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Doctor Who Recap: Season 4, Episode 9, “Forest of the Dead”

“Forest of the Dead” is an episode that left me so thoroughly perplexed that I had to see it several times to even begin thinking I understood it.

Doctor Who Recap: Season 4, Episode 9, “Forest of the Dead”
Photo: BBC

“Forest of the Dead” is an episode that left me so thoroughly perplexed that I had to see it several times to even begin thinking I understood it. I can honestly say that no installment of the new series (or even classic Who for that matter) confused me as much as this one and if that earns me the nickname “Thick as a Whale Omelet Ruediger,” then so be it. I asked for some help from fellow Who/Moffat enthusiasts Steven Cooper, Peet Gelderblom and Chris Hansen, three people whom I figured could help me get to the bottom of it all. They did help, were full of insights and opinions and their words are as important to recap as anything I’ve got to say. Yet another viewing helped, too, and I’m starting to believe the story is either not as complex as I’d originally thought, or it’s so obtuse that I’m never truly going to see the bigger picture.

The episode begins with the Doctor (David Tennant), River Song (Alex Kingston) and the rest (skipping the Gilligan’s Island joke this time) fighting off the Vashta Nerata-riddled corpse of Proper Dave. River whips out a sonic blaster similar to the one Captain Jack used in Moffat’s “Empty Child” two-parter. (Moffat has apparently said that it is in fact the same blaster; Jack left it in the TARDIS and River confiscated it at some point in the Doctor’s future.) Anyway, the gang exits through a hole in the wall, while the girl (Eve Newton) watches their escapades on TV. She flips the channels and settles on a less frenetic adventure starring Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), who is now under the care of Dr. Moon (Colin Salmon) at a care facility called CAL. The girl doesn’t seem surprised that her shrink is on her TV and she recognizes Donna from The Library. The Svengali-like Dr. Moon guides Donna into a new life—one without the fictitious Doctor, but with a husband and children. It all happens alarmingly fast—too fast in fact. If it weren’t so ideal, Donna might have a stronger sense that something isn’t right about it all. But there is something safe and cozy about this new world—it’s the sort of life Donna dreamed of having before meeting the Doctor.

Back in The Library, the Doctor and the hole in the wall gang continue dealing with the Vashta Nerada threat. The Doctor and River get into a fight about the sonic screwdriver she possesses and he finally blows his stack and demands to know who she is. Lux (Steve Pemberton) accuses them of arguing like an old married couple, which is immediately followed by River whispering something into the Doctor’s ear. It turns him white and reduces him to silence. Later on in the story he reveals that she spoke his name, which is something he would only have told someone under a very specific circumstance. It appears that in the Doctor’s future, River is his wife or at least as much of a wife as the Doctor could ever have. It’s entirely open to interpretation of course, but I was hard-pressed to come up with any other take on it.

The Doctor drags himself away from the emotion of the moment and gets back to business. He asks about the moon hovering above, and Lux reveals it’s not a real moon, but a “Doctor Moon”—a sort of virus checker/tech support for The Library. He fiddles with his screwdriver and a hologram of Donna appears for a brief moment and then the shadows are once again on the move, this time stalking Anita (Jessika Williams), and the story goes through similar motions as it did with Proper Dave in the first episode. Speaking of, Dave’s skeleton shows up once again to plague the group. The skeletons are rather silly, and seem shoehorned into the tale because you can’t make a proper Vashta Nerada action figure. (How cynical I’ve become toward my favorite series in the past four years; at least I haven’t stooped to declaring that Russell T Davies raped my childhood.) The Doctor finally communicates with the Vashta Nerada through one of the data ghosts which leads to the least successful moment in the entire story. One of the worst sins Doctor Who can commit is delivering a moment when we’re ahead of the Doctor. Here it is when the Vashta Nerada said, “We didn’t come here—we were hatched here”, and the Doctor replies, “Of course you came here. You’re hatched from spores in trees.” Immediately, I made the connection to the books and the paper within them—but it takes the Doctor a few beats to figure it out. Further, it seems such an obvious payoff once the fact they hatch from trees is revealed, that I can see why it wasn’t mentioned in the first episode at all. But that itself is problematic because it should have been something the Doctor pondered from early on in the story, and thus he should have at least been suspicious long before episode two. This is a huge failure on the part of the narrative.

