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Monday, October 27, 2014

Doctor Who: Flatline and In The Forests of the Night

Okay, let's get straight back into it! With these two episodes I've finally twigged as to the structure of this season. As opposed to R.T. Davies's season-long Myth Arcs and Moffat's intricate puzzle-box plots, Peter Capaldi's run has been marked out by an episodic structure in which high concept premises have enabled a series of standalone stories.

Yes, there has been a strand of continuity what with the inclusion of Missy, but I get the feeling that it'll be largely dealt with in the season finale, instead of a dragged out mystery like the Silence was for Matt Smith's tenure. For the most part, this season has been focused on tight and self-contained stories which have a scattering of Character Development, but for the most part are content to exist on their own terms.

And in regards to the plotting, it feels as though each episode has been written around a singular visual concept. For Flatline it's the shrinking of the Tardis until Clara is able to carry it around in her purse. For Forests of the Night it's the growth of a world-wide forest in a single night. Even for this show, there's little in the way of a scientific explanation for these things; they're simply used to explore the reactions of the characters and provide a number of striking visuals.

This is even exemplified by the resolution to each problem: in the former case the Doctor just waves his sonic screwdriver and the monsters are vanquished, in the latter they realize that the trees are not being sinister but helpful, and simply sit back to let them do their job. Clearly, the plot is less important than the sight of the Doctor squeezing through the miniaturized Tardis or Maeve being chased through the forests of London by wolves.

As with all things, there are pros and cons to this mode of storytelling. It's a good way of introducing the new Doctor without throwing him into an over-convoluted plot, but there's a piecemeal quality to the proceedings that is only partially alleviated by cross-episode elements such as Clara's relationship with Danny and the reappearances of Missy.

Flatline

Of the two, I preferred Flatline. It feels like an episode that could have (should have?) been made years ago. When you travel around in a space-ship that's bigger on the inside than the outside, it's frankly quite astonishing that they've never played with the physical dimensions of the Tardis before. Heck, for all I know they already have in the original series – let me know.

So we get the fun sight of the Doctor and Clara squeezing out of a wardrobe-sized Tardis, followed by the even more amusing spectacle of the Doctor peering out of a toy-sized Tardis before he's plonked into Clara's bag. Even better, they continued exploring the spatial possibilities of this situation, especially when the Doctor passes a comically large sledge hammer out of Clara's bag in a move that would have made Mary Poppins proud.

The villains of the piece were effective in regards to their unknowability, based as they were on the second-dimension and killing their victims by pulling them back into their realm. The image of the cop's nervous system smeared on the wallpaper was chilling, as was the lurking zombie effect when they finally manifest in the train tunnels. That we never really learn their true nature was an interesting component – unlike the Midnight creature that the Doctor tried to communicate before concluding "I'd like to believe you're benign, but your eyes are telling me a different story", or any other number of monsters whose malevolence is broadcast through their creepy appearance, it's ultimately down to a blend of instinct and logic that the Doctor eventually decides to banish them.

Though both he and Clara are allowed to argue that the Boneless might well be accidentally killing people through their attempt to learn more about three-dimensions, the decision is ultimately made to get rid of them because the cost of the harm they're causing outweighs any honest misunderstandings. They might be good, bad or neutral, but by this point their actions define them.

Of course, by this point they've been given the appearance and air of zombies, which makes us heartily agree with the Doctor's decision, but it was still a mature decision to make based on an honest assessment of the situation. In other words, even if the Boneless were benign, they still had to go.

But this was really Clara's episode in many ways. There have been plenty of episodes in which the Companion must step up and fill the shoes of the Doctor, but this is the first time (at least as far as I recall) in which this is not portrayed as a good thing. Not exactly.

At face value there's not a lot that Clara does wrong here. She tells a few comforting lies, she treats the life-or-death situation as a fun game, she's rather lordly and inappropriately blasé around those she's trying to help (even as she befriends a few of them). But the crucial exchange that takes place at the denouement is when the Doctor tells her: "You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara. Goodness had nothing to do with it."

This season has constantly played with the idea of a Dark Doctor; a man who makes the tough decisions so that others don't have to, who explicitly keeps a Companion so that he doesn't have to bother connecting to other people, who has dropped any and all pretence of sentimentality or warmth – and what does all this mean for Clara? In becoming like the Doctor; in simply being in his company, her most obvious offense is in lying to Danny while she continually puts her life at risk.

It's a typical trope of any and all characters that live a double life, but coupled with Missy's ominous phrase: "my Clara, I have chosen well", it all suggests that Clara is being groomed for a specific purpose – and not necessarily a good one.

Miscellaneous Observations:

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. The miniaturized Tardis with the Doctor trapped inside was a great idea.

The train driver giving Clara a warm farewell yet only casting the Doctor an uneasy glance as he left was a great little scene. And in a move that felt very reminiscent of Davis's era, one of the survivors is a thoroughly unpleasant man who – though he delivers a sincere thank you – is not even remotely upset about the community service workers that were killed.

There have been stories set on council estates before, but this one was used to particularly good (and poignant) effect – the faceless victims set in the wall, the inconsequential treatment of the deaths, the unappreciated value of street art – it was all elegantly merged into the setting. Best of all was Rigsy (a play on the name Banksy?) whose talent for graffiti allowed for a clever way to trick the monsters. A fake door through which the Boneless poured all their energy connected beautifully into the episode's atmosphere of spatial awareness and the plot-driven need for the Tardis to be recharged.

And that moment of the Tardis whizzing back into its normal size was glorious.

