Doctor Who Review: Forest of the Dead

June 7, 2008

Overview: The Doctor is trapped on a library planet with a team of archaeologists that is rapidly decreasing in number, while Donna seems to have been “checked in” to the library system. A little girl seems to be having nightmares about the events in the library, and Professor Song knows much more about the Doctor than she is saying.

Story: I am really, REALLY going to try to write this without spoiling anything. I don’t know if I’ll succeed, but I feel that I owe it to a story that so heavily featured the concept of “spoilers” to do my best not to spoil it.

The new revision of Doctor Who has had a hit and miss track record with multi-part stories. They generally start strong and then fizzle toward the resolution. The 3-part finale to last season is a great example of that – the genius that was Utopia ended up being the not entirely satisfying finale in Last of the Time Lords. So does Forest of the Dead live up to the promise of Silence in the Library?

I’m going to say yes. In fact, I’m having a hard time coming up with any huge criticisms of the story. I suppose one could say that the Vashta Nerada (I am probably spelling that incorrectly) end up being less of a threat throughout the episode, but the fact is that the real focus moves away from what seems to be a contrived horror story plot device and toward the nature of the library itself. The fact is that The Library is really the source of everything that has happened there.

Much of the episode takes place within the reality inhabited by the little girl from the beginning of the story, and it’s really quite satisfying. It’s an effective demonstration of what the situation could end up looking like from the inside, and the use of the data ghost as a somewhat creepy (if not slightly ridiculous looking) guide to the nature of existence in The Library is pretty effective. Personally I would not have had the data ghost remove their veil at all – it was much more effective when it was on.

The final resolution of the crisis in The Library is wholly satisfying, and I wish I could lay more spoilers out here, but I shan’t. The fact is that we learn very little of substance about the future relationship between the Doctor and Professor Song, except for one critically important thing that she says to the Doctor. A single thing that once spoken – and of course the viewer cannot hear – causes him to trust her completely. We do find out the nature of the thing she says, but not the word itself…and this throws the nature of the relationship between the Doctor and Professor Moon into a new level of conjecture. My guess is that the fanboys are going to be frothing over the real identity of Professor Song for a long time.

To be honest, this episode just didn’t feel that long – it went by so quickly, was so tightly paced and well done that it just didn’t seem to take nearly as long as it should have. Perhaps I should be a little more cautious about my own reality, then…

Characterization: There really isn’t a bad thing to say about the entire cast of characters in this episode.

The Doctor manages to express so much through the entirety of the story, and he experiences an extraordinary range of emotions. In a previous episode he saw the birth and supposed death of his “daughter,” but the final resolution of The Library’s problems and the relationship it holds with Professor Song is so much more powerful. These two somehow – in the future – share some kind of relationship that seems to go beyond the normal Doctor/Companion scheme of things, and there seems to be real pain behind that.

Donna as well experiences real pain as she undergoes some serious shifts in her perception of what is real and what is not. Catherine Tate has really managed to bring Donna along and make her a much more sympathetic character – the scene in the bedroom (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it) is very moving, and rather than being shrill and forced seems heartfelt and genuine. You really believe that Donna has lost two people that she loves.

Professor Song shows an amazing amount of trust in and compassion for the Doctor, but the real nature of the relationship between them is – maddeningly, perhaps – not made plain by the end of the episode. We know that they have travelled together – possibly repeatedly – and that she seems intimately familiar with him as a person and as a Time Lord. Her description of their previous trip together was very powerful, and it’s easy to imagine the Doctor doing something as sentimental as that now that we have seem him grow as much as we have on an emotional level.

Thinking back, each of the Doctors from the classic series is generally described in a couple of words – the tetchy old man, the clown, the dandy, the bohemian, the cricketer, the…weirdo, the magician…and for the most part those Doctors were largely played against their definition in a writer’s bible. They don’t change appreciably through the course of their tenures, simply because they were mostly written against a standard definition of the character. The new series, and the Tenth Doctor in particular, seems to have changed that slightly. I don’t know if it’s part of a plan or it’s something that the writers are being empowered to do, but the Doctor is showing some real growth and change throughout the life of the incarnation. It’s not in the forefront – on the surface, the Tenth Doctor is largely played the same way in each episode, but the real hallmark episodes manage to add something deep and profound to the complexity beneath the surface that occasionally comes back – not always in explicit terms, but in shadows of past experience. The desperation that the Doctor expressed when he lost Rose is echoed in his reaction to the resolution of The Library, but in spades…if anything, Professor Song seems to mean more to the Doctor than Rose did.

The supporting characters – everyone – did a great job in adding depth to the story. The little girl? Scared and sympathetic. Doctor Moon? Helpful yet enigmatic. Mr. Lux? Much more interesting in this story, he’s more than a patent protector. Archaeologists? More than just chicken legs.

Overall: I want to watch the episode again before giving a really solid final rating, but I’d have to give this a very solid A. This was one of the most meaningful episodes of the series so far, in my opinion. The story was solid, the characterization was all done very effectively, and even the effects were well done. Some of the exterior shots during the chase scene were very nice.

Next Week: I couldn’t even begin to describe what actually seems to be happening in the next episode. I think the Doctor said something about being in a truck traveling across the surface of a diamond planet. What?!