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The Doctor and Donna find themselves in the universe’s greatest library, but they are alone. One hundred years ago, the Library was sealed off with only a cryptic warning left behind as explanation: “Count the shadows.” However, it now appears that the shadows are on the move again...
WARNING - CONTAINS SPOILERS!
If you’ve already seen the two-part Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead, you’ll know that it contains spoilers within the actual context of the story. Indeed, the term becomes a recurring motto as the Doctor (David Tennant) encounters the mysterious River Song (ER’s Alex Kingston), a woman who already knows him, though the Time Lord has never met her before. Strangely for a show about time travel, this is only the second time that the TV series has truly embraced this concept (the other occasion being the Sylvester McCoy serial Battlefield).
There are plenty of hints but no definite answers as to what River’s relationship with the Doctor will be, except that it will be a very close one. There appears to be a big clue in the next episode, Forest of the Dead, when Strackman Lux (The League of Gentlemen’s Steve Pemberton) accuses them of “squabbling like an old married couple.” Whatever the nature of their relationship, it seems to be an on-off thing, with the Doctor and River leading independent lives between their encounters (like with Martha Jones) rather than continuous companionship as fellow travellers in the TARDIS. Their encounters appear to have covered several of the Doctor’s incarnations, not always in chronological order, with the earliest incarnation being the Tenth. Early on in the story, River says, “Where are we this time? Going by your face, I’d say it’s early days for you, yeah?” She recognises the Tenth Doctor, but can tell from his eyes that he is “younger than I’ve ever seen you.” The concept of River Song is made all the more intriguing by the fact that the story’s writer, Steven Moffat, is replacing Russell T Davies as head writer of the next series, so it’s likely that he has definite plans for River to reappear sooner rather than later. However, keeping the character looking the same age or younger could prove to be a challenge for production teams in the longer term!
Add to this an implacable new foe (the flesh-eating Vashta Nerada), a creepy new catch phrase (“Hey, who turned out the lights?”) and the mystery surrounding the connection between the Library and the world of the Girl (the brilliant Eve Newton) and Dr Moon (Colin Salmon - how about him as the first non-white Doctor?), and it all adds up to a great first episode. I have to admit that I guessed the nature of the Girl’s world, though many viewers didn’t - it’s more guessable if you’ve seen The Matrix.
But does the second part live up to the first...?
As the shadows rise and march, the Doctor forges an alliance with the mysterious River Song, but can anyone stop the Vashta Nerada? While the Doctor discovers long-buried secrets about his own future, Donna must uncover the terrible truth behind the horrifying data ghost...
Well, yes, it does. This is a consistently good two-parter, one of the best stories of Series 4 in fact. However, before we get overly reverent, let’s admit that the plot is not without its faults.
For one thing, Moffat cheats with his depiction of the monsters. In Silence in the Library and in interviews, he builds up the Vashta Nerada as a mindless force that cannot be reasoned with - but in Forest of the Dead, that’s exactly how the Doctor deals with them.
Also, fellow Who writer Lawrence Miles has a point (in his blog) when he accuses Moffat of rehashing his own ideas. Put a skeleton in an empty spacesuit and give it a creepy catch phrase, and you recapture the sinister appeal of the gasmask-wearing boy in The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances. Mash up the scenes of the Doctor addressing the young Reinette through her fireplace in The Girl in the Fireplace and the Doctor addressing Sally Sparrow through a DVD in Blink, and you get the scene in Silence in the Library in which the Doctor appears on the Girl’s television. And, as in The Doctor Dances, everybody lives (sort of).
Doctor Who novel readers may wonder what the Doctor’s evident disdain for archaeologists (“I’m a time-traveller, I point and laugh at archaeologists”) says about his former incarnations’ relationship with Professor Bernice Summerfield. And surely the Doctor could have survived using his brain to increase the storage capacity of the computer core, since he managed to store the entire contents of Gallifrey’s Matrix there between The Burning and The Gallifrey Chronicles (albeit with the resulting loss of his own memories), but then, River Song wasn’t to know that.
None of the above is to deny that Forest of the Dead is an effective and affecting conclusion to the story. Even though no one dies (sort of), the tragic ending for Donna’s “husband” Lee (Jason Pitt) is very sad. And that’s not the last bit of tragedy that will revolve around the character of Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) before this series is over...
The Doctor is trapped, powerless and terrified, on the planet Midnight. Soon, the knocking on the hull begins. Only a woman called Sky seems to know the truth - but as paranoia turns into a witch-hunt, Sky turns the Doctor’s greatest strengths against him, and a sacrifice must be made...
Midnight is a very interesting experiment, in a couple of ways.
First of all, this year, rather than having a Doctor-lite episode that is also companion-lite (as was the case with Love & Monsters and Blink), the production team has elected to separate the Doctor and Donna, so that Tate is mostly absent from this episode and Tennant appears only briefly in the next one, Turn Left (to be released on DVD in the next volume). Having the two of them separated for most of Forest of the Dead may have helped the production team too. However, this logistical exercise might have been less obvious if the episodes concerned had been broadcast farther apart across the season, by which I mean separated by a least one regular “Doctor and Donna” episode.
The subject and tone of the piece also differ from the norm. Confined rather than epic in scope, this is a decidedly grown-up episode, with no actual monster to be seen, only heard through bangs on the exterior of the shuttle’s hull and the phrases that are repeated by the apparently possessed Sky Silvestre (Clocking Off’s Lesley Sharp). The terror exists in the human passengers’ reactions to events, in terms of both their fear and the actions they consider taking in order to save themselves.
The guest cast playing the all too flawed humans also includes David (son of Patrick) Troughton (The Curse of Peladon, A Very Peculiar Practice) as the conceited Professor Hobbes and Lindsey Coulson (EastEnders, Clocking Off) as the venomous Val Cane.
I wonder whether some kiddies in the audience will object to the lack of monsters, and I myself didn’t enjoy this episode that much the first time I saw it. However, upon my second viewing for the purposes of this review, I find that it has grown on me enormously, making this DVD a consistently entertaining volume.
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