Last week's "Silence in the Library" was a good, slightly off-kilter episode. The concluding part of the story, "Forest of the Dead" (originally called "River's Run") went from off-kilter to downright surreal, and was a bloody work of genius. First of all, the comments I made last week: - The "ghosting" effect of the communicator system; this is so being set up so that River Song can die in the second half and the Doctor can have a speech with her dying consciousness, isn't it? It seems to me it would appeal to The Moff's sense of tying things up to have the first adventure together from his perspective be the last from hers. Well I was mostly right there, River did indeed die (ish) and it was all tied up with the fact that for the rest of their relationship the Doctor will carry the knowledge of how it's going to end. The life support/communicator did feature, although not in the way I predicted. - Great casting; Alex Kingston has the right mix of gravitas and flirtation, while in the "other" reality Colin Salmon is playing his cards very close to his chest about whether we should trust him or not. More solid work from these two and indeed the whole cast - Steve Pemberton nicely came into his own as his character's true motivations were revealed, even if his voice did slip a bit too close to Pauline's from The League of Gentlemen from time to time. (Now they just need a guest spot from Reece Shearsmith to complete the League set, maybe get Jeremy Dyson to write an episode for a bonus point.)
- The opening ten minutes had some lovely work from director Euros Lyn and composer Murray Gold, The Library being set up as a grand, majestic space and just letting the creepiness of it being silent come in naturally, not overplay it. That still stands, and then some. - Those 4022 people and later Donna who don't seem to be alive but are nonetheless "saved" - that's going to be saved like files on a computer, innit? Well I was pretty spot-on there, wasn't I? - The dead faces on the statues: Beautifully flesh-crawling idea, let down I thought by the execution - the faces just looked silly poking out of those white backgrounds. Er, yeah... can't say I changed my mind about that but luckily they didn't feature much in part two.
So, after the buildup of "Silence" we got everything we wanted tied up, but still "Forest" managed to throw in some completely new tangents to raise the story from good to downright sublime. As soon as we had The Girl turn on her TV to see Donna in her own "TV show" in a different part of the alternate universe we'd already been shown earlier, I officially loved this epsiode for the gleeful headfuck it was giving us.
Steven Moffat's known for making some of the scariest monsters out of the simplest things (ticking clocks, statues) and while this should have been the simplest and most effective of them all (fear of the dark) the Vashda Nerada never quite clicked for me. Luckily in the second half they proved to be largely a McGuffin as we got a story that was more metaphorically dark - in fact apart from a few moments this was an unremittingly bleak episode, without for a second becoming solemn or depressing. Sod the scary faces and things jumping out at you, the moment that sent a chill down my spine was the "new" Miss Evangelista's cold, crushingly cynical "I have the two qualities you require to see the absolute truth: I am brilliant and unloved."
The writer's ability to spot the scary in the mundane is here used on the medium the story's being told in. Using completely everyday screen vocabulary, Donna arives by ambulance at a private clinic, and the scene cuts to her in her room; Doctor Moon arrives and suggests they go for a walk, and the scene cuts to them outside walking. We don't need to see Donna get dressed, walk down the stairs, maybe pop to the loo or have a cup of tea, as we can fill in those gaps by ourselves. So Moffat gives us the twist that, this being a "dream" world, these cuts are actually what Donna herself is experiencing, skipping to the most important events and letting her brain fill in the gaps. The gaps get more extreme as she meets and flirts with a stuttering man (speaking of whom - O hai, Donna's imaginary husband!) wonders where this is leading and in a deliberately cliched cut we next see them married - again, this is how she's actually experiencing her world, the computer she's living in rushing her to the point where she can have imaginary children who will bond her to this reality.
Back in the Doctor's reality, we have more about River Song and their intriguing future relationship. Frankly there's no huge surprises here, the person she appeared to be is who she really is, although the way she reveals it is fascinating, by whispering the Doctor's true name to him, something he can only have told her on one occasion (added to River's response when Lux makes a crack about them being an old married couple, it's strongly implicit that this was at their wedding.) I adored the added element we got in the second half from River's knowledge of a much older Doctor: Her almost-contempt for this "young" version, and the vision of a future Time Lord who can control the TARDIS doors by clicking his fingers. As the Tenth Doctor has so often focused on how incredibly old and battle-scarred he is and how much experience he has behind him, this humbling idea that he's still got so much to learn is very welcome. And the fact that it's River who enables the Doctor to see that he has this particular ability at the end of the episode is another great pointer at her significance, and how the right people can make even the Doctor a better man.
As if there wasn't enough here to love already, Moffat throws in tons of references to the new series: River using the psychic paper as a means of communication, like the Face of Boe did in "New Earth;" speaking of the Face of Botox, River has a "squareness gun" like Captain Jack did in "The Doctor Dances" - as Moffat revealed on Confidential, this was the same gun, which Jack had left behind on the TARDIS the first time he died, and River eventually made use of; a repeat of the comment "everybody lives" with, once again, a reminder of how rare an occurence this is; and tons more.
With the revelation that the Lux family are benevolent we have an episode where all the humans are good guys, which is OK in a season where they've been more evil than the monsters more often than not. There were a couple of plot points that didn't work for me - however scared they were of the Doctor's reputation, would the Vashda Nerada really not have fought harder for a better deal than being given their "forest" to themselves, but with absolutely no food source? How did the final version of Miss Evangelista have her full face back if the only available file was badly corrupted (and if the Doctor presumably fixed her, does that mean he made her thick again?) And OK, so the Doctor throws himself down that lift shaft to the planet's core - how exactly did he land and survive (when a much shorter fall killed him when he was Tom Baker)?
Well I'm going to have to force myself to wind this review up or I'll go on forever, but a couple of other odd bits and pieces I loved: Moffat referencing RTD's much-maligned love of "big numbers" (e.g. The Year Five Billion) and giving it a logical basis (a million million life forms? Well the computer can't handle any numbers bigger than that.) In a related note, the little gag in "Silence" where the Doctor and Donna are afraid of the books, being brought full circle in "Forest" as it turns out it was from the wood used to make those books that the Vashda Nerada got into The Library. Doctor Moon's name being significant - on a computer the size of a planet, a doctor-moon is an orbiting Antivirus programme. Oh and dammit Moffat, you made me cry when Donna had given up on finding Lee again, and we saw him stuttering too badly to call out to her, before being beamed away, probably forever. Plus when the episode did allow a bit of comedy in, it was a classic, Donna realising her body wasn't real - "but I've been dieting!" Doctor Who is certainly doing its bit to make kids read - aside from all the recent references to the Doctor loving books, and the many visits to famous wriets, twice in this episode we had an eternity surrounded by all the books ever written presented as a vision of heaven.
So... well yep, I'd say I quite enjoyed this one.