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Doctor Who - Silence in the Library

I place the blame solely at the door of the so-far lacklustre fourth series for the fact that I somehow managed not to be hugely enthused about the prospect of this Steven Moffat two-parter. And not just any two-parter, but the late series two-parter – which, as we know, have been absolute, stellar, A-grade home run back of the net successes for every one of the three years so far. Whisper it, but as I was at a non-Who-watching friend’s house on Saturday evening, I even entertained the possibility of not watching it live.

It’s a good job they relented, however, as – while they may not have appreciated it – their TV played host to the best forty-five minutes of telly since… well, let’s not beat about the bush, since “Blink”, frankly. Moffat is back, and Doctor Who is back on form – and let’s face it, when it’s on form, it’s the best thing going. Fact.

"What do you see?" "I see some fucking lovely CGI."
Some lovely CGI, there.

Even the pre-titles sequence sparks with more imagination and class than anything else in the fourth series to date: our first glimpse of some utterly beautiful CGI landscaping (and hey, kudos to whoever said “Let’s save our best work for the Moffat eps” – this was a shot to rival last year’s Gallifreyan Citadel), some very Harry Potter-esque but marvellously appropriate Murray Gold music (as with the tech boys, Gold just seems to up his game when he’s working on a quality episode – after all, for all the criticism aimed at him, how amazing was the “Utopia”/”Sound of Drums” soundtrack?) and an intriguing glimpse into the story’s narrative setup (“wait, they’re in her head? What?”). Moffat has such an instinctive grasp of how to structure a show that the way he presents something can be as memorable as what we’re seeing, and so it proves with one of the best openings that he – and indeed Doctor Who as a whole – has given us to date.

The thing that really sets Doctor Who apart in terms of modern British telly is that, above all else, it’s driven by ideas. When the ideas are in short supply, the show suffers. But when they’re flowing, it really is like nothing else you’ll see anywhere – and I include notable and weighty US sci-fi such as Battlestar and Lost in that, as well. It’s about imagination. And Moffat’s episodes are absolutely bursting with the stuff, which is why the prospect of his brain shaping the course of an entire series is so damned mouthwatering. There are more ideas in a 45-minute Moffat ep such as “Silence” than you’d find in a whole series of eps cribbed together by most of the second-tier writers on the series (Messrs. Cornell and Davies are, of course, honourably excepted, being very firmly “top-tier” – indeed, even when RTD’s scripts aren’t the best, you can’t usually fault his flow of imagination).

Take, for example, the “ghosting” process. This is a brilliant bit of techno-projection, worthy of a futurist sci-fi writer like Warren Ellis, not a Saturday teatime kids’ show. And it’s not even the focal point of the episode. It’s a handy device that Moffat has come up with to give pathos to the death of a character we barely knew in one of the most simultaneously moving and chilling scenes that we’ve seen in New Who, and to later instil terror by eerily grafting a dead voice’s repetition to a malevolent skeleton. It’s there to do a job, in other words, and while you might call its application cynical (I prefer to think of it as construction and foresight), you can’t argue with the level of inspiration on show.

Fear, of course, is a big part of Moffat’s stories – the two things he does better than anyone else on Team Cardiff are to play on existing and deep-rooted human fears (in this case, the dark), and to make kids terrified of everyday objects (here, the line about “the dust on sunbeams” practically had me applauding). Since the earliest days of the show, the most talked-about Who moments (outside of hardcore fandom, anyway) have been the ones that scared people shitless, and in four short years Moffat has ensured himself residual fees for nostalgia clip shows for decades to come. He teaches us to take nothing for granted - and that's a valuable lesson whether you're a wide-eyed pre-teen, or a cynical old guffer. Remember that, with the exception of "The Girl In The Fireplace" (whose clockwork robots weren't really the point of the story anyway), Moffat's stories have never given us a visible monster - that's not to say that monsters can't be fun, or even that they can't be scary, but there's something deeply insidious about the fears that Moffat's work teases out, and he's rapidly developing into an absolute master of psychology.

