If you like to watch the DVDs of classic Doctor Who stories with the commentary track on, you’ll have no doubt heard a phrase often used by actors and crew members, when looking back on their work from years ago. When they’re pleasantly surprised with the quality of the story, they’ll invariably say, “it still stands up today”. (I’m not sure what the opposite is. Maybe, “this story is sitting down in a comfy chair these days”. Or perhaps, “this story has completely collapsed”). So it was with some surprise that I thought to myself about Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead, ‘this still stands up today’. And I thought that in regard to River Song (Alex Kingston).
I think I’m right in saying that writer Steven Moffat conceived of this story before he knew he was taking over as showrunner. So he filled these episodes with references to future adventures for the Doctor (here, an energised David Tennant) and River, which we were yet to see. Sort of continuity references in reverse. Now that River’s story has come to an end (or has it?) in The Husbands of River Song, the deftness involved in pulling together all those references can be fully admired. Did Moffat have some super long term plan? Or did he make it all up as he went? Either way, it’s impressive stuff, which, as they say, still stands up today.
There’s the occasional booboo. River should really know that the Tennant Doctor has yet to experience the crash of the Byzantium because she experienced that with Matt Smith’s Doctor. But she did see the end of the universe with him in The Big Bang and she did see armies run away in A Good Man Goes to War. But The Husbands of River Song gives us the most poignant realisation of River’s future prophesies, with the Doctor (now Peter Capaldi) turning up in a new suit, giving her a screwdriver and spending a night with her on Darillium. It’s fan-satisfying fodder.
It’s more than just showing off though. Yes, it’s pleasing that it all fits together in a nice jigsaw, but I think the more impressive effect is that it changes how we now watch Silence in the Library etc. Because now what River’s says makes sense. On broadcast, River was telling us how heartbreaking it was to see a Doctor who didn’t recognise her and telling us how frustrating it was he didn’t automatically trust her. But it never really hit home. It couldn’t. Because we’d never seen it.
Now we understand her much better; when she accuses him of being young, we understand why, because she knows that Matt Smith’s Doctor lived for thousands of years. When she talks about that last night he showed up, we know what she’s talking about. In short, this story has an emotional kick it didn’t have in 2008, because just like the Doctor, we know and care about River nowadays.
Many familiar Moffatisms are on display here. People being saved as digital copies of themselves. Speechless monsters speaking through a human victim. Spooky astronauts. Children at the centre of the narrative. Paying homage to The Tomb of the Cybermen. And one that always catches my eye, the Doctor’s reliance on his reputation to scare the monsters away.
As the Doctor flags early in this story, he has no idea how to defeat the people-eating shadows which have infested the Library. “Daleks, aim for the eyestalk,” he says. “Sontarans, back of the neck. Vashta Nerada? Run. Just run.” This turns out to be true, as this is one alien menace he doesn’t manage to defeat. Instead, he ends up negotiating a temporary pause in hostilities while he empties the hard drive of all its stored inmates.
To do so, he engineers a stand off with the Vashta Nerada. He tells them to let him do his thing, and doesn’t even make a threat. All he says is, “I’m the Doctor, and you’re in the biggest library in the universe. Look me up.” And that’s enough for the shadows to acquiesce.
Moffat lets the Doctor pull this trick twice more. In The Eleventh Hour, he tells the boggle eyed Atraxi, “Basically, run.” And the much repeated speech in The Pandorica Opens, where the Doctor stands on Stonehenge and dares his enemies to come and get him, is of a similar ilk. It’s a habit Moffat grows out of – even atones for – because by the time we get to A Good Man Goes to War, the cost of his hubris is humiliating defeat and he vows in The Wedding of River Song to go into hiding for a while, and become a smaller target.
This was a good decision, because the gambit that results in the monsters running away simply because the Doctor has a past reputation for beating monsters, is inherently anti-dramatic. If it worked on the Vashta Nerada, why wouldn’t it work every single time? Just flash an ID card at the beginning of each story and let the enemy scarper.
Worse than that, there’s something inherently bullying about it which is not at all like the Doctor. “Basically, run,” might be a cool line, but at heart, it’s a shorthand threat to do someone in. It’s, well, ugly. I’m glad he’s dropped the habit.
There have been a couple of times where I’ve said the last minute restarting of a story never works. Well, here comes Forest of the Dead to prove me wrong.
In a combination of crafty writing by Moffat and skillful direction by Euros Lyn, the story shows how it can work brilliantly. It happens when the Doctor and Donna (Catherine Tate, giving a funny and touching performance as her cyberspace self) turn around to leave the library, the camera focuses on River’s abandoned screwdriver and there’s a gentle voice over from Alex Kingston. All familiar signals that the story’s coming to an end. But then the Doctor races back, grabs the screwdriver and races back to the upload River and her mates to the data core. And as per another Moffatism, everybody lives.
Why does it work here, and not in those other examples? For a start, it happens really late in the story, not halfway through Part Four. Secondly, it comes as a surprise as there’s no hint that the story isn’t over. Finally, it uses every minute of screen time to tell the story, right up to those final moments where we see that even Donna’s fake children and Cal (Eve Newton) herself have been adopted by River. In short, it doesn’t muck around and gives us an ending more satisfying that the one we were already satisfied with.
Clever to the end, not only does this story still stand up, it’s standing taller than ever before, and that’s a rare thing indeed.
LINK TO The Fires of Pompeii. Same Doctor, companion and season. Easy!
NEXT TIME… This resolution may perhaps appear very bold and dangerous. We match wits with The Mind Robber.