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.

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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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

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Doctor Who – Top 5 Moffat Moments

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Steven Moffat has had a long association with Doctor Who, stretching as far back as July 1996, when he wrote a short story for the Virgin novel line; today, of course, his primary association with Doctor Who is as showrunner, a role he’s occupied since 2010. The tenth series, the first episode of which will be broadcast this evening, is going to be Moffat’s last as head writer – so now seems like a good time to take a look back across the past seven years, and celebrate some of his greatest triumphs.

This article was quite fun to write! It’s a selection of five YouTube clips from the Moffat era, with a little explanation/analysis of each one underneath. Of course, in testament to how great Moffat is, it’s the ones that I didn’t include that speak volumes – there are so many to choose from!

Writing this article really did make me appreciate Moffat more. Even I’ve had a few moments where I lost faith and struggled with some of his work (almost but not quite joining the STFU-Moffat bandwagon), I’ve come back around again in the years since. He’s bloody great, his Who has been great, and I’m going to miss it; hopefully, before Christmas, I’ll be able to write a few retrospectives about his era and why it’s so great.

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Some Thoughts on a Female Doctor

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So, what with Michelle Gomez being cast as the first female Master (and doing pretty amazingly) it got me thinking about a female Doctor.

Now, in the past, I was pretty set against it. The reasons varied with time (as a stupid 8-year-old, I was making comments about “Nurse Who”, and as a stupid 14-year-old it was “weird fanfiction”) but essentially, I didn’t really like the idea of a change. I became a lot more receptive to the idea over time, and up until recently basically thought, “the audition pool should encompass men and women, and then whoever is the best can get the job”.

But over the past few days, I’ve changed my mind. It shouldn’t be a case of opening the auditions to men and women, and then casting the best of them. The BBC production office should actively look for and cast a female Doctor. The Thirteenth Doctor should be explicitly female from the genesis of her character, right the way to the casting, the announcement, the writing, and the broadcast. She should be created with a specific gender in mind.

Now, I assume a fair few people have just pulled disgusted faces, and are ready to blacklist me from the internet, destroy their computers, and possibly become a reclusive hermit. (Though I imagine most of my fans are already reclusive hermits.)

Hear me out though, because I reckon this is a really good idea.

I mean first, we should sort of dispense with the main arguments against having a female Doctor, rebutting them and just generally getting them out of the way, before I explain why this is THE BEST IDEA EVER. (If you can’t tell, I’m actually quite excited by this.)

Obviously, there’s a lot of nonsense out there. A surprising number of Doctor Who fans are actually sadly quite petty and misogynistic – they’re also amongst the most vocal, naturally. You end up hearing all sorts of nonsense about how this would ruin the show, it’s an unnecessary change, blah blah blah. This article does a far better, and far funnier, job of dealing with those people than I ever could, so here’s a link to it. Some things, though, are repeated quite often, which seems to give them a degree of legitimacy, as if they’re actually genuine solutions.

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Often, you get things like “Oh, there should be a spin-off with Romana/River Song/A new Time Lady instead”, because people tend to think that meets the same requirements that a female Doctor would. And whilst it does solve some of the issues – it’d be a program with a female lead, which is good in terms of diversity – it doesn’t actually solve all of them. It’s something I spoke about a bit last year, with regards to Idris Elba playing James Bond, rather than 009:

James Bond as a character – as an idea – means more than a brand new double-oh-nine character. 009, as played by Idris Elba, could be really cool, but he could never be Bond. And Bond will always take priority. Because Bond means more – because Bond has the history, and the cultural weight – James Bond will have a greater impact. Whereas 009 would be forgotten, Bond would not.

The same is true of the Doctor. If you cast a female Doctor, that is a far greater positive step for representation and diversity than something which would essentially be – not quite dismissed as, but limited to – “just another Doctor Who spin-off”. A female Doctor is a headline. A spin-off is a footnote. Whether that is ‘right’ or not is certainly debatable, but that’s how it would be. The ramifications and impact of a female Doctor would be far greater than that of another spin-off.

The idea of the impact, then, leads relatively neatly onto the next point, which is one of role models. It’s the idea that, essentially, by having a female Doctor, you lose a positive male role model – someone who doesn’t represent stereotypical masculinity, someone solves problems through wit and intellect rather than fighting and violence, and so on and so forth.

That particular argument is a bit of a tricky one, because it does approach a sensible point. It doesn’t, of course, address the question of why boys can’t still look up to a female role model, or suggest the place of a male companion – someone who can just as easily fulfil the role of someone who isn’t typically masculine – or even talk about other positive male role models. Real world examples, like father, uncles, brothers, cousins, friends, teachers, or fictional ones, like Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Spock, and so on and so forth.

So, actually, I don’t think this one is that important. It just seems to approach a sensible point, but by not taking into account quite a few other, very important, factors, it doesn’t quite hold much sway.

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Those two arguments are, really, the only main ones that are bandied around with much traction; most other things can be dismissed with relative ease. The only other ones that remain are worth mentioning because of who proposed them – Peter Davison and Russell T Davies, who are notable for being amongst the few people associated with Doctor Who that weren’t immediately positive about the idea.

Peter Davison stated that, essentially, he believed that a female Doctor would change the relationship between Doctor and companion – or at least, the way in which we saw it. Because the companion, nowadays, often acts as a conscience for the Doctor, having a female Doctor take instruction from and defer to a male companion might create stereotypes, and not actually be as progressive as one might want. And whilst it is actually a legitimate concern – because yes, you’d need to be careful about the ways in which you approach writing the new dynamic – it’s actually quite easily fixed, simply with careful and considered writing. (Or, a female companion AND a female Doctor.)

Russell T Davies, on the other hand, said he thought it was unlikely to ever happen, because he thought the BBC wouldn’t be able to deal with the associated outrage, and cited things like fathers not wanting to explain sex changes to their children. That’s probably quite a considered viewpoint, given Davies’ own experience with the “gay agenda” media nonsense, so it’s fair to say he knew what he was talking about. But it’s also important to remember that he said this nearly ten years ago – back in 2008. Nowadays, the approach to such things is a little different. You’ve got Caitlyn Jenner in the news, Michelle Gomez as the Master was quite well received, and Davies himself is going to great lengths to ensure greater representation in his own programs, such as casting a trans actress in a trans role on Banana. (Which was great, by the way, everyone should watch Cucumber and Banana.) I think that, when it comes down to it, this particular problem isn’t so much of an issue anymore.

That, essentially, is it. There are no real good arguments against a female Doctor – or at least, none that I’ve ever come across. In the second part of this post, which I’ll upload tomorrow, I’ll discuss the numerous reasons for a female Doctor, and why it really is such a good idea.

Related:

On the subject of a female Doctor Who

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