Doctor Who In The Forest Of The Night

25/10/14 Starring: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson (and various Coal Hill school pupils)/ Written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce / Directed by Sheree Folkson
Review by Sean Alexander
To quote Ursula K LeGuin, ‘the word for world is forest.’  Being a largely optimistic time-travel show that has many times shown a bright future for the human race, Doctor Who has brushed with ecological fears more times than you may remember.  The Barry Letts era, with its liberal sentiment and cautionary tales about mankind’s raping of the environment, was certainly the most sustained attempt by the then production team to lace its stories with a green message.  Latterly ‘The Seeds of Doom’ cast vegetable kind in a more invasive and homicidal light, whilst Christopher Bailey’s Buddhist parable ‘Kinda’ and its biblical snake in the garden of Eden also looked at post-colonial attitudes of the materially minded towards the ecosphere.  From a cultural standpoint the 1970s in particular saw a greater flower-power-tinged awareness of the teachings of Gaia, the urge for nuclear disarmament and cleaner forms of energy.  While the 1980s’ doom-laden tales of ozone holes and global warming have since firmly put green politics on the electioneering map.

Recycling, carbon footprints and CO2 emissions are now part of our daily lexicon.  But despite the measures taken to reduce our impact on mother-nature both domestically and globally, awareness has not led to understanding.  Certainly it’s an issue that Frank-Cottrell-Boyce holds dear, despite having done his bit in bringing seven hungry mouths into the world.  ‘In the Forest of the Night’ hardly beats around the (mulberry?) bush in stating its green-sleeved sentiments right from the off: the opening shots of soft-focus flora and fauna being more like the introductory credits to Countryfile, followed by a red-coated girl running through a forest only to find the TARDIS like Grandma’s cottage off the beaten path.  I’m not sure if Cottrell-Boyce’s most infamous credit – the jingoistic script to Danny Boyle’s lauded London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony – has filtered down to this, his debut Who script.  But if the green with a capital ‘G’ sentiments are writ large, equally so is the subtext of fairy-tales replete with lost little girls and big bad wolves whose eyebrows meet in the middle (on which note, those infamous Capaldi orbs - first seen in last year’s ‘The Day of the Doctor’ a good month before the rest of him - have never seemed so appositely sinister).

New Who has had its fair share of overnight invasions this past decade: the Sycorax on Christmas Day, Armies of Cyber-ghosts in between visits home to the Powell estate and those little cubes that had even Professor Brian Cox puzzled.  But there’s something wonderfully primal about the idea of waking up and finding Kew gardens on your doorstep.  Trees, like death and taxes, are amongst the few permanents in life; some species living for centuries, their ages marked in annual rings much like the current Doctor bears his own history upon his new face.  But there is something to be feared about the concept of our natural habitat retaking a foothold on the concrete and glass and brickwork vistas of our modern lives.  Man shapes the world in its own image, so if while-you-were- sleeping the grass and fern and bracken decided to strike back, our safe and comforting lives of wi-fi and traffic jams may seem that little bit less secure.  How man reacts is of course is in the manner it always has: burn a path through the woods and show Mother Nature who is boss.  But the problem with putting fear before trust is that – like the biblical eye for an eye – we all end up being blinded.

I’m really not sure where to fall on this debate.  No, not the conservation vs. urbanisation lobby-groups who want quicker and more efficient transport links but not at the cost of bespoiling areas of natural beauty; instead I’m not sure which side to take regarding the merits or otherwise of ‘In the Forest of the Night’.  On the one hand it’s beautifully shot, managing to achieve a global event through just a few carefully placed London signs and urban clutter amidst the glade of a beautiful summer’s day.  On the other it preaches with about as much subtlety as a televangelist’s cable show while the donation hotline scrolls beneath his pearly white teeth.  Like I hinted at earlier, the writer of the 2012 Olympic curtain-raiser certainly – in the manner of Broton the Zygon – “thinks big”, but the sledgehammer-to-crack-a-walnut narrative here risks alienating the subtext-savvy viewer as soon as the Red Riding Hood by proxy is first seen in snatches amongst the green.

