Images courtesy the BBC.
Stephen Moffat creates the scariest monsters. Let me say that again for emphasis: Stephen Moffat creates the scariest monsters. He is also, clearly, the best writer of the Doctor Who revival. Nobody is as deft in characterization than he is. Nobody writes dialogue like he does. And, so far, nobody in this revival has really played with the entire time travel concept the way Moffat has, which is strange given that this is what the show is supposed to be about.
But sometimes Moffat’s strengths are their own challenge. As viewers of his work, we have to understand that not every episode could have the impact of The Doctor Dances or Girl in the Fireplace. It’s safe to say that I was looking forward to his two parter this season, Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead more than any other episode this season. Several times these past two weeks, I’ve had to remind myself that Moffat is so close to the ceiling he can’t always top himself, and that expecting this to be so is a recipe for disappointment, even though it’s entirely possible that the “disappointment” could come out to be the best episode of the season.
The other thing that I as a reviewer have to remember about Moffat’s writing is that Moffat is the master of the shock. And I have the propensity to give massive bonus points to any production that reaches out from the television screen and grabs me enough to yell. Last year, during Moffat’s Blink I encountered what I saw as the most frightening moment in the history of the program. I screamed. Erin will vouch for that. And I called Blink the best episode of the season, if not the entire Doctor Who canon. I was wrong, of course. Cameron and others pointed out several plotting problems that I was papering over, and now that the shock has worn off, I’ve downgraded Blink to the second best episode of the third season (behind The Shakespeare Code).
I say all this because Silence in the Library had a shock moment, and Forest of the Dead did not. Silence in the Library was all set-up, and Forest of the Dead was… not. I’ve already talked to Cameron and Erin, and we disagree on which episode is better. I enjoyed Silence in the Library completely, even though Cameron had issues with some of the direction. Cameron, meanwhile, thought Forest of the Dead was well nigh perfect, while Erin and I spent about half an hour last night talking about what steps could have been taken to make the thing even better.
The important thing is that we are debating whether or not this two parter receives a 9.5 out of 10 or a perfect 10. That’s somewhat akin to debating how many weeping angels can dance on the head of a pin (answer: not many).
A full, extremely spoiler-rific review takes place after the break.
The Doctor and Donna interrupt a trip to the beach when the Doctor gets a note on his psychic paper saying, “The Library. Come as soon as you can.” And, as Donna notes much to the Doctor’s chagrin, it’s sealed with a kiss. The Library is… the Library: a planet-sized repository of information in the 51st century that’s so large, it’s known as the definitive article. but after looking around, and spooking themselves with the idea that the billions of books might be alive, the Doctor and Donna can see that there is something wrong in the Library. It’s entirely silent, and it’s not a case of the library-goers being “really, really quiet”. The monorails lie dead on their tracks. Only a lonely security camera moves about. Something has happened.
We get more information when the Doctor and Donna run into an archaeological expedition, also there to suss out the secret of the library. A hundred years ago, cryptic messages went out to the universe: the shadows are moving. Nowhere is safe. For God’s sake, run. And then the Library sealed itself off. There were 4022 people in the Library when this happened, and the Doctor notes that there doesn’t appear to be any bodies.
This being a Stephen Moffat story, it’s not long before the screaming starts.
Cameron and I debated about Silence in the Library. I thought it was perfect, and while he hemmed and hawed about criticizing a story that was almost perfect, he had some issues with the direction. In his words:
I think the director took the wrong approach to the script. Don’t get me wrong, it was… well, whatever adjective I use will be damning with faint praise. Adequate, competent, not bad? What I’m getting at is: it was scary, but it wasn’t creepy.
Euros Lyn directed scary stories “The Unquiet Dead,” “Tooth and Claw,” “The Girl in the Fireplace,” and, and I sometimes think I’m the only person who lists this one in his Top 10, “Fear Her.” Thing is, they were all in-your-face scary, action thrillers. Old woman with creepy ghostface walking straight up to the camera while her wail grows into a shriek. The werewolf scenes were all action, scary monster roaring at the camera and lunging right at you. And although we only see the shadow of Chloe’s ghost-dad, again he’s roaring and storming straight for us while the music goes nuts. I’ll give him the clockwork droids, to an extent.
