River's Run her Course
Doctor Who: Forest of the Dead
I've come to think of the second two-parter of a Doctor Who series as having a special importance. For those playing along at home, I'm referring to "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" in 2005, "The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit" in 2006, "Human Nature/The Family of Blood" in 2007, and the most recent story this year. The first two-parter is still concerned with weaving the fabric of what the year will be. The final two-parter is focused entirely on unraveling it like Peter Davison did in Castrovalva. The middle two-parter then, is the only long-form Doctor Who story in which the writer has total freedom to play around with the characters and their relationships before everything goes to shit (for the characters or for the viewers as the case may be). It is, essentially, The Empire Strikes Back. I know, I know. Last week I compared it to Lost, this week it's Star Wars. What's next? Harry Potter? Sex and the City? Grand Theft Auto? Why not Superman? I could say, "You'll believe a Time Lord can fly!" I've certainly got the appropriate image. But no. Rest assured, I'm not going to spend this review making another extended comparison or even make any further such comparisons in this review. That's old hat. This time I actually want to talk about Doctor Who.
As I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, the second two-parter is often not only an example of second-act storytelling in the Doctor Who universe, but also the emotional anchor of the season. This was certainly true in Paul Cornell's two-parter last year, which was the emotional equivalent of being punched in the gut after a series of light nudges throughout the earlier part of the series. I was worried that Forest of the Dead would fail to serve this function if only because Series Four is already destined to be remembered, if nothing else, as the emotional series. Which is a rather lame way to be remembered, but it's the best descriptor of the series I can think of anyhow. I mean, Donna cries in very nearly every episode. And this sudden renewed interest in heavy emoting every episode has given David Tennant and Catherine Tate the ability to really show off their acting muscles. Which raises the expectations for this, the emotional ride that we need at this point in the series. And Moffat rises to meet the challenge as he never has before. Out of the Doctor Who we've seen from Moffat, only The Girl in the Fireplace has even attempted to emote at the Paul Cornell level, but it doesn't go nearly as far as this episode does.
River Tam. I mean Song.
Personally, I had expected that last week's cliffhanger had been simply a way to get Donna out of the way so that we could focus more on the interaction between the Doctor an River Tam. I mean Song. But while I was right about the increased focus on their relationship and interaction, I was wrong about Donna being merely shoved aside. Her emotional journey in this episode is perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most tragic of the three in this story. And it's greatly to Moffat's credit that he can leave the viewer with a sense of tragedy even while he pulls the same "nobody dies" shtick that he did in The Doctor Dances. And Donna's tragedy isn't even terrifically original, as it recycles elements of Cornell's aforementioned two-parter as well as the trick ending of The Doctor's Daughter just weeks ago. Still, Donna's relationship with Lee McAvoy, though it took place in the Matrix, had a life and a reality that exceeds that between the Doctor and Jenny or even the one-week romance between John Smith and Matron Joan Redfern.
The sudden resurrection (if you can even call it that) of River Song and friends (well, colleagues at least) is perhaps a bit too cheap, as Neil has accused. But it was nonetheless a greatly thrilling moment accomplished by a convincing trick ending which enhanced the thrill. Because of the pacing of the episode, particularly the rather convincing false coda, I honestly expected the episode to end with that shot of the screwdriver resting upon the diary. I completely forgot that there were another four minutes left in the episode and I thought I was just seconds away from the trailer for Midnight. This episode did basically the opposite of what was done in Peter Jackson's The Return of the King with the oft-panned "multiple endings" (I lied about there being no more comparisons to other works). While that film simply tacked coda upon coda upon coda, this episode ends a trick coda with a surprising jolt back into the sort of fast-paced, running-through-corridors action you'd have expected ten minutes earlier, and that makes it feel less like a burdensome continuation and more like an additional four minutes of the good stuff.
This is not a fitting ending for such a beloved and important character. Not that she's either of those.
While this sudden salvation of River Song (and, less importantly, the other members of the expedition) is a natural part of the Doctor's emotional arc for the episode, it does somewhat distract us from the truth of River Song's emotional arc by putting her in the position of simply another poor schmuck saved by the Doctor. Which, as far as the Doctor is concerned, she is: although he knows intellectually that she's far more, he doesn't have the history with her to make him think of her like he would Rose, Martha, Donna, Sarah Jane, or any of his companions. She's not a loved one but a puzzle, and her salvation is satisfying from the Doctor's end, but from River’s end it looks more like she's trapped in a computer forever separated form the man she loves. There's actually little different between her fate and the fate of Rose in Doomsday (never mind how quickly the undoing of that fate is approaching, I'm talking about the emotional arcs of the respective episodes). The fact that she merely grins and comments on the Doctor's indefatigability sells her short. This is not a fitting ending for such a beloved and important character. Not that she's either of those. But Moffat seems to be assuring us that she will be. But it will be difficult to take her seriously if we know that her story ends with such a relative whimper.
But for the Doctor and Donna, the emotional storm is raging as hard as ever. And if the impending return of Rose is any indication, not to mention the progressively more and more emotionally heavy finales Russell has done, I'm quite curious to see whether this series will end up collapsing under its own emotional weight.