“Silence In The Library / Forest Of The Dead”, penned by Steven Moffat, is not only one of my favorite adventures that he’s written for the series, it’s one of my favorite Doctor Who stories in general, and it proves to have a lot of long-lasting consequences for the series that extend beyond David Tennant’s tenure. As per the name, “Silence In The Library” is set inside the world’s biggest library in the future. It’s the size of a planet, but it’s completely empty and deserted – something happened to it a long time ago to clear out all life entirely, something that’s still lingering around now, creating a deliciously eerie and uneasy atmosphere throughout the first episode.
Like all of Steven Moffat’s best two-parters, “Silence In The Library” does a great job of juggling half a dozen different plot threads across two episodes without dropping the ball on any of them, weaving them into each other and wrapping them all up neatly and satisfyingly. The first episode takes its time doing some world-building, establishing the surreal setting of this future era, but there’s never a moment wasted and it rarely ever drags. As the Vashta Verada close in, ready to strike, the tension steadily rises up until it boils over for a rousing second episode.
Like most of the RTD era seasons, the tone of Series 4 gets a lot darker in its second half, with the stretch of episodes between “Silence In The Library” and “Journey’s End” being quite the ghost train ride. Every single one of these six episodes features a different type of horror, and “Silence In The Library” has a nice variety of grim, macabre concepts: like carnivorous shadows that eat people, technology that can store fading echoes of people’s consciousness after they die, people donating their faces to the Library, and small children realizing their entire existence is a lie dependent on someone else’s delusion, before they vanish into nothingness. “Silence In The Library” is quite a creepy two-parter.
Impressively, David Tennant turns in one of his best performances as the Tenth Doctor in this two-parter – firing on all cylinders with a high level of emotional intensity in both episodes – and it helps that “Silence In The Library” gives him plenty of interesting material to work with. The plot is kicked off when a jovial, spellbound, yet cautiously suspicious Ten is summoned to the Library by a mysterious contact because there might be danger there, and sure enough, it’s not long before he needs to put his genius to good use, solving the mystery of what’s haunting the planet. Over the course of this two-parter, archaeologists get killed off rapidly, the Doctor loses his friend after he tried to keep her safe, every attempt to be a diplomat between the humans and the Vashta Nerada gets him nowhere, time starts to run out when the whole library goes into meltdown, and the Doctor is frequently distracted by River Song, who he tries to understand without much luck.
The Doctor’s mind is constantly racing in this story, trying to juggle so many things at once that he sometimes misses important clues. Luckily, he has River’s trust and support to help keep him steady. The Doctor is very guarded around River, who seems to know more about him than she should, until she whispers his real name into his ear – which means her claims that someday she’ll be someone very important to him checks out. “Silence In The Library” never outright states what her relationship with him is, but it doesn’t have to – she’s very clearly a future lover of his, and in the context of the RTD era and the Doctor Who revival so far, this is a really big deal. Ever since 2005, Rose has been the Doctor’s main love interest: a major thread throughout Series 3 was the Doctor longing for Rose, a significant aspect of the Series 4 finale is the Doctor finally getting some closure with Rose, and even Ten’s last episode gives her a significant cameo.
However, River’s appearance here signifies that even if this particular face of his will always carry a torch for Rose, someday the Doctor will be ready to move on. His heart will heal, and he’ll find love again with another incredible woman – so part of me wonders what Rose fans thought of River, when she first appeared in 2008. Someday the Doctor will become quite besotted with her; however, there’s a catch, like there always is with the Doctor’s relationships. Moffat borrows quite a bit here from “The Time Traveler’s Wife”, just as he did with “The Girl In The Fireplace“. The Doctor and River always meet each other out of order, and his first meeting with her is tragically her last one with him. Throughout the entire development of their relationship, from a simple crush to deep love and respect, he has to live with the terrible burden of knowing exactly when and where she is going to die, which weighs on him heavily.
