THIS EPISODE TAKES
THE TV EPISODE "SILENCE
IN THE LIBRARY", AND
PRIOR TO "MIDNIGHT."
'THE COMPLETE FOURTH
SERIES' HMV EXCLUSIVE
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As the shadows rise,
the Doctor forges
an alliance with
the mysterious River
Song. But can anyone
stop the Vashta
7TH JUNE 2008
(45-MINUTE EPISODE, PART 2 OF 2)
Concluding a story the likes of the one set up by Steven Moffat in last week’s episode, Silence in the Library, would be no easy task in the best of circumstances. But
with a cliffhanger to resolve that places one of our heroes in mortal peril and implies that
the other is dead, Moffat had really set himself up for a difficult ride.
“The forest of the Vashta Narada. Pulped and printed and bound; a million million books, hatching shadows.”
Forest of the Dead does a truly astonishing job of tying up all the threads woven through Silence of the Library whilst keeping the audience on the edge of their seats throughout. And the audience aren’t just on the edge of the seats through fear of the Vashta Narada - Moffat’s story is also alarming in a much more surreal, psychological sense.
This episode explains that the little girl who dreams of the library is what is left of Charlotte Abigail Lux, a forbearer of Steve Pemberton’s character, Strackman Lux. Charlotte was dying, and so Strackman’s grandfather built her the library and placed her living mind inside its colossal computer, with “…a moon to watch over her, and all of history to pass the time”. When the Vashta Narada came to the library and threatened the lives of the 4,022 patrons inside, Charlotte (or ‘CAL’) saved them… to her hard drive. Just as she “saved” Donna.
“Nobody says 'saved'. It literally meant ‘saved’... It saved them to the hard drive!”
Forest of the Dead opens with a disquieting sequence depicting Donna’s ‘life’ inside the machine; a bizarre sort of virtual reality. At first it reminded me of the bogus world that Neo originally inhabited in The Matrix movies, but in truth CAL’s word is even farther removed from reality than that. Time doesn’t progress as it should; Donna’s ‘life’ flits from scene to scene just as a television show does - there is no in between. And whether due to Moffat’s writing, Euros Lyn’s direction, or possibly the fusion of the two, on screen this device works so, so well. Watching the episode, at first the viewer has no real reason to suspect that the sharp cuts are of any significance, yet right from the first transition something feels a little
off. When Donna meets her stammering lover in one scene and then is married a few short scenes later, the viewer knows that something just isn’t right.
“And then you remembered…”
And, although he is ultimately revealed to be nothing more than a benign piece of anti-virus software, Colin Salmon’s Doctor Moon really imbues these sequences with a real sense of silent menace. His calm, hypnotic tones positively scream out villain; a wonderful piece of misdirection. And the black veiled Miss Evangelista works in much the same way. Whilst
her intentions are good, there’s no denying the apprehension that her presence brings with it, or the horror that comes with seeing her unmasked.
Most disturbing of all though is simply watching Donna’s world fall apart. From an external point of view Donna’s quiet little suburban life may not be real, but to her it is, and painfully so. As if out of the blue, Donna has all the things that she has always wanted – a husband who isn’t trying to poison her with Huon particles; a lovely home; two loving children - but
just as suddenly as they appeared, these things are snatched away. The haunted look on Catherine Tate’s face as Donna’s two fictional children disappear before her eyes is truly haunting; a terrific performance.
“You just killed someone I like, that is not a safe place to stand!
I am the Doctor and you are in the biggest library in the universe. Look me up.”
However, no matter how strong an outing Forest of the Dead is for Donna, she was always going to be upstaged by the Doctor here. This two-parter is perhaps the strongest story for the Time Lord since Last of the Time Lords last year. Here David Tennant’s tenth Doctor is at his zenith in the traditional sense in how he deals so dynamically and so efficiently with the Vashta Narada, but he is also absolutely off the page in terms of hearts and soul.
Through River Song, last week Moffat
raised countless questions about the
Doctor’s future (which is, interestingly,
in his hands) and I’m pleased to say
that Forest of the Dead answers none
of them! If forty-odd years’ worth of
stories have taught us anything, it’s
that the Doctor is at his best when he’s enigmatic. The most effective ‘revelations’ about him
are those that beg more questions - just look how much intrigue was borne of the Doctor’s
sole line “…and didn’t we have trouble with the prototype” in Remembrance of the Daleks,
or how much weight his throwaway line “I was there at the fall of Arcadia. Some day I might
even come to terms with that” in Doomsday had.
“There is only one reason I would ever tell anybody my name. There is only one time I could.”
Of course, we’ve learned a hell of a lot about the Doctor over the years – a little too much, perhaps – but certain things, such as his name, are still shrouded in secrecy; and rightly so. As Russell T Davies points out in this week’s episode of Doctor Who Confidential, as soon as we discover that the Doctor’s name is “Keith” (or whatever it may be) then the game is
up. No name could ever compensate for the loss of the mystery; it’d either be ludicrously exotic or comically bland. But to see a woman from the Doctor’s personal future intimately whisper his name into his ear; to see the colour drain from the Doctor’s face as he silently mouths “yeah, we’re good” to her; to see the shock on his gaunt face as he realises just
how important River must be to him for him to have told her his greatest secret… that is
how you build up mythology. That is how you help to perpetuate a legend. And at the end
of the day, that’s the job with which Moffat has now been charged.
And so even though we don’t know who River is to the Doctor – future companion? Lover? Wife…? - when she knocks him out and sacrifices herself in his place to save the day, the moment has the same sort of dramatic weight that the death of a companion would have,
if not more. Lyn shoots the last ten minutes of Forest of the Dead so very beautifully, and Murray Gold is every bit his equal with the score. I love how the director doesn’t show us River actually fry or even her corpse; we just see the Doctor staring at her. Better still is the shot of the spoiler-packed diary from the future, the camera slowly zooming in on it as River sings her final song.
“Everybody knows that everybody dies. And nobody knows it like the Doctor,
but I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if ever for one moment accepts it.”
And you really have to take your hat off to Moffat for the unforeseen ending. Just when you think you’ve got it sussed, Moffat pulls something right out of leftfield and before you know it we have a heartening ending the likes of which we haven’t seen since The Doctor Dances. River isn’t dead; nor are the lost members of her expedition. They each live on inside CAL. In fact, they live forever. It’s enough to make “everybody lives!” look like a mere ephemeral success.
But, as always, there is a sting in the tail. After seeing River’s reaction to Donna last week, the Doctor’s latest companion looks about as moribund as Rose did after Satan promised that she would die in battle. Is Donna doomed? Or does Russell T Davies have another ‘get out jail free card’ up his sleeve? Time will tell.
“Is ‘alright’ special Time Lord code for ‘not really alright’? ‘cos I’m ‘alright’ too.”
And so full as it is of twists and turns and horror and heart, Forest of the Dead is yet another triumph for Doctor Who; an electrifying episode that really whets the audience’s appetite for the series that Moffat will usher in come the spring of 2010.
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.
This story heavily suggests that River specifically recognises the tenth Doctor, suggesting that they must meet for the first time (from her point of view) at some point between this story and The End of Time.
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