Finally, the defeat of the Boneless was intriguingly played. In one sense it's almost painfully simple: the Doctor makes a speech and points the screwdriver at them while the theme music blares, but I like that he deliberately named them "the Boneless" before vanquishing them. It's an old bit of folklore that a thing must be named if it's to be controlled and understood, and in this moment the Doctor almost looked like a wizard of old as he waved his wand – er, screwdriver – in order to defeat them.

In the Forests of the Night

This waft of the fairy tale was even more prevalent in In The Forests of the Night, what with a little girl in a red coat being chased by wolves and a mysterious awakening to find an overgrown forest all around (I believe Clara even name-drops Sleeping Beauty). Hansel and Gretel got the requisite mention. There were even a few Narnia references, such as the close-up of the Trafalgar lion and Danny's command to "follow the lamp-post," though this episode really owes itself to William Blake.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
 In the forests of the night,
 What immortal hand or eye
 Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

If anyone in this episode represented William Blake it was of course Maebh Arden, the little girl who is haunted by thoughts and can communicate with nature. Though her the Doctor and Clara piece together the disparate elements of the plot: that the sun is about to emit solar flares and that the Earth's trees have risen up in order to protect itself from them. It's really just that simple. There is no monster to defeat, there's not even any antagonist to slow them down (unless you count the misguided attempts by the population to deforest their protective shield). All they had to do was trust and wait. It's beautiful stuff really.

And in a neat little idea that was very much in the same strain as the shared nightmare of Listen, it turns out that our collective fear of the Dark Forest – the one that haunts our nightmares, that is populated by wolves and witches and ghouls, the forest of Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel and Harry Potter – was inspired by this overnight forest occurring sporadically throughout history. We remembered the fear even when we forgot the particulars, and wove it into our folklore.

That said, one of the biggest credibility strains in this episode was the lack of exploration into the impact this forest had on rest of the world. We get brief broadcasts of the situation from around the world, and Maebh's mother biking around the forest in a near-panic, but other than that it focused solely on the kids and Clara. Which would have been understandable were it not for the fact that there was quite a bit of padding strewn throughout this episode: the wolves and the tiger, the kids trekking from place to place, and the weird little subplot of Maebh's missing sister.

Seriously, what was up with that? Did Annabelle get swallowed by the trees or something? And then she just reappears at the end because Maebh thought of her? Huh?

Most of this screen-time could have been better used by fleshing out the panic of the rest of the world and exploring the ways in which they would attempt to destroy the trees. I've no doubt that if this episode took place in Davies's time, a subplot running parallel to the main action would have been devoted to this. And that really is the biggest difference between the Davies and Moffat eras. Davies was all about exploring minor characters and the effect the paranormal had on them; in grounding this show in a sense of realism regardless of the outlandishness of the sci-fi element. Moffat has always been more whimsical.

In an episode like this, you can get away with it, though I still feel it would have been a much richer and rewarding story if they'd expanded their horizons a little.

There was however another look at the ever-strange relationship between Clara and the Doctor. It's been frustrating me throughout her Character Arc that Clara feels the need to lie to Danny about her time with the Doctor even though he's clearly supportive of her choice to travel with him. His only condition was that she didn't lie to him about it. So what gives?

Her continual deception makes about as much sense as Hermione pointlessly lying to Professor McGonagall about what really happened with that troll in the bathroom.

My theory is that Clara is operating a bit like a drug addict. She's addicted to travelling with the Doctor, with the power-rush it gives her, with the sights and sounds and experiences that a life with him affords. And a part of her is ashamed of it – she must be, or else why try to hide it? Danny and the school children forego the opportunity to witness the solar flares from space – the kids because they want their parents and Danny because he's seen too much already. And Clara, who had earlier told the Doctor that the kids just wanted their mums and dads, now seems strangely confounded by their lack of interest.

It seems like a contradiction, but I think it's the difference between knowing something intellectually and feeling something emotionally. She knows that there's plenty of joy to be had in an ordinary life, but she can't bring herself to let go of the power-rush that the Doctor provides. Though judging for the trailer for next week, there's every chance that something entirely different is going on.

Miscellaneous Observations:

Where on earth was Courtney Woods?

Is there a correlation between Missy and the fact that the students refer to Clara as "Miss"? It sounds like a bit of wordplay that's right up Moffat's alley.

Do London school children really have sleepovers at the history museum? Is that really a thing?

This was certainly a beautiful episode to look at, and I suspect one that was done on a minimal budget. Set on location in a forest with a few landmarks strewn about and voila.
Beautiful effect on the trees talking through Maebh's body, with her childish voice merged with their deep boom. Speaking of which, that was a great little child actor.

Interesting that in Kill the Moon the moon ended up being a life-giving egg, whilst here the sun was an immediate threat to all of humanity.

Fear less, trust more. Beautiful sentiment.

2 comments:

  1. I love that you brought up Hermione's pointless lie. That's bugged me ever since eight-year-old me read the book, yet I almost never see it mentioned anywhere! It's quite gratifying to finally find someone else who acknowledges this. xD

    I completely agree, regarding Clara lying. I thought she'd been doing it because Danny was "territorial" (as Clara framed him) and controlling and he was starting to really put me off, in fact. But this episode showed that he's not at all trying to control Clara, so her lying is pointless, unless it's for the reasons you mentioned, which I think it is.

    You know, I think the sleepover-in-a-museum thing must be a thing that actually happens, because I've seen it in several TV shows (can't remember which, though). What a cool idea, though!

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    1. Hermione's lie has always annoyed me. I think it was Rowling trying to demonstrate that she was cool because she could break the rules when necessary - but in this case it really wasn't necessary.

      Since writing this, I've learnt that museum sleepovers actually do happen. Who'd have thought?

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