Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead
|Production Code||Series Four Episodes Eight and Nine|
|Dates||May 31 and June 7 2008|
With David Tennant,
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Euros Lyn
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.
|Synopsis: The Doctor and Donna discover a deserted library, swathed in darkness. But are they in the real world?|
For Your Consideration... by Adrian Pocaro 25/11/08
The prevailing impression I'm getting is that Series Four has been pretty lightweight. Of course, I've contributed to some of that, my takes on Partners in Crime and The Doctor's Daughter have been less than flattering. In my opinion, it has been somewhat disappointing, although I'm sure time will be kind to The Fires of Pompeii and The Planet of the Ood, the other stories of the season have been unmemorable.
Until this one. It's time to anoint a classic and I believe we've struck gold with Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. This is the type of writing and story that I've been waiting for, courtesy of the man who will helm the series come 2010.
The pre-credits teaser has the effect of instantly drawing the viewer in, and thankfully it doesn't end with some random shock death that other reviewers have pointed out as being the norm. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead is the first truly multi-layered story of the New Series. It demands that you pay attention. It raises questions but doesn't give easy answers. It leaves a lot of blanks that need to be filled in, but it's no cop-out. It's a masterpiece.
David Tennant and Catherine Tate have hit their stride by this story. The interaction between the two is friendly, but at times somewhat confrontational. "Doctor, why are we here?" Donna asks, bored. Later, the Doctor grabs Donna to move her out of harm's way and she recoils, shouting "Hands!" Its the Sixth Doctor and Peri as they should have been in Season 22.
It also has the benefit of Alex Kingston as River Song, who positively shines throughout this story and adds the layers as she knows a lot more about our Time Lord than we would expect. She's witty, intelligent and exactly someone you would expect to keep company with the Doctor. The diary aspect was fascinating, "Judging from your face, I'd say it's early days for you" and "You're not allowed to see inside the book. Your rules." There is a general sense that books, the bringers of knowledge, can hide something deadly and foreboding. In the case of River's diary, its "spoilers" about the future (LOVED that in-joke). Kingston hits all the right notes here. Her reaction to Donna, the way she looks at the Doctor as he does his thing with the sonic screwdriver. There's something to this here, and I will be extremely disappointed if the issues raised in this story are left to die on the vine or be resolved in some non-canonical novel. River, in both concept and character, is a force to be reckoned with. Not only is she no fool, she stands up to the Doctor, berates him, and even downright disrespects him. I am referring to the scene where the Doctor insists "I AM the Doctor" and River simply shrugs. "Yeah. Someday."
Moving past all that, we have the Vashta Narada, a fairly frightening idea if there was one. There's something about this writer which makes me think we may be heading for a darker and generally more scary series five. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not expecting a Hinchcliffe/Holmes redux, but doesn't Moffat succeed brilliantly on creating tension around the most basic, everyday objects? Here, it's shadows. Last year, it was statues. The man knows how to write... consistently! It's a welcome breath of fresh air.
Our guest cast could be just a bunch of people who stand around waiting for death but, thankfully, each are fleshed out to a good degree. I was happy to be wrong about Mr. Lux. And, like the Doctor, I was fond of Anita, especially her dignified reaction to being hunted by the Vashta Narada: "I'm only crying. I'm about to die. It's not an overreaction." Dialogue is a strong point in these episodes: "Pretty boy." "Donna Noble has been saved." It's about time we had a story where characters' lines mean things, instead of being vehicles to advance/explain the plot or to include some juvenile and lame joke. I cannot stress this enough: Dialogue counts! Sometimes, it can actually save a story. Look at The Sunmakers. Not my favorite story by a long shot, but the propulsion supplied by the dialogue makes it more than watchable. A dog of a script concept can be saved if it's conveyed correctly through the spoken word, and this story gets it right. Of course, in this case, the dialogue is the icing on the cake; the story is already excellent.
What else? How about the little girl and the total mystery surrounding her in part one? When she was talking to the Doctor through her television, I knew that this story would be unlike anything we had seen yet. When the psychiatrist finally sat her down to talk about "the real world and the world of nightmares" I was hooked. The whole of part one had a slightly "Harry Potter" feel to it, especially the part where the books are flying all over the place and the Doctor continues to work at the computer terminal, only slightly phased.
Or how about the way this story develops the characters of the Doctor and Donna naturally through the plot, instead of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole like with The Doctor's Daughter? When it's all said and done, the Doctor is clearly affected by River. Just take a look at his face; despite his stoic claims otherwise, he's not always all right. Donna doesn't escape either. Reflecting on her experience, Donna asks the Doctor "What does that say about me?" to which he replies "Everything" before pulling back. But it's true. It does say everything about her. Donna Noble won the lottery in getting to travel with the Doctor. What you see from her in this story is a look at her true character. Take the Doctor out of the equation and it's clear she would settle for the quiet life. And, by the looks of it, she wouldn't make a half bad mother. Still, Donna is not sure she likes what she sees. Is this character growth I detect? Although she is growing as a person due to the Doctor's influence, she can't deny her true nature. We are, after all, what we are.
