...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Day 2715: DOCTOR WHO: Forest of the Dead


I know a SECRET! Oh yes! Daddy Alex and I have been to a SPECIAL screening of NEXT WEEK'S Doctor Who! We even met the man who is now in charge of BBC Wales and so is Grand Moff Steven's new BOSS! I'm well in there! Doctor Eleven-phant, I am telling you!

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Anyway, what happens next week is… mumph!

[R: Spoilers]

If Steve Moffat's intention is to make us nostalgic for the future, he has succeeded magnificently.

While being in one sense entirely predictable, this proved we were surprisingly wrong about all the details.

There was a terribly good reason why this was set in a library. A library represents a dead forest, the trees cut down and pulped, the flesh – as it were – stripped from the white marble bones of the Vashta Nerada's forest world and consumed. So the "forest of the dead" isn't the 4,022 saved humans; it is the books.

And think about how that ties into the one important book as well: River's diary, simultaneously full of dead moments for her and dangerous spoilers for him. (Alex was momentarily concerned that the Doctor was just leaving the diary in the Library, before realising that no one was ever going there again.)

There was a good reason why Miss Evangelista was written as quite too stupid to be true. I'm sure that it was not Steve's intention to suggest that you could only have one or the other; merely that if you have both looks and brains (or neither) then swapping them over won't make an observable difference.

Because trading your good looks for good brains (or more usually vice versa) is a Fairy Tale equation, and this "simple" horror story has become one of the Grimms' fables; the world inside the Library computer is far more "far far away" than any kind of cyberpunk.

In fact, the computer world inside is most reminiscent of Steve Lyons' excellent New Adventure "Conundrum". That takes place in – spoilers – the Land of Fiction, not unlike a Library itself, where retired superheroes, local witches, hard-boiled detectives and non-copyright equivalents of Enid Blyton kids rattle around a "typical" English village. As with "Forest of the Dead" this toys with the reality of time in fiction, playing with the "Meanwhile…" just as "Forest…" juggles the television language of the jump-cut. And "Conundrum" finishes with a break of the fourth wall as well, the Doctor addressing anyone who is still watching his adventures, just as River looks the audience in the eye to wish them "goodnight, everyone".

That said, they are very different stories, with Donna's poignant "real life" being totally original, and leaving her doubly bereft having lost it and believing it was never real.

I think it's interesting that Mr Moffat thinks we are supposed to find Doctor Moon initially sinister but ultimately a benevolent figure. To me, he is anything but benevolent. He represents the ultimate "nanny state": continuously intervening to edit the lives of those in his care ostensibly in order to prevent them from feeling pain. The important detail is that he gives his patients no choice in the matter – the moment that Donna sees and recalls the Doctor, he takes the memory away from her.

Miss Evangelista stalks this datascape dressed all in black and veiled like a mourner at her own funeral – and an evangelist is a bearer of good news, ironically. In spite of her increased intellect, she remains an outcast and it is this which allows her to see the truth, like a black-robed prophetess. (Contrarily, she and all the astronauts will be dressed in "Randall and Hopkirck (Deceased)" white at the end, like the ghosts in either version of the series, but making the Library the Limbo of the Vic and Bob remake)

And there was a very good reason for the computer to be able to upload and "save" all of the people in the Library: that is precisely what it was designed to do in the first place, if not on quite such a scale.

Revealing the link between Steve Pemberton's character and the little girl, not merely the computer but Charlotte Abigail Lux the child daughter of his grandfather, overturns our understanding of his character too.

And of course Lux, light, saved all the people from the shadows.

Did Steven know by this point that he would be taking the reins? Because this has all the hallmarks of a man setting up his own story arcs in advance. (Or possibly a great big ego saying "wait till the next guy… oh, that's me!") He did speak of himself as having a stake in the future of Doctor Who, but was that only as a writer who has written for every series so far this millennium, or did he know?

River speaks of her future-version of the Doctor, facing down armies and opening the TARDIS doors with a click of his fingers… and yet by the end of this episode, the Doctor has faced down the armies of Vashta Nerada and does open the TARDIS doors with a click. In a way, she has made him; as much as he made her into the person that she was by the end, so she has set him on the path to being the man she will know.

David Tennant says that this is the first time that the Doctor has become seriously involved with someone from his own future. (**cough** Valeyard **cough**) But from how far into his future is she? As she recognises the Tenth Doctor, he must surely meet her again, though it's far from clear whether she knows him in more than one aspect. That remark: "judging from your face it's early days for you", from last week, could be taken in so many ways when regeneration is involved.

