Once upon a time there was an episode of Doctor Who written by a prolific and praised author of children’s books. This episode took its title from a famous poem by William Blake and was the Tyger the solar flare and the Lamb the ignorance of humanity in attempting to defoliate the trees? Or was the Tyger the actual tiger we saw briefly? Or perhaps it was Clara’s selfishly exploratory nature and how it decided that children are boring and watching a solar flare from a TARDIS is better (because it is)?
Hush, child, the episode said. You are thinking about this too hard. This is a fairy tale, laid over you as a blanket and woven of the dreams that come to you in between the borders of fantasy and reality. You may idolize this Doctor for attempting the same ferocity of thought as you, but even his immortal hand or eye cannot frame this fearful symmetry.
My absolute favorite moment of “In The Forest of the Night” is when the episode’s story brushes most closely with poem of its namesake. When he’s not yelling tediously at children, the Doctor spends his time trying to outthink the puzzle into which he has been dropped. And although he eventually succeeds by the end, the episode’s strongest scenes are the ones where he accepts the possibility of defeat. The trees can’t be stopped or deduced or measured. The day can’t be saved. The Doctor’s method of thought itself has been thwarted and it is a defeat more potent than any regeneration-causing radiation or companion-slurping Void or Dalek rebirth.
Watching the Doctor scrambling to pull some kind of victory out of that just makes it all the more sad, because there’s no good choice here. What’s the point of saving the kids if it makes them orphans? What’s the point of saving just Danny and Clara when Danny would rather die than abandon these children? What’s the point of saving just Clara when, and this was a particularly damning sentiment, she “doesn’t want to be the last of [her] kind”? There’s nothing for you to do here, Doctor. Not anymore. Our time together is at an end. Go and find some other planet to invest your lives in.
In Blake’s poem, the forest of the night stands in for the chaos of the universe and the Tyger is part of the dual nature of the creator of that universe alongside the Lamb. The former is cruel and destructive and capricious while the latter is nurturing and creative and gentle. And while you could ascribe that relationship to the trees and the sun in the episode itself, that relationship also doubles as a meta-commentary on the modes of thought that “In the Forest of the Night” represents for Doctor Who as a show.
Because the narrative within this episode is unabashedly a fairy tale and as such it defies the logical and deductive deconstruction that this particular Doctor is best at. The Eleventh Doctor would undoubtedly feel right at home in this Trafalgar Squarian forest, but the Twelfth Doctor refuses to submit to that kind of story. Stories just don’t appear and neither do forests. Everything has a reason, every cause has an effect. (After all, if he thinks there should be a being that’s perfect at hiding then there probably is, right?)
His immortal hand or eye cannot frame this fearful symmetry, this event where the rules of fairy tales AND science fiction hold sway. And so the Doctor is defeated and the forest of the night continues to stand. The necessary duality of creation and destruction will continue.
Which makes it possible for us, for the Doctor, and for the characters on the show, to learn that submitting to this duality as truth was what was needed all along. You can’t stop the furnace that forged the Tyger’s mind, can’t stop the Lamb’s tender voice. This is a process that must continue, for with every waxing of their conflict comes a wane that allows humanity to continue towards its destiny. Sometimes, Doctor, you just have to get out of the way.
Danny would agree with that sentiment. He sees the Doctor as nothing but disruptive and maybe he knows something we don’t because he seems very willing to wait and see how this relationship between Clara and the Doctor plays out. This guy is banking on an ending. Either his lady love will finally get tired of her alien pal or Clara will invest herself more than ever in the Doctor’s life and break it off with Danny (whether she means to or not). He’s exceedingly patient, and the discussion that he and Clara have about going to see the solar flare is probably the second best scene in the episode. There are wonders here, he says. They’re hard to understand, but every person holds them, and they are more vast and varied than anything the universe can show you.
