Monday, 27 October 2014

Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night (Episode Review)

Abandon all hope ye who choose to watch this episode.

After the trailers at the end of last week's episode displayed a lot of what hasn't worked in this past series, people were apprehensive. They had every right to be. The acting is wooden, the storytelling ludicrous, the twists insane, and the "threat" seems half existent at the best of times. This is to say nothing of how the story meanders from one element to the next with no clear direction in an effort to be clever, and solutions come out of left field with no actual explanation.

Returning to the Earth, the Doctor arrives in the middle of London only to find that someone has completely reforested the place. Despite his initial skepticism, he soon tries to find out what is wrong when a young girl by the name of Maebh hammers on his door claiming to be sent by Clara. Clara and Danny meanwhile need to keep not only one small class of students safe in this time but discover just what has caused this sudden upheaval.

If anyone saw The Caretaker they will know that Who's last attempts to have anything revolving around the school were dire at best. Wheeling out soap opera tropes with a mere veneer of science fiction, the episode seemed to abandon a good ninety percent of why viewers tune in to watch this series each week. Sadly this failing is repeated again here. 

The story's main angle is trying to evoke interest through a variety of characters and the relationship between the Doctor, Clara and Danny, but it's obvious that the series has no idea what to do with it. Any conflict here is subdued to the point of insanity, even after Clara is revealed to have lied to Danny about her still being in contact with the Doctor, and the entire core concept seems to be spinning its wheels. The few conversations the two have ultimately add little to their relationship nor their characters, and the one development made is spontaneous at best. The way it is treated seems to be less of a drive and more of an effort to pad out the running time, and this isn't the only occasion where this happens.

While thankfully not bringing back Courtney again, the story once again tries to make a significant part of the cast children for some bizarre reason. Just as before, it's woefully apparent just why this is such a bad idea. While the school children have time devoted to them in order to flesh each one out in turn, none of them contribute anything of real worth. At best each proves to be annoying in an entirely separate way, adding unfunny running gags (notably about diagnosed symptoms, something we'll get into later), and a fresh wave of insufferably with each line. At best they show Clara and Danny to be incompetent at their jobs, and at worst they prove to be a pointless addition which robbed the episode of time. Time it could have used to actually flesh things out, make sense, or give the story some real bite.

Ignoring the Seeds of Death for a moment, a forest spontaneously being created isn't that terrible a threat in terms of physicality. As a result, almost the entire tale goes without a single true threat ever emerging. It becomes so bad at one point that the script honestly needs to churn out a random wolf/tiger attack in order to try and gain some semblance of tension for a fleeting minute. Even that seems tacked on, and the entire story seems to avoid anything which might actually cause some degree of interest. Maebh goes missing? The episode keeps up with her to show the audience she's fine. The forest could be threatened? It's not. The forest could be a threat? Beyond a few throwaway lines it's never truly addressed. As a result, the entire story comes across as dead air, with little in terms of real interest or much offering the audience in terms of investment.

This lack of a definitive threat may have worked if the story had gone the additional mile to place emphasis upon just how strange London is with the trees. It might have even worked if it had simply gone for a bait and switch (and the story tries to abruptly swerve into at the last second) but no effort is ever made to really suggest any possible menace. As a result, audiences are left following some very dull characters walking about a forest with little to do, and the story as a whole is toothless with no conflict of note.

Things are only made worse by the gaping plot holes left in the wake of each revelation, which even if you switch your brain off are so blatant they cannot be ignored. Maebh's arrival in front of the TARDIS for example required her to break out of a heavily guarded museum without setting off any alarms. The Doctor claims that the Ice Age emerged effectively overnight, with some truly stunning logical leaps, even claiming he cannot stop natural disasters at one point. This is to say nothing of the treatment of science (no, not technobabble, science) as magic, with half the explanations leading to sudden solutions that even a middle-school child would know are insane. Well, that and the "lifeboat" scene.

The big defence here people will likely bring up is how the story was pitched and presented as a fairy tale and such failings should be ignored. Fair enough, but that isn't entirely true. The story instead incorporates elements and cues of fairy tales into itself from Red Riding Hood to the very title itself, but does not take that extra step to truly present itself as such. We've seen this done far better in the past, especially during Matt Smith's era, and once you strip away the references, the story isn't left with anything of real substance.

Now, this would make an episode bad, but then there's the aesop it not-so-subtly then tries to hammer in about mental health. While I might have been blind enough to overlook the rather questionable one found in Kill The Moon, this one was obvious enough even for me to see it.

Apparently a telepath for unknown reasons, Maebh is constantly hearing the voices of the aliens which created the trees. Being medicated for undisclosed issues, hearing voices and severe trauma, she's not exactly in the best state. The Doctor then berates anyone who encouraged her to have medication, scorning the very idea of such a treatment. This could have been put down to the wrong treatment for a problem, but one running gag is having an irritating child using various mental problems to excuse him acting like a raging jackass. Believe it or not the end message of the story effectively comes down to trying not to solve problems and trusting things will resolve themselves.

No, that's really in there.

This episode overall is extremely badly put together, with a bugled script and some truly terrible directing at times. While some scenes work, there are many points which are bungled by extremely choppy editing and bizarre shots which seem to be unconventional purely for the sake of being unconventional. Sudden wide angle lens shots, shakeycam effects, mad swinging about the scenes, when it's not textbook it's almost as if the director abandoned all she knew worked. Sheree Folkson has done solid work in the past, just look up her IMDB page, but this was just dreadful.

Look, skip this one. It's painful beyond words and for every problem I covered here, another four went unmentioned. I really have no idea just how this series can so continually leap from outstanding television to truly terrible science fiction from week to week like this. We can only hope this won't become a staple of this era.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I saw this episode before this review, and even worse was I missed Flatline for a while and decided to watch them back-to-back, which was a big mistake. This episode was a complete waste of time on everyone's part, INCLUDING THE HEROES. Nobody did anything worthwhile at all, and in fact if the Doctor wasn't there, then Maebh wouldn't have run off and would be in no danger anyway (and the danger she was in was completely artificial anyway).

    The worst is how it ends, and this is one I really don't mind spoiling since it's so incredibly stupid, but all of the trees just up and leaving (leaving no trace or damage) was one of the dumbest things I've seen in a sci-fi show (second only to the conclusion in Kill the Moon).

    I honestly thought the trailers for this looked kind of good, because I saw Maebh, the wolf, and thought it was Doctor Who's take on Red Riding Hood and maybe some other fairy tale stories (and why not since they already did Robin Hood and a Christmas Carol in the new series), but they screwed up the idea of a magical forest badly, because there's just no threat in it, and the problem resolves itself anyway so why should I care?