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Doctor Who 4[XXX].9: Forest of the Dead

June 8th, 2008 (08:43 am)

It was going to be called River's Run, you know. Just as well it wasn't, really. Forest of the Dead was a better title, playing both on the pulping of the forests where the Vashta Nerada had once dwelt and on the population of ghosts in the data core at the heart of the planet.

This episode was found by me much more disturbing than Silence in the Library, largely because of the way Donna's thirtysomething anxieties were played upon in such a way that made them accessible and comprehensible to a wider audience. Steven Moffat was particularly deft in having Joshua and Ella aware that they ceased to be when Donna wasn't looking at them, dramatizing a child's awareness of their dependence on their parent(s) - which must be an element in any fear of the dark - as well as Donna's longing for conventional security, an element of her character prominent in The Runaway Bride but suppressed this series in favour of an infatuation with the Doctor's lifestyle. (It was refreshing that there wasn't a "We're not married" moment this episode.) Donna's experiences in cyberspace, in which she became a character in a soap opera whose life is told in jump cuts, was a cheery acknowledgement of how programme-makers think viewers watch television, but nonetheless unsettling at the same time.

Steven Moffat again displayed his tendency to draw from The Talons of Weng-Chiang. The unveiling of the digitally degraded Miss Evangelista was a genuinely disturbing moment, partly because I'd seen photographs of Tallulah Riley on location, before The Mill had done their work. There were similarities between the deformities applied to Miss Evangelista's face and those on Magnus Greel's at the end of part five of Talons, back in the high prosthetics age. The reveal of Miss Evangelista rivalled the unmasking of the alien astronaut in The Ambassadors of Death as the most disturbing sight I've first seen as an adult in Doctor Who.

What, then, of River Song? Her effect on the Doctor was welcome; anything that allows David Tennant to show that his interpretation of the Doctor is more complex than the smug and somewhat narrow person seen at its worst in series two (for example, in Tooth and Claw) is welcome. Alex Kingston's playing of River's love for the Doctor, and her control of her feelings when she realised that her conduct with this Doctor had to be guided by the most extreme application of 'spoiler' rules, was utterly convincing; and her knockout blow to the Doctor reminded me of another attack on the Doctor as a gesture of respect, delivered by Rogin in The Ark in Space. The Doctor is presumably not a member of the space archaeologists' union.

Less convincing was the Doctor's deal with the Vashta Nerada; presumably the Vashta Nerada were meant to realise that if they rejected the Doctor's offer he was likely to have come up with an alternative which would have obliterated them. I thought the Doctor also a little slow in realising the connection between the Vashta Nerada's forest and the library; but was pleased that the little girl was more or less what I thought she was, though I'd not anticipated the family relationship with Lux.

I enjoyed the rescue of River's consciousness, and thought it entirely in Cal's character to have saved the personalities of the rest of the archaeological team, and, like Steven Moffat in Doctor Who Confidential, could do with the exploration of all human knowledge and literature for eternity as an afterlife. Overall, this two-parter was probably the most satisfying of the series so far. I'm not sure how far it can be a blueprint for Steven Moffat's helmsmanship of the series, but its sheer televisuality bodes well.

Comments

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 11:42 am (UTC)

I watch, and I enjoy. I read your LJ, and I understand.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 12:04 pm (UTC)
DavidIcon

Thank you! :)

Posted by: helflaed (helflaed)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 11:44 am (UTC)

We're still reeling from the bit about the handcuffs being in a children's program...luckily they didn't ask why we were howling with laughter.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 11:53 am (UTC)
DavidIcon

Less a programme exclusively made for children (which it never has been) but a series which Steven Moffat insists is 'a children's programme'...

Posted by: helflaed (helflaed)
Posted at: June 9th, 2008 06:56 am (UTC)
e o plauen

I do find it typical of his writing that we managed to go from howling with laughter to "Oh my god she really is going to die and he really is going to lose someone who he knows will be very special to him" within the space of a few seconds. It was also nice to see writing which allowed for the expression of repressed emotions, which is not something one sees so much these days.

The second episode did make me question the nature of their relationship though. After the first one I was sure that they had been married,rather than lovers, now I'm not so sure somehow, but can't quite put my finger on why.

Which is probably precisely the effect that Steven Moffat wanted in the first place...

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 9th, 2008 04:13 pm (UTC)
Hartnell words

I hadn't thought of the changing nature of the presentation of the relationship. There are, I suppose, a few circumstances in which River would have known the Doctor's name, other than being his wife; though the latter is still my favourite.

There's an excised chapter from the last Virgin Doctor Who novel, and their only eighth Doctor one, which featured a flash forward to a future Doctor (well past the thirteen incarnations mark) who was accompanied by his wife, explaining that he had been a good deal more impetuous when in his immediately previous body...

