Friday, June 27, 2008

Doctor Who, "Forest of the Dead": 'Tis a far, far better thing I do...

Spoilers for tonight's "Doctor Who" coming up just as soon as I take my daughter to the playground...

Due to a time crunch, I'm going to be briefer about this one than I'd like. The Steven Moffat-scripted episodes of "Doctor Who" are always special (though we'll see if he can maintain that quality when he's running the show in 2010 instead of parachuting in for one or two episodes a year), and there's a lot I could say about "Forest of the Dead" that I just don't have time for.

There were some complaints last week that "Silence in the Library" played a little too much like Moffat's Greatest Hits, with River Song's out-of-sequence relationship echoing Sally Sparrow from "Blink" (though the more obvious parallel was the one I made, to "The Time Traveler's Wife"), the Vashta Nerada as the new nanongenes, "Hey, Who Turned Out the Lights?" replacing "Are You My Mommy?," etc.

I don't know that "Forest of the Dead" is going to quiet that notion for the dissenters, as the finale -- with the souls trapped in the mainframe restored to their bodies and River and her dead crewmembers granted eternal life of a sort inside the repaired computer -- is very much in the "Everybody lives!" vein of "The Doctor Dances." (Even Moffat seems to have recognized that this is a pattern for him, and promised that there will be more permanent deaths once he's the showrunner.)

But in some ways, I compare what Moffat does to a great musician. There are enough recurring themes and stylistic elements in, say, a Bruce Springsteen song that you'd know it was one of his even if you put another singer in front of the E Street Band, but that doesn't lessen the impact of hearing the latest variation on the theme, because the innate craftsmanship is so good.

Take Donna's alternate life inside the computer. I've seen variations on this story before on other sci-fi shows (most famously "The Inner Light" from "Star Trek: The Next Generation," where Picard spent an entire lifetime and had many children and grandchildren in the space of a few real-world minutes), but the dream logic nature of that existence and Catherine Tate's performance as Donna began to realize that her kids weren't real made it feel like its own thing. And then Moffat went and gave the thing its own vicious kick by having Donna's computer husband turn out to be very real but unable to call out to her because of the stammer that he'd spent so much time establishing earlier in the episode. Take the size of the universe, multiply it by the number of eras that The Doctor can take Donna to on the TARDIS, and you have the odds of her ever running into her fella again -- especially since she doesn't even know to look for him. So cruel. So perfect.

Even The Doctor figuring out a way to save River (and to let her spend the rest of her days palling around with Proper Dave, Other Dave, Anita and the restored Miss Evanglista) wasn't quite the happy ending it initially seems. The Doctor did, after all, hand over ownership of the planet to the Vashta Nerada, so it's not like he can come and visit her whenever he's in a romantic mood. Obviously, he has the ability to go visit younger versions of River, and we know that he'll either seek her out or run into her again one day, but barring something incredibly clever, there will never be a moment in time where the two of them can be on equal footing in their knowledge of the other.

I really, really enjoyed this one. The Doctor opening the TARDIS with a snap of his fingers was practically worth the price of admission by itself, with all that it signified.

As always, a reminder: we're respecting the American broadcast schedule, so no talk, however vague, about things happening in episodes that have yet to air in America. Got it?

What did everybody else think?

32 comments:

Peter said...

2010 can't get here soon enough. Series five is going to be so good with Moffat behind the wheel.

J said...

...and Donna's being zapped into an alternate life was also a fantasy variation on what happened to Kathy Nightingale in "Blink." The computergirl interacting with reality via her TV/remote control hinted again at "Blink," which was basically a paean to the powers of interactive viewership.

Yes, the bit with Donna's lost stuttering husband was a heartbreaking little touch. And I did like the dreamlike flow to the Donna scenes (though they also felt very familiar, I can't put my finger on exactly what they might have been aping... and we already did a take on "Inner Light" thing with last year's "Human Nature"). But part two didn't do anything to fix my overall disappointment. These are the only two Moffat eps I don't feel any urge to watch again.

(I'll stop being a downer soon. Promise.)

Grunt said...

I adored this episode and the one before it. I'm still a little choked up

Michael said...

I don't watch Dr. Who, but I looked at the photo on the page and my first thought was "what's Dr. Corday doing in a space suit?"

MPB said...

Great review, and I can't wait to see where Moffat is going to take the show. However, what's niggling me (and proof I watch too much television) is... Other Dave on Doctor Who tonight = Bar Owner on My Boys last night?

anon said...

mpb,

Yes, I think that was Other Dave -- just check out his resume.

---

The "greatest hits" vibe felt stronger to me in this episode than the previous, but as I wrote last week, my feeling is not that Moffat has run out of ideas so much as he has reached the limits of what what he can say in a single "episode" a season.

