Keeping up Doctor Who’s tradition of placing its most off-kilter episodes just before the season finale, “In the Forest of the Night” is a rather lyrical fable about trust and fear of the unknown. Writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce is an acclaimed author of children’s novels, so it’s no surprise that a group of schoolchildren, under the supervision of Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), are at the center of the tale. One morning, they wake up to a startling transformation: A dense forest has inexplicably appeared overnight to cover all of London (and the rest of the world). A baffled Doctor (Peter Capaldi) has landed nearby, and soon joins them to investigate.
The production design successfully creates the impression of the whole city swallowed up by the forest, with pieces of familiar iconography, like the stone lions of Trafalgar Square, surrounded by greenery. This London is completely deserted, in defiance of any realistic expectations, an obviously deliberate choice on Cottrell-Boyce’s part, sacrificing realism in favor of a more stylized, fairy-tale feel. Apart from a few perfunctory news clips and one sequence with some workmen attempting to burn a path through the forest, the outside world is kept firmly off screen.
It turns out that the trees are the work of an ancient, benign intelligence that’s dwelled on Earth unnoticed for millennia, using them to protect the world against an imminent solar flare. It’s a refreshingly unusual choice to have a story with no villain at all, and the Doctor triumphs by understanding what’s going on rather than fighting it. However, it does mean that the episode finds it difficult to have an evolving plot; it’s more a succession of set pieces. Finding a way to give the children an active involvement, rather than having them simply trailing after Clara, Danny, and the Doctor from place to place, is also a problem. Near the end, the Doctor sets up a “worldwide phone call” so that the children can tell everyone not to attack the trees, which feels like a rather desperate attempt to give the kids some relevance. It’s also, interestingly, the Doctor’s one positive action in the episode; in the face of a world-covering forest, he’s unusually helpless (a clever use of the old “sonic screwdriver doesn’t work on wood” gag). Fortuitously, his enforced inaction is just what the situation requires.
A young girl, Maebh Arden (Abigail Eames), is the only person able to sense the strange intelligence, after the trauma of her older sister going missing has left her mentally receptive to it. Director Sheree Folkson keeps us sharing Maebh’s point of view with heavy use of fisheye lenses and low-angle shots (particularly when the Doctor looms over her). The sudden reappearance of her sister at the end looks at first like a tacked-on, bogus happy ending, like that of the 2011 Christmas special “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe,” but the intended inference seems to be that the intelligence took her so that Maebh would become a channel it could use to communicate, and is now returning her unharmed. As with the Doctor earlier expressing disgust at Maebh being given medication to quiet the “voices” in her head (as if using drugs to combat mental illness is necessarily a bad thing), there’s a somewhat careless glibness to the scripting here, with this abduction being left unexamined.
With the Doctor’s talk of ice ages happening overnight, trees making themselves flameproof by controlling the oxygen in the atmosphere, and a worldwide forest providing a “planetary airbag” against a solar flare, “In the Forest of the Night” is up there with “Kill the Moon” in terms of scientific plausibility. But unlike that episode, where the scientific nonsense clashed horribly with the high-tech setting, these things are less objectionable in the ambience of an almost magical forest. Another connection between the two episodes is the way the Doctor takes Clara’s furious words to him at the end of “Kill the Moon” (“You walk our earth, Doctor; you breathe our air”) and turns them back on her when she wants him to leave the (so they think) doomed Earth. Possibly the most fascinating thread of this season has been how traveling with the Doctor is changing Clara—and not always in admirable ways. Not only is she still deceiving Danny about her continuing travels, she’s becoming adept at using pragmatic, Doctor-like lying to get her way. Here she employs it against the Doctor himself, to get him back to the TARDIS. Clara rejects the offer to join him with brutal honesty: “I don’t want to be the last of my kind.”
As for Danny, he gets some decent screen time here, and Anderson gives a convincing portrayal of a man who’s successfully surmounted the bad experiences of his past, and is now calm and centered. He proves a capable leader, always putting the children’s interests ahead of his own and even rescuing Clara from a tiger. The chemistry between the two actors is still only mild, but the low-key romance has been built up well over the season, despite our view of it being mostly restricted to small flashes squeezed into the interstices of the adventures. With it receiving a more central focus here, it’s finally possible to understand what Clara sees in him.
Next Week: The confrontation which the whole season has been building up to begins in “Dark Water.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: For another forested world that seems sinister and threatening while being ultimately benign, see 1982’s “Kinda,” starring Peter Davison, with Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton, and Matthew Waterhouse.
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