Doctor Who Recap: Loving Something At Its Worst
Gotta take the 'eh' with the good.
What does it mean to be a fan of something?
For instance: I like the Arctic Monkeys, I like Paul Torday novels, and I like the paintings of Camille Pissarro, but I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a fan of any of them. Things I am a fan of include the films of Steven Soderbergh, AC Newman’s solo albums and, of course, Doctor Who.
So where do you draw the line between liking something and being a fan of it? Okay, so not everyone needs a textbook definition, but here’s the one I use and you’re welcome to it: I call myself a fan of something if I love even its weakest elements. If the fundamental nature of a thing is so appealing to me that even the worst example of it within that framework is something I enjoy, then I call myself a fan. I love the worst REM song, the worst Woody Allen film, the worst Buffy episode.
It’s a subjective judgment of course, and I’m being deliberately vague as to whether the “worst” refers to your own least favourite or the general consensus. My least favourite Doctor Who stories have included 1984’s Warriors of the Deep and 1987’s Time and the Rani, but I still bought both on DVD, and have watched them many times for pleasure, and plan to watch them again. Same goes for the ones everyone else hates but I love: 1982’s loathed Time-Flight and 1987’s Paradise Towers are among my favourites. (In fact, I love Paradise Towers so much, I even did a song about it. But I digress.)
I’m not saying that this week’s story, In the Forest of the Night, will be looked back on as the “worst” example of Doctor Who, but I don’t expect it will be remembered particularly fondly. In a notably strong season that includes future classics such as Listen and Flatline, In the Forest of the Night will likely be considered a bit of a footnote.
So why didn’t it work?
The idea that the Earth has suddenly found itself covered in trees is a decent one, an intriguing setup and vintage Doctor Who. The fact that the execution of this idea managed to be profoundly underwhelming comes down to a combination of factors. For one, we never get a sense of scale. The practical and computer effects are good, but we never really feel like we’re in central London. We see almost nobody but the episode’s main characters, and seeing at least a glimpse of a confused populace wandering around in befuddlement would have sold this much more.
The underlying mystery is undercut by an overwhelming preoccupation with personal conflicts. Regular readers of these recaps will know that I’m all for exploring the relationships between characters, romantic and otherwise, but that doesn’t mean it always works. I don’t believe that Clara and Danny would, in the midst of this particular life-and-death situation, be primarily concerned with whether Clara’s been secretly travelling with the Doctor. I don’t believe that Clara will decide that this particular life-and-death situation is one so dire that she must protect the Doctor by sending him away. And I sure as hell don’t believe that a missing sister will magically turn up in the closing moments without explanation because… well, there’s another magic worldwide phone call only a few weeks after Kill the Moon.
All the pieces of the puzzle are there, but they’ve been jammed together in an ill-fitting way, hammered into place so that the final picture is a mess. The fairytale analogy goes nowhere, the predatory animals feel like they were dropped into a late draft because there needed to be a more immediate threat, and the message that we should all stop taking our medication and listen to the voices in our heads is worryingly misguided.
But it’s still Doctor Who. And if we apply that over-used Marilyn Monroe quote – “If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure don’t deserve me at my best” – then loving Doctor Who means taking the good with the bad, and taking the In the Forest of the Nights with the Flatlines.
Yes, I will be happily buying this season on Blu-ray, and I will probably watch this episode as often as any of the others. Because even a bad episode of Doctor Who is better than a good episode of nearly every other show. But hey, I’m a fan.
Questions to ponder:
- What’s with the episode’s title? Yes, I know it’s William Blake, but the application seems to be a tad over-literal. A tyger/tiger shows up, and I suppose the stars – or one in particular – threw down its spear, but is that it? The central theme of The Tyger, one of the best-known poems around, is an omnipotent Creator who is responsible for both the hunter and the hunted, the predator and the prey. I can, if I squint hard enough, apply such a meaning to this episode, but I may strain something attempting to do so.
- What’s with the heavily-pixellated phone pictures? It’s an incredibly minor detail, but an unnecessarily inaccurate one. Camera phones haven’t taken pictures that badly since, well, ever. (This is a detail I would happily overlook if I loved the episode. I acknowledge my nitpick is tremendously unfair.)
- So, trees have always been there protecting us from solar destruction? Is that what they’re saying? I find that concept harder to swallow than the moon is a giant egg.
- No reference to the Krynoids? The 1976 Tom Baker story The Seeds of Doom featured plant beings that very nearly engulfed the Earth. The Doctor stopped them, of course, but what if In the Forest of the Night had brought them back, and revealed that they were actually trying to save us? Forgot the nerdy continuity stuff, that would have been a wonderful character and story moment.
Did you enjoy the fact that the Doctor thought he’d landed the TARDIS in central London, but was surprised to discover he was in the midst of woodland? Then you need to check out The Reign of Terror. Decades before big season finales were a thing, Doctor Who’s first ever season came to a close with a rollicking six-part adventure set during the French Revolution.
The story ties nicely in with Susan’s introduction from the first episode (where she’s seen reading a book on the French Revolution), and ends on a lovely moment that could well have served as the a permanent ending had the series not survived its first year. Ha, imagine! But most importantly of all, it’s a brilliantly fun story.
Doctor Who screens on the ABC simultaneously with the BBC, at AEST4.30am on Sundays, before a repeat at 7.40pm.
Lee Zachariah is a writer and journalist. He co-hosted the ABC2 film comedy series The Bazura Project, and is a co-presenter of film podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates. He tweets at @leezachariah