But the ending did bother me. It wasn't clear to me in what sense Professor Song was "saved." If it was just a matter of putting her ghost (impulses) in the machine, then what was the point? No one will ever interact with the machine ever again anyway. I would have understood it as providing companionship for Cal, but I couldn't see how it served Professor Song (or the Doctor) in any useful way. It made the voiceover about the Doctor's inability to face death seem a bit snarky, really.

I also did not understand how he saved the others (particularly Ms. Evangelista, a different version from the one Donna met) and why, once they were saved, he couldn't just bring them back. The whole thing felt forced in a way the rest of the episode didn't.

Since we're focusing on Moffat's greatest hits, I'd say I thought this episode was going to end like _The Girl in the Fireplace_, not _The Doctor Dances.

Anon

Rich C said...

I will chime in with the others about this episode's disappointment. However, it wasn't these 2 episodes that let me down.
As Alan says, "so no talk, however vague, about things happening in episodes that have yet to air in America."
Well, I've managed to avoid actual spoilers. But for the last 6-8 weeks, I keep hearing how phenomenal the Moffat two-parter is. So, while I was quite happy with what I was seeing, I kept waiting for it got get...well, legendary.

So, please, please. Just don't say ANYTHING about what coming up! (I am considering trying to find out how these torrent-things I keep hearing about work. I haven't seen the BBC versions, but even I could tell how SciFi butchers their commercial breaks!)
I did love hearing Dr. Song tell The Doctor just how bad-ass her "real" Doctor is. Particularly since our Doctor thinks he's already there.

rich

Alan Sepinwall said...

I also did not understand how he saved the others (particularly Ms. Evangelista, a different version from the one Donna met) and why, once they were saved, he couldn't just bring them back. The whole thing felt forced in a way the rest of the episode didn't.

He couldn't bring the others back because their bodies had been killed. All the people in the computer before, including Donna, were brought there after a failed teleport, so their bodies were being held in computerized transit.

And the computer picked up the other ghosts in the same way it did Miss Evangelista, and it fixed her because it had been repaired, thanks to no longer having 4000+ human personalities wandering around the data core and confusing it.

Muñeco de Nieve said...

I really like Doctor Who!! I think it's one of the best production I've ever seen! (sorry for my english!)

Grunt said...

Moffat is a terrific writer and, like most great writers (in any medium) the same themes come up again and again. It simply depends on how the writer turns those themes and weaves them together. I never once felt surprised at any twist in the story, never once felt something wasn't appropriate but I loved watching how Moffat turned the story, watching where the themes would pop out.

If you look at most writers, from Hemingway to Shakespeare to Arron Sorking you'll see the same themes over and over. For me, it's just how the themes are presented that is important. And I felt Moffat presented them beautifully.

M.A.Peel said...

One small point: I found the ending confusing too. The bedroom looked like the bedroom in Donna's house, but we just saw River and gang in front of the manor house.

The story feels like Moffat is playing with all sorts of hermenuetics, how we read and interact and interpret text.

Some people are writing that what's the point of the Doctor saving River to "live" only in a virtual world.

But of course the whole universe we are talking about is only virtual, and yet how vibrantly alive it is. We all have REAL lives, which include where and how we sit and watch TV. And yet it is our interaction on the Internet that brings that TV world into a deeper dimension.

The children disappearing when their parents close their eyes is really the idea that fictional characters of all kinds disappear when the reader is gone. And that fictional creations are the children of the writers.

It's all about the interaction: the traditional structures of writers to characters and readers to characters, and the new creative depths that arise from TV and internet.

Andrew said...

I see where much of the criticism is coming from, but this two-parter is the first Who of this season that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Even if he used some of the same ideas as he did in his earlier episodes, what Moffat did here is get to the heart of the Doctor and Donna. Donna spends time in the simulation and sees a life with marriage and kids that she actually wants-- that travelling with the Doctor might not be enough to satisfy her. (Catherine Tate adds a lot to the show in an episode like this where she's asked to be subtle and funny.)

The Doctor sees a future (for him) where he has connected with someone else in a deep and meaningful way. The Eccleston Doctor was too emotionally scarred from the time war for much joy, and the Tennant Doctor has more joy, but hasn't quite connected with anyone in the way that he will with River. He is confused-- and scared-- about what will happen that will allow him to fall in love.

So even though the elements may have been the same as elements in Blink, the emotional impact on the characters is different. The Doctor is going to place that we haven't seen him go at all in the modern series.

qrter said...