So far, we have Tennant and Tate on their game, a great guest cast and an intelligent story. Is there any aspect that doesn't work? Well, the sets of the library's interior don't quite match the epic scale of the exteriors.
That's all I could find wrong!
As for the music: Oh, Murray Gold, how could you? How COULD you? I was living very comfortably with my opinion that you were just a tad above average and then you turn in this score, which had me literally punching the air with excitement. The music just oozes atmosphere. The music box theme that accompanied CAL was nice mix of childlike and haunting. The music for the Doctor's final revelation, "saved her", was absolutely soaring and downright cinematic. Please, please, please continue scoring like this. I've been waiting years for this type of music to accompany an episode of Doctor Who. You hit a home run.
Once in a while, a Doctor Who story will come around and hit you across the face while screaming "This is why you watch the show!" Sometimes, those stories come about during a fan's darkest hour, when all hope for decent writing on the series seems lost. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead is one such story. It has everything lined up for it: acting, production values, music, concepts.
So, with all due respect to Human Nature/The Family of Blood, another worthy candidate, I humbly submit Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead for consideration as the first bonafide classic of the Tennant era.
Even with the voiceover at the end.
Turn the Page by Mike Morris 9/2/09
I was starting to think it might not happen, but here it is; a Series 4 story I can be nice about! It's that man Moffatt again, crafting - with all his usual care - a well-honed tale that has a feeling of scale, importance, and danger. I mean, come on, just look. That pre-titles sequence; light-years ahead of anything we'd seen in Series 4 to that point. It's not a cheap trailer moment for the rest of the show, as with The Fires of Pompeii; it's not a sequence that's entirely unrelated to the rest of the programme, as with The Doctor's Daughter; it's not the bog-standard kill-off-someone-to-establish-danger routine that we get in Planet of the Ood and, most annoyingly, The Sontaran Stratagem. In the pre-titles sequence here, the Doctor and Donna Nobuw (well, that's how Catherine Tate pronounces it) have just shown up in an eight year-old's head. It doesn't end with a big death-stunt, it's a sharp cut to the startled face of a little girl.
From the start, this story is giving us something unexpected.
In a way, you've got to feel sorry for the man Moffatt. With his announcement as the new Most Important Person In The World, it was difficult not to see this as some sort of statement of intent. However, I'm going to resist the temptation to analyse this as a precursor to Doctor Who's future. We know that Steven Moffatt can write. We know that he can run TV shows. We know that he has a lot of diversity in his back catalogue, having written Jekyll (which was a bit rubbish, I thought, but hey), Coupling and Press Gang. And there, we may as well let the matter rest until we've got more to go on.
So, judging this story on its merits, then. Is it good?
Well, yes. Obviously. I should temper that, slightly, by saying that it may well be Moffat's weakest Doctor Who offering. The most common criticism (made most unfairly - but amusingly - by Lawrence Miles' Moffatt Times Table) is that he's re-using a lot of ideas, albeit his own. I don't actually mind this at all, as I don't see anything wrong with an author riffing on his favourite ideas; Bob Holmes did it ad infinitum, if you want some pedigree. The problem here is that it's all more self-conscious than usual; indeed, in a strange way, it's almost like Steven Moffatt is trying to copy himself. Self-consciously scary? Check. Non-linear structure? Check. Big plot twist? Check. No real villain? Check. If Blink was a display of Steven Moffatt tightening up and eliminating many elements that had marred his previous stories, this is more like he's becoming too slavish in sticking to what he's won plaudits for. Lawrence Miles (sorry to bring him up again) has harshly characterised former Moffatt monsters as gimmicks, which I think is partially true at best. However, the threat here really does feel like a transparent attempt to scare kids.
And yet, a slightly limp Moffatt offering is still better than an offering from numerous other writers, and he always takes his craft seriously. I think that this is a story in which many of the ideas misfire, but when it fails, it's not for want of trying. In retrospect, I think it's the ending that has me feeling slightly lukewarm about it.