Second Opinion

God, it feels unbelievably good to have Moffat back. It seems all too long since Blink and I’ve really missed his trademark perfection. In any other series of New Who, I’d dare to say the lack of Moffat would be bearable considering the quality of other episodes, but this year it really feels like we specifically needed HIM to jump start a fairly sluggish start to year 4. And he’s done that in spades.

Looking at it cynically, you can almost see the various ‘primal fears’ being ticked off as his Who portfolio increases, but in every case these fairly obvious (yet brilliantly exploited) devices of FEAR are merely a small part of a tapestry, and yet again he’s taken something (fear of the dark) that lesser writers would’ve stretched to be the single concept into a story and wrapped it up in this magnificent little world.

If I was to pick out one problem I’d say the cliffhanger was a bit… well, a bit rubbish. I think it’s mostly down to yet another repeated catchphrase stuck in there to create some sort of false tension. I can understand the “Hey, who turned out the lights” being repeated as we’ve established that that’s the ghosting pattern breaking down, but why would the Donna Noble Node constantly repeat like that? It’s a cheap trick to hammer home the situation, and this episode just didn’t need it.

But that’s small potatoes. I hugely enjoyed the place this episode took me to. With The Sandman freshly in my mind from a marathon read through last summer, I was delighted to see Gaiman influences on show, with the Library being presented as this off beat world existing solely in the head (or dreams) of this little girl. Dr. Moon’s speech at the end about the nature of the little girl’s reality and unreality is a lovely reversal of what kids go through when they watch Doctor Who. This time the fantasy world is real and, better still, it’s written by Stephen Moffat.

Five Stars

If there’s been a real shame about some of the lacklustre stories this year, it’s that Tennant and Tate haven’t had a huge amount of material with which to spark. It’s led to DT, in particular, starting to look a bit bored with the whole thing – and that’s a shame, because all things considered, I still firmly believe he’s absolutely the best man for the job (there will never, ever be another actor to play this role who will approach it with the same level of enthusiasm. David is one of us, and he will always be loved for that). And Catherine Tate, well… give her her dues, here. Yes, she still has on average one or two moments each episode where she grates, but come on. Did even the harshest of us Tateosceptics ever believe she’d actually turn out to be quite good? The dynamic between the constantly-questioning (and not in a wide-eyed “Doctor, what’s going o-on?” way, but in a forthright and belligerent way) Donna and the Doctor has been, as I mentioned in my “Planet of the Ood” review, perhaps the strongest aspect of this series, and she still comes off like a cross between Sarah Jane and Ace (if less likely to inspire adolescent worship than such a combination might suggest). So much so that I’m almost edging towards disappointed that she’s only around for a few more episodes – and even more so given how poor Freema Agyeman was on her brief return (but let’s not rewrite history, here – she was great in series three).

But here, the pair of them are invigorated once more by the quality of the material. Donna even gets arguably the best line of a script that positively sizzles with zinging dialogue (largely thanks to the presence of Alex Kingston’s sharp-tongued River Song), with her “Ooh, that came out a bit quick!” during the “pretty boy” exchange. The Doctor, meanwhile, bounds around like it’s the early days of his regeneration all over again – without ever slipping into the “AWWH, IT’S SPACE!” or “ooOOWAH YES!” ticks that have become the irritating part of Ten’s legacy.

Meanwhile, the return of Euros Lyn to the directorial helm, for the first time since "The Runaway Bride", is a welcome development. One of the new series’ best directors, he spoke recently of the pressure involved in tackling a Moffat script: “He writes beautiful, intricate, terrifying scripts. Making his dreams live on screen is both a delight and an enormous responsibility.” Thankfully, he’s more than up to the task, and imbues a sufficiently creepy atmosphere to the latter half of the episode, while inspiring a strong sense of awe and wonder in those early library discovery scenes. There’s also a deliberate and satisfying contrast with the “real world” scenes of the girl-slash-security camera, and the clean-yet-garish surroundings of her home feel like a deliberate clue to the nature of her reality – one that’s confirmed by the quite wonderful moment in which Colin Salmon comes across all Morpheus and turns the girl’s world upside down.

