Doctor Who - Forest of the Dead
After last week's suitably tense, intriguing and sporadically beautiful opener, I sat down to watch Forest Of The Dead with a lovely feeling of certainty that I was going to enjoy what I saw, which has been altogether too rare in recent Who. Thankfully, as I have been wavering on the brink of giving the show up altogether (I could probably have spent forty minutes punching myself in the face every Saturday night for the previous seven or eight weeks and have enjoyed myself a roughly equal amount), this episode is just as great as I cleverly predicted. In fact, this episode should have been called "How To Write Doctor Who" and its pages should be stapled all over the walls of the bedrooms of the writers of every other story of this series so far. It's a shining diamond in the rough. An awesome, ninety foot tall diamond carved into the shape of a naked woman playing a flying-v guitar.
Even the dramatic upturn in quality last week hadn't entirely warmed me to Catherine Tate, particularly since it featured possibly her most annoying line-delivery yet ("are you talking rubbish?", if you were wondering). Moffat's episodes have often featured clumsy lurches into bad comedy, but overall they're fantastic enough that I don't mind the man who made The Doctor call an adversary "Mister Thick Thickety Thick Thick From Thickania" is becoming the full-time showrunner. I digress. The opening scenes of FOTD had me completely engaged with Tate's character, due to the completely disorienting way it dealt with SILT's cliffhanger ending. What a good acronym! SILT! We saw Donna, living a life with a husband and kids, slowly become aware that she was tumbling through a montage rather than living in real time. It did what Who has always done at its very best - overcome budget constraints by means of incredibly creative plotting. The scenes set in the playpark were infused with an unreal, nightmarish quality, despite being just some people in a park and someone doing the "smudge" tool on Miss Evangelista's face. When we first saw Donna in The Runaway Bride, her desperation to get married played out as kind of hugely annoying. Where it resurfaces here in her dream-state marriage fantasy, it's like that aspect of her suddenly makes sense, and those scenes are a lot more affecting as a result. Through the miraculous power of GOOD WRITING, Donna started to become a real, breathing character rather than a list of traits (and an annoying voice), which to be honest Martha never managed for me, despite her brilliant arse.
One aspect of the episode that disappointed me slightly on first viewing was how many callbacks to previous Moffat episodes were contained in the last act - the denouement contained heavy pinches of The Girl In The Fireplace aswell as The Doctor Dances, and the repetitive nature of this series has been one of its most notable flaws. The current production team is clearly nearing the end of their natural lifespan, and to see the new showrunner already repeating himself in a similar way is a slight worry. However, if this is viewed as an extended pilot for his run, it could be argued that Moffat is underscoring what will be the most important factors in his version of Who. I've long thought that romance could have a place in Who, especially big, emotional New-Who, but ought to be kept entirely separate from The Doctor's relationship with his companion. Moffat's tendency to give him "bond girls", a series of doomed, episode-specific flings, is a much better idea. As for "everybody lives!", I would probably not have found the reuse of this idea so bothersome had RTD not already ripped it off for New Earth. For anyone familiar with the novel The Time Travellers Wife, already a major influence on The Girl In The Fireplace, the revelations about The Doctor and River Song's relationship were a long time coming and a little underwhelming (but still a treat, what with Moll Flanders doing some lovely acting).
Aside from these very minor grumbles, the episode doesn't really put a foot wrong. Yet for all the corking dialogue and scary bits, it's the high emotional drama of the last act that marks this episode as tremendous rather than merely great. Smart structure and well-executed sci-fi ideas are really what this show should be doing every week, rather than FOR THE FIRST TIME THIS SERIES SO FAR, but it's the episodes that yank at your heartstrings which feel really special, and boy does this one have a good yank. As Cappsy points out in his excellent Midnight review, Tennant always excels at selling the scenes where the Doctor is weakened or possessed, but it makes a huge difference when those moments are earnt, rather than shoehorned in. We've rarely seen the character looking so powerless and sad as when he wakes up handcuffed to a space-radiator, realising that the woman he will come to love is about to die in front of his very eyes. It's an effective exploitation of the inner loneliness that dogs this incarnation of The Doctor, and much more affecting than having him turned into an elfin CG twat in a birdcage.
So to summarise, this is a wonderful feat of telly, and we can breathe a collective sigh of relief that this series has finally shifted into a higher gear.