Series 8, Episode 10
In the Forest of the Night
Posted by Sage
With just the two-part finale left to go, I feel like it’s safe to make a grand declaration about series 8 of Doctor Who. When it’s humming along at its best, the show seamlessly folds the emotional wallop into the timey-spacey adventure. And this season has done that better than any season after Donna Noble became the most important woman in the universe and then forgot.
Maybe the finale will blow it all to hell, but at this moment, that’s how I feel. Moffat is finally getting it – he’s struck the balance he’s been searching for ever since Eleven examined the crack in Amelia Pond’s wall. Series 8 has been feeding us a vibrant mess of a companion and that companion’s complex relationship with the Doctor without sacrificing the fun and wonder of its high-concept episodes. The Big Bad and the season’s great mystery are there, but in the appropriate doses – the show is no longer falling victim to the temptation to swallow valuable story-telling time in the name of trying too hard. Hallelujah.
I’m in the mood for sweeping statements like this because “In The Forest of The Night” is a shining example of this series’ obsession with tension and balance. London grows a city-wide forest overnight, the Doctor meets a little girl named Maebh who may be able to speak to the party responsible, and Danny finds out that Clara has been lying to him – for quite a while. The Doctor, Clara, Danny, and Coal Hill’s Gifted and Talented do save the planet, but that’s what the episode is truly about: Clara Oswald’s double life and its rapidly approaching expiration date.
It’s a proper character arc, one that has the kind of pointed trajectory that most wouldn’t consider a hallmark of Series 5-7. (Look at me being diplomatic.) Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched Clara flat out refuse to make a decision and now, as we build to the finale, her worlds collide again in the best and worst ways.
Moffat bit it on his first few attempts to define Clara’s earthbound life. Remember Angie and Artie? Her shapeless, generic family? Did they tell us anything about who she was? And those connections are important ones. We see plenty of how our companions operate in fantastic situations, but it’s up to their loved ones to tell us their origin stories. We understand something fundamental about Rose when we learn she’s been raised by a single mom. Martha’s posh, educated family explains her ambition and need to prove herself. And Donna’s bristling insecurity and boundless compassion are tied directly to a mother impossible to please plus a doting grandfather. Even Amy’s distracted aunt and absent parents add to our understanding of her defiant independence. And for Clara, finally success – her identity as a teacher is so much more integrated into the woman we know than, say, Amy’s as a “model.” (Okay, Moffat.)
Throwing cute kids into a story is often evidence of writerly laziness, but not here. When we observe Clara and Danny interacting with kids, we see them conveying their own world views and seeing each other’s more clearly. Faced with the coming of the “tree age,” Danny’s main concern is getting the children safely to their parents, the same as if it were a blackout or a snowstorm. Meanwhile Clara’s eyes are lighting up; she sees a project – a mystery to solve. She’s so excited that she forgets herself for a moment. Otherwise she wouldn’t greet the man she “left” so warmly. (“Well, I, Doctor, have finally got something amazing to show you.”)
Adding kids to the mix also gives Peter Capaldi the chance to be flippin’ adorable with them. Kudos for casting and wardrobe for not presenting us with a robotic group of pigtailed and bow-tied super children. The Coal Hill kids are ragtag and loud (they reminded me of the ensemble of the musical Matilda, another endeavor more concerned with showing children as they are rather than as they are on TV) and the Doctor respects them for both their curiosity and how difficult they are to impress. (“Nothing surprises us anymore.”) It’s obvious in the final product that Peter enjoyed working with the young guest stars and he praised them on this week’s Doctor Who Extra:
“They’re so good, I mean, I said to Jenna as soon as they appeared, I said, ‘We’re mincemeat, here. There’s no point in us trying to do any acting because they’ll just wipe the floor with us, completely.’ Which is what they did.”
I can understand why some viewers found Maebh’s character problematic, but I don’t believe that the intent of the show was to romanticize mental illness or to imply that it’s some kind of gift. I think that the Doctor has made it a habit of listening to those who aren’t listened to. (His companions as well – think of Donna and Miss Evangelista.) I think that he resents adults who over-medicate troubled children just to shut them up. (“You people never learn. A child is speaking. Listen to it.”) And I think he knows that something more is happening with this particular child than a perfectly understandable breakdown brought on by her sister’s disappearance. He knows that she has something to say and he’s intent on hearing it.
