21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: Silence In the Library / Forest Of The Dead

Libraries seem that much bigger when you're a kid. I remember my first visit to the library as part of the weekly school run – at which point I first stumbled across a pristine hardback copy of The Robots Of Death. Having become hooked on the TV series, I was intrigued by the book, but couldn't really understand it. I liked the front cover though. About two years later, I tried my luck again with better results. Having picked up Destiny Of The Daleks, I was amazed to find that there was a whole new world of Doctor Who books to delve into – complete with some of the grooviest cover illustrations you ever would see.

Now though, I'd be lucky to find a library, let alone look around one, given that those pesky Tories are hell-bent on closing them down. Maybe they are trying to save money. Maybe they are annoyed that it's one of the few places in which this motley collection of champagne-swilling oiks can't guffaw at the tops of their voices. Or maybe they are secretly terrified out of their wits at libraries, having seen the double whammy of Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead – in which a trip to an intergalactic library turns out to be the stuff of nightmares.

As usual, I'll call the two-parter by a clumsily assembled fusion of the two titles. Library Forest is one of the cornerstones of the fourth season of NuWho, and actually the beginning of a month's worth of some seriously impressive TV.

Library Forest is oddly one of my all-time favourites of the new run – I say, oddly, since it includes annoying Steven Moffat habits, which are there for all to see, and yet somehow it doesn't matter, because the good stuff glosses over any thorns in the side. Take the setting alone – what a cool idea. A giant intergalactic library that contains every book ever written – The Doctor refers to it as a whole world, and thanks to the visuals, you can well believe that there's endless streets of books. Just skip the Jeffrey Archer biographies though.

Not only that, but imagine that you're locked in the darkest, murkiest library after hours. I used to pass by the local library after work had finished and there was something curiously ominous about this almost ghostly building full of rows of shelves and dark shadows. Moffat picks up on this, and emphasises the horror by killing people off if they step into the shadows.

The Vashta Nerada are the blighters responsible for this carnage: shadowy piranhas, who can literally melt the flesh off the bone, leaving most of Professor River Song's expedition as skeletons. It's a terrifying thought, and it's probably the most successful of Moffat's child game motifs.

But in one way, it highlights one of the weaknesses of the script. So let's have a quick breakdown of what's wrong by referring to Library Forest for examples.

* Maybe Moffat enjoyed kiddie birthday parties when he was a kid. I bet he came first in the game of Pin The Blame On The Forum Spoiler. As an adult, he's used a good number of secret kiddie games and tricks in his Doctor Who stories: Follow The Leader. Don't Look Under The Bed. Statues. And now in Library Forest, it's Keep Out Of The Shadows. It's the scariest out of the lot to date – you can imagine kids watching this and then refusing to go into the shadows at night in fear of getting turned into a skeleton. Problem is though, how many games can Moffat get through – he'd carry on the trick when he took over as producer, and while it's a fun hook, at the same time, it's getting a wee bit samey by this point.

* Linking with this theme is the fact that Moffat always has to centre the action around a child. The Empty Child two-parter should give you a clue. The Girl In The Fireplace starts out with a kiddie Reinette. Countless future examples in Moffat's time as producer include the young Amy, the Beast Below brats, and Angie and Artie (shudder). Charlotte Abigail Lux is probably the best written example. The mystery's well kept as to who the mysterious girl is throughout, and the revelation that she's CAL is a striking and pleasingly unexpected one. But again, that same sense of Déjà Vu kicks in.

* Children en masse probably went around with their arms outstretched in the playgrounds after The Empty Child, shouting out “Are You My Mummy?” Ever since then, Moffat's come back with diminishing returns of catchphrases (“Timey Wimey Blah Blah Blah”) and while the sight of Proper Dave's animated skeleton lurching around intoning “Hey! Who Turned Out The Lights?” is a freaky one, again, it seems like Moffat's aping his earlier glory.

