Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Forest of the Dead

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Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor – but I do think that all the skies in all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever accepts it.

The attentive amongst you will probably have realised that I didn’t post this last week, since I am in fact posting it today. That’s because I uploaded Silence in the Library a week too early, it turns out; there was a week delay after The Unicorn and the Wasp that I wasn’t aware of, I assume for Eurovision or a sport or something. I’m a little annoyed, because it’s the first time I’ve got a date wrong across the whole project, but not massively so, because it was ahead of time rather than too late, and if any story works as an echo of the future it’s that one.

[In another instance of the future infringing on the past, kinda, I fixed the dates on the wordpress site.]

Anyway, though. Forest of the Dead. Let’s start at the end, as this story has been inclined to do.

River’s death is, of course, a deeply affecting moment. A lot of that comes down to the fact that David Tennant and Alex Kingston give great performances; this, much moreso than The Doctor’s Daughter, is the episode of series 4 that gives Tennant the opportunity to push the character in new directions and find more of a limit point for his performance. Certainly, there’s no character quite like River in terms of how they interact with Tennant’s Doctor, and if you think that The Doctor’s Daughter should have been more along these lines, it’s not a comparison the earlier episodes come off well in. Obviously!

Equally, though, it’s not just about Tennant; I spoke last week about just how good Alex Kingston is, but it’s worth pausing again to focus on just how good she is here. Here especially, actually, because this is arguably the most important scene the character has, given it pretty much defines our understanding of River as a character full stop. If her death in this episode hadn’t had weight – both as a poignant moment on its own terms, but also the weight to sell a shared history we’re not yet aware of – then it likely wouldn’t have worked anywhere near as well as it did. But, as we know, it did work, and acted as the emotional cornerstone of the next five years.

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Parts of the ending of the episode could come into a little bit of criticism, admittedly; there’s a sense that setting River up with a life within the Library, while very nice for a while, probably isn’t something she’d actually be especially interested in for long. (How close was she with the rest of the crew? I got the impression she’d only started working with them recently on a freelance basis, so they’re probably not friends she’d want to spend forever with. And that’s a very specific sort of domesticity that you don’t really imagine River wanting – flip the script and imagine the Doctor was saved in the computer, leading that life, and it’d have fairly different connotations.) That said, I’m less than inclined to make much of it, particularly since we return to it in The Name of the Doctor and find out that River has plenty of stuff going on to keep her occupied.

In terms of the broader resolution of the episode, too, there’s something of an argument to be made that it’s a little… not incoherent, but certainly less coherent than Moffat’s usually fairly tightly-plotted episodes have been historically. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, or anything quite so significant, but rather that there’s this little sense that, as the plot shifts and picks up momentum very quickly, it was motivated by a desire to start wrapping things up first and foremost; it’s the bit where Cal starts to reject her surroundings, and the planet goes into self-destruct mode. Indeed, it’s the self-destruct mode part especially that feels like it’s a little out of nowhere – shouldn’t the increased peril at the end come from the Vashta Nerada? They end up a little forgotten anyway.

To be honest though, it’s not actually all that important. Mostly because the episode is still entertaining enough to pull it off; while watching it, that sense that there’s only fifteen or so minutes left and it’s time to pick up the pace is very much secondary to what’s happening on screen, and that’s the more important thing.

Also, though, there’s the fact that the Vashta Nerada and the Library aren’t reallythe heart of it, they’re just the set dressing – it’s the final scene, where the Doctor runs to save River, that matters most. (Indeed, that was going to be the title at one stage, The Doctor Runs.) It’s the most triumphant scene of the episode, as you’d expect, and it’s really the apotheosis of Moffat’s understanding of the Doctor; never giving in, never giving up, and always saving people.

