Review: Doctor Who – 4×9 – Forest of the Dead

Oh. Was that it?

Forest of the Dead

Two-parters are tricky, aren’t they? You set up mysteries and problems in the first part that need to be answered in the second. Most importantly, you have to make sure there’s sufficient pay-off for the viewer, who’s been hanging around waiting for the answers.

Last week in Silence in the Library, Steven Moffat set up all sorts of questions that needed to be answered this week. Did he answer them this week? And did he answer them well?


As the shadows rise, the Doctor forges an alliance with the mysterious River Song. But can anyone stop the Vashta Nerada?

Was it any good?

It feels kind of odd to say this, but the story felt like something of a let down. Maybe it’s because I’d already guessed the answers to all the questions. Maybe it’s because the answers were obvious answers rather than something more intricate. Maybe it’s because the important answers were ducked and never answered.

Whatever it was, I have a massive “Oh, was that it then?” feeling at the moment.

Now, being a Steven Moffat story, it could never be actually bad. Far from it. Forest of the Dead was in many ways a very clever piece of work. The wrong footing of us right at the beginning with Donna’s story was rather neat. We’ve seen countless times, in shows such as Buffy and Stargate, episodes where the hero or heroine wakes up to be told that all the exciting adventures we know about were delusions. What we’ve almost never seen is the hero or heroine be easily persuaded that it’s true and then lead a normal life of years’ duration afterwards (although you can cast your mind back to the ST:TNG episode The Inner Light and see something similar, if you want).

It was a surprisingly touching story (although no proper coping strategies for adult stammerers in the 52nd century? Really? My wife will be surprised…) and the idea of seeing your kids disappear because they never existed is pretty horrific – as was the Ringu-esque face-pinching on the Miss Faversham-alike PA, although they dwelled on that too long for it to be truly scary. The TV-cuts within the story, which in Cal’s mind was on television, was a clever idea as well.

But there’s a problem with this. If you are essentially building up a “closed room” piece of suspense, you lose all the tension if you keep leaving the room. So even though Silence in the Library piled on the tension very well last week, Forest of the Dead didn’t get much of a chance this week. It wasn’t helped by having the “scary last week” monsters – scary because they were mindless and unreasoning yet able to kill you in a blink – become reasoning and able to sign truces. Where was the real threat? Nowhere in the library any more.

As a result, the story became a simple winding up of plot threads and explanations – and spectacularly uninvolving as a result. To me anyway, it was obvious last week that Dr Moon was probably some kind of library helper program, that the kiddie was essentially the library itself, and that everyone, including Donna, had been saved to disk somewhere and just needed to be restored. I just needed the exact details, it turns out. I didn’t guess that the books were the source of the shadow wotsits, although I had a vague idea it was something to do with the library that caused the infestation, and I didn’t guess that the girl was one of Steve Pemberton’s relatives – but I didn’t care either.

The only real mystery – the only one anyone did care about – was the identity of River Song. And we didn’t get that answered. Now clearly she’s supposed to be the Doctor’s future wife, but would it really have hurt anyone just to say that? So much less tedious – certainly less tedious than the Sartre-esque Hell that the Doctor committed her to for all eternity like a complete git. Wasn’t expecting that particular denouement, but it was a bit like a certain Kylie moment from Voyage of the Damned, so I wasn’t expecting them to repeat themselves so soon.

I could nitpick a bit about things like finger clicking, but I’m not really in the mood for once so I’ll pretty much leave it here. Euros’ direction wasn’t quite as good as last week’s; Alex Kingston’s acting also went downhill a bit; and there was way too much running up and down corridors being chased by not terribly scary but repetitive zombies for my liking.

Oh well. Maybe I’ll like it better in a few days’ time. At the moment, it felt like Steven Moffat by numbers – all his usual themes repeated but without sufficient variation to be of real interest. Which is shame after such a cracker of a first part.


Do proper reviews end in blurgh?