Steven Cooper said of “The Doctor’s Daughter” that it “suffers from being told in one episode rather than two (although, given how consistently good this season has been, I can’t think of another episode I’d want to lose to make way for an expanded version of this one).” I suggested that perhaps this tale could perhaps have been a better one-parter, due to the excessive running around and the repetition of numerous elements and information in both episodes. Peet Gelderblom did not agree with me and stated the story “…was particularly layered and condensed, so I don’t agree this could ever have worked as a single episode. And the skeletons in spacesuits rule, dammit!” Peet added to the thought (as only Peet can) that “They make brilliant sense as a metaphor for mortality, too: In the future we all die…” Steven agreed with me on the skeletons by saying they were “the least successful of the ‘creepy’ elements, mainly due to the fact that (like a lot of Doctor Who monsters) they don’t actually do anything apart from lurching slowly after our heroes.” As far as the episode count goes, Steven was with Peet and didn’t think this could have worked as a one-parter, but he did rather astutely declare, “I think both this and ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’ have about one and a half episodes worth of plot.” Best laid plans, eh?

A bizarre veiled figure is trying to get the attention of the increasingly confused Donna, who is beginning to see bigger holes in the veil of her strange new world. The figure leaves her a note saying, “The world is wrong” and requesting Donna’s presence at her “usual play park.” Bam! It’s the next day and Donna is there and the figure, a woman, waits for her on a bench. She begins explaining the jagged nature of time in this world and how desires seem to be instantly met. She also reveals herself to be “what is left of Miss Evangelista,” and slowly Donna’s real life and her memories of the Doctor start coming back to her as she learns that she’s been programmed to forget her real life. When the woman insists that even Donna’s children are a construct, she forces her to see that all the children on the playground are the same boy and girl. It’s a disturbing, weird moment followed by one that’s even creepier. One the most disturbing images ever shown on Doctor Who is when Donna rips the veil off Evangelista and sees the twisted, computer-botched horror beneath. It’s striking imagery and an interesting idea that Steven Cooper didn’t entirely buy into: “Her increased intelligence made her able to understand the nature of the data core and not be fooled by the virtual reality—and also to insert herself into the virtual reality of others. I should say that I think this is an example of Moffat using some clever gags—’I think a decimal point may have shifted in my IQ’ and the ‘brilliant and unloved’ bit (shades of Sally Sparrow’s ‘Sad is happy for deep people’)—to try and paper over a necessary plot implausibility. As anyone who has had actual data corruption in a computer file will know, the chance of it producing anything useful is zero.”

Around the same time Donna is discovering that the world she’s living in is a computer construct, the Doctor is figuring out that The Library has “saved” 4022 people from the Vashta Nerada and placed their consciousnesses into these perfect realities, while their physical selves are saved as “energy signatures.” (At this point, you’re either buying everything that’s said or it’s all gone south.) As the various characters continue to solve the numerous predicaments, the girl becomes progressively unhinged. Lux reveals that CAL is an acronym for Charlotte Abigail Lux—his grandfather’s youngest daughter who was dying. She was wired into The Library as the main Node so she could read forever… but nobody counted on the Vashta Nerada which screwed everything up and now the computer’s exhausted its resources from all the saving. The Doctor deduces that he must wire himself into the computer (a risky proposition), but before he can do this River knocks him unconscious. He awakens to see her wired in, and explains that she must do it as she cannot risk him dying as it would mean they would never meet. He says that time can be rewritten, but she refuses, “Not those times. Not one line, don’t you dare.” It’s an intensely emotional scene with the Doctor reacting to a future he has yet to experience, but knows will someday bring wonders.

River’s sacrifice fixes everything and 4022 people are restored, including Donna. I’m still confused as to what exactly the deal was the Doctor made with the Vashta Nerada (have at it folks—I’m losing steam here). In the final moments, the Doctor realizes that his future self must have given River his sonic screwdriver for a reason and it turns out her data ghost is bleeping away on the inside of the device (although I do not understand how it got there). He takes the data ghost and sends her consciousness off to live in the computer forever, something I found weirdly cruel, despite my atheism, which I’m told should be a key philosophy to appreciating the development. Perhaps it’s the latent Catholic in me.