Will we see River Song again?

The logistics of making a television series says probably not. How can they have already laid down contracts for Alex Kingston – who let's face it lives in California – to spend time as a recurring character in the 2010? 2011? series?

And what writer is going want to write the "great love of the Doctor's life" story, and set himself against the Doctor/Rose relationship. Who's going to set himself up for that fall?

And yet, surprisingly, the aesthetic answer says surely we must. Even if it is just the reciprocal adventure where she meets him for the first time (and ends with an ellipsis as they travel off in their together and separately ways), we are surely left feeling that this is a promise that has been made to us, and to the Doctor.

And what of the sudden decision to rename this episode "Forest of the Dead"? Nothing to it, or did Steve decide he had a better use for the title: "River's Run"?

Another thought. After forty-five years (Granddaughter excepted) this year has seen the production team give the Doctor a daughter and a wife. It's possible that Moffat's hint that Jenny should survive "The Doctor's Daughter" was so as not to have both of them definitively dead at the end (yes, River is dead, for all her preservation in silicon after-life). Or it could be all with an eye to a series five future.

The question of what happened to the Matrix when Gallifrey was destroyed in the Time War is an obscure one but interesting to the long-time fan. If you want to try and tie together the Eighth Doctor stories with new and old series (and you'd be forgiven for very much not wanting to do that) then Lance Parkin's "The Gallifrey Chronicles" gives us one possible solution. Just before Gallifrey took the big one, the entirety of the Matrix was hidden way inside the Doctor's own head, giving him his final (of several for that Doctor) and crushingly persistent case of amnesia. That proved quite irritating for most of the range. It would certainly be a relief to him to find somewhere else to put all that. And who's to say it couldn't also prove the foundation stone for a new Time Lord academy one day, far from now.

The Matrix on Gallifrey was the repository of all knowledge, the final resting place for the minds of dead Time Lords. For the Doctor, it is the very idea of Heaven. And he re-creates it, all human knowledge and a place for dead minds, for River Song.

Next time… a great big SPACE CAR! And a Donna-lite episode (as Catherine Tate was filming "Turn Left" at the same time) as the Doctor takes a little journey across the planet "Midnight".


Andy said...

Did Steven know by this point that he would be taking the reins? ... He did speak of himself as having a stake in the future of Doctor Who, but was that only as a writer who has written for every series so far this millennium, or did he know?

This week's BBC podcast commentary (Moffatt, Tennant and RTD) suggests that the news has been kept under wraps for some time by BBC Wales, albeit as a badly kept secret within certain circles. So it's probably safe to imagine he had a pretty good idea.

Knife and Spoon said...

When you mentioned the Matrix, I thought you were going to refer to the Doctor's line of "She had thousands of different minds inside her head - she must have felt like - well, like me...", which sounded very like the way he's left at the end of TGC (as far as I recall). Probably it wasn't intended as such a reference - I remember reading ages ago that Moffatt didn't read the books... (Actually, I'd be curious as to whether Davies has read beyond The Dying Days.)

Interestingly, much as Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all in the online contingent felt they had this story sussed from the first half hour, the not-we I spoke to were uniformly baffled, though entertained (and I, myself, let some parts wash over me at the time of broadcast). I still think that neither Vashta Narada nor Dr Moon presented quite enough of an opposing force in the story - and Donna's bit of story, though nightmarish and moving, left her rather tidied away and passive for quite a while.

And I'm very wary of that clicking the fingers business. I was hoping that when he tried it the second time there'd be a long pause till Donna said: "Erm, what are you actually doing? What was all that clicking business outside? I thought you weren't coming, till I opened the doors..."

David said...

Your comment about River saying Good night to everyone as she turned off the lights at the end reminded me of the last thing we see in the last episode of Life on Mars...
(Keeping this as spoiler-free as possible for those who've not seen LoM)
It also reminded me of the end of Babylon Five, where JMS turned off the lights.
In short, if you're going to pay homage, pay homage to the best!

Nimbos said...

I've been wondering just how heavenly being in that computer would be, myself. After all isn't it just the index rather than the complete repository of knowledge and fiction? I don't fancy being stuck in a world tempting me with all of that but leaving it it inaccessible.

Stuart Douglas said...

k&s "And I'm very wary of that clicking the fingers business. I was hoping that when he tried it the second time there'd be a long pause till Donna said: "Erm, what are you actually doing? What was all that clicking business outside? I thought you weren't coming, till I opened the doors...""

LOL :) Sorry, nothing else to say but that just made me snort very loudly, causing everyone in the office to turn round and look at me...