Sunday, October 26, 2014

Forest Gumph

Tiger tiger burning bright. Someone set your tail alight.

That’s how the Spike Milligan version went, if I recall correctly. Last night’s Doctor Who episode, In The Forest Of The Night could have done with someone putting a match to it, sticking some dynamite under it. Or something.

Fearful symmetry? More of a tame mess.

The odd thing is, I mostly enjoyed it. Mostly.

We’re talking like pretty much a whole half hour, almost.

It opened with a fantastic scenario – a world gone green – and managed to maintain a persuasive sense that it was all leading somewhere interesting. With an idea this big, this audacious and so thoroughly inexplicable, the explanation had to be incredible. Cottrell Boyce, writer of the memorable Olympic opening ceremony for London 2012, provides a decently constructed mystery with hot and cold running dialogue and en suite wildlife. We’ve wolves, a little Red Riding Hood and there’s even a tiger. Well, there had to be, didn’t there.

The cluster of school kids weren’t nearly as annoying as the trailer led me to believe they would be. That helped immensely. And although many of them were more like character templates than characters, well, they made for some amusing exchanges with the Doctor, the most childish of all adults present. On the whole it was an entertaining jog as it led us up the forest path.

Danny Pink appeared to have discovered some life in his character, perhaps energised by the solar flare activity. And that helped.

Capaldi continues to be the best thing to have happened to Doctor Who since its return to our screens in 2005. That has helped with every one of this season’s episodes. He can’t always save the day but it helps.

The director managed to create the illusion of menace within the forest, so there was a feeling for quite a while that there would be some meat at the centre of this nightmare Eden. That, like Jenna’s continued standout performance as Clara, like the tiger, like a number of other elements, helped.

Unfortunately, the various carnivores on the loose were fated to grow hungry as we learned that a Britain smothered in verdure pretty much amounts to a vegetative state.

Many a Doctor Who episode in this and previous seasons has shared a similar problem. Strong idea, for which the writers then struggle to provide any sort of coherent explanation or convincing basis. They’ll milk what they can out of it and hope the sparkly dialogue and emotional substance will win audiences over and help them forgive the feeble rationale and/or resolution. And it works, to an extent. Heck, even the worst offenders are usually entertaining for sizable spans of their 45-minute runtime.

But so far, Jamie Mathieson has been this season’s only writer who, barring a few trifling cheats (handy neurosis-transfer gadget), appears to make a proper effort to make his stories make sense.

Here, Cottrell Boyce takes the bold step of not providing any explanation at all. Perhaps I’m being unfair. He does have his little troubled girl who talks to the trees burble some explanation in the midst of some flitting fairy lights, but there’s absolutely zero attempt to justify how flame-proof trees materialise to cover the entire globe overnight then vanish once their job is done.

Honestly, I’m all for the re-telling of fairy tales in Doctor Who, but the idea is that you give them a pseudo sci-fi spin. This is the stuff of Merlin and Narnia and Walt bloody Disney. And as if magic wasn’t enough, it’s all served up with enough schmaltz to choke Tinkerbell. We’re expected to believe the governments of the world will call of all their emergency defoliation plans on the strength of the heartfelt and cutely worded appeal of a little girl. And we just know we’re going to see her long-lost sister returned to her by story’s end.

The story has other problems.

Beyond the token amusing news coverage that tends to accompany any worldwide disaster depicted in Who these days, it makes no effort to properly globalise the crisis.
Other than the kids, we get to see Riding Hood’s mum and her neighbour who have been in such a busy rush this morning that they’ve only just cottoned on to the extensive forestation that’s occurred. Mum then meanders through the forest in search of her daughter, adding nothing much to the drama.

Worse, in addition to the story being dumb as a tree-stump, characters are seen to act stupidly - which is another guaranteed way to tax my patience.

And there is no menace. No monsters. As was illustrated by a single line in Flatline, the writers seem to be under the impression that such a situation represents a refreshing change when in fact it’s the modern norm. The flamethrower crew in their protective suits are meant to appear sinister, I think, but it just struck me as an indictment of the UK’s pitiful emergency response measures.

Even in these times of austerity and cutbacks you’d hope they’d field more than one team of half a dozen guys, but I guess it’s a nostalgic nod to the old days when UNIT consisted of six blokes and a Land Rover.

Also, I have an issue with this relatively new concept of the Doctor walking away from an Earth in crisis. It’s so utterly contrived in Kill The Moon, while here it takes Clara some trouble to persuade him he should leave, it just doesn’t add up.

Much as I hate that we now have a Doctor Who where the TARDIS can be used to drag planets across the universe and return them to their rightful orbits, since we’ve inherited that ‘feature’, why the in the name of fairytales wouldn’t he use the TARDIS to generate some sort of magnetic or gravitic field to divert the solar flares from the Earth’s path? Obviously that would be rubbish – but less rubbish. And it would comprehensively undermine the writer’s point, but I’m not sure the writer is entirely clear on whatever point he’s out to make.

All in all, it’s some tree-hugging Disney fairytale wizards-and-no-aliens gumph. As far as I can gather.

The tiger is gorgeous. Beautiful. And he does a fine roar, worthy of an MGM audition if only they weren’t so stuck on using lions. Along with some of Capaldi’s fiercer expressions, he’s the wildest thing about this episode and he’s the closest we ever come to a sense of danger.

Everything else has been thoroughly domesticated. Tamed.

If this is what the Doctor’s up against, it’s fitting he wields a magic wand. But if the stories are going to pull plot rabbits out of hats, you’d at least hope they’d feel magical. This felt for a while like it was going to be, but turned out to be anything but.

By story’s end, it was impossible to see the wood for the twee.

SAF 2014

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