I mean, let's look at that setting. A planet-sized library. Boy, do I love that. If anything, the story's not as literary as I'd like; I like the Doctor's oh-so-true comment about the smell of books, but having him blab about Jeffrey Archer and Bridget Jones is as crass as having him go to the world's biggest music museum and then only mention Wham. For all that, the world feels real, and solid, and believable. The visuals are good, obviously - you've got to love the road-signs with 'Xenobiology' on them - but it's more than that. Do a compare-contrast exercise on The Fires of Pompeii, for example. When I said that story "doesn't convince as a real environment at all", I was referring to something more fundamental than visuals; it's the broader architecture of the world, the thinking through of each facet to make a fully convincing, self-sustaining environment. The Fires of Pompeii has people talking in a mish-mash of cod olde-school English and contemporary teenage slang, it has people bumping into each other every five seconds which destroys any sense of scale... the world it creates is not consistent. But this? Look at the touches. Look at the information points, nothing more than little (and pleasingly grotesque) ideas to give the world flavour. Look at the hodge-podge of building styles, giving the thing a convincing repro feel. You believe in the Library, so you take the threat seriously.
Atmosphere can cover a multitude of sins, and dammit, all of Steven Moffatt's stories have atmosphere. I should say that, unlike Blink and Shell Shock, and even the early parts of The Girl in the Fireplace, I didn't find Silence in the Library particularly frightening. But that doesn't matter, because the story still has texture. It 's dusty, empty, damaged. The sense of these few people exploring a broken, deserted place that was once so vibrant... ooh, yes thanks.
The plot's clever too, but...
A-ha. I have some nits to pick.
Unusually, Moffatt's forte has deserted him here; the story's just not as well-structured as it might be. I'm thinking most specifically of Donna's plotline in The Forest of the Dead, which tries for a weird, off-kilter feel; unfortunately, we all know where she is, so we just want them to get on with it. Now, if the story had opened in that environment it really could have been special, but as it is it doesn't confuse or disorientate like it should. Suffice it to say that there are great ideas on show, but they aren't assembled as well as they might be. I love the reworking of televisual convention - Donna becoming aware of the jump-cuts in her life is just brilliant - but it's too obvious what's going on. True, the show's for kids, and maybe they wouldn't have got there as quickly as I did; but even at that, there are better ways of doing this for a child audience.
Oh, look; I talked about Donna just there.
This is the beginning of what I call Catherine Tate's naissance as an actress ("renaissance" implies she was good at some point beforehand). By the time they were making this story, Turn Left had already been filmed, and it doesn't take a huge leap to suppose that the Donna-centric nature of Turn Left is what enabled Catherine Tate to finally work out who she was meant to be playing. A single scene in Turn Left, where Wilfred Mott tells Donna that "you can't solve every problem just by shouting at it," and Donna responds "I can try," gives Donna a tighter characterisation than anything that's gone beforehand. Having finally found a centre for her character, Tate seems infinitely more relaxed and assured than anything we've seen before. For the one and only time in the season - sorry, I should amend "the season" to read "ever" - she even made me laugh![*] It must be said that the plotline of The Forest of the Dead comes with not-very-subtle DONNA CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT markings, but she acquits herself very well, and her hysterical reaction to the disappearance of her children is heartrending; for that brief moment, Donna becomes the most vulnerable and sympathetic companion to date. However, it's her performance in Silence in the Library I find more impressive, just because she finally seems to have worked out how to be on-screen without overacting. Until now, you can't really find a moment where Donna's on-screen and isn't overshadowing everything going on around her, and I mean that in a bad way. Here, there are times when she melts into the background, as characters sometimes must. Because it isn't entirely built around her, as is Turn Left, I'd suggest that this story marks Catherine Tate's best performance in the role.
[*] Her reaction to the Doctor's nickname of Pretty Boy, since you're asking.
The other CelebriActress is Alex Kingston, and she does well in a role that could have been hugely irritating if not well-played. Kingston's one of those actresses who just have presence, and her brash and witty performance makes the most of a role that's deceptively limited. I must say that I don't quite get the general fascination with River Song that followed the broadcast of Silence in the Library, and I still find her slightly annoying; that's only to be expected if you have a character who knows all sorts of stuff but won't tell us what it is, especially if she keeps banging on about the Doctor being... um... crapper than the version she knows. The story strings out the companion-he's-not-yet-met gimmick way, way too long, and the Doc's looking confused and muttering "who are you?" a long time after the "You've only just met him," "No, he's only just met me" exchange. Similarly, the story's attempts to mythologise the Doctor don't really work. It's difficult to say why; that finger-clicking moment at the end, which should feel like a terrifying portent of things to come, doesn't carry the weight it should. There's an intriguing idea in the script of our happy-go-lucky Doctor confronting his future, and the dread that would inspire in him (the idea of Tennant commanding armies is almost horrific, in the abstract), but it doesn't get beyond the page.
The other crew members are a faceless enough bunch, but that's what they're there for really. I liked the Proper Dave / Other Dave conceit - characters never having the same name has always been a bugbear of mine - but they're not there for metaphysical depth. Ditto Doctor Moon and the Little Girl, who turn in good performances in roles that are limited by their nature. Doctor Moon's "the real world is a lie" moment at the end of Silence in the Library is spectacular.
