" is the story this episode has chosen to tell. If you have a problem with it, make a case for why it is flawed that isn't just a blanket condemnation of the premise itself.

Another common criticism, that it is uniquely lacking in menace, is true enough. The only immediate threat is Nelson's Column coming unstuck and a few CGI animals that get scared away pretty easily. But so what? We have threat and menace every other week. Again, criticising the story for the absence of monsters or villains isn't really fair. It doesn't feel slow or boring or as though a thin idea was stretched too far. Boyce is on record deploring the kind of advice you find in scriptwriters' handbooks (the three-act structure and the hero's journey and all that), so it's no surprise his Doctor Who script doesn't follow standard conventions. It tells a story of just the right length. The characters are constantly exploring, thinking, reasoning. Why can't we for once have a story where the main characters do nothing, if it's the right sort of nothing?

In fact, I think it's a moot point whether this episode is really simply "for kids" at all. Yes, it is a child's world. Aside from the regulars, the only adult character of any moment is Maebh's mother, who spends the episode slowly cycling through the forest looking for Maebh (arguably the weakest part of the episode, as it feels like the same scene over and over). The flame crews all wear fire suits and hoods, making them distant figures of fear rather than relatable human beings. Even plot weaknesses like the sleepover in the natural history museum (what museum would let a bunch of teenagers stay overnight, unsupervised but for two teachers, among the exhibits?) and the return of Annabel for the sake of a sickly sweet happy ending can be put down to it being a child's world where this sort of stuff happens. Much of the episode has been shot from low or high angles, emphasising a child's viewpoint or the smallness of the children. It makes everything strange and frightening, alien. This isn't so much a Doctor Who story as an episode of a children's show that the TARDIS has materialised in.

That's why I think the occasionally voiced view that the episode is reckless for suggesting that Maebh should not take her medication is ridiculous. It is certainly problematising the growing popularity of medicating children's moods, as if that's a frighteningly uncommon and reckless idea. One doesn't have to look far for public worrying about whether we're drugging kids up too much. "Mental illness" being revealed as an actual mental superpower or similar is a very common concept in fantasy and science fiction. Closer to home, even the Cybermen were originally a metaphor for mood-altering drugs. Yes, Maebh hears voices, which is a different thing to ADHD, but it's also in a story about trees taking over the world. In short, who would watch this and decide to stop taking their meds, aside from those who have already stopped?

More than that, people sometimes talk about prejudice against mentally ill people, the assumption that they're stupid, malingering, dangerous, contagious in some way, you name it. I think there is great social value, even on a small scale, of telling a story, for children, in which a mentally ill child who has to take medication, who is assumed to be a danger to herself by her teachers, is really communing with the ancient spirits of the land. No child is going to stop taking their meds over this, but it is a depiction of the mentally ill as a hero, rather than a victim or a villain. I think it's great.

It's a huge shock coming to this from the universe of Dark Water, where heroes kill children by accident. It makes the Missy cameo detrimental. It's hard to reconcile the events of this story with pretty much any other part of the series, so linking it to the season-long arc so blatantly has the perverse effect of making the season feel more jumpy and uneven rather than more unified. I'm all for tonal variation, of course, but including Missy is asking us constantly to think about how this fits into the world Clara and Danny live in.

But the "for kids" reading is complicated. First, the script is very careful in its source texts. The title is obviously from Blake, but the connection doesn't stop with the tiger. Most obviously, naming a story after a line from Blake, a poet who, to put it gently, saw and heard things that others didn't, and building it around a little girl who sees and hears things that others dismiss as hallucinations is clearly very important. When the Doctor describes trees as time machines, he uses the year 1795, the time that Blake was writing his most famous works. The Book of Ahania, published in that year, introduces Blake's Tree of Mystery, which symbolically connected contemporaneous Christianity to ancient Druidic beliefs. "The sun that creates and the sun that destroys"? "The Tiger" is Blake trying to reconcile the God who created the lamb with the God who created a ruthless predator like the tiger - the God that creates and the God that destroys.

The story is inspired down to the ground by Blake. It's about the ancient spirit of Albion rising from beneath the skin of the modern world to save it. It's about a world in which catastrophe is the metabolism of the universe, where the sun that gives life also takes it away, where the world forest is a place of unique dread (the Doctor calls it humanity's collective nightmare) but is also humanity's oldest protector. It's about embracing the power and magic of visions, rather than treating them as sickness that needs to be suppressed. An episode that painstakingly draws from the work of William Blake is, to put it simply, not a straightforward "silly for kids" episode.