I think it would've been much better if the Doctor would've let River Song be dead - the first time he meets her is also the last time, but actually it isn't, or it won't be. That to me feels much more in line with the whole "time is all over the place" principle of the Doctor/River Song affair. It's more playful and poignant, if you will (besides feeling more honest, in a way).

What I really don't understand is why the "saved world" created by the computer would be 21st century Earth. Why not a representation of the library or something a lot more contemporary to that time?

jim treacher said...

I found it very satisfying. At the end of part 1 I thought, "Yay, they're killing off Donna!" Then part 2 made me feel guilty for thinking that. She was terrific.

All sorts of nice surprises. This one pulled me right back up into the Dr. Who bandwagon.

Anthony Foglia said...

I didn't understand the snapping to open the Tardis. In story, that is. When the River says her Doctor could open the door with a mere snap of his fingers, our Doctor said that was impossible. So, how did he learn how?

Great visual though.

Chris said...

I really don't understand why people are disappointed in this two-parter. If your problem is that Moffat repeated some themes from earlier episodes he's written - the why on earth are you watching Doctor Who? It seems like half of the episodes involve some alien is trying to take over present-day London - and the complaint here is that one pair of episodes a year has a thematic familiarity to the best episodes of the series?

I'd welcome the repeating themes every week if they had the emotional resonance of this pair did. My sister, who hates science fiction and avoids Doctor Who, actually watched this two-parter after my insistence, and agreed that it was really compelling.

How unnerving was the concept that a person's "essence" would be caught in their communicator even after their dead? That alone was worth the price of admission, even ignoring Donna's "family" and the Doctor's unfolding relationship with a stranger that was simultaneously one of the people he's ever been closest to.

I actually cared about the people who were killed by the shadows, despite knowing them for minutes at best - and was really thrown by the idea that their voice would carry on, in a really plaintive and lost way that made you want to offer them comfort somehow even though nothing could be done and they were already gone.

Great episodes from a season that felt like it was dragging a bit.

J said...

and the complaint here is that one pair of episodes a year has a thematic familiarity to the best episodes of the series?

Well, my complaint is that those few previous Moffat episodes often redeemed entire seasons by giving us something different. Were there four or five Moffat eps a season, these would have been acceptable schedule-fillers. As the only ones this season, a sloppy quilt of regurgitated stuff... no, not satisfying.

The show also needs to stop hammering at the "And I'm sorry, I'm so very sorry" line. Once is special, four billion is spanking.

Jose C said...

While there was a lot here that was familiar to other Moffat shows, there is a certain consistency to Doctor Who stories whomever writes them. Recurring story lines, running around, sonic screwdrivers, on and on and on.

As a fairly consistent US viewer of the show back into the 70's, I am as happy with what they have done with the show in this incarnation as I was back then when I first found it. Sometimes it is just OK, sometimes I erase the DVR file withe a fine sigh of satisfaction.

For me, I tend to take stories as they come and look for the way it is told, and do not try to remember every twist and turn that a writer may have previously used. I am looking for how things are presented to me at the time and try to avoid being spoiled as much as possible, and then let the episode roll over me.

This two episode story left me with warm familiar feelings, choked up, happy, horrified, amused and in the end satisfied.

And one thing I haven't seen mentioned yet was River Song's last line, which to me harkened back to the stories of British children in the 60's hiding behind the sofa and being terrified into nightmares on a weekly basis by Doctor Who. I don't know for sure, but it has the sly feeling of being written by someone who lived that. Maybe he was trying to make up for the talk about the shadows being everywhere, maybe he was trying to apologize for scaring the crud out of a 51 year old man with the imagery from Blink. I don't know, but it sure was a sweet moment. And Alex Kingston was just glowingly beautiful.

I am always sorry when I come to the end of one of these episodes that I can never get my wife interested in the show.

Nicole said...

I do wonder at how recently Moffat had read "Time Traveller's Wife" when he wrote this episode because I never would have thought that he would have made River Song the Doctor's partner/wife... at least I don't think that he would tell anyone his name except for someone that close to him. Even Rose doesn't know it, and as a non shipper, I was more touched by the relationship that River and the Doctor sorta had, but that he doesn't know yet, than any of the Rose/Doctor stuff. The latter seems very juvenile compared to what Moffat created in only two episodes.

Moffat was just as cruel to Donna, and I wonder if the "husband" will return when Donna's time as a companion ends, just like Martha with that Doctor guy at the end of last season.

I tearing up at River's death and was relieved, even though it was a cheat, to have her saved in the computer. Although I think the reference to "her song will end" or whatever it was, relates to River and not Donna.

The Moffat episodes are still my favourite this series, but I haven't seen the finale so I am not sure if that will stand.

Nicole said...