The future Doctor’s final gift to River makes for a great, heartwarming parallel to the gesture of love CAL’s family did for her: the Doctor couldn’t save River’s mortal life, but he could give her an eternal afterlife in the world of the Library, where she can go anywhere anytime she chooses. Notably, during the crisis, River planted an idea in the Doctor’s head that he can fall back on his hard-earned reputation to scare off his enemies and get them to back down. It works like a charm here, but he starts to rely on this trick way too often down the line, which plays a significant part in the Eleventh Doctor’s character arc concerning his hubris during his own tenure. The bittersweet ending of this episode makes it clear that the RTD era will be coming to an end soon, and a brand new era is on the horizon. “Silence In The Library” was a pretty bold sneak peek from Steven Moffat about what the show will be like when he becomes its showrunner, and while the Doctor is still a bit wary about the near future, he has a lot of great adventures to look forward to.
A rather grumpy and reluctant Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) is dragged along on this adventure this week, when she would much rather stay in the TARDIS or go to the beach. Donna has her fair share of skills under her belt, but she doesn’t know anything about the future, so she’s completely out of her depth in “Silence In The Library” and she spends a lot of the first episode standing to the side, watching the Doctor and River work in wonder. The companions have always served the purpose of being the audience’s stand-in characters for the fantastical worlds the show visits every week, compared to super geniuses like Ten and River, and Donna certainly fills that function well in this episode, trying to take it all in. It doesn’t take long for her to sympathize with Ms. Evangelista, a member of River’s team who’s often overlooked and mocked by her co-workers, and who later becomes the first victim of Vashta Nerada.
One of the most depressing, affecting and well-written scenes in the episode is when a horrified, devastated Donna has to choke down her own feelings of grief to console the woman’s corpse (who’s been stripped clean) as her consciousness fades away – one more example of Donna seeing how life in the universe can be equally beautiful and horrible. The Doctor sends her away back to the TARDIS to try to keep her safe, which backfires horribly when she gets uploaded to the Library’s database (with an incredibly chilling scream from Tate). Donna is given her own surreal subplot in “Forest Of The Dead”, which lets us find out more about what’s going on with CAL. Once she’s inside the mainframe, Donna is quickly conditioned and integrated into the system by Dr. Moon gaslighting her every five minutes until she conforms.
As I mentioned in “The Empty Child“, Steven Moffat loves to dabble in psychological horror, and one horror trope he’s especially fond of is toying with someone’s memory. The cracks in time erase the people you love from your life forever, and they don’t even let you keep the memories. You forget about the Silence the moment you look away from them, and then they kill you while your guard is down. Skewered perception is another recurring theme in Moffat’s stories: episodes like “Last Christmas”, “Heaven Sent” and “Extremis” seem to suggest that being unable to trust your most basic senses as you find out your whole world is a lie is a concept that Moffat finds especially creepy. The Library can create a pretty impressive computer simulation of the world, but it’s no patch on the real deal, and there are cracks in the façade – noticeable tells. Time in the database progresses the same way it would in a dream, or a book, or a TV show with instantaneous, disconcerting jump cuts everywhere (do I see Doctor Who leaning on the fourth wall there?).
After a while, Donna has so many conflicting memories that she doesn’t know what’s real and what isn’t anymore, as she gains the life she always wanted, starting a family with a charming lover. Eventually, Ms. Evangelista lets her know she’s living inside the matrix, and the fallout is not pretty. Donna’s perfect life was never real, but it sure as hell felt real, including all of her maternal instincts. Catherine Tate once again demonstrates how great of an actress she can be with some meaty dramatic material (just as she did in “The Fires Of Pompeii“), during the complete meltdown Donna has when her virtual children vanish from existence and the grief of a mother sets in. Once she’s back in the real world, Donna misses out on her one chance to be reunited with Lee, without even realizing it, as this episode pours one last bit of salt into her wounds. What’s more, the concerning hints that something nasty is coming for her in her future (like Rose in Series 2) are starting to become more overt as well, as the series finale grows closer.
Professor River Song (Alex Kingston) makes her first appearance of many in this two-parter, leading a team of archaeologists on an expedition to discover what happened to the Library to cause it to be abandoned for decades (and considering the way River’s story arc pans out over Series 5 and 6, isn’t it fitting that we’re first introduced to her while she’s wearing a space suit?). River is a very intelligent, knowledgeable and flirtatious woman who’s lived a life of adventure and excitement, traveling from place to place wherever the road takes her, and she’s one of a very small number of characters in the series that can be considered the Doctor’s intellectual equal. She’s very passionate and outspoken, but also very strong-willed and strict, and she can easily take charge in an emergency when she needs to by cutting through everyone else’s foolishness.
