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The Doctor and
Donna enter a world
of terror inside an
They're given only
one warning: "Count
31ST MAY 2008
(45-MINUTE EPISODE, PART 1 OF 2)
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of weeks, you’ll be aware that after Doctor Who’s 2009 specials Russell T Davies will step down as Head Writer to be replaced by none other than Steven Moffat; the writer of this week’s episode Silence in the Library, not to mention The Empty Child two-parter, The Girl in the Fire-place, Time Crash, and last year’s exceptionally unsettling Blink.
The pre-title sequence of Silence in the Library is not quite what you’d generally expect
from Doctor Who. It has a whiff of magic about it; there’s something very Roald Dahl / JK Rowling-esque about a little girl apparently hiding away from the world in her enchanted library. Murray Gold’s fantastical score only exacerbates this feeling.
“The real world is a lie and your nightmares are real. The library is real.”
Many Doctor Who writers often use young children in their stories – particularly young girls – as agents of fear. The two most prominent examples that spring to mind are the schoolgirl
in Remembrance of the Daleks and ‘Daughter of Mine’ in last year’s Human Nature two-parter. But here Moffat turns this practice on its head somewhat – the little girl in this story isn’t really creepy in the traditional sense; it’s the world around her that seems sinister.
Take Colin Salmon’s Doctor Moon, for instance. On the face of it he’s a mild-mannered
child psychologist, but once we get twenty minutes into the episode he’s doing a bit of a Morpheus and telling his patient that her nightmares are in fact real…
The little girl is also a great device through which to introduce the viewer to the Library (note the definite article). A planet-sized library is a magnificent Doctor Who concept in so many ways – not only does it give the writer ample opportunity to show off the Doctor’s bookish-ness (setting a great example for younger viewers in the process) but it also allows him to
do what he does best and pray upon people’s everyday fears, only on a much bigger scale. Many people would feel uneasy were they to find themselves alone in a dark, fusty library,
but a planet-sized library? A planet-sized library where the shelves are throwing books at
you and the lights are going out? A planet-sized library where the stupendously ghoulish information system is telling you “if you want to live, count the shadows”?
I smell another BAFTA.
So far as Moffat’s Doctor Who episodes go, I think Silence in the Library has the greatest number of different terrifying elements. His previous scripts have all been built around one exceptionally scary monster or premise, but in this episode we have horrid “courtesy nodes”, bearing the faces of the dead; the chilling concept of “data ghosting”; a lumbering skeleton
in a space suit; and, most impressively of all, flesh-eating creatures that live in the dark – the Vashta Nerada. The very name is onomatopoeic. And what could be better to play upon in a Doctor Who story than fear of the dark? Fair dues, Trevor Baxendale did something similar in his fifth Doctor novel Fear of the Dark, but on television it works on another level entirely.
“Almost every species in the universe has an irrational fear of the dark. But they’re wrong.
Because it’s not irrational. It’s Vashta Nerada… it’s what’s in the dark. It’s what’s always in the dark.”
It’s also important to remember that one of the main reasons that Moffat’s scripts are so effective is that the man has a gift for writing great characters. Whether he’s breathing life into a renowned French aristocrat or creating from scratch a man who works in a video shop, Moffat is able to create characters that the viewer instantly cares about, which of course makes it all the more harrowing as they are put through the proverbial meat grinder. Take ‘other Dave’, for example. Everybody knows someone called ‘other Dave’ or ‘other Steve’ – hell, two of my best friends are called Mark #1 (like the chain store) and Mark #2; it’s remarkable how these daft things stick! – yet I don’t recall ever seeing a programme where a character is referred to on screen as ‘other’ somebody. But Moffat sticks it in his script, and it turns what could otherwise have been two faceless red-shirts into sympathetic characters: ‘proper Dave’ and ‘other Dave’. Brilliant.
The rest of the supporting characters are just as memorable, if not more so. I was absolutely thrilled to see Steve Pemberton in the show playing Strackman Lux as I’m a huge League
of Gentleman fan; all we need now is for Reece Shearsmith to show up in an episode and Jeremy Dyson to pen a script and we will have had the full set! Here’s hoping...
Talulah Riley’s slow but sweet Miss Evangelista
was impressive too. I thought it was particularly
touching how of everybody only Donna showed
her any real kindness, and how on her death-
bed (of sorts) Miss Evangelista asked to speak
to the “nice woman”. And of course, it’s Miss
Evangelista who introduces the audience to the
delightfully macabre notion of ‘data ghosting’.
Many 51st century humans have neural relays implanted in their brains which continue to
function for a short time after death. Sometimes this means that a dying person’s brain-waves are preserved until their batteries run down, as it were. It’s incredibly spooky to
hear this panicky voice coming from a skeleton, so much so that Donna describes it as
“the most horrible thing” that she has ever seen. And I agree with her – horrible, but truly inspired nonetheless.
