“In The Forest Of The Night” (penned by Frank Cottrell Boyce) is the penultimate episode of Doctor Who’s eight season, and the very last breather episode we get before the two-part finale, “Dark Water / Death In Heaven“, where things get pretty bleak – the calm before the storm, if you will. When you ask people what their least favorite episode of Series 8 is, the ones they usually tend to pick are either “Kill The Moon” or “In The Forest Of The Night”, since both of them have really bizarre premises (even by Doctor Who’s usual standards). It doesn’t help that this episode also tends to remind people of “Fear Her“, a standalone story from the RTD era that was also very unpopular with the fanbase, when it comes to how much of the plot is carried by child actors.
This story generally aims for a whimsical tone and a dark fairy tale aesthetic that wouldn’t feel out of place during the Matt Smith era (it actually reminds me a lot of “The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe” another episode centered around trees that mostly runs on fairy tale logic). It’s clearly aimed towards the younger members of Doctor Who’s family audience, since it tries to send an environmental message to kids to respect nature and do their part to save trees from excessive deforestation. Basically, this story is forty-five minutes of fluff compared to Doctor Who’s usual fare, and if nothing else, it makes for a very cute outing. But while “In The Forest Of The Night” is not a very plot-heavy episode compared to many of the others in Series 8, it’s still a pretty essential one to watch when it comes to the character dynamics between the Doctor, Clara and Danny – which make up the true heart of this season – and how they continue to evolve as we head into the season finale.
In “In The Forest Of The Night”, the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is stunned to discover that a whole forest of trees has sprouted up overnight – covering not only London, but the entire world. He immediately wants to look into it, but he gets stuck watching Mabeh – one of the kids from Clara’s school who wandered off from a field trip – and later the rest of her classmates as well. Twelve is a man with many talents, but he generally has a harder time working with children than his predecessor did: he’s not as patient or as attentive with them as he was in his last life. The kids keep distracting him, asking him weird questions, and touching everything in the TARDIS, much to his annoyance.
As we all know by now, Twelve tends to gain a serious case of tunnel vision when he’s in the zone, and he tends to be pretty dismissive towards people who bore him. In this episode, that personality trait comes back to bite him in the backside when he overlooks a helpful hint from Mabeh about an oncoming apocalypse, until after she’s already wandered off from the group. Once he’s been served a slice of humble pie, he’s determined to correct that mistake by following her into the woods and finding out what she knows. He has a very strong suspicion that the trees are malicious alien invaders, who want to conquer the planet or bring doom upon humanity. Eventually, he discovers a solar flare is heading towards the Earth (presumably summoned by the trees) that will wipe out all life on the planet, and he’s devastated when he realizes he can’t stop it in time. Clara suggests that he evacuate the few people he can save with the TARDIS, but that turns out to be a ruse for the Doctor’s benefit, like the ones he played on Rose in “The Parting Of The Ways” or on Clara herself in “The Time Of The Doctor“.
Clara insists that he should leave everyone to their fates, because it’s better for the kids to die on Earth with their families and their home, than to spend the rest of their lives wandering the universe as the last of their kind. Because she knows, from years of traveling with the Doctor, how heavily that weights on a heart. She advises him to leave in his TARDIS and admit defeat for once. But the distraught Doctor refuses, because the Earth is his home too, just as much as Gallifrey is (if not more so). It’s been his stomping grounds for years, and he’s devoted so much of his life to helping it. He’s adopted humanity, and they’ve adopted him. It’s a surprisingly touching exchange in an otherwise lighthearted episode, and it’s also a nice role reversal of the Doctor and Clara’s fight at the end of “Kill The Moon”, showing how Twelve took her words to him to heart after that experience.
Luckily, the Earth is saved, because the trees have already got it covered. As it turns out, the Doctor misjudged them. As soon as they appeared, he assumed that they must have had bad intentions for doing what they were doing, for the same reason he potentially made an error in judgment in “Listen” earlier this season: the Doctor and Clara have both grown so accustomed to seeing horrific, evil things happen every week that they’ve come to expect it. The Doctor essentially gets what he wanted from the Boneless in the last episode (“Flatline“): a benevolent invasion, where no one dies and humanity is saved by the kindness of strangers. Even though the Doctor acknowledges that humanity will probably forget about their unsung heroes again eventually, after a few decades have passed, he’s gained some brand new respect himself for the power of trees – and he’s learned not to be so quick to overlook the wisdom of children again in the future.
