Monday, 27 October 2014

DOCTOR WHO: IN THE FOREST OF THE NIGHT review, 25 October 2014


'The trees are not your enemy. They're a shield.' Not brilliant but not bad, Frank Cottrell-Boyce's debut script is full of charm and wonder.

The trouble with lichen. (Image: BBC)
It shows how far Doctor Who has come from the thumpingly literal titles of ‘Cold War’ and ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’ when an episode can take its handle from William Blake’s poem ‘Tyger, Tyger’ (written in 1794 and quoted by John Kane’s Tommy in 1974’s ‘Planet of the Spiders’, fact fans).

Getting in a celebrity wrier has been a bit hit-and-miss on Doctor Who. Mr Olympics Frank Cottrell-Boyce has always been one of my favourite film writers: 24 Hour Party People (2002), about the kamikaze career of Manchester’s Factory Records, is one of the funniest and most moving films I’ve ever seen, so I had high hopes. Elsewhere, we’ve had fantasy writer Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) scribe Richard Curtis’s ‘Vincent and the Doctor’, both of which I liked. Stephen Fry’s contribution to the series, meanwhile, never made it out of his laptop.

A high profile author new to the world of the Time Lord always delivers something out of left field, and Cottrell-Boyce is no exception. Under the wonderfully surreal imagery and well-acted dysfunctional children, his story is a Gaia parable. The idea of the Earth being a gestalt organism which will protect itself, as the trees shield humanity here, is something very new, and welcome, to Doctor Who, and thankfully free of the arboreal schmaltz of ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. A benign intelligence, existing side by side with the human race since the dawn of time and silently watching over it, has bags of potential above and beyond this initial forty-five minutes. It’s a scenario I’d love to see developed.

Great idea, well-acted, stunning visuals, competently directed by newcomer Sheree Folkson, so it’s a bit of a shame there’s hardly any jeopardy or sense of crisis in ‘In the Forest of the Night’.  Apart from a run-in with CGI wolves and a tiger (I assume – they’re very well realised if they are), it’s a stroll to a climax that Mr Pink and Miss Oswald’s class treat like a trip to the local multiplex. The return of Annabel Arden (Eloise Barnes) to her family was slightly ‘Fear Her’-sentimental, but it made sense as the trees were granting the wish of Maebh (the quietly impressive Abigail Eames) for her sister to come home, following Maebh’s help with contacting the Doctor. This is a bit odd, because the Doctor doesn’t really do anything, the other major weakness in the plot.

These caveats aside, ‘In the Forest of the Night’ has a fairy tale sense of wonder in keeping with the children’s stories like ‘Hansel and Gretle’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ that are deep in its chlorophyll DNA, and Angela Carter’s adult fable ‘The Company of Wolves’ (1984) is another oblique influence. In fact, of all the stories this year, this story is the one to watch with your children and, I suspect, will reward after repeated viewings. The kids are authentic – loved the line ‘What’s a navigator?’ – and it was great fun seeing the Doctor coping with a school trip invading his TARDIS.

Of course, there’s a conservative, venal and, frankly, ignorant minority online who will hate ‘In the Forest of the Night’ and probably not even know who Franck Cottrell-Boyce is. I have some advice: if this isn’t what you like, scurry back to the nostalgia of your Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker DVDs. I’m sure you'll be very happy there.

As usual, the regulars are a joy to watch. Danny Pink is fast becoming The Most Reasonable Man on the Planet (no wonder Clara’s in love with him), while Clara herself is the teacher we all wish we’d had at school – smart, funny, patient and encouraging. After nearly a year of stories, Peter Capaldi has found his rhythm as the Doctor: spiky, but humane and witty with it.

And so, to the series finale. Can’t wait!

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