River has complete trust in the Doctor’s skills and his judgment, and she encourages her co-workers to have faith in him as well. River is still a stranger to the audience at this point in the series, but thanks to some sharp writing, her history with the Doctor comes across strongly in this two-parter, since she’s knows his M.O. inside and out and knows just how to help him under pressure. The Doctor doesn’t trust her, since she knows way more about him than she should while he knows nothing about her in return, and River stays tight-lipped and guarded all the while to avoid giving him dangerous foreknowledge about the future. In fact, despite growing fond of her, the Doctor doesn’t start to trust her fully until he learns her true identity in Series 6 – and the distance between them stings a lot. Thanks to the paradoxical nature of their relationship, River has always feared going back this far in the Doctor’s timeline, because of the possibility that it might mean that their time together is at an end.
River is full of flirty bravado and she’s always quick with a clever quip, but she carries around her share of inner hurts and past regrets, and Alex Kingston excels at conveying River’s humanity when we get glimpses of her true self, those moments of vulnerability and uncertainty that she occasionally shares with her friends and family. During a somber moment of nostalgia, River tells Anita all about what ‘her’ Doctor is like, and the Doctor she’s describing is very clearly Eleven, the one she knows best. It’s fascinating to see that Moffat already had a pretty well-defined idea of what he wanted the next Doctor’s personality to be like, a good year before Matt Smith was cast. During this story’s heartbreaking climax, River takes the Doctor’s place in his last-ditch plan and sacrifices herself to save all 4,000 people in the Library and preserve the timeline, dying at a point in the Doctor’s life before he fully knows her.
Throughout this two-parter, despite her own depressed thoughts, River’s faith in her husband (that she encouraged her friends to share) never wavered, and in the end it pays off, since he does come through for them, saves the Library, and gives her one last gift of love. River is quite an interesting character who fully embodies the fact that Doctor Who is a time travel series, and the storytelling approaches we get from it won’t always be strictly linear. We’re introduced to her at the end of her life, and then for the next several seasons, her character arc plays out backwards as Moffat fleshes out her background and her personality. Telling River’s story like this was quite a gamble, and it was easily one of the most ambitious things he ever did, but I would say it paid off in the long run, since River was easily one of the more likable and tragic characters from the Moffat era – and “Silence In The Library” is a two-parter that only grows sadder over time, the more you grow attached to her.
Throughout this two-parter, we constantly switch back and forth between the perspective of a girl named Cal and the perspective of the protagonists: seeing the inner workings of a computer through the eyes of a child, leaving it a mystery how she’s somehow part of the Library’s security systems when she’s seemingly a normal little girl, having therapy sessions with her psychiatrist. If there’s one thing that bothers me about Cal’s scenes, it’s that it feels weird that a 51st century girl’s dream home would resemble your typical 21st century suburban neighborhood that far into the future – it’s not a huge complaint, but it always threatens to take me out of this story. Cal has been kept in the dark about her true nature for a long time, to preserve the fantasy she’s created for herself – but now she’s starting to grow increasingly self-aware, questioning her sanity, and by the second episode, we start to find out why this fugue state was kept in place for decades.
Once she’s confronted with reality and she has carry the burden of protecting 4,000 people, she starts to crack under pressure and her mental health takes a very sharp decline- causing her to have a literal and figurative meltdown – because at the end of the day, she is just a scared child. Refreshingly, Moffat subverts an old Doctor Who trope in this story. At first, Mr. Lux, who funded River’s expedition, seems like your typical selfish businessman who’s only out for himself (like Rickston in “Voyage Of The Damned“), but it later turns out he’s been keeping Cal’s existence a secret to protect her for years. Cal was dying from an illness that would take her life at far too young an age, so her family uploaded her mind to the Library, so she could have all the time in the world and experience all her dreams, undisturbed – it’s a very poignant, bittersweet and strangely beautiful idea in this story, that certainly fits the dark fairy aesthetic that most of Steven Moffat’s stories have.