If something has lacked on occasion in what has been a largely triumphant return to form for Doctor Who this term, after a split-shift series top-heavy with anniversary anecdotes and impossible memes, it’s been the frequent doses of ‘cod science’ divulged in the name of game-changing exposition.  If ‘Kill the Moon’ risked spoiling an almost faultless prestige by revealing that the moon was in fact a giant egg, ‘In the Forest of the Night’ sees that and raises you a solar flare with its oxygen shield providing a benign mother-hen cloak around the Earth rather than the malignant antidote to mankind’s urban footprint.  On which note, the idea that a planet covered in greenery would actually look green from space as a result is of course the kind of poorly judged primary-school error that 21st century Who has already dug a hole for itself already on far too many occasions.

Then there’s the notion of Clara and Danny’s sleepover at the London Zoological Museum with the kind of precocious group of schoolchildren that would make a restaging of Annie blush.  Of these ASBO-batiing, selfie-taking little ragamuffins only the Red Riding girl herself, Maebh, warrants any examination and again it leaves me feeling divisive.  Is it really such a good idea to beat the drum about the pros and cons of medicating a minor because she’s, y’know, a bit weird and that..?  The Doctor – coming from the angle of the morose and lonely sole survivor – realises that Maebh sees more because of what she’s lost, and as an anchor between the real world and the pseudo-spiritual claptrap that are the psychic fireflies, she’s certainly the best of a CBBC-tinged barrel of badness.  “Never work with children or animals”, goes the old showbiz maxim and it’s unfortunate to discover ‘In the Forest of the Night’ compounds its already significant errors by doing, not one or the other, but both.

One thing that doesn’t let the side down is the direction from second newcomer Sheree Folkson.  Whether providing a child’s wide-eyed view of the impossibility that remains the TARDIS’ inner dimensions or following the footfalls of the running protagonists in the well-worn woodland style of films like An American Werewolf in London or The Company of Wolves, Folkson’s camerawork is assured and never less than interesting.  And on the subject of memes (as I wasn’t) is anyone still keeping count of how many London tourist landmarks new Who has vandalised since 2005, with Nelson’s column joining St Stephen’s Tower, the Gherkin and even the Thames barrier on the architectural casualty list.  And one more caveat: if the trees have been protecting the Earth and her offspring with its super-shield since year dot, are we meant to speculate that some urbanisation project gone mad has occurred come the time of the solar flares that see indomitable mankind flee to the Ark on space station Nerva..?

Still, the rehabilitation of the new Doctor and old Clara’s relationship now appears complete, with Danny once again resembling the three’s-a-crowd in this particular two’s company.  And in a nice touch we see the companion for once trick the Doctor back to the TARDIS when this week’s apocalypse seems unavoidable.  But it’s moments like this that show up most ‘In the Forest of the Night’s otherwise shortcomings – for a story that has such noble intentions and a message more salient now than ever, a soupcon of restraint when it came to the execution would have been very welcome from this viewer.  Still, one clunker in four isn’t a bad return in a year that has seen both the Doctor and his namesake show start a whole, new lifecycle.  If nothing else ‘In the Forest of the Night’ might prompt a few drum-beating ecologically-minded teachers to extol the virtues – both economically and morally – of being a bit kinder to the environment.  Me?  I prefer a bit more meat with my greens   But then paradise always was too verdant for me…


  1. "are we meant to speculate that some urbanisation project gone mad has occurred come the time of the solar flares that see indomitable mankind flee to the Ark on space station Nerva..?"
    Not really. As mankind forgets these little interventions, they would still flee fearing destruction at that later date. Indeed, as we learn in the Sontaran Experiment if I recall, the damage was less than expected, so maybe the regreening did the trick. On the other hand, how the magic fireflies coped with their toasty sunburn in The End of the World is another matter ;-)

  2. One solar flare does not an expanding sun make.