Clara's decision to get the Doctor to leave them behind to die also cuts across the "for kids" reading, not because of the subject matter itself (another delightfully dark aspect of this post-watershed era) but because the kids (and Danny) never find out about it. It's a frightening truth that's kept from them by the adults. It's the moment the children's series takes a backseat and Doctor Who reasserts itself. It's a great scene, and even though the chances of Clara dying and the Earth being destroyed are zero, it feels like a genuinely weighty Doctor-Clara exchange.

Since it focusses so much on the kids, it's a relief that they are, for the most part, great by the standards of child actors. Abigail Eames is obviously acting, but she's incredibly strong. She gives Maebh the right mixture of earnestness and otherworldliness. She's given key scenes like the exposition scene in the heart of the forest and the opening scene in the TARDIS, and she handles them creditably. The biggest stumbles with the kids are in the dialogue, which occasionally becomes too obviously TV-speak rather than anything a real person would say. "But I haven't got an imagination!" and "When I get stressed I forget my anger-management" are smart-arse jokes that would fit well into a sitcom or an Adam Sandler movie, but are unreal in a way that works against the unreality of the rest of the story. To have this kind of hyper-self-aware commentary in a fairytale feels vaguely sacrilegious.

There are things it isn't so good at. The biggest is the heavy suspension of disbelief required by the central conceit. It never looks like a city taken over by a forest, but rather a forest with a few fences and lampposts in it. Your mileage may vary as to whether this is a serious problem or not. Personally, I think that a fairytale about the ancient spirit of Britain redeeming the fallen world, with kids no one cares about saving us, that tells us not to medicate away the visions of Blake, with strong ecological themes, is lyrical enough and weird enough to survive the limitations of a BBC budget.


I would like to know just what the heck the writers were smoking when this idea came up. It must have been pretty powerful, because I can't for the life of me think how this idea even got written, let alone made. If this was the best script that they had that week, then I would hate to see what the worst one was.

I mean magic trees, with little pixies in them? These are going to save us from those nasty solar flares. Never mind all the damage they caused, including knocking over Nelson's Column. Because, we're all gonna forget about it the next day. All the trees will magically disappear, and all the damage will be magically undone as well. Everything will be fine.

I'm sorry, but is this Doctor Who or Harry Potter?

There are some New Who fans who like to point and laugh at Classic Who stories, such as The Horns of Nimon. When they do that, I just point out this mess, and that shuts them right up!

One can look in vain for a Who fan that will defend this mess, because most Who fans know that this was trash. No wonder the ratings dropped, if this was the best they could offer. I mean, what the heck were they thinking!? Of course, the majority of the fans pointed and laughed at this; I know I did. Did Moffat and his crew really think they had a winner with this? If that is the case, I wonder what colour the sky is in their world.

Would I ever watch this again? Sure, if someone held a gun to my head. Unless you're one of those fans who has to see every Doctor Who story ever made, you can skip this one.

A big fat zero from me.

"Hey all you Planeteers at home..." by Thomas Cookson 3/6/19

I think this story made me realize I'm just not the show's target audience anymore.

That's been an issue from the beginning. When New Who was revived, it was made by, and for, a clique of superfans for whom liking the show was never enough. They wanted it to be adored. If you were content to merely like Who, then their revived version was simply no longer for you.

I did try, however. Whenever an episode like Dalek, The Time of Angels or Rings of Akhaten came along that I could unequivocally love, I was overjoyed. But after a long separation from Capaldi's era, I've come to realise I no longer have any interest in being that kind of histrionic fanboy.

Basically, Moffat seems to have no consistent idea who his audience is anymore. In fact, after this exclusively child-aimed story, the following three stories feature some of his darkest material ever, sharing more in common with the later Freddy Kruger juggernaut sequels (with increasingly insane, convoluted mythology retconnings).

Fans were quick to claim Series 8's Coal Hill setting, Clara, Danny and Courtney were a deliberate recreation of 1963, with an elderly Doctor, two teachers and a pupil for companions. Actually this proved to be a dummy run for the spin-off Class, which is what this story felt like. With yet more Clara-Danny soap-opera shenanigans, which last week even ruined Flatline's most thrilling scene.