With his one-off villains for this two-parter, Steven Moffat gets pretty creative with the Vashta Nerada: living, carnivorous shadows who eat people. Thanks to their simple but effective modus operandi, they instill a lot of paranoia in both the characters and the viewers, since there’s always the potential that they’re lurking in the dark, waiting around every corner for their next meal in the dimly-lit library setting. Like the Weeping Angels, the Vashta Nerada tap into an innate fear of the unknown as a carnivorous force of nature, an example of how gruesome and alien the Doctor Who universe can be. “Silence In The Library” has a taut, growing sense of dread and suspense thanks to them: whenever they have some poor soul in their sights and latch onto them, that person is already as good as dead, since there’s no stopping the shadow monsters who will strip their bones clean with a bit of patience.
Every good mystery should give the viewers some clues so they can work out the puzzle for themselves ahead of time, so I like that we’re given a big hint early on: the Doctor picks up millions of life signs inside an abandoned library and briefly wonders if the books are alive, before dismissing the thought as being silly. As it turns out, he wasn’t too far off base. The shadows typically spawn in forests, but they hatched from books in the Library that were chopped down and pulped from their trees – claiming the Library as their own and killing a huge chunk of visitors in a massacre. For a long time, it’s left ambiguous just how sapient and malevolent the Vashta Nerada are. They’re vicious, implacable predators, no doubt about that, but they’re also carnivores doing what carnivores do – protecting their territory and eating anyone who’s below them on the food chain. At the end of the day, they’re allowed to keep the planet as their home – the Library is declared unsafe and humans abandon it forever, leaving the Vashta Nerada, and the souls living with CAL in the database, in peace.
Alongside Grahame Harper, I would single out Euros Lynn as one of the best directors from the RTD era, and he really steps up his game here. He does a fantastic job of bringing “Forest Of The Dead” to life, conveying the sheer depth and scale the Library has as a location (shot inside the Old Swansea Central Library in Wales), with sweeping shots that make it clear the never-ending shelves of books stretch on in every direction, gorgeously lit in a dark and gloomy atmosphere by the show’s lighting department, alongside well-rendered establishing shots from the Mill that have aged surprisingly well over the years. Like his previous work in “Voyage Of The Damned”, Murray Gold writes some of his very best music for Doctor Who in this two-parter: penning a dark, whimsical, mysterious score that really captures the feeling of a child’s innocent fantasy world gone horribly wrong.
You have the trembling, unsettling strings in “Midnight“, the thrilling electronic bombast of “A Pressing Need To Save The World“, and the enigmatic wonder of “The Song Of Song” and “Silence In The Library“. Ten, River and Donna all lost something precious in the Library and got their hearts broken in this story, and the heartbreaking suite in “The Greatest Story Never Told” sums up their grief and loss very well. The most beautiful gem though is “The Doctor’s Theme: Series Four“, a reprise of a familiar, heartfelt melody. As you’ll recall, “The Doctor’s Theme” was originally written for the Ninth Doctor in Series 1, but after he regenerated into Ten, it was retooled into more of a theme for the Doctor in general, sometimes appearing in episodes where the Doctor receives character development. It feels very fitting that some of Nine’s essence lingers in the soundtrack for this story, because the whole point of this two-parter is that no matter how young or old he is, or what face he has, the Doctor will always be the Doctor – the time lord River married – and that thought certainly warms my heart.
Like “The Parting Of The Ways“, “The Satan Pit” and “The Family Of Blood“, “Silence In The Library” is a top-tier Doctor Who two-parter, that makes for one hell of an introduction to River Song. If nothing else, this two-parter reminded me how much I’m going to enjoy revisiting the Matt Smith years down the line.
* “Maybe it’s a Sunday?” “No, I never land on Sundays. Sundays are boring” Well, now I have the mental image of Ten pouting about what day of the week the show airs now.
* “A million, million…” “But there’s nothing here. There’s no one” “And not a sound. A million. million life forms, and silence in the library”.
* “Count the shadows. For God’s sake, remember, if you want to live, count the shadows“.
* “What do you think? A cry for help?” “A cry for help with a kiss?” “Oh, we’ve all done that”.
* “Oh, you’re not, are you? Tell me you’re not archaeologists” “Got a problem with archaeologists?” “I’m a time traveler. I point and laugh at archaeologists”.
