Saturday, 5 October 2013

Silence in the Library / The Forest of the Dead

Is it normal for television to deliver actual shivers of delight? The Doctor stands before his TARDIS in an ancient room. He snaps his fingers, and the room fills with light as the doors fly open. Stepping inside, he turns to face us, we who are left behind. Donna at his side, he stares out dispassionately before clicking his fingers once again. And the TARDIS doors close, like the pages of a book.

This is a wonderful pair of episodes. The Vashta Nerada, although not quite as successful as the Silence or the Weeping Angels, are nonetheless an instant classic: a spooky combination of lurching, zombiefied space suits and darkness itself, rendered with piranha-like ferocity. The reveal, that it was their forest that became the books of the library, is a characteristic piece of Moffat plotting that relies on something we already know but have not had time to consider, in this case that paper comes from trees. What's more, there's a surreal, transformative quality to there being a forest inside a library, just as later we will see a forest in a bottle in a ship in a cave, or fish swimming in the fog.

The Library is a brilliant idea, executed with considerable flair: a great mixture of sweeping CGI wide shots and clever location work (including the beautiful Brangwyn Hall in Swansea) create a vast and imposing world that is still full of dark corners and intimate spaces. The result is that this strange world feels like a real place.

It helps that the people in it are so believable. We've seen our fair share of disposable supporting characters over the years, but this small team of explorers must be some of the most likeable. Dave, Other Dave, Anita, who faces death with such dignity, and Miss Evangelista, whose cruel demise provides the chief emotional moment of Silence in the Library; each of them a tiny part that becomes a real person thanks to some great writing and a wonderful guest cast. The others aren't bad either: Colin Salmon as Dr Moon, beautifully urbane and reassuring, is a particular coup and Eve Newton is remarkably good as the young girl/super computer CAL, who sits in the mysterious space we think of as our own, watching and responding to the Doctor's adventures on her television. Key points in this story depend on her performance and she doesn't disappoint.

I think Forest of the Dead is the slightly better of the two episodes. Donna's side trip into the wonderland of CAL's imagination is just one of many curveballs Moffat pitches along the way, but it is marvellous: mysterious, funny ("But I've been DIETING!") and deeply unsettling. He creates a landscape out of the visual language of television itself, using cuts and edits to mask the gaps in Donna's reality. But the distortion of Miss Evangelista's face is simply an updating of the traditional gothic heroine's disfigurement, and at the centre of this fabricated reality are real human emotions. Donna's relationship with Lee is undeniably real even if, like their children, it is a fabrication. CAL, watching the Doctor, might be so scared she has to switch over to another programme, but for any adults (let alone parents) in the audience, the gut-churning moment where Donna's children tell her they are afraid that they are not real, and then disappear from their beds in the blink of an eye, is surely the most terrifying and awful moment in the whole of Doctor Who. Catherine Tate has been incredible in this series, and this story is another very high point.

Tennant is extremely good as well. When River whispers in the Doctor's ear, Tennant shows us, for a few fascinating seconds, a broken man, suddenly unsure of everything. She turns away and we can see him rebuilding himself, reconstructing the persona of the Doctor until he is able to snap back into action. Once he's recovered, the Doctor gets to be rather wonderful, saving everybody, even River, and turning back the Vashta Nerada by showing them his entry in Who's Who? There's more to say about the legendary interpretation of the Doctor, but for now, this feels like a very cool trick, albeit one that can't be used very often. 

But it isn't enough that these episodes are brilliant; they are also important, a lynchpin, that connects the Tenth Doctor to the Eleventh, the RTD era to that of Steven Moffat.

As soon as we saw the Next Time at the end of The Unicorn and the Wasp, we were extremely excited. I hadn't given it much thought in advance, but the imminent arrival of River Song felt like a massive event. It's no surprise that hindsight (or foresight, it's difficult to tell) changes the way that we watch her episodes now, but I was unprepared for the full impact of her appearance in the library. She is a harbinger, a John the Baptist figure, heralding the future of Doctor Who itself.

There was a slight sense of this at the time, with her references to her future-Doctor, but with Moffat having been announced as RTD's replacement only days earlier it felt chutzpah on his part to be using this script to tell us how wonderful things were going to be when he took over. Not that I ever doubted that the Moffat era would be anything other than brilliant, of course, but River's appearance here seemed designed to deliberately raise everyone's expectations - a rather cocksure gambit.

Now we know: if it was arrogance, it was utterly deserved. The brilliance of this story is that Moffat delivered on those expectations, exceeded them even. To watch this story now is to swap the original thrill of anticipation for the glow of recollection. We've seen the crash of the Byzantium; we know and love the Doctor who can open the TARDIS with a click of his fingers; we've watched River be born, get married; we've met her mother.

The incomparable genius of it all is that this story serves as a fitting and perfect finale for River Song. On transmission, we didn't, couldn't, know that she would return, that we would see her whole story. In that sense Silence in the Library didn't promise anything. The rest of her story that came after, woven through subsequent series, delivers in ways we could never have anticipated and unexpectedly makes this two-parter so much more powerful, so much more important, and so much better than we ever realised.

I know there are some viewers, some fans even, that don't like her or, at least, prefer it when she's not around, but as far as I'm concerned River Song is the most startling and ingenious addition to the series since the TARDIS, and her higgledy-piggledy narrative is the best piece of extended storytelling in the whole run. If it wasn't part of Doctor Who, if River's story had been conceived as a separate show in its own right, told out of sequence over five years, it would be lauded, considered the most audaciously brilliant piece of television in years. Instead here it is, beginning and ending in these two episodes where, for the first time, the show about time travel takes a trip into its own future.

Christopher's favourite bit was when the Doctor dived down the swishy-blueness, a wonderful moment which you think would be worth a ten out of ten all by itself. He held a point back until I could explain how all the other dead people could join River in the Libraryscape, but we finally ended up with a ten, which is, in my opinion, the very least this story deserves.


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