Well, it had to end at some time. After soaring so high recently, “In The Forest Of The Night” brings us crashing down to Earth with a bump, featuring some of the sloppiest writing and worst performances since the early days of Russell T Davies.
When a global forest springs up overnight, covering the whole Earth in vegetation, the Doctor is baffled and at a loss until he encounters a troubled and lost young girl. Meanwhile, Clara and Danny find their sleepover at the British Museum has become a survival trek through a wilderness teeming with the animals from London Zoo.
Sometimes you wonder how an episode made it past the first draft stage but with this one, I wondered if it had been through any other stage apart from a first draft on its way to the screen. There are some wonderful ideas here: the instant overnight forest, the Doctor’s struggle to get to grips with the problem, the concept that people who have lost someone are more attentive because they’re constantly looking, the idea of an environmental Gaia-inspired tale where nature is trying hard to save us rather than rid itself of us but the execution is just horrible. I was half expecting a story which would end up connecting to the Forest Of Cheam from the series one episode “The End Of The World” but instead we got a substandard school trip.
The random group of (stage) school children as the ‘gifted and talented’ field trip are uniformly awful. Their characters are crudely drawn but the performances make them even worse, particularly Ashley Foster’s Bradley and his “anger management” issues. So much time is wasted with their squabbling, their simplistic character traits and their improbable tendency to deliver exposition when the script requires it that you end up starting to hope the world does end. The one exception – maybe – is Abigail Eames’ Maebh (yeah, I had to look up the spelling). She does well with what she’s given but her story and backstory are so rushed that they don’t really hang together and her centrality to the story isn’t fully or satisfactorily explained.
If the episode had to have children in it, surely this was the perfect opportunity to bring back Ellis George as Courtney Woods rather than introduce a new bunch of throwaway characters? Danny Pink reaches an impossibly sainted level of goody-two-shoes-ness in this episode and has now lost all credibility as a real character. Impossibly, nauseatingly and even a little bit pompously noble, whatever the opposite of a Clara/Danny shipper is, I’m that now. I even wonder if my increasing dislike of Clara has actually been misplaced antipathy towards the insufferably virtuous maths teacher.
A friend of mine, who has been somewhat grumpy towards the whole of Series 8 so far – we’ll call her The Gratuitous Self – said on Facebook: “Dr. Who, stop including kids!!!?! This is not the Sarah Jane chronicles!!!?! This is Dr. Who!!!?!”. Hyperbolic punctuation aside, she’s got a point. The kids are a distraction and a waste of time in this episode, as is the disposable thirty seconds of peril thrown in using escaped animals from London Zoo. Despite the late attempt to connect the planetary forestation to the genesis of the fairy stories of the western world, this episode is a Grimm reminder of the perils of working with children and animals.
Ultimately, a great concept and some spectacular visuals are badly let down by a story and a script in which every good idea is woefully underdeveloped and all the unnecessary baggage (the kids’ behavioural issues, Danny and Clara’s relationship) is explored too much. In the closing moments of the story, there’s a completely unearned moment where Maebh’s sister returns but there’s been no explanation of where she’s been, how she disappeared or why she came back. Maebh’s connection to the forest itself is just left hanging and as for the forest magically disappearing once its job is done coupled with the “everyone will forget” trope, well that’s just egregiously lazy writing.
“In The Forest Of The Night” is the worst of the series by quite some way and one of the weakest entries since the Doctor Who was revived. It doesn’t fail for want of imagination but falls short in every other aspect. The finale looks suitably impressive and if we had to have a dud, it’s better to get it out of the way now so that the series can go out on a high note.