Doctor Who: Series 4: Forest of the Dead
There are two stories being woven here; incredibly this episode builds upon its predecessor in all the right places, answers all of our questions satisfactorily, and resolves the mystery of the week.
And it also strengthens the arc story being told throughout the whole of nuWho; the legend of the Doctor.
With the mystery of the week here, Perfect Ten has now been cut off from Noble Donna, and he must forge an alliance with the future companion River Song, who completely trusts him through their numerous dalliances, but this is his first encounter with herâ€¦
For me, the figure of River Song was by far the most interesting aspect of this two part story, far more so than the mystery of the missing, but â€˜savedâ€™, 4022 people who were trapped in the library the day the Shadows, or Vashta Nerada, swarmed across the world. The clues were laid out nicely for us last week with the virtual reality world of the little girl and Dr. Moon â€“ by saved, they were not made safe, but literally saved. Last week we were told that at the centre of the planet there exists a phenomenally powerful hard drive that contains back up copies of all the information within the millions upon millions of books that fill the Library. We were also told that the consciousnessâ€™ of people can survive in an unexpected manner as glitches in neural links â€“ becoming â€˜data ghostsâ€™. And finally Donna, upon being teleported into the TARDIS, disappears into nothingness. Is it really that much of a stretch that these people could have been transformed into energy, and stored as a series of ordered numbers?
Itâ€™s Doctor Who.
But the brilliant thing is that it works because it relies on solid science fiction concepts such as transporters and virtual reality environments. Most adult viewers should be familiar with these concepts, and kids wonâ€™t be fair behind them. And this is where Steven Moffatt works best because he knows what people will respond to.
Take the sudden reappearance of Miss Evangelista this week. After her unfortunate death last week, I honestly didnâ€™t think we would see her again. But once Donna has been downloaded into the virtual reality environment, it doesnâ€™t take long for Evangelista to show upâ€¦ you see, Steven Moffatt takes another concept weâ€™re already familiar with â€“ wi-fi. In the present day, data can be downloaded and uploaded to the Internet via this communication method. Sometimes automatically. The Library has an incredibly sophisticated computer at its core, which automatically uploads copies of the neural link glitches, the data ghosts, and stores them on its hard drive.
But because these arenâ€™t physically, or totally, the person they once were, Evangelistaâ€™s image is distorted; physically deformed. But as her character states, this makes it easier for her to see the lie about the virtual world â€“ because no one wants to look at her in her current state. Itâ€™s also made her smarter. An error in the upload, due to the unexpected nature of the data ghosts I would imagine, has meant that her beauty and intelligence traded places. Itâ€™s very cunning of Moffatt to include this concept in his script, and hopefully it wonâ€™t go unnoticed by the younger generation!
In regards to Noble Donnaâ€™s role in this episode, we are given a nicely balanced story between Ten and herself. She exists in the virtual world; she experiences it and remembers it. More importantly, she has been affected by it. You see she marries, has kids, and becomes a housewifeâ€¦
All of these events happen in a series of quick cuts which are orchestrated by the program computer program calling itself Dr. Moon, who exists to protect Cal and the world she exists in. Donna simply shifts from one moment in her life to another, and the blanks are filled in. Seven years pass by for her in effectively an instant. Itâ€™s a very quick heads up for us so that we know this isnâ€™t real, and itâ€™s reassuring to watch Donna clue in on this too. But Moon interferes and when she remembers, she then forgets, only to remember something to fill the blank. Itâ€™s a disconcerting idea but powerfully done because when the truth of the world is revealed to Donna, she still absolutely believes in it because she remembers these things happening to her. The husband she found, her ideal man, the events may not have happened but the feeling were there The children she has had may not really exist, but she remembers the m.
When these children finally disappear from her life, when Donna finally canâ€™t believe on some level anymore as Miss Evangelista warns her she will not now she knows the truth, she weeps tears of a desperate mother. The feelings were real, even if the people were not.
Catherine Tate nails it.
And then of course we have the Doctor attempting to unravel why the Vashta Nerada are here in such great quantity, and what happened to the saved people. I got shades of the â€˜Voyage of the Damnedâ€™ Christmas special here as we watched the Doctor slowly lose more of the people he found himself with. Whatâ€™s great though is that each time he loses one, it hurts him, but he has to keep going. He has to keep on struggling through. He has to keep running.
This is his greatest strength.
The episode piles on the tension as Proper Daveâ€™s corpse slowly hunts down the expedition. Eventually another one of the team is infected with a second shadow and the Doctor tints her visor in an attempt to fool the Vashta Nerada into assuming sheâ€™s been taken. So you assume she will be the first to goâ€¦ then in typical fashion as the Doctor runs with these people, he orders them on and turns back to face the attacker still ominously calling â€œHey! Who turned out the lights?â€
River calls for another man, Other Dave, to stay with him and pull him out when he refuses to leave after two minutes… The Doctor takes the time he has found to try and convince the Vashta Nerada to do more than manipulate a suit and repeat a phrase over and over. To try to use the neural link to communicate which they doâ€¦ and here you get the revelations thick and fast. The Vashta Nerada usually exists in woods, forests, and yet there are none on this world, but they insist this is their forest, where they hatched. And the Doctor figures it out â€“ paper is made from treesâ€¦ so they came in the books.
And then he suddenly realises that Other Dave has done nothing but repeat the same need to leave. The exact same warning. He spins and sees a second corpse in a suit. Proper Dave is gone and now there are two attackers.
This story just keeps running.
Finally, the Doctor and company reach the centre of the planet and the computer where we discover the real secret of Cal and the virtual world. Cal is a real human girl who was ill and to save her life, her grandfather built her The Library. She was plugged in to exist forever with all the knowledge of human history to go with it, and she could read to her hearts content and create any world for herself to live in.