Other reviews

None yet. But we’ll meet them soon and they’ll be very, very important to us.

Continuity references

No really big ones, although the square gun of Captain Jack’s was back again.

Doctor Who Confidential

Firstly, anyone notice that Confidential, of late, has become a great big nostalgia fest – a sending off of RTD and Phil C while simultaneously introducing Steven Moffat to the masses? Clips from old episodes, fore and art. Steven giving his philosophies of the show. Rusty explaining why he did certain things over the last four years. It’s the changing of the guard, everyone.

Secondly, anyone notice that Rusty said that Martha was coming back on to “the main show”? Companion for the specials or just a future episode this series?

  • Perhaps it’s a mistake to comment mere minutes after seeing it, but the Resident Fan Boy and I were entranced. I’d guessed a lot of the answers too, but I didn’t care. If this gives me the illusion/delusion that I can write like Steven Moffat, I can live with that…
    The real problem with an episode like this is that it makes some of the other episodes look downright shoddy. Didn’t notice the music once.

  • I definitely spotted the martha ref – I know someone else who will have been live to that as well so I’ll be looking for their comments on that – but I think, really, you’re wrong about this episode falling flat. Maybe partly that was because I deliberately spent the week NOT speculating and NOT reading other people’s speculation either so perhaps I wasn’t set for the fall you clearly felt.
    But I loved it. Sorry.
    Review over at my place.

  • Poly

    I found it very moving. And it wasn’t the sad things that moved me the most, it was the happy things. To get your characters to a place where they deserve happiness is very very difficult, especially since we are all hardened cynics.

  • kaballa

    I found myself hoping that at some point in the future, should the Doctor come to realise that he does/did/will love Song, he will go back and bloody well rescue her properly, because I was breathless and a bit thrilled at the thought of his last minute rescue plan, then crushed and a bit disturbed that her ‘salvation’ was to go from being a competent, dynamic adventurer to some Stepford fascimile, locked into bucolic suburban single motherhood for eternity.

  • I’m with you. Lots of exposition and not a huge amount else. Classily-delivered exposition, but even so. Review up.

  • As Marie pointed out last week, the River Song arc is basically The Time Traveler’s Wife. Since I’d read that, maybe that diminished the episodes’ effect – TTW is much better and has a genuinely sad ending (as well as the actual ending which occurs halfway, of course).
    Not quite sure why the library decided River Song would want to spend eternity with someone else’s kids plus whoever she happened to be travelling with on her last trip. Seriously, would you want to spend eternity with whoever happened to be in the office this week?
    As for Rullsie’s suggestion I’ve spent the whole week speculating, I actually came up with all my answers during last week’s episode. I do have many more things to think about during the week than Doctor Who for some reason… 😉

  • I’m with Lisa and Persephone, I loved it, though I wasn’t sure about the ending. I think, as I said on Lisa’s blog, it’s not so much the Doctor who can’t let people die as Stephen Moffat – I think he liked his characters too much and wanted them to keep going somewhere. With my writer’s head on I’d say, nooo. Kill em stone dead. Don’t wring all that emotion out and then say, ok you’re saved to disk now….
    The kids absolutely loved this. And DIDN’T get all the answers in the way we did. The advantage of being young and unexposed to the way plots develop. They regularly express amazement at my ability to second guess storylines. They think I am a genius, not realising it’s obvious once you’ve seen/read a few stories… I’m not telling them that though!
    I did really love this, and loved the expectation of the relationship with River, and Donna’s near miss with the stammering man. I think the only reason for giving him a stammer was so he couldn’t call her name at the end. Donna’s stammering man also gives me hope that she may have a future somewhere, if not in our universe. I did think losing her virtual reality children was absolutely horrific too. Particularly as you go the sense this was what she’d always wanted, which maybe why she went along with the deception.

