Tuesday, 29 July 2014


Doctor Who
Silence In The Library and Forest Of The Dead
Series Four, Episodes Eight and Nine

When you watch something like Doctor Who, which usually has some element of mystery, it's inevitably going to lose something on repeat viewings.  Silence In The Library is no exception: the plot has a couple of big surprises and on the second go, they're blown, so the rest of it has to keep your interest.  But that's just telly for you (or rather, DVDs), so I try to approach each episode with a fresh(ish) perspective, forgetting my old opinions as best I can and pretending it's all new.  When the "Tada!" moments roll around, I can vaguely recall any surprise I felt the first time, even if I can't quite repeat it.


It begins.
This isn't just a story about monsters invading a library.  It's the first appearance of River Song, a time-traveller the Doctor hasn't met yet, who subsequently appeared in twelve episodes, spanning four years.  Circa 2013 she's an integral part of who the Doctor is, but with her story running in (vaguely) reverse order, it ends here, where it started.  There's no way to "forget" the emotional context they added later, which of course was the plan.  This story worked great in 2008, but after watching River's (not to mention the Doctor's) story play out over years, it's on another level entirely.  Talk about planning ahead.

It's fitting that these episodes aired just after Steven Moffat was named as the next showrunner.  On the one hand you've got River, a walking statement of intent (full of references to adventures that hadn't been written yet), and on the other, there's a bunch of ideas you've already heard, acutely remixed.  It's Moffat's Greatest Hits – coming soon, all this and more!

First and foremost, a monster that taps into a fundamental childhood fear: the dark.  The Vashta Nerada are swarms of little things that hunt in shadows.  (They're also "the dust in sunbeams".  Sweet dreams.)  Cross shadows and die, basically.  This is a superb idea on paper which, let's face it, recalls the Weeping Angels.  (Blinking is still not recommended.)  But they suffer in execution, because do you have any idea how many shadows there are around you at all times?  Never mind on TV, where lighting is a full-time profession, and in a story set in a predominantly dark building.  "Count the shadows," says the Doctor, but I advise you not to bother.  The characters cross shadows.  They're covered in shadows.  They stand in shadows, looking in terror at other shadows.  The whole thing is hilariously unworkable.

The script does its best to wriggle around their limitations, but those are never exactly clear.  Since they're not really shadows (you heard the bit about sunbeams, right?), why can't they just swarm all over everybody?  Soon, they start getting into people's spacesuits, ergo Vashta Nerada zombies.  Okay, bring on the toy sales, but why bother doing the easy-to-run-away-from Shaun Of The Dead shuffle?  Why not just shadow the hell out of every room they're in?  Nothing stops them in the long run – for instance, space helmets, but people keep using them anyway, while the Vashta Nerada dither arbitrarily over how long to wait for dinner.  Again they are like Moffat's Angels: Unstoppable, But Thankfully Not Trying Too Hard.

It's a bloody good thing they're so easy to reason with.  The Doctor only has to mention his name (and accompanying rep) to earn a day's escape time for everyone on the planet.  Problem (instantly) solved, shame he didn't come up with it earlier.  I wonder if they will regret it when they realise there's nothing left to eat.  (Then again, what have they been eating for the past hundred years?)

The nodes should be creepy, but honestly, they're just funny.
They look like Haribo eggs.  Also Catherine Tate looks like
she's about to corpse.  And hang on, how's her face on there?
She's still got it at the end.
But wait, back up: I've missed a Moffat's-Greatest-Hit!  When a space-suited person dies, their consciousness lingers, or "ghosts", which gives the monsters another trope to frighten us with, the repetitive catchphrase.  "Are you my mummy?"  Er, better make that: "Who turned out the lights?"  This works reasonably well (although it is a bit annoying and seriously, I saw The Empty Child already), but then, it's more melancholy than scary.  It's a sign that someone has died, regardless of whether they've also turned into something scary, and Moffat lets that sink in.  Which brings us back to the Library, and the general tone of the story, which is one of loss.

The Library covers an entire planet, and it's empty.  The Doctor receives a "cry for help" on the psychic paper.  (We know it does text messages, god knows how.)  A team of archaeologists arrives, including the mysterious River Song.  (She sent the message – with a kiss!)  Soon it's a case of dodge-the-Vashta-Nerada (and we know how well that works), but there's more going on here.  Somewhere, a little girl watches the Library in her dreams, and on television.  There's a world out there, and it has something to do with the 4,000 mysteriously missing book-lovers, who've all been "saved" somehow.  Then, in a terrifying moment where a companion actually screams (they never proper scream any more), Donna is teleported to the TARDIS... but it goes wrong, and she vanishes.  "Donna Noble has been saved," says the little girl.

All that little-girl stuff is fabulously disconcerting, especially the way it's slightly out of sequence with the rest of the episode.  Moffat plays with time here, and it's fun to keep up.  Of course, that's nothing to Forest Of The Dead when we catch up with Donna.  Marooned in a suburban existence somewhere, she's cared for by Dr Moon (the benevolent Colin Salmon) and meets a man, Lee.  But she can't help noticing how time keeps skipping.  Almost like it's being edited together.  This is a brilliant way to evoke a dream-world, and it's downright ingenious to use editing, which we mostly take for granted, as a part of the story.

On the surface, all of this is just something to keep Donna busy while the Doctor gets on with the (more pivotal) River Song plot.  But it's a great window into Donna's mind.  She wants a normal life and a family, and she's happy, but she instinctively knows something's wrong.  (Shades of The Matrix here, thankfully no bullet time.)  Still, even when she finds out the truth, she doesn't want to lose her "children".  The moment she does – they vanish in a well-edited instant – is a brutal, nightmarish horror.  We don't know these kids, and we know they're not "real", but Catherine Tate still makes their loss feel genuine.  (And once again, can she scream!)