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One of the other interesting things that struck me about this episode – just in the sense of an idle thought I’d like to pick at more in future if ever I do a proper analysis of this episode (unlikely but not impossible; there’s only one episodic project left I’d like to do with Doctor Who at this point, but, you know, spoilers) or something I’d like to read an essay on if someone’s already written it – and that’s the fact that, for all the significance of the library, large swathes of Forest of the Dead play out by television logic more than anything else.

What I’ve got in mind specifically is Donna’s life in the dream world – the place functions by taking the television style literally, making the narrative leaps of jump cuts into something discomforting and offputting. It’s a really neat trick, and quite effective here; Euros Lyn does a great job making this technique work. In the broader framework of the two-part story, it feels like it calls back to the opening of Silence in the Library, where Cal was essentially watching Doctor Who; this is a literalisation of that, putting Donna within a television world. Arguably – given there’s some interesting ideas about escapism going on in the background in terms of Cal’s character – you can look at this as a union of the two ways Steven Moffat would’ve experienced Doctor Who: books, and television.

I don’t know. I mean, like I said, it’s an uninterrogated observation, just something that occurred to me while I was watching it. In terms of the broader analysis, there’s probably much more interesting stuff that can be said of it – how it fits with Russell T Davies’ engagement with television as a medium, how it fits with Moffat’s interest in glitchy technology, how it fits with Moffat’s engagement with the idea of storytelling (which is the more overt and obvious idea running through the episode).

Ultimately, anyway, it’s a really good episode. Very entertaining and engaging to watch, lots of memorable scenes and imaginative concepts, and an episode that stands on its own terms even outside of the significance it gained in later years.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Silence in the Library

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Spoilers.

In a very real sense, the Steven Moffat era begins here.

That, admittedly, is not the most unique or original observation that you could make (on a related but probably less obvious note, I’m inclined to argue that the Capaldi era actually begins with The Name of the Doctor, or even really actually Asylum of the Daleks) but it also, of course, isn’t any less true as a result.

Admittedly, up to a point you can say that of any of his episodes. There are just certain themes and ideas that Moffat is always interested in in Doctor Who, and styles and patterns that recur as little echoes of the future. Aspects of The Girl in the Fireplace feel almost like a first draft of Amy in The Eleventh Hour, while Blink is time-y wime-y in a way that presages various puzzle box plotlines, and The Empty Child is of course the first time that “everybody lives” (and actually, in light of that, probably hasn’t been given enough credit in terms of how indicative it is of Moffat’s later approach). Everyone has seen the old forum post from the nineties where he put forward an idea that turns up in A Good Man Goes to War, there’s the whole theory of time travel from Continuity Errors, and, of course, literally everything about The Curse of Fatal Death, which has been weirdly and unintentionally prescient in more ways than one.

But Silence in the Library feels rather different to those, in a way. Again, there’s the debut of ideas Moffat returns to in future – the library feels like it foreshadows some of that focus on stories, for one thing – as well as the obvious. Up to a point, it might just be because the announcement that Moffat would be taking over after Davies left was first announced on the 20th May 2008 – it would’ve been part of the paratext of this episode. Here offers us another opportunity to delve into memory lane, because I do broadly speaking remember the reaction to it – in my own circles, limited to real life interactions alone. Reaction was generally pretty positive (I was still a year away from being presented with my first ridiculous fan petition, an anti-Matt Smith piece I was wise enough not to sign) given Moffat was largely well-liked. Everyone thought Doctor Who would be much scarier; for my part, I thought it’d be funnier, which isn’t a bad insight from a nine-year-old.

(There were actually two such opportunities to check out memory lane with this one; around a year, maybe two, after the broadcast of this, I was in a queue behind some people talking about how their friend was in this episode and played CAL. I immediately decided I should befriend this person too, because then I’d have a friend who was in Doctor Who, and then promptly did not make any effort to do so because talking to people was, and remains, terrifying.)

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With ten years of hindsight, though, there’s one aspect of Silence in the Library that stands out especially: River Song.