My final concern - and my biggest one, it must be said - is the conclusion. River Song's final fate is - to my mind - a living death and her sudden maternal instincts struck me as a rather chauvinistic turn for the story to take. There are times when the programme has shrugged off the philosophical implications of its characters' fates, and done so successfully - the conclusion of Love and Monsters springs to mind - but this story, though, comes replete with a "isn't the Doctor wonderful" soliloquy that makes the whole thing seem crass. Mythologising the Doctor is a very different thing to building a mythology, and here we tip into territory that is just absurd. The Doctor effectively resolves the situation by saying "don't you know who I am?", which is ridiculous; and then we're expected to accept the final fate of the characters just because he says we should.
To look at my review, you'd think that The Library fails at every conceivable turn, or at least in a number of ways; strangely, that isn't untrue. And yet it does work, through the density of ideas, the carefully constructed environment, strong performances of all involved and an ambition to do something more than is usual. It has scale and it has proper concerns. It does feel like a Greatest Hits package - or, at least, that it's playing to the gallery. But, after the way that Series 4 has thrashed wildly around producing hugely facile stuff, this is a story that feels like it means something. The VR environment is may be an overworked idea, but it's well-handled here. The true identity of the little girl is a touch telegraphed, but still represents a good human story at the heart of what appears to be a concept-driven, large-scale yarn.
It's always easier to write about what doesn't work, but a lot of this story does work beautifully. The creepy apparition following Donna around her reality, for example, and the revelation of what it is. The death scene of Miss Evangalista is genuinely sad, and Donna's apparent fate is gloriously revealed towards the end of Part One. If the cliffhanger doesn't quite work, the idea does, and the Vashta Nerada show admirable invention. Oh, and you've got to love Tennant taking out the floor, right? I mean, really... that's just cracking.
In short, there are better stories this season, but not many, and it stands up as a solid entry in the Doctor Who canon. It's well-crafted, well-acted and has some glorious ideas. It may not be perfect, but the attitude that created it is right, and it's a pleasure to praise it.
A Review by Joe Ford 3/3/09
Russell T Davies' vision of Doctor Who is a world away from what is perceived as the classic series (1963-1989). There are a number of instant differences you could mention without giving it much thought: the shorter stories, the whizzier effects, the increased sexuality... but I would say for me the biggest hurdle Doctor Who has made is in its dealings with emotional content. Please don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the original series was a soulless engine of storytelling but the most emotional moments usually came when the latest companion decided to depart. The emphasis was on the story and plot mechanics rather than how the characters reacted to them. When the show returned in 2005, it opened with an episode told entirely from Rose's point of view with the emphasis on her step into the Doctor's world and the invasion was merely a side issue.
Step back to Spearhead from Space which also introduced a new companion and saw the debut of the Autons and things were very different. Since Rose, stories have tackled the sticky subject of the Doctor in love (The Girl in the Fireplace, Doomsday, Human Nature) and we have been introduced to wealth of companions who have fallen for our favourite hero (only Martha is chided for it because with her it wasn't reciprocated; Jack and Rose get away scot free). Supporting characters are allowed character growth and given individual moments of pathos. A common complaint about New Doctor Who (2005-present) is that it spends far too much time worrying about how people are feeling to actually get on and tell a demanding story in its limited time. I think there are merits to both approaches to the show; certainly the classic series survived long enough on its wickedly unpredictable and imaginative storytelling and the new series has introduced a whole new generation (and sex) to the world of Doctor Who with its emotive storytelling.
You might wonder when I am going to make a point about The Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead and that is I feel this story bridges the gap between old and new better than any other since 2005. It is an extremely tight piece of storytelling filled with audacious concepts (classic) but still has time to tell a very personal story for both the Doctor and Donna (new). It is strong enough to be popular in its own right but this merging of both visions of the show could be why it had such a positive reaction.
In my opinion, it is the zenith of the tenth Doctor's era and unless Russell T Davies pulls something pretty bloody spectacular out of his hat in the four specials it will remain my favourite of his time on the show. Snuggled into the heart of season four and lucky enough to be placed in the season hot spot (where The Impossible Planet and Human Nature thrilled us in their respective seasons), it is a thrilling, complex, funny, chilling and rewarding ride. Whilst Human Nature might have given David Tennant more to work with, this story remains the best examination of his Doctor and it is certainly one of best stories to deal with Donna too. Simon adored it for a million and one reasons (it has his favourite ending of any Doctor Who story) and his mother declared it the best thing she had seen in years. This story is so good my dear friend Ella, who loathes Doctor Who since its return and has slaughtered every single episode, said it was "quite good". That, my friends, from somebody who called Blink a farce, is the highest of praise.