And that’s good, that’s good for what those stories were doing. I love fierceness and wild camera movement if it serves the story; I think, in all honesty, that this is probably why I ranked “42” so highly. (Robert Smith? visited Toronto a while ago, and while I was chatting with him, he said incredulously, “Yeah, I read your review. You liked that?!”)
But “Shadow in the Library” is meant to be creepy. It’s meant to be about the things in the corners of your vision, not the things drooling and slavering right in front of you. It’s not a right-in-your-face scary, it’s a Ramsey Campbell kind of scary, where the woman who isn’t quite sure whether she’s being stalked by supernatural creatures looks down the street at night and sees a discarded newspaper scuttling across the road — wait, “scuttling”? And as good as Euros is in directing action thrillers, I don’t think he was the right choice for slow burn scary.
Moffat had me the moment Proper Dave put on his spacesuit helmet and then exclaimed “Hey, who turned out the lights!” It took me a half second to catch up, and then I swore. That’s an example of the Blink bonus points working. It’s tempting to consider how Hattie MacDonald (director of Blink) would have handled Silence in the Library, even though I suspect the result might be banned under anti-terrorism legislation, but Euros Lyn does a stellar job, in my opinion. And it’s worth noting that he was the director of Moffat’s The Girl in the Fireplace, and just as the Doctor’s relationship with Madame de Pompedour was the heart of that tale, so too does he lend considerable weight to the mysterious relationship between the Doctor and archaeologist River Song.
And I have to wonder if, without Euros Lyn, we would have lost the Library’s set design, which is scrumptious enough to eat with a spoon. I’m told that they filmed the story in the Swansea Library and augmented it with CGI, but it’s a series of spectacular shots, from the Art Deco signage, to the sweeping columns. Murray Gold enhances every shot with some spot-on music, producing an atmosphere that recalls the computer game MYST.
For Forest of the Dead, Cameron had no complaints, saying “That was made of win!” But the set-up of Silence in the Library, instead of blowing up with the force of a bomb, instead produced a bouquet of beautiful flowers. Perfectly serviceable, but not something that stopped my heart. And central to this… I hesitate to call this a “problem” in an episode that’s this good… is the monstrous Vashta Nerada itself.
It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Moffat had been able to handle the Daleks in Manhattan two-parter in season three, because while the other authors of the revival (Davies especially) clearly relish bringing old monsters back to the screen, Moffat excels in creating new monsters for the canon. We’ve had the gasmask wearing creations of the Chula, clockwork men and weeping angels. Now he outdoes himself with the Vashta Nerada: microscopic piranhas of the air that are ubiquitous to the Universe, and almost a property of the darkness. In Silence of the Library, Moffat creates a monster that is a force of nature, practically indestructible, and almost unstoppable.
But in Forest of the Dead, after creating an unstoppable, indestructible force of nature monster, Moffat has to downgrade the threat somewhat in order to resolve it. You can’t negotiate with a tornado, which makes the tornado such a fearsome object. But you can only survive it through luck, which isn’t always helpful storytelling, especially when there are other plotlines to be resolved. So negotiating with the tornado is what happens with the Vashta Nerada, which diminishes their impact, though I’m hard pressed to see how Moffat could have handled it any differently.
This is possibly the only missed opportunity of the story. After giving us plenty of creepy visuals of shadows being cast from nothing, Moffat isn’t quite clear about what the Vashta are, and why they’re being so aggressive in this case. It’s a shame he didn’t link it more to the books. He’s essentially created a monster out of book dust — which is a deeply creepy analogy — but he only hints that the monsters’ intelligence and aggressiveness are augmented by the books themselves. The elements are there, but are not hammered home.
Part of the problem is that Moffat has ambitiously tried to marry three very different storylines. The fight against the Vashta Nerada is a typical monster thrash/disaster action flick. This is coupled with hints of a touching lovestory, as the Doctor deals with archaeologist Professor River Song, who clearly has a powerful relationship with the Doctor in the Doctor’s future, even though the two obviously meet up again and again out of linear order. How on earth do you combine Twister with The Time Traveller’s Wife? It’s testament to Moffat’s skill, not to mention the chemistry between David Tennant and actress Alex Kingston, that the marriage is a happy one.