* Talking of catchphrases, two of the most irritating come from Professor River Song. I noted this problem in The Girl In The Fireplace review. While Moffat's writing is for the most part, amusing and witty, it can overspill into glib smuggery at times. River Song's one of the worst examples of this, and every time she saunters onto the screen, she's oozing so much smugness, you could bottle it and sell it for a whopping great profit.

The two non-stop catchphrases don't help: Every story she's in is usually accompanied by a sneer of “Hello Sweetie!” or “Spoooiiilllaaahhs” in that smirking, singsong I-Know-Who-I-Am-But-You-Don't-Nyer-Nyer-Nee-Nyer-Nyer tone of voice. Don't get me wrong, Alex Kingston's superb in the role, and always does her level best to make her character approach a mile from being likeable. But more often than not, the character's too smug and annoying by half.

Future stories will spin out the tedious mystery over River's identity. We all know who she is now, but to be honest, I couldn't give a toss – A. Because this story arc runs for so long, to the point where it's developing cobwebs; B. It becomes pretty obvious who she is; and C. The character's not likeable enough to make me care. For all I know she could have been Omega's tea lady and it wouldn't have made a scrap of difference.

One other irritating bit of smug mode in this one: The Doctor's now inexplicably The Fonz. Having basically defeated the Vashta Nerada by telling them to sod off because he's The Doctor Almighty, apparently he can open and close the TARDIS doors with just one click. You half expect him to don a leather jacket, give the thumbs up and go “Heeeeeeyyyy!” as the credits roll.

* Here's my biggest gripe about Library Forest. People are killed off throughout the story in a strikingly gruesome fashion. Previously, Moffat's body counts haven't been too high, and when people have met their maker, it's been through natural causes. So throughout this story, it's refreshing to see dopey glamazon Miss Evangelista, the two Daves, the tomboyish Anita and of course River Song get bumped off.

But then we get that end coda where River Song finds herself twirling around and around in a serene paradise. You half expect Daniel O'Donnell to creep out from behind one of the bushes with a rose in his teeth while crooning 'You Raise Me Up' or some other lame ballad. Worse still, the four cadavers are now rushing forward to hug The Song with fixed, cheesy grins and tears in their eyes. Because after all, Everybody Lives.

Waffle. Waffle, waffle, waffle.

While technically they're dead, somehow River and her crew are now in some kind of quasi-technological world where they are allowed some sort of existence, metaphysical or otherwise. From a superficial level, it seems like all the earlier scary deaths were for nothing. I've said this before about a million times – if you're going to kill off characters, let them stay dead. Don't miraculously bring them back to life in the real world or on a giant computer hard drive. Imagine a coda to Horror Of Fang Rock in which Palmerdale takes the lighthouse keepers and his small army of hangers-on to a swanky casino in heaven. Or imagine the Doctor reversing the polarity of Kerensky's cellular accelerator to reverse the damage done to the bumbling professor and thus wipe out the horror of Part Three's cliffhanger in City Of Death. The ending of Library Forest means that all the deaths were a big cheat, and to riff on the Everybody Lives line from The Doctor Dances is feeble in the extreme.

Not wishing to go all Saward here, but if you're going to show violent death, you should show it for what it is, otherwise you're cheating the audience and duping them into believing in a twee, cosy safe little world as ruled by Mary Whitehouse.

While the above points still stand, there's so much else to enjoy in Library Forest. If you somehow close your eyes at that last Beyond The Grave bit, then this is one of the scariest Doctor Who's we've had in a long time. There's something quite horrible at the thought of having your flesh ripped off in one fell swoop, and there are long, lingering close-ups at the remains, whether they're stuck in a chair or lurching around like the Spooky Space Kook from Scooby Doo Where Are You (the eerie space skeleton with the voice of Stacey's Mum from EastEnders – AKA the most annoying woman on telly).