So after this deluge of praise... what exactly does this story get so right?
It is a fantastic piece of science fiction in its own right. The concepts Steven Moffat throws at the Saturday teatime audience are pretty audacious. The Library is a memorable location that Moffat constantly plays about with and adds new layers. A planet-sized library consisting of a million, million books with genres instead of continents. Which becomes the forest of the dead. Which becomes the playhouse for a dead little girl. Which becomes the salvation of the woman the Doctor loves. As the story progresses, the location becomes more layered and textured (like RTD's Gridlock but far better handled). The idea of dying and having your head stuck on a pole as a tourist information device is both absurd and terrifying, the sort of concept the classic series did all the time (The Kandyman). You could write an entire piece on the idea of ghosting, your soul slowly being drained away by a suit that fights to preserve your life as long as possible long after your body has been eaten away. It is unforgettably realised when Donna, still new to this outer space lark, has to comfort a dying woman who is slipping away.
Stephen Moffat's stories have tried to avoid the pitfall of having villains (they're occasionally fabulous but very often embarrassing) and instead uses an image of something normal and twists it into something terrifying. Gas masks mimic the Cyberman effect, the faceless expression of death. Clocks ticking making us aware of the passing of time (although I still think Sapphire and Steel used clocks to a more menacing effect). With Blink, he handed us a double whammy of statues and angels with terrifying results. He has been criticised with The Silence in the Library for trying too hard to scare people with his use of shadows and thus negating the effect. The story tells us to be afraid of the Vashta Nerada on frequent occasions rather than letting us experience it first, but that is the only real criticism I could make of this brilliant "monster".
Visually, it works a treat because the dusty library is full of shadows but what really sells the idea to me (and probably anyone under 12) is the Doctor's insistence that it isn't every shadow but it could be any shadow. Brrrr. It's alarming me somewhat that to the right of my laptop the sun is beaming on the wall and I can see dust motes hanging in the air. What's disturbing (besides my cleaning habits) is the thought that if I reached in I might have my flesh ripped away. Moffat plants a seed of doubt in your head with this story; I find the uncertainty of not knowing if the shadow I'm walking into scarier than actually walking into it.
This story is also beautifully paced. Somebody had to finally nail the two part formula! Moffat's first attempted was a fantastic story but it did tend to crawl in places whilst it explored its characters. Perhaps they shipped old Terrance in give them a few pointers whilst he was tapping out his quick reads. This isn't like RTD's two parters, two single episodes bolted together with a cliffhanger, The Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead have to be watched together to make the full impact. When Silence in the Library aired I was slightly disappointed but then I watched Forest of the Dead and the slow bleeding of the ideas and characterisation made perfect sense. Basically, The Silence in the Library is all foundations, it sets up the location, the key characters, the ideas - but it does so in a brilliantly chilling way with lots of memorable scenes. Forest of the Dead then steps in and is daring from the word go, twisting the entire story in a fresh direction and coalescing the story with clever ideas and rewarding characterisation. As a single piece of Doctor Who, Forest of the Dead is about as perfect as it comes. The combination of atmospheric setup and a powerhouse conclusion works so well.
This works as a great self-contained story but it throws up so many questions about the future. Much of this is channelled through the character of River Song who has the potential to be the most irritating character the show has produced. The fact that she is intriguing and full bloodedly the best non regular of the year is due to Moffat's writing and Alex Kingston's superb performance. Fans of the New Adventures take a close look because unless the makers of this show decide to canonise the books (oh yeah and remember the two times I became human and fell in love with Nurse Redfern?) this is as close to Bernice Summerfield that you will ever see on the show. River Song is capable, opinionated, charming and sexy. Without being told about all of the adventures they would have together, I could understand the Doctor pursuing her and giving her the ride of her life (calm down boys). What really appeals to me about all this deliberate fan baiting (can't you just visualise a courtroom hearing with a horde of Doctor Who fans crying for justice at this deliberate perversion of his character) is its circular storytelling. I'm a sucker for studying narrative and the way the story develops so that the Doctor has to give River Song his name, he has to go to all the places she mentions and, most importantly of all, he has to give her his screwdriver is beautifully complete.
Whilst we know Moffat will be introducing the Eleventh Doctor in his first series, he has given us a real gift here, a wealth of unseen Tenth Doctor stories to think about. It is the Doctor's reaction to her that keeps the relationship so interesting, initially distrustful of her future knowledge, warming to her company, working well together with her and finally weeping at her fate. Whilst some might see their future ahead as an obligation, for the Doctor the story pumps for a far more optimistic view, a lifetime of wonder and excitement for River and a wealth of great memories for the Doctor. Bravo.
