Here’s my basic thesis on this odd little episode: it doesn’t make a lick of sense, but that shouldn’t stop us enjoying it.
Want to find logical flaws in In the Forest of the Night? We don’t have to look very hard. How does a forest spring up in a 24 hour city like London with no one noticing? If it happened overnight, did it happen in broad daylight on the other side of the world? And why are there so few people in London during the events of this episode? Isn’t the whole idea of trees instantly setting up an oxygen buffer to quell a solar flare just too unfeasible? How about how they all instantly vanish after the flare hits? How can trees repel flames? And what about all the damage caused to roads and buildings and so on caused by trees growing up around them? How was that all immediately fixed?
I have to admit that when I first saw this episode this ever growing pile of problems bugged me a lot. It was that there were so many of them, and they were so blatant. It was when I thought, this must be deliberate. Showrunner Steven Moffat and writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce are smart guys. They must know how preposterous all this is, so what’s their point?
Their point, I think, is that this is not an episode to be taken too literally. I think its closest cousin in Doctor Who would be The Mind Robber, where the events within are so fantastical that it makes more sense to concentrate on themes and subtext of the story, than worry too much about its internal logic. Once I took this approach, I found there was much to enjoy in this densely layered, lyrically written and at times, very funny story.
This story centres on a lost little girl, Maebh Arden (Abigail Eames). ‘Maebh’ means ‘she who intoxicates’ and Arden is Shakespeare’s mystical forest in As You Like it. She wears a red hooded jacket, and she’s menaced by not just one but two big bad wolves, so she’s a strong signal of fairy tales and their influence on this story. Later, Clara (Jenna Coleman) will compare hers and the Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) situation to the lost children, Hansel and Gretel. The forest grows overnight with the speed of Jack’s famous beanstalk. Fairy tales are potent stuff and the journey into a dark forest, to suffer through bizarre ordeals but to also learn something about life, is a familiar trope of the fantasy genre. Stephen Sondheim even wrote a musical about it.
In this particular forest, there are strange, unpredictable creatures. They’re called children. Not just the traumatised Maebh, but the rest of the Coal Hill gifted and talented mob. Early in the episode, hard nut Bradley (Ashley Foster) is taunted by smart alec Samson (Jayden Harris-Wallace) by the flickering of torchlight in his eyes. Later, their teacher Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) uses the same technique to scare off a tiger (is that a genuine Bear Grylls style jungle survival technique? Let’s not try it out). When wayward teenager Annabel (Eloise Barnes) arrives home, she’s peering out of the hydrangea bush as the wolves did earlier in the ep. Kids, wolves and tigers, they’re all the same thing, apparently. Wild, untameable beasts.
These earthly children are at the centre of a giant shout out to Doctor Who’s very first episode. In An Unearthly Child each of our Coal Hill schoolteachers have a flashback to trying to teach Susan something. Here, both Danny (Samuel Anderson) and Clara have a similar moment. Capaldi’s grumpy Doctor is close enough to Hartnell already, but Danny makes the connection clearer when he accuses him (albeit jokingly) of abducting Maebh, as he did Ian and Barbara all those years ago in a junkyard.
Hartnell used to compare the Doctor to a wizard, and that’s clearly what Capaldi is here. Even though Clara says his sonic screwdriver is not a magic wand, he has a mysterious magic cabinet. He can make shiny floating lights appear in the sky. And he inhabits this world full of magic – not just Clarke’s law kind of magic, advanced technology beyond our ken. But genuine-there’s-no-explanation-for-this magic. This is a world where trees don’t burn, where missing daughters reappear in a sparkle of fairy dust, where children can predict incoming solar flares, steal their teacher’s thoughts and command the world to be nice to trees. It is a world where science disappears in a puff of smoke. So of course it has a resident magician, a label often applied to our black clad Doctor.
There’s also a nagging sense the whole thing might be just a dream. Young Ruby (Harley Bird – the voice of Peppa Pig!) wonders how long they’ve slept for. Like Rip Van Winkle, or perhaps the characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or even Sleeping Beauty… perhaps they are all the victims of these soporific woods. With reality and fantasy being harder to discern, our little wild animals become inured to the amazing sights around them. They don’t even react when they enter the cavernous TARDIS console room. “There wasn’t a forest. Then there was a forest. Nothing surprises us any more,” explains Ruby.
And then there’s the tiger, and the title, which throws William Blake into the mix. By now, we’re lost in a forest of allusions. What next? You could throw in a joke about Les Miserables and we wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Nothing surprises us any more.
What do all these crazy references indicate? What on earth is Cottrell-Boyce trying to say? I think the common link is the mythic power of stories.
It doesn’t matter if your preferred bedtime story is Red Riding Hood, or The Tyger or An Unearthly Child. The point is the powerful impact they have on the imagination. They disrupt the real world, like a forest bursting through the pavement. And anyone who’s ever tried to put a tantrumming toddler to bed (as wild as a tiger), will know how the right story will transport them to a different world, and send them gently into a world of dreams. They’ll dream of saving the world and talking to trees.
To me, that’s what In the Forest of the Night is about – the power of stories, including Doctor Who, to fire the imagination. If we try to make it all make sense, we’re missing the point. Do you try to make The Tyger makes sense? Or the story of Hansel and Gretel? You might as well try to make sense of a man who changes his face and travels through time in a phone box.
LINK TO The Evil of the Daleks: I’m pointing out a thematic link here, but both are referencing the very earliest Doctor Who stories. As is our next random selection…
NEXT TIME: We get our grubby little protuberances on Remembrance of the Daleks.