• 28th October 2014 • Review by Seb Patrick •
It’s never a wise thing to start a review of something by considering what other people have had to say about it. But in this case, the weight of what seems to be a prevailing opinion about “In the Forest of the Night” is a difficult thing to shake. The chief argument against it seems to be that it’s a whimsical, overly-fantastical, aimed-at-children fairy-tale by Frank Cottrell-Boyce. This accusation is difficult to rebuke from a factual point of view, but the thing is, that’s what I really like about it.
It helps, possibly, that I’m already a fan of the writer (and slightly biased in a hometown-pride kind of way, too – in fact, I sold him books once or twice around a decade ago) – but then, so many of our opinions on Doctor Who are based on preconception anyway that I feel little guilt about going into this episode wanting to enjoy it and coming away having done exactly that.
I mean yes, okay, the narrative and perspective are heavily weighted in favour of children. And I get why that’s a problem for some fans. Doctor Who fans constantly have to fight the accusation that it’s “just a kids’ show” (standard rebuke: “Actually, it’s a family show”), so when it actually admits that it is one (which it is), there’s a temptation to bristle. But really, what exactly is wrong with allowing the programme’s target demographic to be a bit more visibly represented by it every once in a while? On something like “Nightmare in Silver”, where the kids – to put it bluntly – were pretty bloody awful I can see why, but in this they’re not. In this they’re fun, and interesting, and a bit overenthusiastic in some of their line readings, sure, but you cast the voice of Peppa Pig as a bolshy loudmouthed pre-teen (another “disruptive influence”, at that) and as a result you get exactly what you expect. And it’s a small price to pay when you get as funny and lively an interaction as you do between Capaldi’s Doctor and these kids.
(I know we couldn’t possibly have a future Doctor Who setup where the Doctor doesn’t actually have a regular companion, and instead Capaldi just goes around blundering into a lot of new different situations and helping out a different kid or group of kids each time while not really understanding them and being a bit grumpy and blunt but still and at the same time actually talking to them like adults rather than patronising them. I know that. But wouldn’t it just be lovely if we did, even for a bit?)
And yes, okay, there’s something a little woolly about the “science” of the episode. This seems to be a problem for those who want Doctor Who to be “proper sci-fi”, rather than something that in the absence of a better phrase I’ll call “science-fantasy”. But Doctor Who can be different things – I don’t know how many times we have to keep saying that before everyone realises it’s true, but it really is – and just because it applies real-world scientific principles to its stories some of the time doesn’t mean it has an obligation not to go a bit hand-wavy at times for the sake of the conceit. Especially when said conceit is as one-line brilliant as “The world gets turned into one big forest” (or, come to that, “the moon is an egg”). It’s an irresistible premise, and any slight niggles about the solar flare guff at the end are surely made up for by the joy of seeing something as familiar as London get to look so unusual.
(It’s fair to say that in the execution of all of this, mind, the results are mixed. I completely understand the budgetary reasons for all of the scenes down at ground level in London looking the way they do, but it means they start to feel very samey very quickly, once you’ve got over the fun incongruity of London road signs in among trees. The wider CGI shots of the city rescue the feel of things somewhat, but elsewhere CGI is found lacking when it comes to successfully portraying the wild animals. Still, though, the odd bit of clunkiness aside, this series’ drive towards inventive visual styles continues, and yet-another-new director Sheree Folkson particularly seems to enjoy offering a skewed perspective on the TARDIS interior scenes.)
And finally, yes, it’s a very Frank Cottrell-Boyce kind of script. But what about that is in any way a bad thing? That it’s sharp and allusive, warmly human, frequently witty, broad in its appeal (enjoyable to kids without talking down to them, enjoyable to adults without them having to feel they’re dumbing themselves down) and somewhat touching? Should we somehow not want these things in our Doctor Who just because the story they’re in isn’t a base-under-siege and doesn’t have monsters or robots in it?
I’m aware that this is coming across as a very oddly-phrased review – like I’m not so much discussing the episode as pre-emptively taking up a very defensive stance, like I’m maybe not confident in my opinions and having to try and justify them. But it speaks to what I think has been a really odd trend in the critical reception to this series. I think it’s been spectacular – inventive, enjoyable, intriguing, beautifully-made television, with an absolutely brilliant lead actor whose version of the Doctor is everything I could have hoped for from the next incarnation after Smith. And yet I know that hasn’t been the case for everybody – and so while I might say that this is yet another terrific episode, following in the footsteps of other spectacular successes like “Listen”, “Kill the Moon” and “Mummy on the Orient Express” (and a cut above the still-pretty-great-in-many-ways likes of “Into the Dalek” and “Robot of Sherwood”), I feel less sure in doing so that I’m in line with the prevailing wisdom compared with previous years.
But then, if enjoying and cherishing a whimsical, overly-fantastical, aimed-at-children fairy-tale by Frank Cottrell-Boyce that also happens to be a part of Doctor Who Series 8 is wrong… I’m not sure I’m in a rush to be right. Bring on the finale: I’ll be happy to be wrong about that one, too.