The name Steven Moffat has been the stamp of quality on Doctor Who scripts over the past three seasons, so it’s easy to go into “Silence in the Library,” the first of a two-part story, with high expectations. Further, since Moffat was recently named the series’ new showrunner (beginning in 2010), viewer expectations are perhaps even a bit higher for this story. He certainly doesn’t waste any time putting his dramatic flourishes on the piece. The story begins with a little girl (Eve Newton). She appears to be in therapy with a Dr. Moon (Colin Salmon) while her dad (Mark Dexter) lingers in the background. In her mind exists a fantastical library the size of a planet. She peacefully floats around the silent library, seemingly the only patron. The silence is suddenly broken by a loud banging from the other side of a pair of doors. The girl is alarmed. The Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna (Catherine Tate) bust through.
The Doctor: “Hello! Sorry to burst in on you like this. Is it OK if we stop here for a bit?”
After the opening credits, the story takes a few steps backwards. The Doctor and Donna have just arrived at The Library in the 51st century. The Doctor says it’s so big it doesn’t even need a name. It is the size of a planet and it contains every book ever written. The core of the planet is an index computer—the biggest hard drive ever. He says they’re near the equator so they must be in the biography section. Donna picks up a book and the Doctor takes it from her hand saying “Spoilers! These books are from your future.” Then he realizes that for the biggest library in the universe, there’s a distinct lack of visitors. In fact, the place is empty. Donna presses him as to why they’re even there (a good question from someone who isn’t allowed to even read the material). He doesn’t answer, but he does do a scan for humanoid lifeforms and finds only two—he and Donna. He expands the scan to cover other forms of life and finds a million million! But where are they? Could it be that the books have a life of their own?
They do some more investigating and come across a Node, which is a sort of information kiosk with a creepy, moving face attached to it. The Node, without any particular sense of urgency tells them to run and that nowhere is safe. It then has yet another message, which is “For god’s sake, count the shadows.” The Doctor wisely tells Donna to stay out of the shadows. They continue on and he confesses that he received a message on the psychic paper to come to The Library as soon as possible. Immediately giant blocks of shadows begin filling the hallway they’re in. The Doctor tries to use the sonic screwdriver on a door, but since it’s made of wood it doesn’t work. Donna opts to kick it in and the story returns to the point where it started, only the Doctor isn’t addressing the little girl, but rather a floating security camera that drops with a thud to floor. At this point, we’re very confused. How can the time travelers exist in a world that we’ve already been told exists only in the girl’s head? Back in the therapy session, the girl hears the penetrating sonic screwdriver at the same time the Doctor inspects the cam with it. As she yells, “No, stop it!” the same words scrawl across a sign in The Library. The girl tells Dr. Moon The Library has been breached and others are coming. The shadows continue to circle the Doctor and Donna and he realizes what they are even though he doesn’t verbalize it.
Suddenly there’s an explosion of light and a group of astronauts dramatically enter the room. The leader—a woman—smiles at the Doctor and calls him “sweetie.” He dismisses her and demands that the group return to their rocket and leave. They ignore him and remove their helmets, revealing they’re part of an archaeological expedition and they’ve come to find out why the place has been deserted for 100 years and the meaning of its final communication, “4,022 saved. No survivors.”
The Doctor: “Oh, no. Are you? Tell me you’re not archaeologists.”
The Woman: “Got a problem with archaeologists?”
The Doctor: “I’m a time traveler. I point and laugh at archaeologists.”
The Woman: “Ah!” (she extends her hand) “Professor River Song—archaeologist.”
The Doctor again insists that they leave and set up a quarantine around the planet. Since nobody seems to be leaving, he makes a ground rule: “Stay out of the shadows. Stay in the light.” Nobody seems to care what he has to say, although River (the lovely Alex Kingston) is amused by his rantings. In addition to Professor Song, the others are Strackman Lux (Steve Pemberton), the man funding the expedition and whose family built The Library, Miss Evangelista (Talula Riley), Anita (Jessika Williams), Proper Dave (Harry Peacock) and Other Dave (O.T. Fagbenle). After dealing with some red tape issues such as signing contracts, which the Doctor and Donna refuse to do, he finally gives a name to what’s in the shadows.
The Doctor: “Almost every species in the universe has an irrational fear of the dark, but they’re wrong. ’Cause it’s not irrational. It’s Vashta Nerada.”
Donna: “What’s Vashta Nerada?”
The Doctor: “It’s what’s in the dark. It’s what’s always in the dark.”
River summons the Doctor to a private place, calling him “pretty boy,” much to Donna’s amusement. She pulls out a book whose cover bears a resemblance to the TARDIS exterior and begins paging through it. She thanks him for coming when she called (the psychic paper) and wonders why he’s pretending to not know her. She begins listing events from the book, seemingly trying to figure out at which point in his life she’s arrived. Problem is, he’s aware of none of them. He genuinely does not know her. She realizes how young he looks and it dawns on her, too, that whenever she knows the Doctor in the future, this version predates any of their meetings. Does River know a later Doctor? Does she know the Tenth Doctor later in his life? It’s a moving proposition that’s full of possibilities for the series’ future.
