In the latest episode of the BBC’s Doctor Who, “In the Forest of the Night,” trees suddenly sprout all over the Earth, clogging major cities and seemingly taking over everything. Is this an alien invasion? The environment fighting back against human intrusion? An attempt to create chaos? Or something else entirely? The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), assisted by Clara (Jenna Coleman), Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), and a group of schoolchildren, intends to find out.
The core mystery at the center of “In the Forest of the Night” is interesting. Like the Weeping Angels and the creatures that live under the bed, the trees are an ever-present, real thing made creepy. When The Doctor theorizes that fairytales paint the woods as haunted because the trees have long been a threat to mankind, it makes sense. Not only that, but the motivation for attacking us, who harm them, is sound. But when that idea is turned on its head, that the trees actually protect us, not hurt us, it’s a twist on a structure used often in Doctor Who, making it seem somewhat fresh.
It is also interesting that no one wants to be saved by The Doctor if their families will die. The kids need their parents, Danny needs to stay and stand his ground, and Clara doesn’t to be the last remaining human. There’s a theme of loneliness explored a bit, forcing a perspective that many compassionate humans can agree with and get behind.
The Doctor doesn’t understand this. The 12th Doctor, more than previous incarnations, is self-involved and doesn’t worry about others unless they’re among the few individuals he cares about. At one point, The Doctor considers leaving the Earth to its fate, everyone doomed to die, and I kind of wish the series had gone through with this. Not only would it irrevocably shift the dynamic between Clara and The Doctor, it would force the writers to deal with a callous part of The Doctor that has been festering all season. Instead, it’s hinted at and then dropped, disappointingly, as The Doctor reverts to form and figures out the puzzle.
Clara is in the opposite position from The Doctor, learning to care a lot about those around her. A year ago, while she would have continued to urge The Doctor to fight on, she might not have been so willing to die with everyone else. Now, she has Danny, understanding Danny who will forgive her lies about cutting off ties with The Doctor if she can figure out how to be true to herself. He gives his very good explanation of what he wants out of life, and it appeals to her. I think Danny will help Clara be who she should be, giving up her adventures and escapism to finally start living the life she’s meant to have.
It’s actually pretty ridiculous how the children fold into this story. Doctor Who has involved civilians in the past, but rarely on this magnitude. All of Clara and Danny’s charges (none among the recognizable ones from previous weeks) are in on the secret, present for the important parts. What’s more, it phases none of them to learn The Doctor’s secrets, which is tongue-in-cheekily dealt with, but certainly not in a satisfactory manner.
As has been usual this fall, “In the Forest of the Night” is mostly a stand-alone episode. There is barely a glimpse of Missy (Michelle Gomez), and character arcs are only touched upon, not explored. Doctor Who‘s large stories would lose nothing by leaving this episode out of the run, and that’s never a good sign. Where has the series, which used to be complex and convoluted, gone so wrong that most hours these days are forgettable?
So, as has happened a lot lately, “In the Forest of the Night” leaves one with an empty feeling. Good ideas are not realized as fully as they should, and the story does not sufficiently tie into the bigger picture. Where once there is a mythology-heavy must-see program, in the eighth season, those in charge have made the show more “normal,” more pedestrian, and far less appealing to discerning fans. I don’t know if this is meant to help the show continue to grow in its appeal to the masses, but it’s having the opposite effect on the fans, with viewing numbers shrinking greatly this year. This episode is not the way to fix that.
Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00OJFDCTS][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00IT3KQWM]