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June 14, 2008

Can’t see the wood for the trees

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Doctor Who: Forest of the Dead

I suppose if you were being charitable, you could at least say this two-parter didn’t go off a cliff, unlike its predecessor this season.

If that seems harsh, then it possibly is.  There was a lot to love about Forest of the Dead, an episode that positively dripped lushness, from the performances to the visuals, and even the score, there was a real glow about this as an episode of Doctor Who.

But there was also something not quite there with it.  Yes, it looked great, yes everyone played fantastic in it, and yes the whole package had this sumptuous feeling of terror and cool running almost simultaneously through it.  But it also had something much less than the week before.

And ironically, that something - specifically, a preservation of life - left the ending feeling somewhat lifeless.

A title as blunt and obvious as being bludgeoned around the head by a hardback Jeffrey Archer

The plot felt somewhat stretched at times, not helped by a title as blunt and obvious as being bludgeoned around the head by a hardback Jeffrey Archer. As soon as the Klaatu Barada Nikto or whatever they were called said they were in their forest, it was obvious where the episode was going. 

Certainly puts a whole new spin on the idea of a book being a killer read, anyway.

But the Vashtu Nerada felt like a sidebar this week.  Almost like the Husks of Ghost Light, at times their presence felt shoehorned in to provide  a monster where one was no longer required.  They were an undercard to a main event dominated by the mystery of CAL.

The CAL’s world stuff worked remarkably well, even as it became clear just how 90s and clichéd an idea it was, one that we all thought Keanu Reeves had nailed shut a few years back.  A large part of that was down to the presence of Colin Salmon, who helped imbue Doctor Moon with an incredible sense of creepiness and unsettling calm. 

In fact, the only sad bit was that we never got to see Tennant and Salmon on screen together.  If ever a character deserved a face to face with the Doctor, it was Doctor Moon.

A cameo appearance by the Scottish Widows advert from hell

But to make up for it, and after sidelining Catherine Tate last week, we got a hefty chunk of her this time round, in the virtual reality world where CAL had preserved her. 

A disturbingly fractured reality at that, thanks to the constant timeshifts, a wonderfully uneasy and distracted performance by Tate playing someone who obviously thinks she has a mental illness, and a cameo appearance by the Scottish Widows advert from hell.

Ct My particular favourite moment of the whole episode came among that, as we see Donna turn up for a date with her fellow resident, to go fishing, in a spangly black number.  A nice, throwaway gag, that underlined Donna’s character far more than any dialogue could. 

Between that, and the horrific moment she thought her children - no matter how fictional - had been taken from her, any doubts that bringing Tate back was the right move must now surely have been put to bed.

And by and large it all came together.  How the Vashtu Nerada arrived on the planet made sense, albeit being so obvious.  The CAL stuff made sense.  And how they all meshed together made sense - just.

So my only real problem, but it’s a biggie, with the episode is the finale.  Killing River Song off was a brave if obvious decision, and she was given a heroic sending off as befits her character.  In many ways she’s the new series’ version of Sara Kingdon - you’re never quite sure if she counts as a companion, but she does nothing to justify not including her in that roll of honour.

So the ending felt like a cop-out.  It felt like an attempt by the writer to have his cake and eat it.  Let’s kill off the companion, but hey, let’s give her a happy ending anyway.  And worse, it felt like a cheap emotional rehash of the end of The Doctor Dances, with its cheery ‘everybody lives’ denouement.

It wasn’t like we needed such a stunt anyway.  It’s been established that River’s very much from the Doctor’s personal future, so if he ever wanted to resurrect the character, there’s a natural route into it - in fact, one that would be tinged with more emotional punch knowing the Doctor had watched her die.

The sad thing is that Moffat’s best script, for me anyway, is the one where he didn’t pull the cop-out ending, and instead went for heartbreak by offing Reinette.  It struck me that perhaps that's why we keep seeing these 'keep everyone alike' conclusions - that the Future Doctor is more heartbroken over her death than it seems.  But if so, we need something more concrete to back that up on screen.  Otherwise, it just feels like a cop-out.

Last week I wrote about not drawing too many conclusions about Moffat’s forthcoming tenure running Doctor Who based on the evidence of this two parter.  And I stand by that.  But I can’t help but fear, at the back of my mind, that we’re going to get the same self-proclaimed position as taken by RTD OBE - that we’re not going to see companions get killed off.

And sometimes, we could do with the odd bit of gratuitous death now and again, just to keep the Doctor - and the audience - on its toes.

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