We can talk all we like about how the relationship between the Doctor and Clara is getting more and more fractious (and judging by the preview to next week’s episode, we absolutely will) but as we’ve seen, that doesn’t guarantee Clara’s presence in Danny’s life. Clara needs more than to be dissuaded from something, she needs a goal for which she can strive. This episode finally gives her a reason to come towards a life with Danny as opposed to just avoiding a life with the Doctor. Danny can promise her wonders, too, Clara now realizes. And that’s all any of us really wants, isn’t it?
It’s telling that the two best scenes in the episode speak to conflicts and character development that have been happening in other episodes. Overall, the main story of “In the Forest of the Night”—the trees are everywhere, that one kid won’t stop waving her arms around, the trees are here to protect us from extinction—was a bit of a snoozer.
I actually quite liked the concept of trees having just as much of a stake in the survival of the planet as humanity does, and I didn’t mind the straight up ignoring of science required to make that concept live. While I am a stickler for accurate science on screen—or rather, I’m a stickler for made-up science adhering to its own rules within a show or book series—I’m always happy to forego that sticky sticky stickling for Doctor Who. It’s inherent in the very nature of our relationship with the show as viewers. If you’re going to enjoy the program, then you’re going to have to accept that it will sacrifice factual consistency in favor of a huge, wonderful, imaginative concept. It’s an ultimatum on the part of the show, really. Take it or leave it. Want to see a space dragon poop a moon? Or a planetary tree shield? Or Meredith Viera interviewing Charles Dickens? Have I got a show for you.
The most memorable episodes of the show are when it manages to view this kind of high concept popcorn spectacle through the concerns of characters that we have a real stake in. This, I think, is why “In the Forest of the Night” comes off as a wash. The way the events of this episode affect the Doctor, Clara, and Danny provides some interesting conflict, but their characters are kind of peripheral this time out. Instead, we are asked to identify with poor, isolated Maebh, the red riding hooded child that the adults pity and who hears voices and…something about her sister? Maebh gets the general Special Child treatment and while the Doctor rejects that classification and treats her concerns seriously, the script separates them before we can actually learn who Maebh is beyond the tropes she embodies.
Subsequently, we don’t really get invested in her struggle against the invisible pixies (or whatever they are) and that shifts our focus to the mystery of what the trees are doing there and why. That mystery doesn’t hold up to that kind of scrutiny, though, not only because it’s a mystery that the viewer figures out before the Doctor, but because the episode is essentially about abandoning that entire deductive mode of thought. There is no reward for the Doctor for deducing the reason behind the trees, and there isn’t any for the viewers, either. “In the Forest of the Night” ends up shrugging its viewers off into a space in between the fairy tale and the science fiction story. And it’s hard to get interested in things here in the shrug-space.
- Missy Lady Theory Time: I got nothin’. Missy made Clara, I guess? And she’s connected to the Cybermen in some way? My whole theory about Missy considering the Doctor the personification of Death maybe still fits, but only maybe. She’s very sarcastic about her disappointment at Earth surviving the solar flare, so maybe she wanted Clara to push the Doctor into action? An action that would ruin the perfectly serviceable plan that the trees had and end up roasting the Earth? Maybe to Missy’s perspective Death ended up taking a Holiday? A lot of maybes in there.
- That’s a PC monitor that Missy’s watching through! Weird. You’d think Apple would have insisted on exclusivity in their supplier contract with the afterlife.
- This episode missed a perfect perfect opportunity to make a Torchwood joke.
- Speaking of, I was joking to Emily earlier that when the police officer in “Flatline” looked at Clara’s psychic paper it would have been cool to have her see Torchwood instead of MI5, and to have Clara be confused about who that was but accepting of the authority it gave her. I like the idea that Torchwood is still around, even if we don’t know what they’re doing or who is even in it.
- To: British government. Re: Announcing that some organization called COBRA is going to go around setting things on fire. Message: WTF.
- The Doctor straight out acknowledging that Earth is his home is a sentiment that I’ve been waiting years for him to say. I love love loved that bit.
- Okay, so we forgot about the last time the trees appeared en masse but now we have a global communications network and more recorded history than we could ever possibly read so what about this time, Doctor? What about this time? (Actually probably we’d forget this time, too, since our news cycle is so relentless. I mean, remember the Y2K “bug”?)