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June 13, 2008

Sweet dreams (are made of this)

Doctor Who: Forest of the Dead

Sweet_dreamsFor a show about a time traveller, Doctor Who has always been strangely unforthcoming on the subject of time. Sure, in the early days we had the standard pulp sci-fi stuff about not interfering with the course of history, and lectures on how saving an Aztec from sacrifice in 15th Century Mexico could one day result in Primark closing down in Bracknell (or something) but, with the odd notable exception, the show’s writers have been largely silent on the subject ever since.

The man has wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff where the rest of us have DNA

Not Steven Moffat, though. The man has wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff where the rest of us have DNA. He would, as an old friend once said, get dizzy trying to walk in a straight line. I bet he even writes his shopping lists backwards (after he’s got back from the supermarket, probably).

Look at the evidence: The Girl In The Fireplace is a love story about two people who are unable to overcome their age difference – specifically, the difference between the Age of Enlightenment and the 51st Century. And Blink, Time Crash and now Forest of the Dead all use time, and the benefit of turning hindsight into foresight, as a way of solving thorny plot problems. Even his sitcom Coupling got laughs by replaying the same scenes from different perspectives, making time travellers of the audience even while his characters remained firmly tied to a west London wine bar.

The cheeky bugger also takes advantage of the show’s unique relationship with time to forward date his CV and tell us that, hey, if you think Doctor Who is cool now, you should see the stuff we’re doing in the future

In Forest of the Dead, Moffat has time working harder than a child in a Bangladeshi sweatshop, using it to give his story velocity (Donna’s hyper-accelerated alternative life, which slyly riffs on the conventions of television editing to pack several years’ worth of soap storylines into a matter of minutes), humour (“Why have you got handcuffs?” “Spoilers!”) and, ultimately, heartbreak (“Time can be rewritten.” “Not those times, not one line, don’t you dare.”)

And, cheeky bugger, he also takes advantage of the show’s unique relationship with chronology to forward date his CV and tell us that, hey, if you think Doctor Who is cool now, you should see the stuff we’re doing in the future - we’ve got red settings, Alex Kingston out of ER, the lot. And if the Tenth Doctor you know looks like the grooviest urban spaceboy on the block, he’s Iggy bloody Pop where I come from! (Oh, and he also looks set to be wearing the same face for some time to come – casting news from the future, perchance?)

For a moment there, I think I may actually have forgotten I was British and punched the air

Not that he’s exactly underplaying the Doc of today, of course. Ten may not have pimped his screwdriver with dampers yet, but it seems the Moff can’t help but write our goofy hero as a powerful being whose name – whatever it might be – echoes across the universe, as evidenced by his thrilling confrontation with the Vashta Nerada: Where most screen heroes would pull out a gun, the Doctor puts the lengthening shadows of death to flight with a simple: “I’m the Doctor and you’re in a library – look me up.” (For a moment there, I think I may actually have forgotten I was British and punched the air.)

Secrets_2And yet, as the Moff pointed out on this week’s podcast commentary, the Doctor is also just an ordinary bloke at hearts – a point amply demonstrated when, still reeling from having his holiest of holys whispered in his ear, we saw him physically shrug back on that facade of breezy, matey bonhomie he uses to keep other types of shadows at bay – a beautiful moment, exquisitely performed by Tennant who, by now, knows this character inside out and, indeed, back to front.

Poor Miss Evangelista, a badly copied, market-stall knock-off of her former self, destined to live a half life, brilliant, unloved, and definitely no oil painting (unless you’re a fan of Dali, of course)

It wasn’t just the Doctor who was served well by his new curator, either – every character had something to add to the rich tapestry of this episode. There was Anita, stoic, but not too stoic, in the face of death (“I’m only crying. I’m about to die – it’s not an overreaction.”). There was The Girl, railing at the terrible power to casually switch off her own daddy like an episode of Castaway, and Doctor Moon, dutifully presiding over the ebb and flow of the world’s virtual tides, and Lee McAvoy, who’s stammer not only denies him the woman he loves, but leaves her convinced he never even existed. Now that's tragedy. And then there was poor Miss Evangelista, a badly copied, market-stall knock-off of her former self, reduced to a half life, brilliant, unloved, and definitely no oil painting (unless you’re a fan of Dali, of course).

If Moffat had fun alluding to his own future history, this was also the week that saw him embracing his past, playfully reworking his greatest hits with some cool new riffs and a few subtle changes to the lyrics. The “so why are there six of us?” sequence is a motif that runs through his stories like a watermark. First seen in The Doctor Dances’ “if the tape’s finished, why is he still talking?” heart-stopper, (officially the Greatest TV Moment of 2005, lest we forget), it re-emerged in the same story’s “who’s typing?” scene, and again in The Girl In The Fireplace’s “the clock’s broken, so what’s ticking?”. Some may call this laziness; I prefer to think it’s the sort of signature trope Hitchcock might have relished in his pomp.

The average Doctor Who guest character has the life expectancy of a chain-smoking Mayfly

SmileZero body counts are another Moff trademark, but The Forest of the Dead went further with a blatant allusion to another iconic moment of ’05 vintage, the Ninth Doctor’s triumphant “everybody lives!”. Here it was packaged as nothing less than a part of Who – or at least Moffat Who – folklore: the Doctor who always wins, always heals. This cheerfully ignores the fact that, most weeks, the average Doctor Who guest character has the life expectancy of a chain-smoking Mayfly, but the idea this battle-scarred war veteran never gives up hope of a happy ending – “I do think that all the skies in all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever, for one moment accepts it” – is an irresistible one. (Just look at the smile the Doctor flashes The Girl as he’s saving River – it could melt your heart, or turn you gay, or both.)

The most audacious manner in which Steven Moffat plays with his own reputation, though, is in the episode’s closing moments, as River tucks in her children (including, significantly, The Girl – chalk that up as another child who stops wreaking havoc the moment she finds her mummy) and wishes them – and us – sweet dreams.

That’s right: The master of nightmares, the man responsible for more bed sheets going into the wash than Russell Brand, is tucking us up and telling us to sleep soundly.  Because it’s okay – the Doctor has fixed it: Everybody’s saved and, this time at least, they're safe as well.

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