Reviewing Who – Forest of the Dead

 

Doctor: David Tennant

Companion: Catherine Tate

Script writer: Steven Moffat

Producer: Phil Collinson

Executive producers: Russel T. Davies and Julie Gardner

Director: Euros Lyn

Originally aired: 7th June 2008

Trapped between the enclosing dark and a swarm in a suit, River shoots another hole through a bookcase (no, River, not the BOOKS!), gets her team through and drags the Doctor out of his shock. In a meta turn of events, the little girl is watching the chase from her sofa. When it gets too scary, she switches channels and a stately country house appears on the screen with an ambulance drawing up outside.

Donna is carried out on a stretcher. She comes to in a rather lovely bedroom that she’s never seen before in her life, and a strange man is walking expecting her to know who he is. “And then,” he tells her brightly, “you remembered.” Of course she remembers! He’s Doctor Moon. And this is her new home.

He suggests they go for a walk. In dazzlingly rapid succession, Donna meets an adorable fellow patient with a crippling stutter, goes fishing with him, and a blink of the eye later, is a married mum of two having tea with Doctor Moon on her own sofa. She couldn’t be happier, but something isn’t right, however much she wants to pretend it is. Doctor Moon stands up, flickers, and then it’s her Doctor standing there instead, looking astonished and thrilled to see her. Doctor Moon quickly reappears. He tells Donna to forget what she just saw, and obediently, she does.

In the Library, dusk is falling. The archaeology team, plus bonus Time Lord, have outrun the swarm for now and set about establishing a safe perimeter of lights. They are exhausted, and suspicious, and at last have a moment to ask the obvious question: who is this Doctor anyway? “I trust that man to the end of the universe,” River snaps, “and actually, we’ve been.”

She goes over to join the Doctor, who’s having increasing difficulty with his sonic. Something is interfering with it. Her help consists of suggesting he use functions it doesn’t even have yet and they end up bickering, angry and bewildered with each other, until River finally realises he’s not going to trust her and she has to give him proof, even if it hurts him to hear it. She whispers one word in his ear that leaves him looking shellshocked. But he believes her now.

After a minute or two, he pulls himself together with a visible effort. “Know what’s interesting about my screwdriver, it’s very hard to interfere with. Practically nothing strong enough. Well – some hairdryers, but I’m working on that. So, there is a very strong signal coming from somewhere and it wasn’t there before. What’s new, what’s changed?” He kind of shouts that last bit, prowling around the room. Looking up, he sees the moon rising, and turns on Lux, who impatiently explains it is a doctor moon – a virus checker that supports and maintains the computer core. Someone in the Library is alive and communicating with the moon. Or, conceivably, alive and drying their hair.

As the Doctor fiddles with his sonic, an image of Donna flickers into existence in front of him, but he has no time to say more than her name before she’s gone again. He’s trying to figure out how get her back when his attention is called to another member of River’s team. Her name is Anita, and she has two shadows.

This time the Doctor tries tinting her visor black, hoping this may fool the Vashta Nerada into thinking she’s one of them. It may be too late for that. There were six people in the room when they arrived, and now there’s seven. The swarm in a suit has caught them up.

The scared little girl on the sofa switches channels again to a happier scene. Donna and her family are getting ready for bed when the thunk of the letterbox announces the unexpected arrival of a note. It is addressed to Donna, and reads “The world is wrong.” She dismisses it as random crazy at the time, but next thing she knows she’s at the play park where the sender told her to meet. A woman veiled in black waits on a bench. Donna goes to her, spiky and suspicious, pretending she isn’t afraid, even as the veiled woman sets about deconstructing her world. She did not receive the note the night before; she received it seconds ago, and having decided to come, she found herself arriving. “That is how time progresses here,” the woman explains, “in the manner of a dream.” The voice is familiar and Donna places it to a face that has no place in her world: the face of Miss Evangelista.

This world, she continues, is a pretense. The two of them are only energy signatures in the data core of the Library. It’s here in the play park that it’s easiest to see the lie: all the children running around are really the same two children repeated over and over again. Donna never married. She never had children. Furious and afraid, seizing at any possibility of a mistake, Donna pulls away Miss Evangelista’s veil and is horrified at the impossibly disorted face underneath. She was only a neural ghost caught in the Library’s network, incorrectly stored. She is proof that Donna can’t deny.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and what’s left of the archaeological team are racing down a closed walkway high above the silent city. The Doctor stops to try once again to reason with their pursuer, another of River’s team staying with him to drag him away if need be. When the swarm catches up, crying out its endless refrain of “Hey, who turned out the lights?” the Doctor holds his ground.

“That’s a man’s soul,” he tells it fiercely, “trapped inside a neural relay, going around and around forever. Now, if you don’t have the decency to let him go, how about this: use him. Talk to me.” He wants to know why they are here, so far from their native forests. A roar like the wind through trees is followed by a hesitant, hollow whisper. They come from here, the swarm tells him – these are their forests. They come from the books.

“We should leave,” the other archaeologist calls out. “Doctor!” It is the third time he has said the exact same words. The Doctor spins around, and realises he’s trapped between two dead men. As they close in on him, he sonics open the floor and falls, snatching at the struts beneath the walkway and heaves himself along with the screwdriver clamped in his teeth. The little girl on the sofa is very impressed.

River, less so. Waiting with the others for him to catch up, she tries to explain to Anita how she can miss someone who’s there. “He came when I called, just as he always does. But not my Doctor. Now, my Doctor – “ She smiles wickedly. “I’ve seen whole armies turn and run away, and he’d just swagger off back to his TARDIS, and open the doors with a snap of his fingers. The Doctor, in the TARDIS. Next stop everywhere – “

“Spoilers.” The Doctor has returned, giving River a wary look. And just for the record, nobody can open a TARDIS with a snap of their fingers. “The Doctor can,” River retorts, and if she wanted him to like her that was not the way to go about it.