  • Can’t help but feel – seeing as I’m married to someone who ran the NHS stammering service for an entire London Borough – that by the 52nd century, they might still be teaching stammerers coping strategies to deal with stressful situations – and being able to say people’s names. Not saying there’d be cures, but having stammerers of the future portrayed as not being able to get a word out when they’re in their 30s/40s is… odd to say the least. They could have just had him teleport before being able to say her name.

  • andrea

    It seemed as if Stammering Man only did it at certain times, eg when he first met Donna (nervous) and at the end (moment of great stress). I haven’t rewatched but I think he could speak okay during their ‘marriage’. Unless stammering could be cured completely, I suppose even advanced techniques could fail in particular circumstances?

  • Hmm. What’s that? Oh, it’s my wife glaring at you… 😉
    My point is more (and we’re getting off point a little bit, I know)
    a) would a stammer that clearly hasn’t been treated in the slightest still exist in the 52nd century, even if there isn’t a cure?
    b) given he knows the importance of getting the word out at the vital moment, wouldn’t he use all his training to try to overcome the stammer?
    But it’s a minor point. I’ll let you know what my wife thinks of it once she’s watched it. She’s not best impressed by my description of it so far….

  • The episode didn’t fall flat for me — I thought it was an elegant rounding-up of the story; it didn’t quite scale the heights of the Empty Child and Human Nature two-parters, but it only just fell short.
    I don’t think the exact nature of River and the Doctor’s relationship needed spelling out. Why would that have made it any more satisfying? And wouldn’t it have made it just an explicit adaptation/rip-off of Time Traveller’s Wife (not that I’ve read it)? I’m much happier with hints and semi-enigmas. I don’t need everything to be spelled out for me. It’s obvious that they had a very close and intimate relationship, that didn’t have a linear chronology. That’ll do.
    In the same way, the ‘happy ending’ was vague enough to be unsettling. Those characters are dead. Unequivocally dead. Lux said that Charlotte was dead and that what was in the computer was an approximation. It’s the same for the others. The Doctor, obsessed with saving people, did what he could, but he doesn’t really understand humans, no matter how much he thinks he does. ‘Everybody lives’ was River quoting the Doctor, not summing up the plot: you can’t miss the note of irony in the statement or the implication that sometimes he should give up.
    The stammer was a dramatic device. Apply some minor nerd polyfilla if it bothers you. He’d had a stammer in the past; it had been successfully treated; but in the emergency teleport and data storage it had been exaggerated, which is why he was in the CAL hospital. The transcription error persisted when he was teleported back.

  • “Why would that have made it any more satisfying?”
    Didn’t say it would be more satisfying. I said it would be less tedious.
    It was “let’s have a mystery for the sake of it”. It would have been so much more natural and easier for the Doctor to say “Crap, we’re married!” or whatever than to scamper around for half the episode doing his level best to avoid a straight answer. But because it must be a Mystery, because Mysteries are important, they have him dancing around it. Which was tedious.
    “Wouldn’t it have made it just an explicit adaptation/rip-off of Time Traveller’s Wife.”
    No. You’d need to read it to see why.
    “The stammer was a dramatic device. Apply some minor nerd polyfilla if it bothers you. ”
    Next week on Who, it’s the 95th century and someone has consumption. Don’t worry, they’ll treat it with space leeches. And there’ll be a guy with only one leg – just like now, they don’t have prosthetics so at a vital point, he’ll try to walk (because he’s forgotten he’s only got one leg) and then fall over. Ha ha! It’s so funny. It’s a dramatic device you know. Don’t like it? Apply the Filla.
    Seriously, I know people – by which I mean blokes into hard SF – want the “boy” sciences like physics, engineering, chemistry and molecular biology to be represented reasonably well, but why does the favourite pastime of pedantry and accuracy with science suddenly become Somebody Else’s Problem whenever we hit one of the “girl” sciences?
    Even within today’s world of speech (and language) therapy, that was a bad representation of a stammer, so giving it credence as a valid view of stammering 3,100 years from now? What’s up there? Nitpick consistently if there’s going to be nitpicking, I say.
    It’s not a biggie in the scheme of things, but giving a character a stammer just so he can mess things up is lazy and unnecessary to the plot. He could have been teleported away before he had a chance to speak. He could have been a quiet bloke, or a guy who didn’t speak much English in Donna’s world.
    But the instant message for kids (with stammers) is “that’s what stammering looks like to everyone – a source of endless amusement at your inability to speak properly. Ha ha! Happiness won’t be yours because you stammer. You’ll screw it up at a vital moment. Why are you even bothering with your exercises since they’ll be useless when you actually need them?” – although maybe they don’t want to end up marrying Catherine Tate. Not so great is it now?
    All the same, it was a minor point. Admittedly, I do tend to ramble but I did say it was a good piece of work. It just fell flat for me for all sorts of reasons.

