Review: Silence in the Library

May 31, 2008

Overview: The Doctor and Donna arrive at a library, or more specifically an entire planet that is a library in the 51st century. They encounter a team of archaeologists and – apparently – a little girl from present day Earth, all while trying to avoid the hunger that lurks in the shadows.

Story: In a word, brilliant. In more words…Silence in the Library is another fantastic piece of work from Steven Moffat. Truth be told, very little actually “happens” in the story, which is pretty much told in real time. The Doctor and Donna arrive and are joined a very few minutes later by an arriving team of archaeologists. One of the team members managed to send the Doctor something of a distress call, along with a little “X” (for kisses) via his telepathic paper. Her name is Professor River Song, and she knows the Doctor…from the future. Apparently she knows him from his current regeneration, although that’s not entirely certain. She talks about his eyes being so young, but there’s a piece of me that thinks she could actually be referring to a future incarnation of the Doctor. She carries a diary of her experiences, with a dust jacket that looks amazingly like the exterior walls of the TARDIS – recessed blue panels. When she realizes that the Doctor doesn’t know who she is, she refuses to let him see her diary – “spoilers,” she explains. The recurring theme of spoilers comes up a couple of times in the episode, with Donna even exclaiming that traveling with the Doctor is like one big spoiler.

4022 people were on the planet 100 years previously, and they were all “saved” – but there are no bodies. Aside from the Doctor, Donna and the team of archaeologists there are no other humanoid life forms, but a million million other life forms…a swarm, the Doctor explains, of creatures that lurk in the shadows on practically every world in creation. For some reason they have swarmed on the library planet, and it’s no longer a quest to determine what happened on this planet a century previous, it’s a fight to survive.

It’s impossible not to compare this episode with last season’s Blink, but frankly this episode seems stronger in some ways. Professor Song is this episode’s answer to Sally Sparrow, and she has the added benefit of having a ton of mystery surrounding her. She’s carrying a sonic screwdriver – not just any sonic screwdriver, THE sonic screwdriver. When the Doctor says he wouldn’t give his screwdriver to anyone, she explains, “I’m not just anyone.” MADDENING.

The remainder of the team largely plays across the standard types you see in sci-fi horror movies. Steve Pemberton of the League of Gentlemen plays Strackman Lux, heir to the family that owns the planet and apparently the keeper of some kind of secret. His assistant, Miss Evangalista, seems to be little more than a pretty face that doesn’t know the difference between the loo and the escape pod but she becomes a key element of the story soon enough.

The construction of the feeling of dread through the story is solid and frankly creepy. The conceit of making the robot librarians bear the faces of dead library patrons is a little chilling, especially once the full import of what they are becomes understood at the end of the episode. The final words of the head librarian are given to the Doctor and Donna in a dispassionate voice, not unlike someone reading the transcript of a black box from a plane crash…but this crash is still happening. And like every really terrifying horror story, the bad guys are never really seen – just their handiwork.

There’s another element to the story that takes it from being a standard “keep out of the dark” horror tale and makes it truly unique, and that’s the element of the little girl living in what looks like the present day. She can see the library and the events within it when she closes her eyes and can even interact with the people there, but she has no understanding of what her role is. She appears to be undergoing therapy for her dreams or visions, but before the therapist leaves he gives her a frightening revelation – her dreams are real, and her reality may be a dream. This layer of subtext is quite fascinating, and my theory is that she is one of the saved, somehow…but we’ll see what that means and whether or not I’m right next week.

Characterization: It’s an interesting turn to see the Doctor a little off balance around Professor Song. She obviously knows him and speaks of events he hasn’t experienced yet, and it’s a fun trick to see her keep him from learning his own spoilers even though he does the same thing to Donna at the beginning of the story. The Doctor is in full-on histrionic mode, but his admonitions that things are bad don’t really add to the suspense…they just make the eventual realization of his warnings that much more satisfying when they do occur.

Donna continues to play things pretty subdued through most of the episode and manages to be the last witness to a very touching few final moments. The event in question (you’ll know it when you see it – remember Miss Evangalista?) is a pretty grim few minutes, and is a very inventive take on the technology of neural circuitry. The fact that Professor Song knows of Donna and has what can only be described as a look of shock and/or sorrow when Donna asks about her future leads the viewer to believe that Donna may not have a happy ending back home with Mum and Grandpa.

Professor Song as played by Alex Kingston deserves some mention as well. She is obviously devoted to and has some strong affection for the Doctor, but the nature of their relationship in the future is only broadly hinted at. Some wild guesses: a future companion? A future regeneration of the Doctor’s daughter? God help us, Bernice Summerfield’s younger sister? Hopefully we will get some more information in the next episode, but to be honest the “next time” clips really don’t tell us much at all.

Other notes: There is a lot of pleasing dialogue in the episode, from the ongoing discussion of spoilers to the Doctor’s claim that he never lands anywhere on a Sunday and the reference to the Doctor as being a “pretty boy” – there’s plenty of fun to be had, so pay attention. There are also some fun visual items, like the aforementioned cover to the Professor’s diary to a well-positioned Robby the Robot model in the little girl’s living room. Finally, the haunting image of a skeleton in a space suit is one of those science fiction cliches that never gets old, but it used to extreme effectiveness here.

One more note: I’m tying this review on the same keyboards they use in the 51st century library, the Apple Wireless Keyboard. It’s good to know that the hardware can withstand all those millenia and still maintain a bluetooth connection!

Overall: Each week just gets better and better, and Silence in the Library might just be the best episode of this season if not the entire new series so far. With so many dramatic layers revolving throughout the story there’s just a lot to enjoy, and here’s hoping that the conclusion next week will be as satisfying as the setup. With Mr. Moffat at the helm I’m hopeful that this will indeed be the case.

Late Edit: In rewatching the episode my wife and I noticed that during a pivotal scene with the Doctor and the little girl the symbol on the shutter of the security camera is the same as the shape and graphic design of the rug that the little girl collapses on back on Earth. There are TONS of little visual and audio clues throughout this episode that strongly warrant a re-watch.