Posted by: Polly (jane_somebody)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 01:06 pm (UTC)
hands

I agree that the Doctor was far slower on the uptake than he should have been about forest => books, just as he was last week about figuring out how/when River knew him. Letting your audience feel clever should not be at the expense of making your main character look stupid.

There were lots of good lines. Besides things you've mentioned, or I've posted about elsewhere, there was the great point where I commented "he's so going to say something about behaving like an old married couple", and he did ;-)

Posted by: Polly (jane_somebody)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 01:10 pm (UTC)
hands

Also, name-play is a bit of a Doctor Who staple, but I quite liked the Light family and the Evangelist/Messenger ;-)

Posted by: Polly (jane_somebody)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 01:14 pm (UTC)
Talking to myself... 1st sign of, well, let's say pregnancy-induded scatterbrainness...
hands

Especially as the latter was a good red-herring by making one originally think of nothing more than a famous supermodel.

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 06:40 pm (UTC)
Re: Talking to myself... 1st sign of, well, let's say pregnancy-induded scatterbrainness...

Agreed.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 07:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Talking to myself... 1st sign of, well, let's say pregnancy-induded scatterbrainness...

I couldn't understand the significance of the 'Evangelista' name last week, but it made sense now.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 07:01 pm (UTC)
DavidIcon

While Steven Moffat has been recorded saying that he thinks the Doctor is 'a bit of a git', I think he'd be perturbed if lots of the audience thought the Doctor looked stupid too much of the time. (I think he's referring to Doctors from 1963 to 1989 having mannerisms which made sense to the majority of the audience at the time of broadcast, but now have different connotations for the audience of the 2000s - more on this theme in my next Tomorrow People post.)

Posted by: widsidh (widsidh)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 02:54 pm (UTC)

Yes, the whole Vashta Nerada thing petered out a little, didn't it? I had drawn the curtains in anticipation of the lights going out, but then felt I needn't have worried.
Having said that, I agree that the direction the programme took was disturbing in a very different way, and preferable to the "moments of out-and out horror" promised by RT (presumably referring to the skulls in space-suits?).
I felt *very* sorry for the real version Donna's "virtual husband" at the end.

There is a nice tension between Donna's search for stability and her yearning for adventure. While I agree the fotmer has not been played out very much in this series, I think the two are complementary rather than mutually exclusive; both are part of human nature (and indeed the doctor was subject to the same tension in the episode of that title and even more in its second part).

> anything that allows David Tennant to show that his
> interpretation of the Doctor is more complex than the
> smug and somewhat narrow person seen at its worst in
> series two (for example, in Tooth and Claw) is welcome.

Though arguably, without the simple portrayal of early days, the revealing of his depths might have less impact. (?)

KT :-)

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 07:12 pm (UTC)

You've succumbed to the lure of the LJsphere at last! :)

That's a good point about the slow revelation of the tenth Doctor's depths, but I liked the tenth Doctor of the first recording block of the 2006 series more, such as in School Reunion, with his 'so much mercy' speech, contrasted with the one which emerged later in the season.

Posted by: romancinger (romancinger)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 04:29 pm (UTC)

You thought the little girl was a story the library had told itself. I thought something else. I was dead wrong - you were close. (See, I do admit I'm wrong sometimes...)

I'm delighted I was wrong, as with almost every TV program I watch these days I can tell where the plot is going. I do enjoy being surprised; and it shows the quality of Dr Who - and Steven Moffat.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 07:12 pm (UTC)

Out of interest, what was your idea, if you are willing to reveal it?

Posted by: romancinger (romancinger)
Posted at: June 10th, 2008 03:51 pm (UTC)
bookshelves/pile

Oh, all right then...

I thought the little girl might turn out to be River. It raised some interesting possibilities.

Posted by: muuranker (muuranker)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 04:53 pm (UTC)

I thought this two-parter was excellent. I haven't cried so much since Tosh died (I am a sucker for such things).

The Doctor is presumably not a member of the space archaeologists' union. An interesting thought, particularly as at least one of the online groups of archaeologists I am in is having a heated debate at the moment about Indiana Jones. I need to see it again, but I don't think River does much archaeology (or talk much about the archaeology she did/will do). I wondered at the time whether she is not so much a paid up member of Time Team as an archaeologist in the Foucaultian sense.

Posted by: widsidh (widsidh)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 05:38 pm (UTC)

> I don't think River does much archaeology.

well, arguably, she doesn't get much of a chance to start, does she ;-)

Posted by: muuranker (muuranker)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 08:56 pm (UTC)

You are right ... she doesn't.