She isn’t his priority just now, anyway – that’s Anita, still pursued by an infected second shadow, trying not to fall apart under the weight of imminent death. When the Doctor asks her, a little helplessly, if there’s anything he can do, she asks what word it was River whispered in his ear, the word that made him believe her. “Give a dead girl a break,” she jokes weakly. “Your secrets are safe with me.” The Doctor looks at her, but he’s not listening any more. He suddenly realises what the Library was trying to tell the outside world all along – those people weren’t safe, they were saved, into the computer core, the only place safe from the shadows.

For him, realising this is wonderful news. For Donna, it’s the destruction of her world. She returns home with her children, trying to ignore the apocalyptic red light seeping through the curtains, trying to pretend she can hold it all together. But she can’t. The little girl has gone into a wild panic, switching off the image of her father, switching off the moderating presence of Doctor Moon, curled up sobbing on the floor with her hands over her ears.

Donna’s children disappear before her eyes. Her husband is ripped from her arms. The world dissolves into white light.

Taking a gravity platform down to the data core, the Doctor, River, Anita and Lux hear a little girl’s voice calling out for help and see a node wearing the face of a child. Lux knew she was here all along; she’s the reason the Library was built in the first place. Her name is Charlotte Abigail Lux and she was his grandfather’s youngest daughter, who died young and has been kept in this dreaming half-life ever since. But now there are more than four thousand people inside her mind. She’s confused and scared and lashing out, sending the computer on a countdown to self-destruct. The only way to stop the destruction is by rematerialising the people in her head, and the only way to do that is by procuring more memory space. The Doctor intends to use his brain to make up the shortfall. There is one tiny flaw with this plan – it will kill him. River is furious, but she takes Lux back up into the Library to help prep the systems, which leaves the Doctor alone with Anita.

Or rather, the suit that once held Anita. All that’s left in the suit is bones and shadows. The swarm has grasped the knack of talking now, but it would so much rather hunt, consume, reclaim its forest. Shadows stretch towards the Doctor like hungry hands.

“Don’t play games with me,” he says coldly. “You just killed someone I like, that is not a safe place to stand. I’m the Doctor and you’re in the biggest library in the universe. Look me up.

Slowly, the shadows retreat. They know the power of a story as old as the Doctor. He is granted one day’s reprieve, and River returns in time to see her friend’s empty suit collapse on the floor. She has no time to grieve; someone else is about to die, and she’s made the executive decision that it will not be the Doctor. She brings him down with one hell of a right hook and when he wakes up, he’s handcuffed to a wall while she links herself up to the system. She is very calm; when the Doctor pleads with her to let him take her place, she comforts him. “It’s okay. It’s not over for you, you’ll see me again. You’ve got all that to come. You and me, time and space. You watch us run.”

He has one last question he needs answered. The word she whispered in his ear was his name; his real name. How could she possibly know that? But she only smiles. “Spoilers.” And then she’s gone.

The teleports kick in across the Library, depositing 4023 people back into the real world. Which, all things considered, may not be where they want to be. It’s been a hundred years, after all. Donna searches in vain for the man she met and married there. It’s only as she turns away that he steps from the crowd onto the teleport and catches sight of her. He tries to call her back, but disappears before he can get the word out. Mean, Moffat, that is just MEAN.

So the Doctor is shattered. Donna is shattered. They stand side by side looking down at River’s blue book, brimming over with the Doctor’s secrets. Should they peek?

“Spoilers,” Donna sighs, and the Doctor puts the book down with all the other biographies, River’s screwdriver on top of it. They walk slowly away. Then he’s racing back down like his life depends on it, because someone’s does. His future self, the one River knew, had all those years to think about how to save her and what did he do? He gave her his screwdriver.

And there is a computer around here that’s pretty good at saving people.

River wakes up outside the stately house with Charlotte Abigail Lux and Doctor Moon waiting for her, and her team running across the lawns to join her. Outside the TARDIS, the Doctor pauses, and snaps his fingers.

The TARDIS doors swing open.

“When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it will never end. But however hard you try, you can’t run forever. 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 he ever, for one moment, accepts it.

Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day. Not today.

Every now and then, every one in a very long while, every day in a million days when the wind stands fair, and the Doctor comes to call, everybody lives.”

The Verdict: LIBRARY. You had me at LIBRARY. Also, shadows as monsters beat green lions hollow, and I bet you there were fans all over the world who slept with the light on the night after this screened.

David Tennant’s Doctor has a manic energy to rival Tom Baker’s. He dashes about all over the screen like time and space might end any second, which to be fair is usually the case in his life. As far as I’m concerned, he was at his best with Donna – all his other friends ended up trying to change him, make him more human, more manageable, but Donna never did. She didn’t try to build him up as a god or tear him down as a monster, though she saw both of those sides in her very first adventure with him. She was his voice of common sense and occasionally conscience, and what happened to her at the end of the season was criminal. No wonder River looked at her like that. Death would have been a more honest ending.

Talking of which, oh, River! My heart breaks for her every time I watch this story and see what is probably the worst day of her life unfold to its inevitable end. Even then, as the foundations of her world crack and crumble, she is an unstoppable force, living and dying on her own terms. No wonder the Doctor couldn’t bear to let her go. But everybody knows that everybody dies…

Join me next month for a grand finale as I wrap up a year of reviews with the episode that introduced us to the brilliant, the bemused, the football-playing, custard-eating, endearingly absurd Doctor No.11.

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