Catherine Tate. What hasn't been said about Catherine Tate appearing in Doctor Who? I entirely agree that Catherine Tate gives her best performance in this story, but unlike Mike I think it is the apex of many outstanding stabs at reinventing the Doctor's companion, rather than one of a handful of times she proved herself. The chemistry between Tennant and Tate is top notch; they are so relaxed and natural with each other it is the sort of work we were seeing done between Tom and Lis. The two scenes that bookend their adventure - the Doctor and Donna exploring the deserted library and the pair of them desperately wanting to open River's diary but knowing it would be a mistake - catalogue this pair at their height.
Donna's adventures have already seen her expand the companion role. Partners in Crime sees her playing the Doctor, investigating an alien threat. She is a character metaphor for the Doctor's missing conscience in Fires of Pompeii. Planet of the Ood uses her as an emotional outlet for the Ood's mistreatment. In the Sontaran two parter she enjoys the rare distinction of being a terrified companion in an alien environment (it might sound familiar but it has rarely been done this well). The Doctor's Daughter sees her stepping into a family role, surrogate mum to the Doctor's daughter. The Unicorn and the Wasp lets her off the leash and she is a firework of laughs and fun. This might sound inconsistent but with Tate in the driving seat it is pulled off superbly, Donna growing with each story.
Library/Forest allows Donna to live an entire life away from the Doctor. She meets a man, gets married and has children. The brief glimpses at this life sees her a happy, settled woman. To play this out with Rose or Martha in the role would have felt ridiculous but Donna is just the right age and temperament. Watching this world crumble around her invites the viewer to share Donna's fear and pain; the scene where she loses her children is simply terrifying because to Donna this is all real. It helps that all of the scenes in Donna's dreamscape are expertly shot, initially lots of beautiful images of gorgeous countryside (highlighted against the cramped, under-lit library sets this is the world that feels more real) but as the world gets torn apart the angles are jarring and uncomfortable. Miss Evangelista's dark wraith-like shawl breezing through the mundane locations is a terrific visual. And Donna's fella Lee is a babe.
Productionwise, this is a terrific example of how far Doctor Who has come visually without losing any of its imagination. The four shadows growing out of Proper Dave is simple but striking. The squareness gun makes a hilarious diamond shape out of a wall. The duplicated kids playing on the climbing frame boggles the mind. The Mill do some fantastic work here too with some stunning aerial shots of the library planet, coupled together with Murray Gold's score, give the story the scope and sense of awe it is driving for. Gold's music has its lovers and its detractors (I fall mostly into the former category - with some reservations about the slushier stuff) but his work on this story is just spot on. Sometimes his music can overpower the action but this is a big story with big moments and his bombastic, occasionally techno, score hits all the right notes (groan). Euros Lyn makes an impressive return to the series after too long of a gap and the news that he will be helming Tennant's departure is worth a cheer. Despite its nonlinear narrative, its multiple locations, large guest cast and zany notions, the story always feels confident with a firm hand behind the camera.
As well as all this to admire, there are the individual moments that shine. The Doctor and Donna's reaction to him being called pretty boy. The death of Miss Evangelista is not rushed; we follow her right up to the point of her death. Charlotte watching the events on the television, changing the channels with the music getting more dramatic as we hop from scene to scene. Donna dressed up to go fishing. Anita's noble acceptance of her death. The Doctor hanging from the floor. The ultimate expression of how cool the Doctor is as he tells the Vashta Nerada to look to their books to see why they should be afraid of him; there have been far too many glorious speeches about how truly wonderful the Doctor is since RTD took over (which make me feel quite unwell) but this is how to did it with style. The look on the Doctor's face as he tempts Donna with the knowledge of the future. "Then I'm all right too." Just great, great moments throughout.
Finally, the story also has one of the finest cliffhangers and endings. Things have been building for a while before the cliffhanger but when Donna screams in the TARDIS (one of the most terrifying screams in the show's history) and the Doctor is confronted with a bizarre but scary representation of her, the shit has really hit the fan. Add in a walking skeleton and scary shadows and you have something you've got to tune into next week. The ending is even better, the Doctor begging River and Donna telling her husband he is real: it's a rollercoaster of emotions that gives me goosies ever time.
This story deserves some recognition as an example of what Doctor Who can achieve when it is firing on all cylinders. It works as both a standalone story and part of a much larger story. For the tenth Doctor, this is where it has all been leading (some would say that was The Stolen Earth, another powerhouse) but in terms of storytelling this is his peak. The "Sweet dreams" of the closing scene is a message; the future is very bright indeed.
"Ice cream. Ice cream. Ice cream." by Neil Clarke 21/7/09
It's funny, but rewatching this story my overriding impression of it - over its cleverness and complexity, or visual beauty - was how emotional it is. I'm not one of those people who pride themselves on crying every episode, and lap up every contrived Emotional Moment, but for the whole last half of Forest of the Dead, I cried and cried.