“People who have lost someone. They’re always listening,” the Doctor says to Clara about Maebh. “They’re always looking. They’re always hoping.” And couldn’t he just as well have been talking about himself? How many has the Doctor lost in his travels? He’s constantly searching too – for bits and pieces, for new friends who remind him of old friends. Which is why he and Maebh are the perfect team to take on this threat.
There’s a moment when all seems to be lost, and in that moment, we get the resolution we’ve been waiting for since “Kill the Moon.” The trees are taking over, the Earth is doomed, and the only people who will live will do it by escaping in the TARDIS. Clara knows they can’t kidnap a classroom full of children, even if it saves their lives. Danny won’t leave the children “as long as he is breathing.” So the Doctor makes his last plea to Clara Oswald: “I can save you.” (Gah.) But, as daring and worldly as she is, Clara is not going to jet off and leave her home to this fate. And her reasons for not being the last human (“Excuse YOU” – Lady Cassandra) in the universe are especially valid, considering her role in the 50th anniversary and the battle for Gallifrey. She knows what this has done to him and will do to her – and two Doctors flying around in that TARDIS just won’t work. He needs his “carer” and that piece of Clara Oswald wouldn’t survive this. So she begs the Doctor to leave, to let her save him this time. (And every time, really. #TeamClara) In response, he echoes her challenge from their fight after the moon dragon debacle: “This is my world too. I walk your Earth, I breathe your air.” Eleven was right: this regeneration needed Clara to become the Time Lord we need him to be. It’s all very Ninth Doctor/Rose Tyler. Maybe that’s why I ship it so much.
It all seems wrong though. Trees are good, the kids keep reminding us. That’s what they’ve been taught and they refuse to believe it’s wrong. Thanks to a prophetic drawing in Maebh’s homework book, the Doctor realizes that the forest canopy was generate to protect the Earth, not to smother it. Protection comes in many forms. Intentions are not always clear. We have to be careful not to destroy something that’s really there to help us, just because we don’t understand it. (“Be less scared. Be more trusting.”) There’s a preachy environmental message in here, but at least it’s palatable and fairly uncontroversial.
So we come to the men in Clara’s life. Oh, Doctor and Danny. You’re so much more alike than you’re willing to acknowledge. When Clara’s busted by the homework books stacked tidily in the console room, she and Danny have a Come-to-Jesus. (In the same spot, I should note, where she and the Doctor had theirs.) And again, she tries to sell him on the appeal of the unknown. But Danny has no interest in going out looking for the unknown. “I don’t wanna see more things,” he tells her. “I wanna see the things that are in front of me more clearly. There are wonders here, Clara Oswald. Bradley saying ‘please,’ that’s a wonder. One person is more amazing – harder to understand – but more amazing than universes.” And funnily enough, I’m confident the Doctor would agree. Otherwise, he’d travel alone. He wouldn’t risk loving and losing people. These two really need to get a beer and talk things out.
Timey Wimey Observations:
- WHO ARE YOU?!
- Let’s hear it for production design and set dressing for this episode.
- Let’s also hear it for the Doctor’s stank face when Maebh tells him that everyone knows that Clara is in love with Danny.
- “I’m allowed a torch, sir. I’ve got a note.”
- “You’ve got a spaceship. All we’ve got are Oyster cards.”
- I’m super confused about the resolution with Maebh’s sister. Why were the trees hiding her? To make it easier to communicate with Maebh? Put your theories in the comments, please.
- “Strangely compelling masculine figure.” I’m compelling and masculine, Clara. Appreciate me. Look at me.
- “Stick to the path, Red Riding Hood.” And Clara wasn’t even wearing her trademark series 7 pop of red.
- “Told you they were rubbish.” – The Doctor, sassing bloodthirsty wolves.
My fears for Clara Oswald are at Threat Level: Midnight right now. She’s won too many times, and in Doctor Who, we all know that means that a loss is coming. Part 1 of the finale airs today. Let’s form a virtual prayer circle. Oh, and give me your “In the Forest of the Night” impressions in the comments.