Just as effective are the last words from the victims, communicating via Data Ghost, or a neural relay in the communicator which can momentarily hold an impression of a living consciousness after death. “She's a footprint on the beach,” muses the Doctor over Miss Evangelista. “And the tide's coming in.” In fact, Miss Evangelista's last words are quite sad, a moving epitaph as she requests that Donna won't tell the others about her earlier gaffe for fear of being laughed at. It's a nice idea and one that's both poignant and morbid at the same time.

Sticking with this, the characterisation is actually very well done, and one of the nice aspects of Library Forest is that none of them quite match up with initial assumptions. Take Miss Evangelista, for example – Moffat's cleverly toying with the viewer's expectations by altering her character throughout the story. Initially, she's the tall, glamorous PA to Strackman Lux, so we expect her to be a confident, self-assured character. In fact, she's the equivalent of the kid who's picked on in school. Miss Evangelista is bullied and laughed at by the others (“Couldn't tell the difference between the escape pod and the bathroom,” snickers Anita) for being a bit ditzy. Yet after she's been stripped to the bone after wandering off, she turns up in the next episode as a data ghost in the machine, but now dramatically changed. Now she's as bright as a button (without the slightly daffy tone of voice), more confident (albeit on a more cynical level) and also she's lost her looks. The moment when Donna rips off her veil to reveal Miss Evangelista's distorted visage is just as grim as the genuine article's death in the real world. Some great characterisation here from Moffat, and boosted by an excellent performance from Talulah Riley.

Another interesting character is Strackman Lux, a man who should, by rights, be the chief baddie par excellence. Maybe it's because of the fact that he's played by Steve Pemberton, who's well known for his grotesque caricatures in The League Of Gentlemen and Psychoville, as well as the perpetually scowling Mick Garvey in Benidorm. Lux is forever hovering shiftily in the background for the first part, but in fact this isn't discreet villainy, but anxiety over the source of his real mission – to protect his grandfather's youngest daughter – the dying Charlotte Abigail Lux (“He asked that she only be left in peace – a secret, not a freak show”). It's a well-judged performance from Pemberton, who keeps it refreshingly subtle. Amazingly, he's the only one to survive out of the party.

The other minor characters are well defined, and also bypass initial expectations. Proper Dave initially comes across as a laddish, over-confident alpha male, but in fact, when he realises that he's accidentally stepped in a shadow, his façade slips to show a moment of vulnerability. This is taken further with the equally brash Anita, who suffers the same fate. “Can I get you anything?” asks the Doctor. “An old age would be nice,” quips Anita. That cutting sense of humour, used to mock Miss Evangelista, has now been flipped around to acknowledge her own sense of mortality. Good performances all round too from Harry Peacock and Jessika Williams. All the actors do justice to Moffat's excellent characterisation, and that also includes Colin Salmon who's perfect as the sinister Dr Moon and Jason Pitt as the likeable Mr Donna Noble, Lee McAvoy.

The other notable strength of this story is the way in which it rapidly changes gears halfway through the story. The cliffhanger to the first part is a notably doomy one as the Doctor and his friends are cornered by lurching Proper Dave the space skeleton, while the Time Lord finds that Donna has somehow become a Data Node, a disembodied head on a revolving pedestal that intones information to visitors. What could have been a straightforward tussle to restore Donna now becomes something else. We see Donna in another – apparently ordinary – world. Of course, it's no such thing, given that time rapidly jumps forward by several phases. It's a bit of post-modern cleverness in a way, given that this is exactly what TV does. A TV programme doesn't unfold in real time (unless it's 24) – it jumps from scene to scene, missing out minutes, hours, sometimes days or weeks.

Not only that, it also makes the story creepy in a different way. We can tell that something's amiss with this world, but Donna can't. She's now finding herself in the perfect world that she's always wanted. She goes on a date with Lee McAvoy. Gets married to Lee McAvoy. Has kids with Lee McAvoy. It's only when Miss Evangelista's data ghost forces her to acknowledge the harsh unreality, that her world starts to crumble. That's a great bit of psychological terror, especially in the scenes when she's doing her best to cling on to dear life to the fake world, and most notably when her kids have vanished into thin air. Once again, it provides Catherine Tate with some great material to get stuck right into. Not only does she give her normally good performance as Donna in the real world (sticking up for Miss Evangelista, and subsequently mourning her new friend), but she really goes for it in the second half of the story. The scene in which she shrieks and sobs at the top of her voice at the loss of her kids is very convincingly done. Makes the initial horrified reaction to Tate's casting seem so very long ago.