This is, I’d guess, probably the first time I’ve rewatched Silence in the Library in years – I’d be surprised if I’d watched it between now and The Time of the Doctor, and I don’t think I’d seen it for a few years before then anyway. In short, today was the first time (probably) that I’ve gone back to watch River’s introduction after having seen her episodes with Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi.

What’s most impressive, I think, is how fully formed a character River already feels. Not just in terms of the storytelling, and the in-universe backwards character development that was going on, but from a more practical production standpoint – imagine for a moment that Kate Winslet, who was initially offered the part, accepted the role. Would she have come back? Probably not, and if she did, almost certainly not with the frequency and enthusiasm of Alex Kingston. The seven years River appeared and developed as a character, while there was undoubtedly a lot of plate spinning and improvisation going on behind the scenes, are in fact a pretty remarkable achievement – I think that’s something we forget, being so used to the final product, which does seem mostly seamless.

On the basis of this episode alone, there’s an obvious potential to River as a character – there’s a real frisson to Alex Kingston’s performance, and River Song offers a genuinely fascinating limit point for the character of the Doctor. It’s a dynamic we’ve not seen before – not just in terms of the obvious time travel aspect, but also just the way she speaks to him. One of my favourite lines, actually, is when the Doctor is berating Lux, going on about how he won’t let one man’s arrogance endanger people’s lives – and River responds with “why don’t you sign his contract then?” It’s a fantastic line, because it’s one of those rare moments where a character gets to critique the Doctor, and the critique lands. (Of course, there’s something notable about how he then doesn’t sign the contract, essentially letting his arrogance endanger everyone’s lives – in discussions of the arrogance of the Tenth Doctor, this one doesn’t tend to crop up as much, but it’s probably one of the most direct examples of such.)

In a broader sense, though – considering the episode in hindsight, in light of the rest of River’s story – it’s a deeply emotional piece. There’s a real poignancy to River’s realisation here that this is the first time the Doctor has met her, calling forward to her discussion with Rory in Day of the Moon about the moment she fears most. It’s genuinely quite affecting; I’ve already mentioned how good Alex Kingston is in the role, but honestly, it bears repeating. It really is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role; I often talk about how actors elevate material, and yes, that is what she does here, but also it’s perhaps more accurate to say Kingston accentuates and embodies a script that’s already strong, and together the result just sings.

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When it comes to the rest of the episode, it’s perhaps more difficult to talk about; as ever with two-parters, it feels like seeing the conclusion is necessary to offering a fuller commentary. (Not just in terms of the basic plot stuff, for what its worth; one of the things I wanted to highlight was just how well Steven Moffat writes Donna, before deciding to hold that for next week, where she’ll be a bit more of a focal character.)

The Vashta Nerada are a fairly neat concept – an escalation of the ending of Blink, pervasive and ever-present, and easily translatable into a playground game to boot. (I’ve got no memory of actually avoiding Vashta Nerada, but equally, I went out of my way to eat fish custard, so I probably did this too.) It’s well directed, too, by Euros Lyn; there’s some effective lighting going on to sell the Vashta Nerada as a concept, and just generally a pretty nice control of tone throughout, creating some genuinely pretty tense moments.

Same goes for the Library, actually – an entire planet, turned into a library. (Although 4022 people really isn’t very many, is it? Perhaps it’s a very small planet.) Someone once remarked upon the number of concepts Steven Moffat will throw into any given episode – the majority of his stuff is just bursting with ideas really, and that’s particularly apparent here as he throws together several different high concepts that could justify episodes on their own. As, indeed, some of them later did!

Ultimately, in any case, I really liked Silence in the Library. I suspect I’d have enjoyed it more, actually, if I let myself watch Forest of the Dead immediately afterwards – I’ve been trying to preserve a degree of fealty to transmission, so it’ll be a week before I watch the next one. But, yeah, this was a great episode – the first properly great one in a while, to be honest. As evidenced, I suspect, by the fact I’ve had a lot more to engage with here!

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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