It's late and I should be clearer. I meant that when the Ood told the Doctor that his "song" must end, instead of his death (or regeneration) and I think they may have been referring to his version of River Song is at an end. I don't think they will meet until he has regenerated.

Peter said...

Anyone know why Sci-Fi doesn't air these eps in HD? I know they air on the BBC in HD so it's really frustrating to see them aired here in SD. If Sci-Fi would get the HD versions I'd wait the three weeks for it to cross the pond rather than downloading the eps.

Anonymous said...

Peter - Doctor Who is not shown in HD in the UK. It isn't even filmed in HD. The costs of upgrading the sets and the amount of CGI make it impossible... at least at the moment.

Torchwood *is* filmed in HD but that involves much fewer CGI effects.

NorthernStar said...

While the Moffat two parter was interesting, it wasn't the highlight of S4 I was expecting.

It felt far too rehashed and the ending was a slap in the face. Why would River be happy in her unreal world, cut off forever from the Doctor? Did Moffat not watch Rose's grief in Doomsday?

Perhaps the worse thing about this 2 parter is that it filled me with something I never thought I'd have about Moffat - doubts over S5.

Nicole said...

I think we have to expect that Moffat won't hit a home run with every episode next season. It would be impossible for that to happen. I do hope that he cuts out the Rose worship and uses the reset button less than RTD has. (the one part about last year's finale that irked me was the erasure of all the finale events in the last minutes of the last episode).

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Moffat read the Marvel comic series "House of M" in which, the Scarlet Witch discovers her children are not real and people discover they're living in a false world? Clearly, these types of stories have been told in scifi for years, but some of the similarities are there.

Not saying he copied it in any way, just that it may have been one of his inspirations. I can't wait for him to take over as head writer. (I think what I like most is his episodes avoid the alien of the week who Dr. Who knows, but the audience does not.)

Toby said...

I didn't understand the snapping to open the Tardis. In story, that is. When the River says her Doctor could open the door with a mere snap of his fingers, our Doctor said that was impossible. So, how did he learn how?

Anthony, I was thinking that since the TARDIS is a living ship, it had evolved/grew into that ability to allow its doors to open when the Doctor - and the Doctor only - snapped his fingers. Maybe it always had that talent.

It was only that the Doctor didn't know about this new ability. And in one of those wibbly wobbly timey wimey temporal loops, it took River Song to tell him something that she only found out because the Doctor told/showed her that it could be done.

Anonymous said...

Do any of you listen to the accompanying episode commentaries? The one for this episode is given by RTD, Moffat and Tennant and has the most hilarious beginning! (They don't actually talk *that* much in the commentary about what is specifically on screen, so it is mostly understandable without pictures.)

It can be found under "Sounds" on the right hand menu here (major spoilers if you navigate to later episode pages, of course, or elsewhere around the BBC site):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/s4/episodes/S4_09


The other commentary which was a hoot was for episode 1, with Tennant, Tate and producer Phil Collinson.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/s4/episodes/S4_01

Anonymous said...

Late comment here I know: I watch Dr. Who with my kids which probably skews my perspective. But did anyone else see the skeleton in the space suit and think, "Hey its the Spooky Space Kook from Scooby Doo"?

http://i30.photobucket.com/albums/c327/MrLORD/ScoobyDooSpookySpaceKook1.jpg

Pamelajaye said...

I don't watch this show, since I like neither scifi nor brit tv (apologies to you fans) but my roommate does and Ii was surprised the other night to see Dr. Elizabeth Corday. Glad to see she's still getting roles.

Girl Detective said...

I've only started watching Dr. Who regularly this season. Without having seen the previous Moffat shows, I was impressed with this one. It had many more layers than a regular ep. I also appreciated how this show sets the stage for what will come, creating new dimensions for the doctor, not just in his relationship with River, but in his abilities and actions.

Anonymous said...

"Ii was surprised the other night to see Dr. Elizabeth Corday. Glad to see she's still getting roles."

***

Alex Kingston has another drama lined up:

"ER and Doctor Who actor Alex Kingston is to star in BBC1's new drama, Hope Springs, about four female former convicts who try to create a new life for themselves...

The series, which will be set against the backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, is billed as "vibrant, thrilling and funny".

Hope Springs follows the women as they attempt to embark on the final stage of a long-held plan to live out the rest of their lives on a beach in Barbados, courtesy of £5m stolen from a violent and vengeful gangster husband.

But the plan goes wrong and they end up hiding out in the small Scottish village of Hope Springs without any money or passports..."

For full article see:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/jun/30/bbc.independentproductioncompanies

J said...

"Hope Springs" sounds like the world's worst retirement community.