* “Almost every species in the universe has an irrational fear of the dark. But they’re wrong, because it’s not irrational. It’s Vashta Nerada. It’s what’s in the dark. It’s what’s always in the dark”.
* “Professor Song, why am I the only one wearing my helmet?” “I don’t fancy you”.
* “Pretty boy, with me, I said!” “Oh, I’m pretty boy?” “Yes. Oh, that came out a bit quick”.
* “They don’t want me. They think I’m stupid, because I’m pretty” We’ve all been there. honey.
* “My dad said I have the IQ of plankton, and I was pleased” “See, now that’s funny” “No, I really was pleased”.
* “Whatever did this to her, whatever killed her, I’d like a word with that” “I’ll introduce you”.
* “Now, listen. This is important. There’s the real world, and there’s the world of nightmares. What I want you to remember is this, and I know it’s hard. The real world is a lie, and your nightmares are real. The library is real. There are people trapped in there, people who need to be saved. The shadows are moving again. Those people are depending on you. Only you can save them. Only you”.
* “So what do we do?” “Daleks, aim for the eyestalk. Sontarans, back of the neck. Vashta Nerada? Run. Just run”.
* “Actually, Proper Dave? Could you stay where you are for a moment?” “Why?” “I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry. But you’ve got two shadows” Oof.
* “Donna Noble has left the library. Donna Noble has been saved“.
* “Oh, for heaven’s sake! Look at the pair of you. We’re all going to die right here, and you’re just squabbling like an old married couple!” Well…
* “Professor, a quick word, please. You said there are five people still alive in this room. So, why are there six?” Well, damn.
* Miss Evangelista walking around, wearing that veil dramatically, is giving me proto-Madam Vastra vibes.
* “Other Dave, stay with him. Pull him out when he’s too stupid to live!” Thanks, River. You just got Other Dave killed.
* “Oh, look at that. The forests of the Vashta Nerada, pulped and printed and bound. A million, million books, hatching shadows”.
* “You know when you see a photograph of someone you know, but it’s from years before you knew them. and it’s like they’re not quite finished, they’re not done yet. Well, yes, the Doctor’s here. He came when I called, just like he always does. But not my Doctor. Now my Doctor, I’ve seen whole armies turn and run away. And he’d just swagger off back to his TARDIS and open the doors with a snap of his fingers. The Doctor in the TARDIS. Next stop, everywhere”.
* “It saves an awful lot of space. Cyberspace” “NO, DON’T TELL! YOU MUSTN’T TELL!!!” Cal, girl, calm down.
* “So this isn’t the real me? This isn’t my real body? But I’ve been dieting“.
* “STOP IT! YOU’LL SPOIL EVERYTHING! I HATE YOU! YOU’RE GOING TO RUIN EVERYTHING! STOP IT!” Damn, Cal, that is one hell of a tantrum.
* “SHUT UP, DR. MOON!” Thank you, Cal, for finally shutting him off.
* “Don’t play games with me. You just killed someone I liked, that is not a safe place to stand. I’m the Doctor, and you’re in the biggest library in the universe. Look me up!”
* “If you die here, it’ll mean I never met you!” “Time can be rewritten” “Not those times. Not one line. Don’t you dare”.
* “Doctor, it’s okay, it’s okay. It’s not over for you. You’ll see me again. You’ve got all of that to come. You and me, time and space. You watch us run”.
* “Am I real?” “Of course you’re real. I know you’re real. Oh God, oh God, I hope you’re real. I’ll find you! I promise you, I’ll find you!”
* “I made up the perfect man. Gorgeous, adores me, and hardly able to speak a word. What’s that say about me?” “Everything” Damn, Ten.
* “Is ‘alright’ special time lord code for ‘really not alright at all’?” “Why?” “Because I’m alright too”.
* “Donna, this is her diary. My future. I could look you up. What do you think? Shall we peek at the end?” “…Spoilers, right?” “Right”.
* “When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it will never end. But however hard you try, you can’t run forever. Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark, if he ever, for one moment, accepts it. Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day. Not today. Some days are special. Some days are so, so blessed. Some days, nobody dies at all. Now and then, every once in a very long while, every day in a million days, when the wind stands fair, and the Doctor comes to call – everybody lives“.