Miss Evangelista's death (a scene I believe will become rightly iconic); the little girl's increasing anguish in the living room; Donna's incoherent reaction to her children disappearing, and the separation from her husband ("I'LL FIND YOU! I PROMISE YOU I'LL FIND YOU!") - which is all the more poignant than it would have been with Rose or Martha, as Donna is older and apparently unlucky in love; River's sacrifice... I found it all completely heartbreaking.
The story's sadness wasn't my main impression before, but it is wonderful though - especially as this level of emotion arises naturally from the story (as opposed to, say, the bolted-on codas to Doomsday and Journey's End).
I know Lawrence Miles has criticised Steven Moffat's approach, as encapsulated by this story - especially what he calls the fetishisation and "impending godhood" of the Doctor. In a sense, I can see that there is a very conscious mythologisation of the character and the series at work here. Arguably, Russell T Davies attempts this too, but doesn't really manage it; I concede there is something almost too deliberate about the epic, big ideas about the Doctor's power and majesty here, but I quite enjoy it (as long as it doesn't become overdone in series five).
There is also something very arch about Moffat's stories, which operate on an almost hyper-real, almost too self-aware level (especially in terms of River, here), which I can see could become tiresome. In fact, the whole thing could almost be seen as too smart for its own good, or fitting together too slickly - but, let's not be complaining about an embarrassment of riches at this stage.
River is a fascinating addition to the backstory (well, future-story) of a character it's easy to think we know, or take for granted and barely even consider as a "character" per se. Certainly far more than the entirely anodyne non-daughter, Jenny. It's funny how Moffat randomly created a character who has immediately been taken up as a big deal, compared to the committee-approved feel of Jenny, who was so obviously intended to be a big deal, but ended up as a complete nothing.
I hate to be lumped in with the RTD-bashers; I am hugely appreciative of his revitalisation of the series, though, on a personal level, his ratings-friendly canniness is perhaps a little too transparent at times. So I'm not mindlessly anti-Davies, but I simply don't enjoy his writing (the aptitude of which I think is massively exaggerated, especially in media circles), while Steven Moffat's approach appeals far more to me (all right, it's hard to compare them directly, as we haven't seen Moffat take on story arcs, season finales, or returning monsters or characters... but, still).
I kind of feel this is a story that doesn't need a great deal said about its specifics, as everyone must already be aware of its brilliance (and it's their loss if not), but this is how I want Doctor Who to be: complex and clever, and with genuine emotion, beyond the emotional pornography of contrivances like Rose's twice-over separation from the Doctor.
Stories like this (arguably then, I'm talking about Human Nature/The Family of Blood and Moffat's preceding stories) feel like the series progressing from those it was beginning to tell in season twenty-six (the ultimate example of how wonderful, clever, unusual and imaginative Doctor Who can be, in my opinion), rather than feeling exclusively like a successor to Pertwee and Tom Baker's eras.
Visually, it's also wonderful to see Doctor Who which - like Human Nature/The Family of Blood, its predecessor of comparable, atypical quality - is literally visually stunning. Beautiful isn't something you can accuse much Doctor Who of being, but it is here. It's such a relief to at least temporarily ditch conventional by-numbers sci-fi trappings for something richer and almost steampunk-ish.
Memorable imagery: the skeletons in spacesuits, obviously; the Victorian Evangelista in suburbia; the multiple kids; the nodes; the little girl watching the adventure on TV.
Stylistically, it's modern, but not overly flashy or vacuous; this doesn't look like Hollyoaks in space; it's stylish and beautiful (helped no end by the location filming in the library, and the CG of the buildings, which for once adds to the atmosphere and is so good it barely registers as special a effect; compare and contrast with The Next Doctor's toy-town London, for example).
I find it both bizarre and depressingly all too credible that The Stolen Earth/Journey's End and even Turn Left were popularly ranked above this story in DWM's series four ratings poll. Evidently, people really are taken in by transparently popularist button-pushing and the mentality that a surfeit of recurring characters increases quality; as far as I'm concerned, a story like this, bursting with original ideas, characters, and set pieces, utterly belies that thinking.
The joke in the same issue of the magazine that fans are hoping Moffat's series will be so dark that they won't be able to see it, is probably on the money - but I still can't help but wish at least for an increase in intelligent, challenging stories like this. Emotional and complex - and, yes, dark - it may be, but this is also a witty and exciting adventure; "darkness" doesn't necessarily have to equal the po-faced humourlessness of, say, Christopher Nolan's (bizarrely overrated) Batman films. Predictable it may be to say so, but I can't help hoping this story is representative of the show's future.
