Saturday, June 28, 2008

Doctor Who: 'Silence in the Library'/'The Forest of the Dead' (4x08/4x09)

As I got closer to the big Stephen Moffat two parter for this season, I was a bit worried that he was getting overhyped. I do love all his previous episodes, but I didn’t think they were quite as good as some did. The man’s only human, can we really expect him to make a masterpiece every time out? It’s still to be seen whether he can do as good a job running the whole show as he has writing individual episodes, but this two parter, particularly the second half, makes it pretty clear that he can write episodes as good as anything in the show’s entire run. For me, “Forest of the Dead” tops all his previous episodes for a trippy, intensely emotional experience that’s simultaneously mindblowing and heartbreaking.

The first episode is mainly about setting up mysteries. As such, I was left more with questions than really concrete feelings. I was thoroughly intrigued by the girl and her strange relationship to the library and even more so by the Doctor’s relationship to River Song. But, there was one really standout scene, Miss Evangelista’s passing to death. The residual soul energy conceit is brilliant because it allows for these emotional death sequences without the goofiness of the typical deathbed speech. On top of this, we’re exposed to her inner thoughts, the sad problems she has with self image, all laid bare in her moment of death. You can tell that Donna is the only person in a long time who’s offered her any kindness.

With this series, I’ve talked a lot about the use of science fiction conceits as a device to make explicit that which is implicit in our own emotional lives. The residual soul thing may not be real, but it gets us to an underlying truth of human existence in a way that just documenting the surface reality a camera can see on Earth does. This show gets to me more than any other TV show I’ve watched because the emotion is writ so large, the individual struggle becomes an apocalyptic moment. “Forest of the Dead” is full of those moments.

One of the great things about this episode is its ambition. We’ve got three parallel realities proceeding simultaneously in the second half. The first is Donna’s alternate life, constructed in the computer mainframe. I always love these kind of stories, I loved it when The Sopranos did it with Kevin Finnerty, and I love it here. Seeing the world that someone creates tells you a lot about who they are, it looks like on some level Donna wants an ordinary life. She ponders what it means about her that her ideal man is gorgeous and barely speaks, but isn’t her ideal man right in front of her?

This was the first episode to not feature a joke about Donna and the Doctor as a couple, and that constant hammering in of the idea happens for a reason. They are so good together, and I think on some level, The Doctor is her ideal man. After all, she does say she will travel with him forever, isn’t that moment kind of a wedding, the kind of commitment that we never saw from Martha. So, if she’s in ‘til death do them part, the question becomes how far away is that? This episode again hints heavily at Donna’s possible death, I hope it doesn’t happen, but I fear it will.

So, if The Doctor is Donna’s ideal man, what is the meaning of her vision. I suppose it’s her subconscious reaction to being taken away from the Doctor. Moon tells her that her experience on the Tardis was only a dream, so what else can she do but get on with her life and try to be as happy as she can. I don’t think Rose would be happy with the kind of life Donna imagines, Rose’s motivation for traveling with the Doctor was more about boredom than anything. For Donna, it’s loneliness, the chance to escape the emotional failures of her past and start a new life. So, another new life might not be so bad, if it’s a happy one.

It’s a testament to the writing that even though we know this world is a false one, it’s still heartbreaking to watch Donna lose it all. The intercutting of River’s energy surge and Donna’s husband being torn from her was a visual highlight of the episode. Another particularly effective moment was Donna’s kids telling her they felt they weren’t real, then quickly disappearing before her eyes. On some level, she’s aware that the world she lives in is false, but she wants to believe in it, and it still hurts her to have it torn away.

Elsewhere, the Doctor continues his attempt to find out what’s up with River Song. The effective thing about this sequence is the reversal of the typical range of knowledge. Normally, the Doctor is the wise one with all the answers, who’s seen it all and guides the other characters through their journey. Here, the Doctor is made to feel young, because he can’t quite match up to River’s memory of his older self. And, he’s frustrated by the way she hints at their relationship, but never fully reveals to him. He can’t know, and it’s frustrating.

The aforementioned energy spike destruction of River was another great moment. The Doctor is handcuffed, helpless to do anything as River sacrifices herself for the good of humanity. It’s a situation he’s put others in many times, and now he himself is stuck with nothing to do but watch.

A lingering question now is what the significance of him telling her his name is. Maybe this was covered in the old episodes, I’m not sure whether it’s simply a way to show us how close they were, or if it has some kind of specific meaning.

The final ten minutes or so of the episode were all brilliant, one emotional hit compounded on another. The moment where Donna’s dream guy teleports off planet, as tries to call to her, and the scene where Donna says “alright” is time lord code for really not alright. That line in particular felt just like something Joss Whedon at his best would have a character say.

The Doctor reloading River into the mainframe was a nice payoff to the sonic screwdriver plot. I was glad they didn’t resurrect her for real, but it was nice that she got some peace. That moments works so well because it pays off what was set up last episode with the residual souls. And, it all ends on that mix of melancholy sadness and peace.

“Forest of the Dead” was one of the best episodes of the series to date, full of ideas and emotion. That’s what I want from fiction, I felt like this episode was made just for me.