This recap was all over the place, but then again so is the episode. I know I left stuff out and oversimplified far too much of it, and perhaps even made hay over things that weren’t all that important. It’s an incredibly ambitious storyline (perhaps too much so) that’s got so many elements banging up against each other it’s amazing it works at all. It’s arguably Moffat’s weakest contribution to the series thus far, yet it’s still better than most Doctor Who stories. The River Song/Doctor love story is easily the standout section, but one cannot watch this material without wondering if we’ll see River later on the series. It seems all the more of a setup since Moffat wrote this during a time in which he knew he’d be taking over the series in 2010. But for a concept in which the youth of the Doctor is emphasized from River’s POV, can the show reasonably bring Kingston back to the show when she as an actress is two years older than she is here? Would it matter? What if David Tennant doesn’t return for Season Five in 2010? Do River’s comments still apply? Peet Gelderblom has numerous thoughts on these issues: “I think you’re taking River’s remark about how young the Doctor looked too literally, Ross. My wife Tina has exactly the same feeling about a picture of me taken two years before we met. The difference is in the eyes. Moffat clearly shows the Doctor as a changed man in the end, more assured of his own powers. For all we know, this Doctor could already be the one River remembers. If River ends up being the Doctor’s future companion (she sure seems an obvious candidate to me), Season Five could still offer a regenerated Doctor. River’s remarks would still make sense if she’s looking at a previous incarnation of the man she’s become so attached to.”

She’s aware of regeneration within the story, so it’s feasible she’s already known more than one incarnation of the Doctor. Chris Hansen offered up his thoughts: “With regard to how ‘young’ the Doctor supposedly looked to River, I initially thought she meant that the version she knew was a future regeneration, but I’ve since decided that it was written vaguely enough to imply a regeneration or simply the idea that he seemed older when she knew him. I don’t know if she’ll be a companion, but she’d be a welcome one. I really sensed by what the Doctor said that there was some specific reason that she would know his name—it made me think they were married and more than just generally “in love” or some other thing. I’m not really sure marriage is correct—but he seemed to be alluding to some specific reason he would have told her his name, something more than simply having deep affection or even love for her.”

Steven Cooper has many ideas on these issues—and he’ll no doubt throw down a few more in the comments section—but here’s some of what he conveyed to me: “The story makes it quite clear that she really is his future wife or similar significant other… It’s left ambiguous whether she has met the Tenth Doctor before, but my hunch is that she did meet him… and also saw him regenerate into the Eleventh. Her description of the Doctor who visited her for the last time before she came to the Library doesn’t fit Tennant’s Doctor—she mentions him wearing a suit as though it was something unusual. I don’t think we can conclude that she is being set up as the companion for Series Five, or even that we’ll necessarily ever see her again. Doctor Who is structured loosely enough that adventures can always be assumed to be happening between the ones we see on screen…”

Steven is correct about off-screen adventures occurring in the Who timeline, but it seems to me that it would be a massive cheat if the bigger story of River Song and the Doctor were never addressed again. It seems too important to our understanding of the Doctor, but then again perhaps it was Moffat’s intention to inject a major unsolved personal mystery into the central character’s life; something that fanboys can debate through the ages, without ever getting a proper answer. If that’s the case, then my hat goes off to him. It’s a far more intriguing mystery than much of what was attempted in the Sylvester McCoy era of the series. Chris Hansen made an observation that was either incredibly perceptive or just plain wrong (I’m sure we’ll find out by season’s end): The death of River Song was the Ood’s prediction fulfilled (“Your song will end soon”). If he’s correct, I admire the production team for not beating us over the head with it via a flashback. Maybe the truth of the Doctor and River Song would be less engaging than any fabled romance our imaginations can conjure up.

Next Week: It’s the Fourth of July, so you know what that means: Twilight Zone marathon on Sci Fi! No new Who!! Tune in on July 11th for “Midnight,” which is hands down one of the boldest, bestest stories of the new series, and it’s even written by Russell T Davies himself.

Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Since Who’s taking a week off, why not invest in the recently released “Beneath the Surface” box set? It features all three stories detailing the Doctor’s encounters with the Silurians and the Sea Devils.

For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.

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