“I’m a time traveller. I point and laugh at archaeologists.”
I also love the “spoilers” thread that runs throughout the story. Like the ‘DVD easter eggs’ plot point in Blink last year, this “spoilers” gag is a lovely nod to Doctor Who fans who like nothing better than to spoil what is to come for themselves by finding out every little detail about upcoming episodes. More importantly though, this thread is crucial to the story - just like the little shop!
Silence in the Library introduces us to a walking spoiler - an archaeologist named River Song (Alex Kingston) who appears to know the Doctor… intimately. It was River Song that summoned the Doctor to the Library via his psychic paper and it is River Song who carries
a TARDIS-shaped diary detailing her alleged future adventures with the Doctor, which of course for him have yet to happen.
“He hasn’t met me yet. I sent him a message but it went wrong. It arrived too early.
This is the Doctor in the days before he knew me.”
I think it goes without saying that this is bound to generate a lot of viewer intrigue over the next week. Can River Song be trusted? Is she really from the Doctor’s personal future? Is she a future companion, a bit like Charley teaming up with the sixth Doctor? Or is she even
a future lover? Is she some Moffat master plan for seasons yet to come? Or is she struck in some sort of “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey” loop whereby through her crossing paths with the Doctor before he has met her she is going to get herself killed? And why did she react so sensitively to Donna? Is Donna for the chop?
What’s more, I love how River describes the Doctor as being ‘young’. From a human point
of view, he’s ancient, but by the standards of his own people he is still practically a time tot. Time Lords are – or were, I should say – immortal, for all intents and purposes. Sheltered from the universe in their Citadel, most Time Lords only regenerated once every millennia
or so, unlike the Doctor who has literally torn through ten of his thirteen lives in little more
than 900 years or so (or at least, so he says). But if this woman from his personal future describes him as being ‘young’, then maybe the Doctor has a hell of a lot for steam left in him than most people think. Maybe his last few incarnations will last for a long, long time. Maybe the universe won’t let him stop at thirteen…
“Look at you. You’re young… younger than I’ve ever seen you…”
Kingston is absolutely superb as River; she and David Tennant quickly strike up an electric rapport. River reminds me a lot of another archaeologist friend of the Doctor’s – Professor Bernice Summerfield of the 1990s Virgin New Adventures novels and continuing Big Finish audio dramas. Not only is River an archaeologist like Benny (though I would suspect that River’s credentials are not forged, unlike Ms Summerfield’s originally were!), but she also keeps a diary and shares the same sardonic sense of humour, not to mention a penchant for mordant quips and sexual innuendo. If River is all that she appears, then the Doctor’s daughter may have a rival in the ‘future companion’ stakes…
On a final note, I think Moffat may well have outdone his textbook Empty Child cliffhanger with this episode’s gripping climax. Although I’m ninety-nine per cent sure that Donna isn’t dead, the implication is clear. Donna’s teleport goes wrong. Her face is on a courtesy node. Donna is apparently the 4,023rd person to be “saved” – but saved to where? And the writer doesn’t stop there. Proper Dave is ghosting. Possessed by a swarm of Vashta Nerada, his skeleton is lumbering after the Doctor and the surviving members of the expedition in classic zombie fashion, his numerous shadows threatening to strip away their flesh.
“Hey, who turned out the lights?”
Another catchphrase. Another playground gimmick. Another flawless Steven Moffat script. Since Doctor Who returned to our screens in 2005, Moffat may have only been the series’ second-most prolific writer, but he is second to none in terms of quality. As far as I’m conc-erned, Doctor Who’s future could not be in safer hands. After all, Russell T Davies wouldn’t give his sonic screwdriver to just anyone.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
River Song appears to be a companion (or perhaps even a lover) from the Doctor’s future. His encountering
her here, ‘out of sequence’ as it were, mirrors the sixth Doctor encountering Charley Pollard in the Big Finish audio drama The Condemned, as well as the Doctor and the Brigadier’s confusing, asynchronous encounters post-UNIT. What sets this story apart is that River dies here, and the Doctor must carry his knowledge of her death through all their future encounters.
Interestingly, River is able to recognise the Doctor’s tenth body instantly here, presumably from the pictures that she claims to have of the Doctor’s faces in The Time of Angels, but she doesn't seem to realise that the “Crash of the Byzantium” adventure has yet to occur for him (River’s realisation that this version of the Doctor is the youngest she’s ever encountered comes slightly later.) This suggests that – if River Song’s “Crash of the Byzantium” line is not just an example of an old River lauding it over a young Doctor – River will ultimately encounter Ten, Eleven and at least one future Doctor, but will never be sure which order these incarnations occur in.
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