The Library was built by this guy's grandfather for his youngest daughter,
to house her dying mind and give her books to read.  But the Library
was abandoned 100 years ago.  How old is this guy?
Of course, it turns out the little girl is the Library's central computer.  This returns us to the issue of "Tada" moments and how they work in hindsight; I can't remember how obvious this one was, but seeing the girl double as a floating security camera is a pretty big hint, and that's fairly early on.  Similarly, "saved" is pretty easy to work out.  We're a computer savvy bunch, are we not?  What does "saved" usually mean, if not something to do with hard drives?  If you've seen an episode or two of Star Trek – and we know they have, what with mind melds and warp drives – you'll probably figure out what that's got to do with teleporters as well.  (Divert all power to the pattern buffer, Cap'n!)

Some of the story's "big" reveals seem a little dragged out, especially when you're ahead of the game.  See also the Vashta Nerada telling the Doctor their forests are located in the Library, to his utter bewilderment.  You'll be screaming "BOOKS ARE MADE OF PAPER YOU MORON" for ages before he finally gets the message.  (Incidentally, stop shouting at the TV, he can't hear you.  Weirdo.)

Once the cat's out of the bag about the Library "saving" people, the plot really begins to wobble.  The Vashta Nerada must have been losing Steven Moffat's interest, because he tosses in a 20-minute countdown-to-self-destruct, pretty much for the hell of it.  (Seriously?  A self-destructing library?)  With the Vashta Nerada sent packing ("Please stop."  "No."  "I'm the Doctor."  "Okay then."), it's now just an issue of hoiking people out of the computer.  Cue DavidTennanttalkingreallyfastbecauseplot, and the revelation that there isn't enough memory to make this happen, so the Doctor must plug himself into the machine to add another brainsworth of RAM, all before the place explodes (which they can't stop because um).  River can't let him do this – it would cancel out all their subsequent adventures – so she takes his place.

This is somewhat undermined by not making any sense.  If a computer the size of a planet's core does not have enough memory to do the job, what difference can a brain make?  But that doesn't stop it being an incredible, horrible moment.  This is River Song, a character I've known for years, killing herself to save a Doctor who doesn't know her.  From a 2008 perspective, it's a powerful reminder that the Doctor has a future he is powerless to prevent.  Literally – he's handcuffed in place.  We don't see River's death, but the Doctor's reaction is enough to hit home the tragedy of what just happened.  From a 2014 perspective, there's an extra emotional layer, and Alex Kingston plays it all just ambiguous enough that it totally fits.  It's a gut-punching conclusion to the story they went on to tell, woolly and all-over-the-place as that was.  It's one of Steven Moffat's best time travel ideas, and it's just getting better with age.

River is, of course, another Moffat trope: he toyed with "meeting people in the wrong order" back in Blink, but it's the whole show this time, and it's a dazzling reminder that the Doctor is a time traveller, and time travel is complicated.  It's great to actually think about that once in a while, rather than just using the TARDIS as a taxi to this week's plot.  Kingston makes us believe she knows him.  David Tennant sells the horror of an omniscient man not knowing how it ends, particularly in the moment where she whispers his name.  It's a brilliant performance from both of them.

I'm often underwhelmed by Ten, but this whole sequence
is made of wow.
And of course, the Doctor loses somebody he's only just met – big whoop, happens all the time, but this time it works.  It's not a direct callback to The Girl In The Fireplace, where he met a woman in the wrong order and then bittersweetly lost her, but there are similarities.  Frankly, I didn't care when Reinette died.  Who?  This time, not knowing what he's lost is part of the tragedy.

Donna has a similar, gruelling experience.  When both characters stand around at the end watching the happy survivors teleport to safety, it feels as if something real and meaningful has been gained and lost in the space of these episodes.  That's a big deal for Doctor Who, which often has to rush its emotional journeys.  While Moffat cannot ultimately resist bringing back River and her co-workers in the Library world – "Everybody lives!", which just so happens to be another of his little storytelling habits – it doesn't make much difference to the Doctor or Donna.  It's a Happy Ending, but the emotional thud is left reassuringly in place.  Phew.  (And it's not that happy for River, though this may not have occurred to Moffat: she's spending eternity with her not-so-scintillating colleagues, including the one nobody liked.  Oh well, at least their boss isn't invited.)

There's a lot of familiar stuff here, and not all of it works, but more important are the big ideas: there's change and heartbreak.  And let's not forget the usual witty, Moffaty dialogue, subsequently batted into the stratosphere by Tennant, Tate and everyone else.  I can't pick a favourite.  There's: "Oh, you're not, are you?  Tell me you're not archaeologists."  "Got a problem with archaeologists?"  "I'm a time traveller, I point and laugh at archaeologists."  And there's: "Sonic it!  Use the thingy!"  "I CAN'T, IT'S WOOD."  "What, it doesn't do WOOD?"  And also: "Oh, I'm Pretty Boy?"  "YES.  Ooh, that came out a bit quick."  But then: "Doctor, we haven't got any helmets."  "Yeah, but we're safe anyway."  "How are we safe?"  "We're not, that was a clever lie to shut you up."  The cast is small, and the story very melancholy, but they all have their funny moments.  Despite the buckets of Time Traveler's Wife pathos, River is foremost among them.  "Professor Song, why am I the only one wearing my helmet?"  "I don't fancy you."

It's a bit of a mixed bag.  Nonetheless, where it's good, it's amazing.  Coming soon...

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