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June 08, 2008

Perfectly Bound

Doctor Who: Forest of the Dead

BooksDuring Doctor Who Confidential tonight I was largely distracted during Steven Moffat’s interview by three things.  Firstly, the sudden random exposition in the middle about the mechanic of the nu-Whoniverse with interuptions from Russell T like “Although Sarah-Jane is aware of Torchwood – as we shall see” all clearly there to foreshadow some mega team up at the end of the series.  Secondly, the rather precarious mound of paper in Moffats in-tray, perhaps letters and manuscripts from old Doctor Who writers hard on their luck and looking for a job.  Finally, the collection of spin-off novels on the shelf behind him. 

Like a pensioner trying to name old friends on a faded school photo I found myself trying to identify which books I could see.  At one end, usually obscured by Steven’s head was Vampire Science, the first really good Eighth Doctor novel  published by BBC Books.  On the other side, I could see the Big Finish published Bernice Summerfield anthology The Dead Men Diaries (for which The Moff wrote about The Least Important Man), a Virgin New Adventure which could well be Ben Aaaronovitch’s Transit, Decalog 3 in which Moffat’s story Character Pieces was published, what I’m sure is Jonathan Morris’s Festival of Death, Paul Leonard’s Genocide and (he’s going to love this) Lawrence Miles’s Interference Book II

There may have been others, but what’s striking about this selection is that most of them aren’t simply alien invasion or historical stories but deal specifically with time travel and the effects it has on the Doctor, his companions and acquaintances and the fabric of the universe, themes which have become Moffat’s signature across all of his stories and reached their apogee in the Forest of the Dead.  Whether Moffat planted them there as an in-joke to see if there was a fan sad enough to try and identify them or this is just a coincidence we might never know.

the first episode this year to have me bouncing up and down, applauding and roaring at the television in a consistent state of giddiness

But as well as showing that our future leader was there for the dark times along with us reading the same novels, he absorbed that writing, some of which was the most experimental in the history of the franchise and essentially shaped it for Saturday night telly.  Forest of the Dead was the most challenging, most surprising, most intelligent piece of Doctor Who we’ve had the opportunity to enjoy since the series returned and was the first episode this year to have me bouncing up and down, applauding and roaring at the television in a consistent state of giddiness.

Excited about 2010 yet?

At the risk of attracting the ire of Stephen Fry because he hates that sort of thing (I’ve no doubt he reads this blog) my excitement worked on two, no three, no four, oh alright, multiple levels.  Firstly, at the risk of also sounding like Phil Collinson, it was the sheer cleverness of the writing; at no point in the past forty-eight episodes did I think that one day I’d be shouting “It’s a metaphoric construct!” at the screen, swiftly followed by “No metaphysical, no, oh fuck that’s good…”  I found myself searching through the recesses of my brain trying to remember everything I’d forgotten about Baudrillard, Barth, Jameson, Jung and Lyotard (and I don’t mean as in Georgia Moffet’s gymnastics). 

Some of that had to do with the possibility that Donna’s b-story was somewhat like The Matrix as if it had been written by Charlie Kaufman, but also that Moffat was willing to attempt that kind of thing, again I’m repeating, on Saturday night television.  It hopes that it will find an attentive audience looking for drama which doesn’t talk down to them and is willing to accept big philosophical and psychological ideas, drama written for everyone and no one at the same time.  The reviewer in the Radio Times apparently couldn’t follow what was going on which as far as I can see is a step in the right direction -- as is the fact the episode clashed with an opera on BBC Two (Harrison Birtwistle’s reworking of The Horns of Nimon), which I’m sure hasn’t happened since the 1970s.

I found myself searching through the recesses of my brain trying to remember everything I’d forgotten about Baudrillard, Barth, Jameson, Jung and Lyotard (and I don’t mean Georgia Moffet’s gymnastics again). 

There was a wonderful moment during last week’s podcast in which Euros Lynn asked Phil Collinson what he thought was the biggest difference between Steven’s writing and Russell’s.  Collinson simply didn’t have an answer.  He spluttered, and said they were very different and muttered something about Davies’s scripts being faster and Moffat’s being slower.  Lynn had the right answer; he said that Moffat’s writing was more intricate whereas Davies’s use broad strokes.  But it’s more fundamental even than that – the current lead writer often attempts to make the show all things to all people and have as many of the expected elements in as possible, whereas his successor isn’t afraid to be experimental and risk alienating some of the audience (just as a side question did anyone else get the impression from this week's podcast that David really is sticking around for the whole of series five?).