Despite the aforementioned faults, this is still a highly accomplished script from Steven Moffat, who manages to tell the story on several different levels. It's a story that stands up to countless viewings because there's an awful lot of minute detail that would be missed on the first go. Again, he's pitching the story to every possible audience: The kids, with the non-stop scares of the walking skeletons. The adults, with the multi-layered script. And also those who like their fair share of witty lines – “Oops, sorry – Mrs Angelo's rhubarb surprise! Will I never learn?” “No, I never land on Sundays – Sundays are boring.” “It's the 51st century – that's basically like donating a park bench”. Just a fraction of the great lines that bless this story. It's very well worked out, intelligent, and even if some of the lesser aspects seem either too familiar or too irritating, the mores of this tale are excellent compensation.

Looking back at this tale, Library Forest sticks with The Rule Of Side Four. Each of the Doctor's set of adventures can be broken down into four parts like a double album. If you're a sad old fart like me, you can work out when the equivalent of Side Four begins for each Doctor. Library Forest is the point where Side Four begins for the Tenth Doctor, and it's a good example of how it marks the beginning of the end.

I'll explain a bit more. The last quarter of stories for many of the Doctors highlight how each of the incarnations' days are numbered. For example, the Third Doctor's Side Four kicks off with The Green Death in which he says goodbye to his long-standing companion, Jo. UNIT are gradually being phased out in his last run of stories. A darker style of story in Death To The Daleks pre-empts his successor's Gothic Horror tales. The Fourth Doctor becomes more subdued in his last quarter of stories, losing Romana and K9 along the way. The Fifth Doctor's harder-edged quartet of escapades pave the way for the grittier era of the Sixth Doctor, while also saying farewell to Tegan, Turlough and Kamelion.

The Tenth Doctor is one of the most notable examples of the Side Four Rule. Library Forest kicks off a run of stories which signpost the ending of this popular incarnation. Possible regenerations. Future Doctors. Ominous warnings. They are all on the way, but what's curious about this tale is that it feels more like an Eleventh Doctor story guest starring the Tenth. Many of the common elements of a Matt Smith era story are in place – not just River Song, but common motifs of child characters and children's games. River also describes future Doctors (the Eleventh and Twelfth who can open the TARDIS with a finger click and who turn up with a new haircut and a new suit). It's as if Tennant's Doctor feels like a guest star in his own series. Paving the way for his next incarnation, Library Forest's Side Four rule marks the point at which the Tenth Doctor finds that his song's ending is coming sooner than he thinks.

Library Forest is remarkably constructed by director Euros Lyn, who provides his best ever work. Not only is this story a feast for the mind, it's also a feast for the eyes and ears. The realisation of the library is superb, the action sequences are well filmed, and he wrings out every scrap of tension from Moffat's script, whether it's the moody, ominous shadows or the sudden, jarring cuts in the virtual world. Every single aspect of the production works like a dream from the uniformly strong acting through to one of Murray Gold's best ever scores for the show, a strange off-kilter set of suites that perfectly sum up the weird, eerie, almost childlike aspects of the script.

Library Forest may seem like Moffat's Greatest Hits, but despite all that, this is still one of my all-time favourite stories because the good points come through just as strongly. It's a story that's imaginative, terrifying, funny and poignant in places, while benefiting from top-quality acting and production values. Who could ask for more?

Well, do something about the ending, perhaps.

* The Doctor Who adaptations are discussed in my eBook guides to the incarnations of the 1970s and 1980s, along with story reviews, video/DVD opinions, and profiles of characters, aliens, cliffhangers and much more!


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