In the end, where “Silence in the Library” falls just short of Moffat’s previous episodes is really that it feels like the stringing together of some cracking concepts and set-pieces, rather than a truly compelling story in its own right. Part of this is down to the characterisation – if you’re doing a classic “base under siege” scenario (and “Silence…” is definitely that – Moffat’s first entry into that archetyple Who stable, in fact), then you need a bit more development in the characters than the first episode has so far given us. Mr Lux is the stereotypical arsey leader, the two Daves (nice touch, that – I can’t be the only person who’s noticed how you rarely get two people with the same name in stories, compared with how often it happens in real life) and the American girl are fairly anonymous, and while there’s clearly plenty yet to be uncovered (not literally – this ain’t Moll Flanders) about River in part two, she’s perhaps a little too smug and know-it-ally at the moment. Still, you have to applaud Moffat for another entry into his canon of strong female support characters, even if she’s not yet as brilliant as Nancy, Reinette or Sally; not to mention the way in which he's managed to surreptitiously slip Bernice Summerfield into the series under our noses.

But it’s hard to judge the first half of a story divorced from the context of its partner, and there will doubtless be plenty more to say about “Silence” a week after its first broadcast. Questions about how it holds up as a complete and satisfying story can surely wait until then – for the moment, this stands unquestionably as a cracking piece of television in just about every respect: funny, scary, moving and superbly crafted. All the hallmarks of Moffat’s Who, in other words, and the sense of anticipation for 2010 is surely already at fever pitch. The increasingly tiresome Lawrence Miles has sniped at Moffat in his blog by (among other things) pejoratively using the phrase “new God-King” in the wake of his promotion. I’m fully prepared to use it without a hint of irony.

About this entry


To be honest, I had this suspicion hanging over me that "Silence in the Library" was going to disappoint. Series four so far has, I think it's fair to say, been decidedly average (and complete crap in the case of "Doctor's Daughter") and somehow I just felt "Silence..." was destined to go with the flow.

I was wrong, of course, it was an excellent episode containing more intrigue and ideas than several of the previous episodes put together. I agree completely with Seb's point about the imagination that seems to saturate Moffat's stories. I think that's what bothers me about some other writers on the show, they seem more interesting in cribbing ideas from other sources and simply bolting a plot together; there's rarely a sense of wonder. Not only do Moffat's ideas seem less derivative but he seems to draw the viewer into the worlds he creates - I want to find out the mystery behind what's happened to the library planet in a way that I didn't care about the truth of the planet in "The Doctor's Daughter". He's simply a better storyteller and better attuned to the audience (young and old alike) than the other writers who try to keep everyone happy by throwing cultural-references and demographic-ticking characters around.

If there was any problem with "Silence..." it was the first death which was, like the demise of the policeman in "Blink", dragged out in a way that suggested that the characters had been with us a whole series rather than a few scenes. I suppose it's realistic (after all, why shouldn't the other "archaeologists" be upset?) but from a viewer perspective it seemed a bit much and a bit overwrought although I agree that the "data ghost" was a nice sci-fi idea.

By Zagrebo
June 07, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

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Far more than I expected, watching this reminded me of the feeling I got during the transmission of The Empty Child- not the jaw drop of Reinette dying before the Doctor could return to her or the "keep your eyes open" section of Blink, but that familiar solidity. One of Moffat's gifts is to convey his plotting so clearly, and you're left in no doubt that every little detail will make sense eventually. I have to disagree with Seb slightly about Tate's performance- the "Are you taking rubbish?" conversation made me wince, particularly in comparison to Kingston's finely honed performance.

By Julian Hazeldine
June 07, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

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I'd like to finely hone HER performance.

By Jonathan Capps
June 07, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

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