But there’s a third and almost a fourth story going on in the background. Throughout Silence in the Library, we’ve seen a young girl (played exceptionally well by child actress Eve Newton) receiving treatment from a Dr. Moon (Colin Salmon) for her elaborate fantasies about the Library. To no-one’s surprise, this is More Than it Seems, especially when Dr. Moon informs her that her life isn’t real, and her nightmares are, and that she has a responsibility to save the people who are trapped in her nightmares.
Moffat really shows his plotting skills with these scenes. You’ll notice all the clues to set up the resolution are here (look for references to CAL here, and the Library logo in the carpet), and at the same time, this part of the story is genuinely compelling.
Unfortunately, it’s incomplete. The Girl’s motivations aren’t entirely clear. She seems like a genuinely good person. She’s genuinely conflicted by the intrusion of the real world in her virtual life. And, intellectually, I know why she would be afraid to acknowledge what she is, but Moffat and Lyn don’t have the time to show this aspect of her character, and make it come out naturally.
As an aside, it seems a feature of Moffat’s writing that there’s no real evil in his universe. Instead, you have complications. The Vashta Neruda simply want to eat, and CAL is merely trying to save the humans in the limited way that she can. Steve Pemberton’s Strackman Lux initially comes across as an unsympathetic corporate type (I love how Donna and the Doctor take the offered contracts and tear them up), but his motivations are based on love and family. In Moffat’s world, the Doctor only has to gather the good intentions, fend off the forces of nature, and try to bring resolution as best he can. But sometimes he can’t do it. As seen in The Girl in the Fireplace and as seen in Forest of the Dead, sometimes the totally happy ending simply isn’t possible.
Which brings us to the fourth story in the narrative. When Donna Noble is snatched out of her transmat and “saved”, she finds herself in a virtual world, where she is given the distraction of a normal life to keep her occupied while everybody else does their thing. She falls in love, marries and has two kids, and is given something to lose when the virtual world comes crashing down. On an intellectual level, I really, really appreciated this. And Catherine Tate again pulls out the stops of her acting ability and makes me believe. She’s helped by Moffat’s script, by Jason Pitt (the actor playing her husband Lee), by the director, but she’s sabotaged by time. As compelling as Donna’s loss is, she’s essentially been removed from the main story at this point. She offers nothing to the resolution, and has no choice to make — although the fact that she acknowledges that her virtual life isn’t real is a sort of resolution.
Part of the problem may be that Stephen Moffat could have used a third episode here: to give him more time to show the Girl’s desire to have a normal life and thus her unwillingness to admit who she really is. To give him more time to give Donna more to do in the computer. And possibly to firm up the explanation of who the Vashta Nerada were and how best to neutralize them.
But it is to Moffat’s everlasting credit that he works within the time constraints imposed by the show, to give all of these elements a fair airing. Moffat’s trump card is that he makes the audience root for him, to want to believe in the story. If any blanks show up, they can fill them in for him.
And Moffat knows the important story to focus on, here. Forest of the Dead is about the love story between the Doctor and Professor River Song and its temporal complications. And it’s handled perfectly, with all the requisite longing and tragedy. Indeed, I’m wondering if Forest of the Dead wouldn’t have been better ending on a tragic note: just focus on the diary and the new sonic screwdriver, as the Doctor and Donna walk away, sharing the emotional scars that the library has left them.
Except… as the Doctor points out, why would his future self give River Song his sonic screwdriver? The Doctor is not a being who plays entirely by the rules; if he had all that time to look for a way out of the tragedy, he’d take it, and Moffat knows that. The ending is inevitable, and has touches back to The Doctor Dances (“everybody lives!”). It is, in the end, satisfying and wholly in character, and there is still some sense of loss. Just not as much as there could have been.
My questioning of Moffat’s plotting decisions could be a case of the grass being greener on the other side. I need to remind myself that there’s nothing wrong with what Moffat has chosen to do. He’s plotted an ambitious tale and everything holds together. There chemistry and creep. There’s tragedy and joy. He achieved everything that he set out to do, and it all feels like a wonderful bedtime story, that River Song reads to the children before she turns out the light.
It is, in a word, perfect. Who am I to criticize perfection?
- At the end, as River Song reached for the light switch after putting the kids to bed, anybody have cause to think “AAAAAA! Don’t turn off the lights! The shadows will EAT us?” No? Just me, then.
- But how cool is it that the story ends the way it began: in darkness? I like symmetry.