Name another recent British drama series for whatever demographic that would use such intertextual stuff as the natural scene changes of television to show the passage of time in Donna’s collective dream world and have her aware of the locations shifts or having parts of the library location appear on television, Murray Gold’s themes changing with each flick of the channel.  Then not content with that there is a character who it turns out really is from the Doctor’s future, which means that when he meets her at some unspecified time already knows her fate, something he must keep from her throughout their adventures, the secret he can never tell her (yes, Charlie Pollard’s in much the same predicament at the moment at Big Finish, but this is the television series actually doing it and on a more emotionally charged level because the implications tragic rather than just intriguing).

Then there was the finesse of each scene, the transitions from moment to moment.  The re-emergence of Miss Evanglista, her face looking like a Francis Bacon portrait, aware that she’s more intelligent than she was and why and that she’s the exact opposite of that person and that she’s in nothing but the whisper of an experience.  Revealing that in reality everyone is the villain, since we cut down the trees to make the books which transported the Vashta Nerada to The Library, and in the process making kids not only afraid of the dark but also paper, which should put a dent in the profits of publishers.  The Doctor defending himself just by telling them who he is and suggesting they look him up.  River gaining his trust just by repeating back to him the one thing he doesn’t tell anyone, his real name.  And I’m glad she didn’t turn out to be just another timelord…

I’m glad she didn’t turn out to be just another timelord…

It’s difficult, not to mention unfair, to compare everything which is going on in here with the workmanlike efforts of other writers who tend to gather the elements of what they think should be in a Doctor Who episode and string them together with a scribe who knows what they are then chucks them out.  In the hands of another writer, I’m sure the Doctor’s tumble through miles of space before reappearing clutching to a girder would have become the big action sequence in the middle of the episode.  Here it was just an incidental incident, with a cut to Cal doing what I imagine most kids do during similar sequences (a veiled criticism from the writer?).  Yes, everyone, I’m reviewing a Moffat episode again, and allowing my sycophancy to run riot.  But what else can you do when you’re faced with writing that has a quality far beyond what generally accept from the show?

Credit the rest of the team.  Congratulations to the set designers for perfectly judging the world within a world, making it look just slightly wrong.  I can’t think of many directors other than Euros Lynn who have taken such ambitious ideas and been able to present them in a manner which didn’t muddle them and actually made them accessible – he also deserves a lot of credit simply for making the episode feel like it was part of the fabric of the series and yet also very special.  I didn’t talk much about the production last week, but this had depth and an epic quality despite the somewhat mundane settings in places.  Gold too offered some of his best orchestration of the series, particular in his monumental reworking of the Doctor’s theme.  When does the season four soundtrack get released?   

Another great week for the ensemble.  It was quite outrageous to see that footage in Confidential of Alex Kingston unsure if her performance was any good.  She was pitched just right, as though she’d been a fan of the series from the get go (although whether she’d actually seen Doctor Who before taking the job is open to conjecture, c.f. last weeks podcast).  She was sweet and likeable and you absolutely believed that she already knew the Doctor each time she looked at him.  Steve Pemberton got to give the big emotional Doctor Who speech he’s probably waited his whole life for, and nailed it.  Catherine Tate’s luminance goes without saying; she cried again true, but comparing this performance with her first shoot of the series for The Unicorn and the Wasp is like chalk and cheese, as though at some point she realised ‘So that’s it!’  Tennant too seemed to step up a gear; I suggested a few weeks ago he looked a bit tired, but here that was working to his adventures as the pressure of being him took its toll.

Despite all of this I’ve already seen criticism elsewhere online, but they're wrong.

Despite all of this I’ve already seen criticism elsewhere online, but they're wrong.  They've said things like that its another story in which no one properly dies and someone’s sort of saved at the last minute by the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver (see also Ursula and Astrid), even though like Jenny it offers another likeable character that Moffat could resurrect should he want to in the next new age.  That the cliffhanger resolution was perfunctory as though every other one and as we discussed last week, aren’t why people would be tuning in this week.  That most of the episode was simply resolving issues set up the week before as though satisfying drama is about tell half a story and then starting all over again.  That Moffat keeps returning to the same ideas such as the solution to a puzzle being passed down through the years but isn’t it better to have a writer that keeps returning to formulas that work rather than a writer who doesn’t have a formula in the first place and keeps turning out something rotten?

Next week:  The Doctor parks the TARDIS so that he can take an excursion, demonstrating in the process that it really is the journey which counts.


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