The thing is, Doctor Who has always played fast and loose when it comes to defining sci-fi and fantasy. The lines between the two have long since been blurred by a predilection for storytelling that merely makes the specifics of future technology less about crafting worlds and more about garnering insights into the human condition.
How often have we seen improbable fantasy worlds used to create a mystery which is then explained in logical, rational and scientific terms by the Doctor? However alien and improbable the concept maybe the Doctor always finds a way to make the absurd and impossible just about believable and he does so thanks to these two very loose definitions of what fantasy and science fiction are.
Take Kill the Moon; everything that happens, from a scientific point of view, is suspect but it still tells its story using the familiar tropes of the sci-fi genre – that framework carries us through the wonky logic of creatures laying eggs the exact same size as themselves moments after having been born and it’s this approach that makes Doctor Who such a unique show within that genre.
Where that leaves viewers is that we are faced with the choice of abandoning all reason for the sake of character-based drama and indulging the fantasy or we can choose to examine the story from a rational perspective, taking in the Doctor’s calm explanations as a science in and of itself – it doesn’t matter that it makes little sense, just that it makes enough sense to carry the episode.
In the Forest of the Night might just be the furthest the show has come to being fantasy. There are explanations given by the Doctor as to why glowing space fireflies may have marshalled the trees to protect us from solar flares but its barely paying lip service towards a scientific explanation (you wonder why writer Frank Cottrell Boyce went to the trouble of actually researching the Tunguska event but, in its own daft way, it’s kind of endearing that he did).
The only logic that the episode operates on is a child’s logic and it’s all the better for it. The episode constantly underlines how daft its beautifully lyrical premise is by having characters reacted to the TARDIS as if it was only ever going to be bigger on the inside.
As Maebh surmises as we are treated to a stunning Steadicam shot circling the upper layers of the TARDIS, once you accept the premise of a forest springing up overnight and covering the entire planet nothing seems shocking anymore.
It’s not that it all makes sense, it just all makes about the same amount of sense.
Perhaps the best idea at the heart of this exploration of fairy tales is the idea that the forest represents mankind’s nightmares – a primal fear not of losing one’s life (it’s telling that Clara’s greatest fear isn’t losing one of the children under her but of the forest and all it represents) but of what lies beyond that forest line.
The ecological message isn’t particularly subtle but what is are the fears those valuable forests contain. Our greatest superpower maybe to forget the causal cruelties and pain we both suffer from and inflict, but as the Doctor says, it’s necessary. In much the same way the birth of a new moon inspired the human race to reach for the stars in Kill the Moon, the forest here inspires nothing but a fleeting, uncomfortable glance at the fear that drives our every move.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable conversation is the main narrative preoccupation between the three leads, the fallout from Clara’s lie to both the Doctor and Danny.
What’s interesting here is not that she lied but the justification as to why she choose a different path to Danny in the first place. While Clara’s response is nothing more than the stand response from a new companion and it’s one that hasn’t really been tested since the days of Martha and the Tenth Doctor, and it isn’t one the show is about to abandon. Doctor Who may possess a level of self-awareness beyond most shows but it isn’t about to throw out. To deny travelling with the Doctor is to deny one of the show’s main tenets.
No, where the episode gets more traction is from Danny himself. So far his motivation has been shrouded in mystery but here we get perhaps the best rebuttal as to why he wouldn’t want to travel with the Doctor. His wartime experiences add a certain weight to the argument that he wants less to see new and wondrous things than to see the things in front of him more clearly.
He isn’t denying Clara the chance to travel with the Doctor, he is merely stating his own rather macro picture of his own life. In less assured hands it would perhaps come across as rather passive aggressive – allowing Clara to make a choice but heavily implying what the consequences of that decision might be but in Samuel Anderson’s hands, its underplayed enough to not be tainted by that slightly darker note.
Danny’s attitude towards the children under his watch maybe attractive to Clara but she isn’t quite ready to make the same leap – there is a sense of events moving sideways rather than forwards. After all, she still decides to go with the Doctor to watch the solar flares (there is a sense that, like Flatline, Clara is trying to cast Danny as a companion in this mystery but Danny will not leave his duty of care) but In the Forest of the Night does a good job of fleshing out the aftermath of Clara’s lie.
It makes her lie seem less like the reaction of someone who wants to have her cake and eat it, and more like someone who genuinely cannot decide between two very complicated feelings and the lives they entail.
It isn’t all fierce introspection, the episode has a light touch thanks to some effective direction from Sheree Folkson; who manages to marshal so excellent performances out of her young cast; finding some unique angles and perspectives to keep us looking at this world through the eyes of a child. She perfectly complements Cottrell Boyce’s mythical script.
Where that script does struggle is in making its big emotional climax between Maebh and her lost sister mean the same to the audience as it does to her. The problem is one of drama over storytelling. The episode does nothing wrong in following the basic tenants of storytelling; it obeys story logic by giving Maebh an established motivation but because the emotional stakes aren’t clear from the outset, the moment where the two sisters are reunited (has she been hiding in that bush all along?) feels curiously flat and overly sentimental.
In fact, the trade-off between focusing on painting a lyrical picture of its world and the macro, concrete details of its story means that, despite some fantastic performances by Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman, the moment where she convinces the Doctor to abandon humanity, suffers somewhat because the plot feels like an afterthought.
Which is a shame because where in previous episodes where the Doctor has been proven wrong in, say, it leads to confused storytelling – it’s a common complaint that Doctor Who relies too much on deus ex machina to get out of these situations, and it’s a fair criticism – here, however, it’s easy to miss the fact that both conclusions come from the same solar flare attack.
Again, because Doctor Who has such a loose definition of both sci-fi and fantasy – along with this episodes particular bent towards fully fledged fantasy – we lose what, in a lesser episode, would have been a pivotal moment; here it feels like the slightest of acknowledgements being paid to the sci-fi framework.
In the Forest of the Night is a bold, wonderful experiment – the kind of which makes you glad that Doctor Who can still take such surprising left turns so close towards the end of its run; there are moments where it doesn’t even feel like an episode of Doctor Who and, while that is occasionally to the episodes detriment, there is never a moment where the premise is anything less than compelling.
We need these rare episodes that come along and tear down expectations and in this respect, In the Forest of the Night is perhaps the best.
(First appeared on Kasterborous.com October 2014)