Throughout Series 8, we’ve been spending a lot of time at Clara Oswald’s (Jenna Coleman) workplace, Coal Hill School, to contrast the exciting adventures she shares with the Doctor with her ordinary work life back home – much like how Series 1 kept returning to the Powell Estate every few episodes, to highlight Rose Tyler’s character development. In “The Caretaker“, we got to see what kind of dynamic Clara and Danny have with their co-workers (who are none the wiser about their secret escapades), and in this episode, we get to see the kind of dynamic they have with their rambunctious students. Ms. Oswald and Mr. Pink have been assigned to chaperone a school field trip, keeping a bunch of mischievous, unruly kids in line for two days. However, when one of the kids wanders off from the group, they’re all forced to try to brave the newly created forest, so they can find her and bring her back to safety.
While Clara is certainly very concerned for Mabeh (especially since she’s a kid with special needs), her attention is also more divided than it should be right now. By this point in Series 8, Clara’s wanderlust and her thrill-seeking tendencies have caused her to get completely swept up in the mystery and excitement of extraterrestrial adventures. As soon as the forest appears, she springs into action and wants to start figuring out what it is and where it might have came from. Danny has to remind her a few times that they should mainly be focusing on shepherding the kids to safety. This is notably a really big shift in Clara’s priorities from where they were in Series 7, where her super nanny skills were one of her defining personality traits, or even just earlier in this season, where protecting her students from being harmed was always her number one goal. It’s another sign of how her time in the TARDIS is slowly changing her, in good ways and bad ways.
Since the Doctor is the one watching Mabeh, the one with the TARDIS, and the one with plenty of alien knowledge, Clara makes the sensible decision to have the Coal Hill group team-up with him for the day. By now, Clara works perfectly in sync with how he operates, so she talks Danny and the kids through his whole thought process, step by step (the way River Song used to do for Amy and Rory). She tries to be cool about it, but it’s pretty clear to everyone around her that she loves what she does. When it briefly seems like the Earth may be doomed and there’s nothing the Doctor can do about it for once, we get to see how Twelve and Clara have both been changed by the last few episodes. Clara insists that he fly away and leave them all to their fates, while he insists on sticking around and getting involved further, because he has both a moral imperative and a personal desire to help humanity – which is a nice way of bringing their conflict from “Kill The Moon” full circle.
The web of lies that Clara has been spinning with Danny since the end of “Mummy On The Orient Express” also collapses completely in this episode, after he manages to piece together everything – because Danny is many things, but he’s not stupid – though he isn’t really that sore about it. After seeing how well he worked with the kids, dealt with the crisis, and gave her a helpful bit of wisdom along the way, Clara is given a reminder of why she fell in love with him in the first place and starts to feel pretty bad about taking him for granted, so by the end she’s determined to make things right. She promises to have a full, honest talk with him and sort out what she really wants for the future of their relationship, because she feels he deserves full disclosure. Sadly, this decision will only lead to disaster, since the end of this episode leads directly into the tragic events of “Dark Water”.
The interactions between our three leads are easily the best part of this episode, in my opinion. “In The Forest Of The Night” makes for a strong follow-up episode to “The Caretaker” (the last story to really focus on the Doctor, Clara and Danny as a trio), exploring how their dynamic has evolved now that they’ve all had some time to mellow out. As we’ve seen before in previous episodes, Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) leads the kids he teaches like a military unit when their class is not in session. He can be strict when the situation calls for it, but also caring and approachable with them. He tries to keep an eye on them and keep them safe like a responsible adult, and he uses everything he learned about order and discipline during his time in the military to do so, while still being playful about it. And, as someone who enjoys working with kids herself, Clara admires a lot of those traits about him.
