"That was bloody terrible."
My Facebook app was blowing up with variations on that sentiment from my Whovian friends across the Atlantic on Saturday afternoon. It's not the sort of thing that you necessarily want to read knowing that you'll get your own chance to witness it later that evening. That's the reason I went into "In the Forest of the Night" expecting the worst.
It wasn't that bad, but it wasn't good either.
I'm a huge fan of The Doctor anytime he interacts with children. In my opinion all the best episodes involve them, from "The Empty Child" to the beginning of "The Girl in the Fireplace" to "A Christmas Carol". "Fear Her" is the only exception, and that is largely because Chloe spends almost the whole episode not acting like a child at all.
In fact, you could largely say that "In the Forest of the Night" is basically a sub-standard retelling of one of the greatest child-centric adventures, "The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe." They both have children wandering into an unexpected world, both feature trees that appear malevolent but are more than they seem, and both deal in the return of a lost loved presumed dead forever.
The difference is that most of "In the Forest of the Night" is just ridiculous. The sudden explosion of tree growth overnight representing some kind of sinister possible menace isn't a bad premise, really, but it's taken to heights of scope that are hard to swallow. We see, time and time again, this image of the Earth covered completely in green, including the oceans. Granted, that could be algae, which is actually responsible for most of the oxygen on Earth and therefore to the rather contrived method of defeating the real threat, but it's still a big "Oh come on!" moment.
It's rare that I call out a director for an episode of the show, but some of the blame has got to fall on Sheree Folkson. I don't know what possessed her to tell the actress playing the young girl who can hear the trees to indicate this by lazily waving her hands around like she was trying to get rid of a spider web she'd walked into, but it was a terrible idea all around. The entire pace of the episode was slow and plodding, with little to drive it a long or get the heart racing.
I get that this was a pastoral break before the finale, the deep breath before the plunge, but every moment felt more like a rather forgettable Doctor Who short story than something worth putting in an actual episode.
It was also a mistake setting this storyline in London. The gates of the zoo are broken enough to free wolves, but all the power is on and no phone towers have been knocked out? And where are the people? What is this, The Avengers? Central London sees activity at all times of night and day, and yet we're supposed to treat it like a sleepy hamlet where everyone went to bed at dusk and woke up in Treeland.
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It was poorly written, badly executed, and to top it all off Capaldi was wearing another blouse for some reason. There were flashes of goodness in some of the interactions, but ultimately no one seemed to know what to do with any of the other actors. Clara's "go save yourself" speech to The Doctor was empty, and even Samuel Anderson wasn't able to muster much fire beyond a one-dimensional caring teacher delivery.
There's a reason "The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe" is great. It's because it's simple. It's a fairytale from beginning to end. I have the feeling "Into the Forest of the Night" really, really wanted to be one as well, but it simply wasn't. It was more like Ever After High, a bunch of modernist drama tropes aping a fairytale.
The Doctor says that humanity will forget the coming of the trees like we have before. I tend to agree with him. There's not much worth remembering.