The world has been covered with forest overnight. In London, Clara and Danny are babysitting a Coal Hill ‘Gifted and Talented’ student sleepover at The Zoological Museum. One of the students, Maebh, gets separated from the group and finds her way to the TARDIS parked in a leafy Trafalgar Square. The Doctor and Clara talk by phone and she and Danny take the children to the TARDIS, by which time Maebh has wandered off. On finding out Maebh has been medicated after her sister went missing, The Doctor deduces that the voices in her head were trees communicating with her.
The Doctor, Clara, Danny and the Coal Hill kids, nicknamed ‘Gifted and Talented’ as a euphemism for behavioural difficulties, follow Maebh’s gingerbread trail of personal items, encountering COBRA burning through the trees and escaped zoo animals. Upon finding Maebh and using her to communicate with miniscule bug-like creatures in the air, The Doctor concludes that the earth will be hit by a solar flare. Clara lets The Doctor leave but he returns, realising trees are protecting the earth from the flare, and sends global text messages to stop humans harming them. The trees save the earth and Maebh’s sister returns.
The Doctor Who debut of Slumdog Millionaire author Frank Cottrell Boyce was awaited with some anticipation (more than Neil Gaiman by those not as devoted to fantasy) and, at least on a conceptual level, he didn’t disappoint. The spectacle of a forest growing over London, not unlike the transformation of England into a green and pleasant land in the 2012 Olympics opening written by Boyce, is certainly breath-taking. However, the fairytale origin story has been worked over so many times in Doctor Who since Moffat took over, even Boyce’s notable intervention begins to feel like it’s flogging a dead unicorn.
Of all the Coal Hill episodes, however, ‘In the Forest of the Night’ is the only one that looks at each of the students individually and might actually have some educational value for children who are watching. As you would expect from Boyce, the episode is very sharply written with a dry sarcasm that prevents this family-friendly modern-day fairytale from becoming too cutesy. For a programme with such a strong international appeal, it’s good to see an episode that is unapologetically British in its tone, references and imagery. That said, some of the science-fiction elements are handled a little sketchily.
What this episode has that others in this season do not is a use for Danny. He’s seamlessly integrated into the story and plays a crucial part in the action. However, the revelation that Danny will not travel in the TARDIS seems like being different for difference’s sake. The writing clutches at straws to call-back to previous episodes such as ‘Time Heist’ and ‘Robot of Sherwood’ but these allusions seem tacked on, apart from The Doctor’s absenteeism in ‘Kill The Moon’. We see Missy watching via tablet once again, but with the same imbalance of tease to information as before.
At last, we start to get somewhere with the triangle of mistrust involving The Doctor, Clara and Danny. Boyce called upon his experience as a soap opera writer to find a way for Danny to discover Clara’s secret about travelling with The Doctor (via dated exercise books) and put a rather laboured story point to bed. We get more of the tension between The Doctor and Danny, and a nice inversion of The Doctor’s usual Superman act as Clara saves him from saving the earth. Peter Capaldi’s fustiness with the children is a marked contrast with Matt Smith’s infantile empathy.
I wouldn’t want ‘In the Forest of the Night’ to be forgotten like the earth-saving trees, but it seems a highly unnecessary addition to the litany of fairytale-themed Doctor Who episodes that Moffat has made his speciality since becoming showrunner. Many of the same ideas were explored in ‘Robot of Sherwood’ only 7 episodes previously. Perhaps Moffat needs to instigate the spreadsheets that Rod Serling used on The Twilight Zone to make sure there weren’t too many of the same genre of episode each season. It is, however, a much-needed vindication of Danny’s relevance to the series and the decision to set much of this season at Coal Hill School. It would help if Boyce returned to write another episode that wasn’t so overdone nor so indebted to the cultural patriotism of the London Olympics. It remains one of the quaintest visions of a post-apocalyptic society that you’ll ever see.