When one of their kids sneaks off from under their radar, Danny and Clara decide to team-up with the Doctor to get her back. Danny and the Doctor’s character development from “The Caretaker” has clearly stuck. The two men still don’t particularly like each other, but they’re willing to put aside their differences and work together if they have to to help the kids, and they’re willing to swallow their pride and admit when one of them makes a good point about something. Danny has always been portrayed as a fairly perceptive guy, so he quickly picks up on the fact that Clara and the Doctor don’t act like two people who haven’t seen each other for months, and they still click just as well as a team as they’ve always done. While the Doctor and Clara set about solving the mystery of the trees, Danny keeps a watchful eye over the Coal Hill troupe, which is the environment he thrives in the best anyway. But he also gets his own small moment of heroism, when he saves the Doctor, Clara and Mabeh from being mauled by a CGI tiger.
Now that Danny officially knows that aliens exist, we get to learn more about how he would feel about potentially traveling in the TARDIS with Clara himself someday. He can certainly appreciate the wonder and the beauty of it all, and he gets why she likes it, but he doesn’t really see the appeal of it himself. He’s had his share of action and excitement in his life, and he’s had to deal with the aftermath of it (all the guilt and PTSD he gained). So he’s pretty content with the quiet, ordinary life he’s got now that’s filled with small but meaningful victories – the kind of life most soldiers long to have after they’ve done their duty. Like Mickey and Rory before him, Danny serves as an anchor to Clara’s personal life back home, and he provides a nice contrast between the real world and the fantastical world the Doctor inhabits.
Clara and Danny clearly want very different things out of life – the only question now is are they fundamentally incompatible as a couple, or can they still make this relationship work long-term? Danny is pretty hurt and disappointed to find that Clara’s already broken her promise to be more honest with him, once her recent deception comes to light, but he’s not really angry about it. If they’re going to be together, he doesn’t want her to feel like she has to constantly lie to him about who she is or what she wants out of life, and he doesn’t want to come between what she has with the Doctor either, since he knows she gets a sense of fulfilment out of it. He lets her know he just wants the whole truth from her for once, while also giving her some time to think about it so that whatever she says will really be from her heart. Danny is a very flawed man himself in a lot of ways, but he can also be quite emotionally mature at times when it comes to handling relationships, and I’m really going to miss the kind of stability he brings to Clara’s life as we move into Series 9.
If the character drama between the Doctor, Clara and Danny is easily the strongest part of this episode, then the weakest part would probably be Mabeh’s subplot. Mabeh is an eccentric child who’s pretty reclusive among her peers, but also quite nice when you get to know her, and I honestly feel bad for this girl. She apparently blends into the background of whatever group she’s in so often that her teachers, her classmates, and even the Doctor take much longer to notice that she’s missing than they should when she’s not around. Ouch. Mabeh is a young empath who can read people’s thoughts, and she spends most of this episode picking up the thoughts of invisible tree spirits. She’s apparently been dealing with depression since her sister went missing a year ago, and she was put on medication to stop her from hearing voices, which the Doctor scornfully describes as adults trying to shut her up.
This is one of the most criticized aspects of the episode, since it apparently implies that mentally ill kids shouldn’t take their medication. That message was completely unintentional on Frank Cottrell Boyce’s part, since he admittedly didn’t think the implications of this plot point through fully. Mabeh blames herself for the forest appearing overnight, until she discovers, to her delight, that the trees are working in humanity’s best interests (which means that this is one of those episodes like “Planet Of The Ood” where the main conflict would have resolved itself over time, regardless of whether or not our main characters got involved in it). The trees also help her find her sister in the coda. It’s meant to be a heartwarming moment, but really it’s just sort of confusing. We never find out why Mabeh’s sister went missing, where she was, what her whole deal was, or how the trees returned her to her family. The fact that this is the final scene of the episode really drives home just how bizarre this whole storyline was.
“In The Forest Of The Night” is helmed by Sheree Folkson. This is the first and only time she’s directed an episode of Doctor Who, which explains why this story has a completely different visual style than any other one we’ve seen in Series 8 – one that successfully creates an uneasy, dreamlike feeling with plenty of low-angle shots and disorienting close-ups. Like “Robot Of Sherwood“, this is easily one of the most visually striking episodes of Series 8, because of the lush, gorgeous scenery on display throughout the hour. Maebh’s red clothing is often contrasted with the never-ending greenery that surrounds her and her peers, as a deliberate nod to Little Red Riding Hood, something the show has previously done with Amy Pond’s wardrobe in “Flesh And Stone“. Location shooting for this episode was done in the Cardiff National Museum, the Fforest Fawr woods, and Heythrop Zoological Gardens in Chipping Norton.
