Well, that was a bit disappointing.
Of course, I suppose—given the consistent stream of quality installments we’ve seen from Doctor Who in recent months—that a lapse was bound to happen sooner or later. It’s just a shame that it not only has to happen this late in the season, but from the likes of a writer as notable as Frank Cottrell Boyce.
To clarify, Boyce’s contribution fulfills the annual “guest star” writer slot that has been a staple of the Moffat era. In Moffat’s first year as showrunner, Notting Hill/Love Actually writer Richard Curtis offered up the emotional “Vincent and the Doctor”; for the past two years, the spot has gone to Neil Gaiman with the extraordinary “The Doctor’s Wife,” followed by the somewhat less extraordinary “Nightmare in Silver.” Boyce certainly sounds like an exciting prospect on paper. Among film fans, he is perhaps best known for his collaboration with director Michael Winterbottom— a partnership that resulted in such post-modern British classics as 24 Hour Party People and A Cock and Bull Story. Aside from his more adult fare, Boyce has also won accolades for his children’s book, the most well-known being Millions, which was adapted into a film by Danny Boyle.
Boyce’s indisputable creativity as a writer combined with his understanding of how to tell a great children’s story would seem to suggest the makings of a memorable Who adventure. Instead, what emerges is a woefully generic hour with the kind of ham-fisted environmental message guaranteed to instigate eye rolls from all who watch it.
The episode opens in what appears to be a vast forest with a young girl named Maebh running up to the TARDIS. She tells The Doctor that she has been told to find him by Clara. The Doctor quickly realizes that, far from landing in a distant forest, he’s landed right in the heart of London. Reports soon come in from all over, claiming that massive forests have suddenly appeared in major cities across the globe.
Meanwhile, Clara and Danny—having just awakened from an overnight school trip to a museum—attempt to guide their students through the forest to safety. After meeting up with The Doctor (and encountering wolves and a tiger), the group learns that Maebh is experiencing some sort of connection to nature. What’s more, the voice telling her to find The Doctor was not Clara’s, but that of a higher power. Using the little girl as a mouthpiece, the trees (I guess?) explain that their appearance has to do with an upcoming solar flare. The Doctor, fearing the worst, comes to the conclusion that the trees have communicated with the sun, and are bringing on a solar flare to wipe away the Earth.
Though The Doctor offers to take Clara, Danny and the children away to safety, Danny claims that the kids would forever miss their parents (um, way to assume people wouldn’t want to escape certain death, dude), and that he wants to stay with them in the final moments. Clara also declines and, in one of the only highlights of the episodes, explains that she doesn’t want to be the last of her kind. A depressed Doctor takes off, only to realize that the appearance of the trees actually means they are creating a sort of “airbag” to the solar flare, using the excess oxygen to prevent the world from burning up. Because… trees are good and we should treat them as well as they treat us, I suppose?
So, I think I speak for everyone when I say that, going forward, Who should be very careful about employing children as important characters in episodes (assuming they aren’t wearing gas masks and asking about their mums, of course). Between Courtney’s annoying and altogether useless presence in the otherwise great “Kill the Moon,” and the vast spectrum of “Doctor-trying-to-talk-to-kids” humor here, the show has proved itself to be infinitely less interesting when children are involved. I can’t say for sure whether this is the fault of the acting or the writing, but—whatever the cause—it’s just not an aspect of the show that’s worked, and I prefer they stop trying. I would say this is ironic, given that Doctor Who is supposed to be a children’s program but, considering the past few stories, they’re really stretching that designation.
Perhaps, in the wake of such dark stories as of late, the writers intended “In the Forest of the Night” to be a lighter, more kid-friendly alternative to all the scary mummies, brain melting aliens, and killer two-dimensional aliens we’ve had. That’s all well and good, but the episode ends up coming across as utterly toothless as a result, displaying a lot of tired tropes that were explored better in previous Who entries. Maebh’s connection to the Earth, for instance, might have worked if she didn’t come across as such a cipher character whose main purpose was to be adorably whimsy. The writers attempt to give the character some baggage by repeatedly stating that she’s been “emotionally disturbed” since the disappearance of her sister, but it’s really a case where the other characters are trying to insist on a trait that the young actress is not really demonstrating.
Throughout the hour, “In the Forest of the Night” positions itself as a fairy tale-esque adventure, which makes it all the more strange when, near the final act, The Doctor predicts that the world will be ending soon, erasing all future timelines that he’s seen in the years spent traveling with his companions. It’s a shameless ploy to give the story some gravitas, and is quickly undone with the revelation that, despite how often we tear them down, the trees will work together to save us. To add insult to injury, the episode even ends with Maebh’s long-lost sister being magically returned to her and her mother. In a season that has explored hard choices and the dark consequences that come with certain actions, this whole hour feels shamelessly false and pandering.
It is really sad that the best thing I can say about a Doctor Who episode is that the “next time on…” trailer looks amazing (seriously though, it does). Still, in a season where even the weaker episodes (“Robot of Sherwood,” “The Caretaker”) had some unquestionably great elements, I was really hoping that this batch of episodes would reach its conclusion without a real stinker in the bunch. And, while I wouldn’t go as far to call “In the Night of the Forest” a stinker, it does feel lazy and derivative enough to be justifiably called a “stumble.”
So, let’s have that cool looking finale now, shall we?
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.