Spoilers by Evan Weston 26/4/16
A bit of context first. This was the first story written by Moffat that aired after it was announced he'd be taking over as showrunner in the spring of 2010. I don't know if he was aware of this when the episode was produced, but based on the enormity of Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead and how important it is to the Moffat era, I'm going to guess he was. Looking back, knowing what happens in the three series following this one, the River Song stuff takes on entirely new meaning, and it's really quite fascinating to see Moffat foreshadowing events that would not air for another three years.
So yes, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead is a hard episode to review. On my first viewing, I didn't care for it much. Sure, it was a different kind of bad than the rest of Series 4 - it's certainly better made and more ambitious, and it's definitely not dumbed down - but I thought River was annoying, everything else undeveloped and the story unnecessarily twisted. Some of that still holds true, but this is one that benefits enormously from a rewatch. What was once a hammy and over-emotional performance from Alex Kingston is suddenly a beautiful portrayal of a woman impossibly meeting her man for the first time and then losing him forever in the same day. Her death scene is gorgeous, and the Doctor's "save" at the end becomes not a sticky Deus ex Machina but a triumphant, happy ending for one of the show's longest-suffering characters. I'm not sure how this grades against Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead specifically, but I can definitively say Kingston kills it, turning in one of the guest spots of the season.
David Tennant is also very good here. This was produced after Midnight, so maybe some of the wonderful work he puts in there showed up in this episode. Regardless, he's on better form than he's been since probably Series 3, lending (for once) a grave seriousness to the proceedings and letting the psychological impact of River's story affect him in an honest way. This is also Catherine Tate's best performance as Donna Noble, and I'm relatively certain it stays that way. She's actually pretty good in the second half, when confronted with the idea that her reality has only existed for about ten minutes. I actually loved her tortured screams upon finding her children gone. She's really trying, and there's a marked improvement from the ranting and raving of earlier episodes. It appears Moffat knew how to write for her character better than most of the guest writers this season.
The other performers, unfortunately, are a bit anonymous. No one in the crew is given any reasonable development, save Miss Evangelista (played by Tallulah Riley, who had a small role in Inception), who never rises above vaguely annoying and whose death scene is way overdone. The computer world fares better, with Eve Newton managing to avoid bugging the hell out of me as CAL - a triumph for a child actress who never took another role - and veteran character actor Colin Salmon doing quite well as the underwritten Dr. Moon. There is room in the story for the ensemble to be better fleshed out, and that's one of Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead's big missteps.
Another is the treatment of its villains, the darkness-inhabiting Vashta Nerada. They are a transparent attempt by Moffat to top the reception of his extraordinary Weeping Angels, and, while the shadow creatures aren't a total failure, they were never going to work that well. The concept just isn't as good. Moffat seems to realize this about 60 minutes into the script, when the Vashta Nerada suddenly don't feel like the greatest threat in the story. The visual of the skeleton in the suit is awesome, granted, and they are certainly built up enough, but the script forgets about them and then hastily tacks on an ending - in Moffat fashion, they had to be misunderstood - that doesn't make any sense. It's one of the episode's true shames, and I wish Moffat had committed more to them.
He does commit to his overly complicated story, though, and he almost manages to pull it off. One of Series 4's biggest problems was a willingness to spell out exactly what's happening in a story, both in the narrative and thematically, so that the audience doesn't fall behind. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead actually inverts the problem and is left too vague, so that even upon rewatch I'm not entirely sure what happened. Lux's comments about CAL's age don't jive with the timeline the story sets for itself and throws the whole thing into confusion, and I'm still not sure how she managed to inhabit a virtual world with the other saved people. The ending - Moffat's Weeping Angel-esque way to nicely kill River Song - is also hastily explained and doesn't hold up. But the maze of getting there is still deliciously fun, and there are a few jaw-dropping surprises along the way that keep the mystery humming.
I also have to give some credit to the production design and, in particular, single out Rory Taylor's distinctive cinematography. Taylor directed the photography on 27 episodes of Doctor Who in his time, comprising most of David Tennant's era, with his best work probably coming in The Girl in the Fireplace, The Idiot's Lantern and The Lazarus Experiment, all of which use color and framing beautifully to convey themes. Here, in a plot-heavy episode, Taylor is once again able to nicely contrast the purple darkness of the library with the faux-brightness of CAL's world, almost forcing us to question what is real. He's aided by the dependably competent direction of Euros Lyn and a ripping score by Murray Gold, which threatens to distract at points but comes through in the end.
Sure, it's far too complicated for its own good and it leaves a lot of potential threads in its wake. But those are luxury complaints I haven't been able to make against any Series 4 episode so far, and, for that, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead deserves a pat on the back. It's pretty clearly Moffat's worst story so far - though he set quite a daunting bar for himself - but it's also probably the best Series 4 story up to this point, and I'm thrilled that the run was able to pull itself together near the end and salvage some decent episodes.