In contrast to the previous episode, which had a lot of phenomenal special effects for the Boneless as they came along, “In The Forest Of The Night” has some really wonky visual effects from the time. The script for this episode is a bit too ambitious for its own good: it requires CGI trees, CGI landmarks, CGI fire, CGI animals, and a CGI solar flare, all in the same story. All of that is a bit too far above Doctor Who’s usual paygrade as a show with a television budget for all of these shots to hit the mark (in particular, one shot of a state almost falling on the Doctor is less than convincing). Murray Gold’s score is very beautiful and whimsical this week: it’s filled with lush strings and ethereal vocals, and has several new variations of Twelve’s theme woven into it in tracks like “In The Woods“, “We Weren’t Asleep That Long“, “Forgetting“, and “The Song Of Clara and Danny“.
All in all, “In The Forest Of The Night” is a pretty solid breather episode for the penultimate adventure of Series 8. While the plot certainly isn’t the strongest, the character work for the Doctor, Clara and Danny is easily this episode’s most redeeming quality – and in hindsight, the strength of our core trio has been the most consistently positive aspect of Series 8 as a whole.
* “Ms. Oswald? Dark hair? Highly unpredictable? Surprisingly round face?”
* “I’m allowed a torch, sir. I’ve got a note. I’m darkness-phobic”.
* “Yes, well, there are some things I’ve never seen, but that’s usually because I’ve chosen not to see them. Even my incredibly long life is too short for Les Miserables”.
* “So, what, do you think that’s how spring begins? With a group message on Tree Facebook? Do you think they send texts to each other?”
* “Not everything can be solved with a screwdriver, it’s not a magic wand” Oh honey, there are a lot of Doctor Who fans out there who hate the sonic screwdriver who would disagree with you on that.
* “Oh, my God, Maebh’s gone! Maebh’s lost in the forest! Maebh’s going to die!” “Argh!”
* “Hey! Do not touch anything! Anything! Okay?!” Is it just me, or did Peter Capaldi’s Scottish accent get even thicker than usual on that line?
* “I’m not just going to stand here and let her die!” “Who?” “Miss! You just let her go off with some randomer into the forest!”
* “Ruby, you’re letting your imagination run away with you” “I’m not, though, am I, because I haven’t got an imagination. You can ask Ms. Oswald”.
* For real though, out of all the kid characters in this episode, Ruby is my favorite, because this girl is just incredibly frank and morbid all the time.
* “I’ve just informed you that a solar flare is going to wipe out your planet, and you’re worried about a row with your boyfriend”.
* “Okay, you know they’re not really gifted and talented, don’t you? I just tell them that to make them feel good” Wow, Clara. Just wow.
* Clara’s face when Mabeh says she got the idea of seeking out the Doctor from her is priceless. She looks exactly like she’s thinking “Thanks for throwing me under the bus, Maebh”.
* “Why would trees want to kill us? We love trees” “You’ve been chopping them down for furniture for centuries. If that’s love, no wonder they’re calling down fire from the heavens”.
* “This is my world, too. I walk your earth, I breathe your air” “And on behalf of this world, you’re very welcome. Now, go, and save the next one”.
* “I am Doctor Idiot!” Pretty much.
* “I assumed your teachers have mentioned this?” “I thought it would spoil an otherwise enjoyable walk”.
* Can we take a moment to appreciate just how miserable Danny looks when he’s listening to the Doctor ramble on about the awesome powers of trees in the TARDIS?
* “I don’t want to see more things. I want to see the things in front of me more clearly. There are wonders here, Clara Oswald. Bradley saying please, that’s a wonder. One person is more amazing, harder to understand, but more amazing than universes”.
* A running gag throughout Series 8 has been the Coal Hill kids gossiping about Clara and Danny, because they are surprisingly invested in their teachers’ love lives. At the end of this episode, they’re quite happy to finally have proof that their ship has set sail – completely unaware that it’s also going to be sinking soon.
* As always, the next-time trailer for the finale is filled with spoilers: it doesn’t even try to hide the fact that the Cybermen are coming back or that they’re working with Missy now.
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