Maybe at 11 I'd have enjoyed Forest as a welcome break from the show's usual masochistic horror and unflinching depictions of atrocity. Then again, maybe I'd deep down be dismayed at the show becoming just like any other children's TV and losing that which made Doctor Who so dangerous, foreboding, special and mind-expanding.

I've sometimes defended New Who's forays into children's fare, like Rings of Akhaten, that I felt still held something rewarding and cathartic for adults. But too many things prevented this from working for the adult me.

I couldn't quite care about Forest enough to hate it. It'd be easy to be mean-spirited in tearing this apart. But Forest was a viewing experience I had no wish to repeat, and I preferred pretending this story never happened.

Months later I gave it a rewatch and found it not as bad as I remembered. That is until the final five minutes. Much like the forest itself, the number of things wrong with it increase exponentially into a critical mass as the runtime goes on.

I've always felt the NA novel Blood Heat would've made a brilliant atmospheric TV story, with its premise of nature running wild and modern London swamped and besieged by tropical jungle and the animal kingdom violently reasserting itself. This story on paper should be something exciting and thrilling.

London's populace awakens to the spontaneous existence of oppressive overgrowth of forest, leaving the entire city unrecognisable. But the story depends on believing this forest represents an omnipresent threat enough to buy the extreme measures the government goes to eradicate it, and the bizarre surety whereby Capaldi and Clara come to the rash conclusion that this threat represents the end for mankind.

In such a crisis we'd expect masses of people to be out as spectators, trying to find their way home, gather together or find family members. That we see nobody out and about besides the kids, Maeve's mother and three environmental officers represents a level of shocking amateurishness unseen since Silver Nemesis. If something that big and crucial is glaringly absent, it's a big obstacle to believing in the story's reality.

Even more idiotically, the environmental officers decide the sensible response to the entrapping forest is to start a forest fire, barely minutes after sending a warning on social media to only those with access to it. That's hardly sufficient to anyone who's still lost in the forest when it burns. This of course establishes the forest is indestructible and fireproof. Raising the stakes and subtly hinting at the forest's world-saving powers that'll be revealed later.

But it just feels like a ham-fisted moment of these officials being unbelievably stupid, recklessly endangering the population. It's like pandering to the watching children by going to grievous, shameful lengths to present the adults as unbelievably stupid. Moments like that kept throwing me out of the story and spoiling the atmosphere I wished to savour.

Now usually the closer you get to the rurals, the more surreal and foreboding things seemingly get. Twin Peaks had a luxurious atmosphere of suburbia gone sour. Here there's a feeling of sanitising artificiality to the forest. It feels toothless and bland, like a flatly done, live-action cartoon. It doesn't even convey the anticipation or magic of the journey through The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe's poor man's Narmia. When I'm comparing unfavourably to that story, something's gone very wrong.

The episode gives the horrible sense of hoping we're too dumb to notice its flimsy, amateurish nature. The only thrilling moments involves the tiger on the loose at the gates, and even that threat's diminished by Danny stupidly flashing a torch at it and somehow not getting furiously mauled for it. Certainly, in hindsight, it would've made much more sense to kill Danny here, rather than cram the tragedy into next week's teaser.

But what I hated, moreso in repeat viewings, was the child cast. The children are clearly overjoyed to be in Doctor Who, and that sense of happy spirits behind the scenes does occasionally transfer enthusiastically onto screen. But, Maeve aside, they're written as obstinately obnoxious enough to suck momentum from the story every time one decides to be a stubborn stickler for no good reason (there's even classroom flashbacks to such moments). Like Nightmare in Silver's petulant brats killing the wonder by constantly complaining, I'll just never understand Moffat thinking that child viewers want to see other children tagging along with the adventure.

Clara's still being an unbearable smartarse too. When reunited with Capaldi, she provides a running commentary of the Doctor going through his usual motions from being stumped by a problem to being inspired by a solution. It's Moffat again being insufferably 'knowing' about the Doctor, pointing out the cliches and making them worse for it, whilst diminishing Capaldi's acting method and effort to take himself and the viewer through these motions. Capaldi's not yet completed his first season, and already they've made his character obvious to a degree that's boring.