At this point the story certainly feels like a Steven Moffat tale: Unseen creatures in the shadows (shades of “Blink”), a mysterious child (another “Empty Child?”), the 51st century, a mindfuck of a situation (what’s real and what’s not?), and now a mystery woman from the Doctor’s future, which in many ways seems like the inverse of “The Girl in the Fireplace.” Indeed, “Silence in the Library” often feels like “Moffat’s Greatest Hits,” which is somewhat annoying since we want everything that Moffat does to surprise and bowl us over. But maybe we ask too much of the man. If there really are only eight or nine dramatic stories that can even be told, how many tricks can he possibly have up his Doctor Who sleeve? He has, after all, only had to deliver one story each season thus far, unlike Russell T Davies who cranks out four or five per season, in addition to creating seasonal arcs and so forth. I very much look forward to the arcs Moffat will create further down the line (and likewise anticipate one or two episodes from Davies each season under Moffat’s vision).
Back to the story… Proper Dave sets something off in the computer system, which in turn causes a phone to ring in the little girl’s home. Her father doesn’t hear the ring, but Dr. Moon seems to know more than he’s saying. Just as she’s about to answer it, the ringing stops. In The Library, the Doctor tries something else since nobody answered the phone. He’s able to make contact with her through her TV set (note the Robby the Robot action figure in the background behind her—nice touch). She responds as any child might when dreams become reality, and the Doctor is confused by her childspeak. They don’t get very far before that transmission cuts out. The time travelers and the archaeologists are confused (as are we the viewers).
Miss Evangelista feels useless, because that’s how everyone sees her. She’s Lux’s assistant and he probably only hired her for her looks. Despite Donna’s attempt to connect with her, she wanders off into the shadows, only to be consumed by the Vashta Nerada. When the others find her, the only thing that remains aside from a skeleton in a space suit is a “data ghost”—a rambling series of pleas from the afterlife. It’s difficult to put into words how effective this lengthy sequence is or why it would be the highlight of the episode, and yet it is: Haunting, strange technology that allows the dead a few more words. The words call out to Donna—the last person who was nice to her—and she is crushed, as Donna often is when confronted with alien experiences. Soon after, Donna talks to River, trying to find out who she is. She tells Donna she knows the Doctor later in his life, and when she finds out Donna’s name she is silent, as if she knows something from the future. Something unspeakable.
In the realm of the little girl, Dr. Moon finally plays his hand. He tells her the people in The Library are real and need to be saved, the shadows are moving, and only she can save them. The Vashta Nerada are closing in on the people in The Library, and the Doctor goes into further detail about them being a swarm of creatures. He demonstrates their power by throwing a chicken leg into the shadows. It immediately turns to bone, the flesh melted away. They’re a powerful, unstoppable force—after all, not everyone comes back from the dark. But he’s never seen them in this quantity.
River Song: “Every shadow?”
The Doctor: “No—but any shadow.”
River Song: “So what do we do?”
The Doctor: “Daleks—aim for the eyestalk. Sontarans—back of the neck. Vashta Nerada—run. Just run.”
Without warning, Proper Dave has two shadows. The Doctor tells him to stand still, as he puts the man’s helmet back on, and directs everyone else to do the same. In the midst of this, River produces her own sonic screwdriver, which alarms the Doctor. He shifts into let’s-get-shit-done mode and ushers Donna to a nearby teleport (which would most certainly exist in a library the size of a planet), and sends her into the TARDIS, but in the process (and unknown to the Doctor) she’s intercepted by something and screams howls of agony. Proper Dave is consumed by the Vashta Nerada, and turns into a walking, skeletal zombie—his data ghost repeating “Who turned out the lights?” He stalks. Everyone runs. Again River produces her sonic screwdriver and says that the Doctor gave it to her. He’s more unnerved than ever. In his own words, “I wouldn’t give my sonic screwdriver to anyone.” She replies, “I’m not anyone.” The Doctor addresses a Node for exit information. It turns around with Donna’s face and says, “Donna Noble has left The Library. Donna Noble has been saved,” over and over, as the Vashta Nerada-ridden Proper Dave lunges toward the Doctor, River and the rest (Here on Gilligan’s Isle!).
Being Part One of Two, “Silence in the Library” is of course a series of set-ups. They are very intense set-ups that are as frustrating as they are engaging. Where is this entire thing going? Can it possibly deliver on every dramatic beat that’s been presented? Even if this feels like a case of Moffat been-there, done-that, his game is still playing. This episode is jam-packed with foreshadowing, drama, weirdness—you name it. If it seems unsatisfying, that’s only because it’s so effective. It forces you to wait until next week for the answers to its questions. After all, that’s what the Doctor Who cliffhanger sting is all about, but rarely is the set-up this intriguing. Probably the one thing we can count on is a lack of silence in The Library.
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based writer. In addition to contributing to The House Next Door, he also publishes The Rued Morgue and writes for Bullz-Eye.
NEXT WEEK: Um, it’s called “Forest of the Dead.” You really don’t need to know anything more. Spoilers are bad—surely you know that by now?
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Last week I didn’t recommend any classic Who. I’m going to continue with the theme this week and recommend checking out Jekyll, which was written by Steven Moffat and is a deliciously twisted turn on the Stevenson classic.