The world is suddenly overrun by forests and Coal Hill schoolgirl Maebh is the only one who can communicate with them. But are they invaders or protectors? And is it time for Clara to say goodbye to the Doctor?
With just the concluding two-parter to follow, this episode represents Who‘s traditional quieter, more contained pre-finale story, one that allows us to catch our breath in preparation for plunging headlong into tying up the season’s main story arcs. And, put into the hands of Who debutant Frank Cottrell Boyce, a children’s novelist and the writer of the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, we’re presented with an enchanting fairy-tale of a story which is simultaneously both the most child-focussed episode of the season and also the one with the most overt social commentary we have seen in the series.
A fairy-tale with a social conscience
There’s no such thing as an arboreal coincidence.
Despite being a programme intended to appeal to a family audience, Doctor Who has a chequered history when it comes to putting children front and centre in its stories – last season’s Nightmare in Silver being a prime example of one that failed to live up to its promise. This episode does work, however, although it does so almost by stealth.
What starts out as a light and gently paced fairy-tale of an adventure – complete with wild animals and a mystical forest – becomes a thinly veiled allegory on environmental and other social issues. It passes comment on deforestation programmes, unhealthy fizzy drinks, the euphemistic labelling of kids as ‘gifted and talented’ (ultimately the group prove that they can be both given the chance) and the excessive use of medication to treat behavioural issues (in Maebh‘s case the voices in her head that turn out to be anything but imaginary).
The ability of science fiction in general and Who in particular to share allegorical or metaphorical messages is nothing new, of course. But this is perhaps the most strikingly obvious and broad-based commentary we’ve seen from the show in either its modern or classic incarnations.
A sting in the fairy-tale’s tail
The trees are not your enemy. They’re your shield.
The dramatic elements of the episode take longer to unfold. While we’re being led to believe that the forests represent some kind of invading force, there’s a distinct lack of jeopardy to the story, with the trees and even their firefly-like representations lacking a proper visible embodiment for the Doctor (and viewers) to root against. Only in the closing minutes, as the Doctor realises that the trees are attempting to save Earth from a solar flare, does it become clear that the monster of the week has been hiding in plain sight all along: humanity itself.
Setting aside the overt environmental message here, this is a neat subversion that Cottrell Boyce ties in to the universal dread of being stuck in a dense forest, with a sledgehammer-subtle reminder at the end that mankind’s ability to compartmentalise and forget traumatic events is both a blessing and a curse. We’re not overwhelmed by fear and sadness which means we go on, and yet our inability to take those feelings and learn from our mistakes is what leaves us constantly warring against ourselves and persecuting others for being different or somehow lesser than we are.
A fairy story? Yes. But one with a sting in the tail that is softened by the return of Maebh’s disappeared sister Annabel in the episode’s coda, brought back by a simple wish. After all, fairy-tales have to have a happy ending, don’t they?
The beginning of the end?
I don’t want to see more things. I want to see the things that are in front of me more clearly.
Although this is essentially a standalone story, there is unmistakably a degree of set-up ahead of the forthcoming two-part finale.
Danny‘s character is thrown into sharper focus here. His determination and devotion to the kids is obvious. Is this just how he is, or is there something related to his past military traumas (which we still know little about) that has made him this way?
Where does his relationship with Clara now stand? Despite seeing through her lies about travelling with the Doctor, the pair finish this episode even closer together. Where will Clara finish this season (or, perhaps, the Christmas special)? Leaving the Doctor? Staying with Danny? Separated from both? She demonstrates here that under the right circumstances she is prepared to cut ties with the Doctor, if only to set him free to save the universe with someone else.
And what of Missy, who we again see only briefly at the end of the episode? There’s a sense of whatever her plan is coming into play, as I think it’s fairly obvious that the thought that prompted Maebh to seek out the Doctor which she said came from ‘Miss’ originated from her rather than Clara. But why? And if this is Missy’s opening gambit, what’s the endgame she is hoping to arrive at?
At some level, the Doctor seems to be aware that something is going on. He has brought up the subject of the woman in the shop already, and he is suspicious about who sent Maebh. But how much does he know, and is he ready to deal with it head on? We’ll find out soon enough.
This story probably won’t be to everyone’s taste. I didn’t realise how much I’d enjoyed the episode until some time after watching it, but for me this was one of modern Who‘s most charming tales, and one packed full of great little moments and pieces of dialogue. Sometimes all you need is a simple story, told well.
Fun stuff, references & quotables
- The episode’s title is drawn from the William Blake poem The Tyger (“Tyger Tyger, burning bright / In the forests of the night”), foreshadowing a tiger’s appearance in the story.
- The name Maebh apparently comes from the old Irish name Madb, meaning ’cause of great joy’ or ‘she who intoxicates’.
- “When you drink a glass of Coke it’s only this big but it’s actually got this much sugar in it. Works a bit like that.” The Doctor has a new way of explaining why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, while preaching about the unhealthiness of fizzy drinks.
- “You have reached your destination.” The TARDIS has sat-nav too!
- The Coal Hill sleepover takes place at the fictitious London Zoological Museum, which is most likely based on the Grant Museum of Zoology. The episode suggests it is near the Natural History Museum in Cromwell Road, Kensington – a sign supports this and Danny mentions the street by name. However, the real-life Grant Museum is in Bloomsbury, nearly four miles away.
- “Even my incredibly long life is too short for Les Miserables.”
- The Doctor: “I’m a Time Lord, not a child-minder.” Clara: “You’ve got a spaceship. All we’ve got are Oyster cards.”
- “London has just been taken over by a gigantic forest. Who do you want to talk to, Monty Don?”
- “”So, what do you think, that’s how spring begins? With a group message on Tree Facebook? Do you think they send texts to each other?”
- “Farewell to the Ice Age. Welcome to the Tree Age. Possibly.”
- This isn’t the first time a famous London landmark has taken a battering. A Slitheen spaceship crashed into Big Ben at the beginning of the Ninth Doctor story Aliens of London.
- The fairy-tales Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood are mentioned during the episode – both these stories also take place in forests. Note also the colour of Maebh’s coat!
- The Doctor references the solar flare that hit the Bank of Karabraxos in Time Heist.
- “Stars implode, planets grow cold. Catastrophe is the metabolism of the universe. I can fight monsters. I can’t fight physics.” This may just be my favourite line of the entire season.