Thinking back to the views of the planet, I don't think she would have had much chance to excavate given time and world enough (assuming that there was no plan to replace one of those nice tower blocks with something more low-rise or vice versa). She could do what I do and apply archaeological techniques to standing buildings (and have the 'real' archaeologists say she is not a 'real' archaeologist).

Projecting one's discipline into the future is _wierd_. I can do it, but there are *spoilers*.

Posted by: ms_rebecca_riot (ms_rebecca_riot)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 09:23 pm (UTC)

Thanks for another interesting preview. A phalanx of 30 something anxieties are felling many people I know left, right, and centre.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 9th, 2008 01:34 am (UTC)

Sometimes I feel I'm buried under a weight of them myself...

Posted by: ms_rebecca_riot (ms_rebecca_riot)
Posted at: June 9th, 2008 02:26 am (UTC)

Bricks are indeed heavy.
People around me are hatching, matching and despatching with impunity. Not to mention immigrating, ageing, sickening, worrying about careers, pensions, etcetera.
Try as I might, it feels unreal.
I am a 20-something trapped in the life of a 30 something. Help- its all been an awful mistake. Honest.

Posted by: widsidh (widsidh)
Posted at: June 9th, 2008 12:28 pm (UTC)

> She could do what I do and apply archaeological techniques to
> standing buildings (and have the 'real' archaeologists say she is
> not a 'real' archaeologist).

That is archaeology in my books - and talking about books, there must be a lot of abandoned material in that library...
I once applied archaeological techniques to my desk :-)

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 8th, 2008 09:54 pm (UTC)
Tom

The Doctor is presumably not a member of the space archaeologists' union.

I was thinking of a line from The Ark in Space, where Rogin knocks out the Doctor and takes over the job of releasing the locks on the Ark's shuttle docking system. This will allow the Wirrn to escape the Ark in the shuttle, but whoever releases the lock will be burned to a crisp as the shuttle launches. Rogin does and the Doctor survives.

What were you meaning by 'Foucaultian' here?

Posted by: muuranker (muuranker)
Posted at: June 9th, 2008 06:14 pm (UTC)

Foucaultian. I was meaning 'archaeology' as a way of doing history that works with the idea that there are systems of thought and knowledge (of which individuals are not conscious) with rules that the historian can 'excavate' (a travesty of an interpretation of _The Order of Things_).

I don't have the first part on video, so I can't check what is said about River. It strikes me that if one is employing a team to go looking for CAL, one might use either an archaeologist or a historian (or perhaps a productive mix of disciplines). The archaeologists would be using their understanding of landscape and buildings to predict where the physical CAL might be located. To understand the virtual architecture, and virtually locate CAL, historians of thought at the unconscious level might be your ideal team members. This is not to say that pots-and-pollen archaeologists don't work with the unconscious, thought and appearance - they do so in a different way, but I'd be surprised if Steven Moffat went to TAG (the Theoretical Archaeology Group), or has read Hodder ... so I'm guessing he's read Foucault. On the other hand, pointing and laughing at archaeologists is a far more sophisticated reaction than asking 'have you found any gold?'.

Someone is now going to point out that SM has a degree in archaeology from Cardiff, aren't they.

*shakes head and retreats into the bibiliography*

Posted by: Amanda (neohippie)
Posted at: June 9th, 2008 11:44 am (UTC)

Steven Moffat was particularly deft in having Joshua and Ella aware that they ceased to be when Donna wasn't looking at them, dramatizing a child's awareness of their dependence on their parent(s)

I was really impressed with that as well, that children who aren't "real" were nevertheless self-aware enough to figure that out.

Donna's longing for conventional security, an element of her character prominent in The Runaway Bride but suppressed this series in favour of an infatuation with the Doctor's lifestyle.

I can read this that Donna's supressing that more, because she probably decided she can't have that kind of life. Her exprience in the Nexus Matrix computer shows that she still really longs for a family.

her control of her feelings when she realised that her conduct with this Doctor had to be guided by the most extreme application of 'spoiler' rules, was utterly convincing;

I've read other people complain about the constant repetition of "spoiler!" in this episode, but now that I think of it, it may have been River trying hard to convince herself not to give too much away. I'm sure it was extremely tempting, especially since the Doctor kept asking her again and again.

It's been a while that I've actually kept thinking about a new Doctor Who episode days after I'd seen it, so I'm quite happy with this one overall.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 9th, 2008 04:17 pm (UTC)

I can read this that Donna's supressing that more, because she probably decided she can't have that kind of life. Her experience in the Nexus Matrix computer shows that she still really longs for a family.

I'd not thought of it like that, but it offers another window on the thirtysomething crisis idea.