The Doctor needs to save these people and he can do it if he can just tie himself into the computer to give it that extra bit of memory. He cuts River off. And then heâ€™s left with just Anita, the woman infected with the second shadow, and halfway through his dialogue with her he states that he is very angry that they killed his brave, new friend.
Cut to Anitaâ€™s tinted visor which fades to normal, and a skull clunks against it. Good writing, clever build up and brilliant directing. Perhaps the plot point was obvious from the moment the visor became tinted, but it was still handled well, and Tennant just delivers the anger as another is lost.
But we all know the ending, the Doctor saves the day and Donna, and both return to the TARDIS to see the next chapter of their journey.
So that only leaves River Songs part to play here, and it is fantastic. This is a companion who is a match for the Doctor in every way. She loves him. She hates him. See she knows him.
At least a future him and the man he will become who she believes he hasnâ€™t even started to be yet. He is a legend to her, but not legendary. Heâ€™s only just met her, but to her, sheâ€™s known him for years. She has his own freaking sonic screwdriver, just with a few future modifications. What exactly is she to him?
Weâ€™re never given a definitive answer, although one character does comment that the pair act like an â€˜â€¦old married couple.â€™ A cheeky suggestion by Steven Moffatt perhaps, and maybe even a wink and a nod? We can at least ascertain that they are as close as Rose and the Doctor ever wereâ€¦ perhaps even closer.
â€œI would trust that man to the end of the universe. And believe me, weâ€™ve been.â€
So she tells him something that fully encapsulates his trust. I wonâ€™t reveal it here, but suffice to say it ties into long standing Doctor Who history and continuity.
I will however reveal her ultimate fate in the episode because it is important to this reviews conclusion. The Doctorâ€™s plan to save the â€˜savedâ€™ people depends upon hooking his mind and memory into the hard drive for a momentary jump for the system to seize upon.
This is of course done after Perfect Ten, about to be attacked by the Vashta Nerada in Anitaâ€™s suit, informs that they had better look him up in The Library if they really want to know whom he is. When they do, they stop their approach, and completely back off, giving him one day to do what he must, and leave their forest behind. Another note in his legendary status then!
But he still has to save these people. Except this is when River reappears and neatly punches him out with one blow. When he awakes, River has taken his place in the contraption he put togetherâ€¦ see, sheâ€™s already worked this all out. The last time she met the Doctor, he was in a new suit, new haircut, and took her out to see a celebrating of song on a far distant world. He cried. And now she knows why.
Although this is his first meeting with her, itâ€™s her last with his.
Thatâ€™s why he gave her the sonic screwdriver. So one day, she could be ready to assist him in his early days. All the times they knew each other, and insisted she never reveal any spoilers about his life to himself, he kept the biggest spoiler of allâ€¦
He canâ€™t stop her. And itâ€™s painful as we watch the Doctor completely helpless. But River insists it has to be this way. Neither of them could live through the process and he simply must go on.
Itâ€™s a beautifully tragic moment as she plugs herself in and the energy sparks to life. Everyone is rescued. But River dies and weâ€™re left with a long shot on Perfect Ten, mourning the way events turned outâ€¦ a companion who made the ultimate sacrifice for a man who, at this point, barely knew her.
Except itâ€™s not quite the end here. Moffatt pulls one final rabbit out of the hat as we left as both Ten and Noble must tend to their wounded hearts, and we are given what we assume is the last beautiful shot as Ten pulls Riverâ€™s journal and screwdriver into light at the location in the Library where they first looked out at the world before them. Itâ€™s full of spoilers. All of them. It could even reveal why River never met Donna Nobleâ€¦
They choose not to look. And to leave it behind. The camera focuses in on journal and screwdriver as the pair walk away, when suddenly Ten runs back, speaking at high speedâ€¦ why would his future self give her the sonic screwdriver so specifically in time for this occasion? Unless heâ€™d thought of a way to save her. He pulls the devices latches down and to his delight, discover a neural link similar to that which creates data ghosts.
â€œTime for one final run!â€
And he runs. Straight to the centre of the planet where he downloads her consciousness into the hard drive where she can live in the virtual world. She is soon joined by all the other members of the expedition team who were uploaded via future wi-fi into the computer, and Cal has taken the liberty of restoring them all to their full selves as best she can. And River just canâ€™t believe that the impossible man found a way to do it.
She narrates this final section of the story. From the moment the camera focuses in on journal and screwdriver, her narration undercuts the action and plays around the Doctorâ€™s dialogue. She speaks of the man he is. The legend. Of the truth that death comes to us all, but sometimes, one day in a million years, he will come along. And no one will die.
Thatâ€™s the other story that was told her. Of River and how the Doctor affected her life to the point where she would risk all for him and what he still needed to do. And it reinforces this legendary status of the Doctor nuWho has been creating for him as â€˜The Oncoming Storm.â€™
Originally this episode was supposed to be entitled â€˜Riverâ€™s Runâ€™, and I completely understand why.
Kudos to every single person involved in this episode.
Iâ€™m going to give this one an odd scoring. Iâ€™m giving it 4 TARDISâ€™ opening-with-clicks-of-fingers out of 5 for the story it told in conjunction with part one. And Iâ€™m also giving 4 and a half stars for the story of River Song and the mystery she presented for Perfect Ten, just because I thought it was a fantastic idea.
Only 4 more episodes to go. Keep. Them. Coming.
About Joss Gateway
Sci-Fi Heaven's resident Stargate and Doctor Who columnist. He's lovely too.