Flynn Sullivan's already highlighted the scene where Clara tells Capaldi it's better leaving the kids behind to die than let them survive orphaned, which left a nasty taste in my mouth. In interviews, Jenna Coleman has hinted the sheer inconsistency of Clara's character and scripting made her give up trying to understand who Clara is and just read what was on the page. Perhaps it was meant to symbolise a detante in their season-long gender war for personal dominion.

I also must ask why they're giving Capaldi an episode with the kids when that better suited Matt Smith, who Capaldi couldn't be more of a contrast to? It's this that convinced me how hollowly insincere the promises of a radical new direction for Capaldi really always were. Capaldi's presence should dictate a complete change from the previous era's fairy-tale adventures towards stories that actually suit him. Like how Peter Davison better suited stories like Kinda and Enlightenment and their metaphysical enemies of the mind that forced him to face his insecurities and doubts, whilst the Pertwee-redux shallow, unimaginative action monster parades he kept getting instead didn't suit him, nor did they do him any favours.

The story throws science to the solar winds in favour of the Gaia philosophies of the Earth being a sentient, spiritual being with the ability to defend itself or retaliate against environmental damage. There was a precedent for this in 1970's Inferno. But there it was suggested that any Earthly sentience resided in a perpetual slumber and could only be awoken by some deep penetration of its inner layers and that this Earth spirit wasn't so benevolent toward mankind. Ultimately, Inferno demonstrated this Earthly sentience wasn't enough for the planet to save itself, only to take vengeance on mankind as it destroyed itself.

Basically, Inferno never undermined any or every other threat to mankind by suggesting that mother nature will surely always protect us and ensure the planet's invincibility. Forest undermines all that. If the planet can spontaneously flourish enough trees to shield the planet from solar flames, it raises too many questions why Earth doesn't adopt similar defence strategies to repel invading Daleks, and if the planet can, then why should I care about any invasion threat of the week?

Some of its fairy tale cliches are excruciating. Capaldi and Clara lose track of Maeve so repeatedly that it's insulting. Why would Maeve drop her iPhone to leave a trail for the Doctor, when it was the very thing she's reachable by? Well, because Hansel and Gretel did it in their fairy story. But they wouldn't if they'd had access to mobile phones, and they certainly wouldn't have discarded their phones into the trail. The moment I realized this was impossible to buy was when Capaldi himself made and announced the ridiculous deduction. In doing so, he exposed how little sense the thinking behind such a deduction makes, and how bluntly the story has to suggest it.

I did like when Maeve finally communicated with the forest spirits. I liked the atmosphere there. It's also here that we get the story's controversial anti-medication message. I understand why some found this message irresponsible. However, having recovered from a major depression in 2013, I know the medical industry thinks pills are always the answer. How people in the medical industry fall under authoritarian pressure to move on quickly to their next case, so putting people on pills always seems the quick, manageable approach. I became frustrated how persistently they tried getting me back on medication, regardless how repeatedly I'd said no, even after years had elapsed without incident.

So I should appreciate Capaldi's rant of how putting Maeve on excessive medication isn't healthy. Unfortunately, it ends up being so like his other tiresome, petty complaints about trivial human idiosyncrasies that it gets lost in the pile. Trying to make an important point through a character who at this stage it's easy to think is him who's the problem rather than the world.

I cringed throughout the scene where Maeve gave her message into the TARDIS speakers urging the people to stop trying to deforest and just trust the trees to protect us. Possibly the show's most painful scene since Time and the Rani. Made worse by the fact her message manages to convince everyone offscreen to stop and believe her.

Did Moffat not see the glaring problem of doing this several episodes after Kill The Moon where Earth's doomed, frightened population hear Clara's plea for mercy towards the hatching alien and respond realistically by ignoring her? You can't then do the same scenario here and have the population decide to abide completely by some girl's nonsense about sparing the trees because they're our friends. The show's already pointed out how unrealistic that'd be.

Finally, there's Maeve's older sister returning at the end. Her disappearance was raised as a background detail, long past the halfway mark, yet it's meant to pay off in a contrived out the blue happy ending that fails to justify why it was made a big deal of. Was it something Boyce planned to develop in later redrafts or failed to discard once it rang hollow as a climax? Did Moffat insist the sister couldn't stay missing because that'd be too upsetting to kids? Either way, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth how long in production this season and this penultimate episode was, for such a half-finished sloppy effort.

I think the best thing to do is simply forget this one, and pray they never attempt this horribly twee nonsense again. Just walk away.