  • Anonymous

    OH my sweet Lord, you guys get very heated up about 90 minutes of telly, don’t you? Look, there are those who like it when a play or book keeps you in the dark, and there are those who don’t. I enjoyed being kept in the dark, wondering what the resolutions to enigmas would be, while my Who-buddy felt emotionally abused by this kind of story-telling (but she comes from a small town – actually, so do I, no excuse then). As soon as she felt at a loss, she stopped trying to work out the story. However, there is no doubt that it was clever, emotional and scary, but it was somehow very unbalanced, with too many explanations that the audience can’t guess, too formulaic with regards to the expedition characters and Stephen Moffat became transparent! He’s got the right idea about Doctor Who inhabiting dark nursery corners, but if he makes such episodes the mainstay of his headwritership, they will lose all impact (and he will lose many viewers). RTD’s strength has not so much been in his penned episodes, but in giving Doctor Who such variety week after week with a great team of diverse writers.

  • espedair

    I love it. I thought Alex Kingston was both attractive and compelling! I didn’t need all the details to enjoy this… I enjoy the tease! Obv I knew Dona would be ok due to the mid series trailer (whatever is happening Rose is coming back, that a good thing ? Yes!)
    I loved this ep. The best this series by FAR.
    Great plot, great pace, good concept. More Moffet I say!
    I guess that plot elements (A;I work in IT and B: as Mrs Espedair say ‘this is a series for kids’ I mean really…. but I digress’
    It was great… good use of Donna… not much of her hubby.. but I didn’t expect much
    Roll on the series end I say….
    Counting down the hours/days/weeks!

  • Just caught the two-parter last night…
    I’m always amused by the Murray Gold Watch, but will admit that it doesn’t really jump out at me. This time, not only did the music overpower, but it was one reference to a classic score after another. We’re not supposed to be stopping and saying, Hey! That’s from such-and-such!
    There could be another reason why the “Mystery” of River Song wasn’t resolved. It gives Moffat an out in case he comes up with something better in the future when he wants to address it again.
    We’re led to believe that he hasn’t met her yet – but what if it’s only because he hasn’t met this incarnation of her? I got to thinking – What if she’s Susan? Wouldn’t a grand-daughter know her grandfather’s name? Maybe this was her last regeneration.
    Still, she was a bit too flirty and suggestive about their future times together, so maybe the squirm factor rules that out.

  • Oh, and about the “saving” of River Song….
    It put me in mind of his saving of Ursula in “Love and Monsters” – not really sure it can be called “saving” to be trapped like that for eternity.
    But it may have given Moffat an out to bring her back post Library, rather than just pre-Library.
    (Her talk about the city spires that sang put me in mind that maybe she was Ace all grown up. it sounded like the kind of place Doctor7 promised to take her in his last speech…..)

  • Susan is/was a Time Lady so the Doctor would
    a) know she’s alive (cf The End of the World)
    b) recognise her (cf The Sound of Drums)

  • Yeah, I have to stop thinking of the character as a human, with simple human abilities…. LOL!

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