Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night review — fable and poetry under a canopy of nonsense

Frank Cottrell-Boyce swathes Doctor Who in greenery and visions of William Blake

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★★★  This week Frank Cottrell-Boyce and, to a large extent, William Blake join the Doctor Who fold.

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Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Cottrell-Boyce (who has specifically requested hyphenation for the purposes of Who) is, along with Richard Curtis and Neil Gaiman, one of the biggest names to be invited to write for the series. If you haven’t heard of FC-B, you should have. His CV spans Coronation Street, 24 Hour Party People and one of my favourite movies, Hilary and Jackie. In 2010 he was a castaway on Desert Island Discs. He also writes children’s books.

For Doctor Who, FC-B has dreamt up a new and in some ways delightful fable for kids and indulgent grown-ups. He’s also inverted his London Olympics Opening Ceremony showpiece, in which a green and pleasant land gave way to industrialised society. Now the Forest engulfs the City.

In what distant deeps or skies,

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand, dare seize the fire?

Doctor Who has touched on poetry before, from Greek myths to Shakespeare. But In the Forest of the Night is the first invocation of William Blake, even quoting the second line (all but one letter) from his poem, The Tyger – an opaque work from 1794 open to multiple interpretations.

FC-B jokes that if Blake were alive today, he’d be writing for Who. Certainly, you’d be excused for thinking today’s scriptwriters were channelling the English poet’s mystical visions. FC-B cheekily gives form (via this episode’s sparkling sprites) to one of those childhood visions, which Blake described as “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars”.

And what shoulder, & what art,

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand? & what dread feet?

Nowadays, we’re primed to view woodland as an idyllic escape. FC-B reminds us of our ancestors’ primal fear of “The Forest”, its perils and predators – a dread that suffuses fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. It was for good reason that Stephen Sondheim named his dark fairy-tale parody Into the Woods.

The long shots of London swamped in foliage impress, even if at street level we rarely have a sense that we’re in the capital, and I’m bewildered by the image of the whole globe and its oceans covered in vegetation. The “overnight” transformation of the Earth is also a tough sell. You either swallow it or choke – often the way with 2014-vintage Who. The story glosses over the fact that we wake up at different times around the planet and that, as far as the media is concerned, it’s a 24-hour world.

What the hammer? what the chain,

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp,

Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

Unusually, the “threat” proves to be natural, astronomical, an impending solar flare. This instant greenery is benign, its aim to shelter the Earth. To inject momentary alarm (and a further touch of Blake), FC-B has animals escaping from London Zoo. The wolves are ridiculously slow (my ten-year-old domesticated pooch runs five times faster than any child), and the tiger (an excellent effect) can apparently be deflected by Danny’s flashlight… Oh really? Maybe it’s already breakfasted on some tourists.

Among a posse of quirky children – only as annoying and fractious as school kids are entitled to be – the most intriguing is Maebh Arden. She is the fable’s troubled visionary. FC-B resists the temptation to relate her any more closely with Blake. Instead, there’s a nominal link to Shakespeare, whose mother was Mary Arden. And of course the Forest of Arden was England’s ancient woodland, so forbidding that even the Romans avoided it.

When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

It is either bold or foolhardy, in a season that has already presented the Moon as an egg, to do something almost as credulity-stretching with dear old Mother Earth. Ecologists, Greens and Gaia theorists may feel a surge of “if only” joy as our planet is shown to be a highly sensitive celestial body suffused with benign sprites ready to “reforest” overnight to produce enough oxygen to ward off solar flares. (I’d mention “science” but Doctor Who scored a U grade in that GCSE yonks back!)

We’re told this has happened before and humankind has conveniently forgotten. Where this leaves previous Doctor Who cataclysm stories such as The Ark, The Ark in Space, The End of the World and The Beast Below is anyone’s guess.

Ultimately, this is Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s standalone short-story in the Doctor Who Compendium. For once, the Doctor stands back and lets “nature” work its magic. From “heaven” even Missy is impressed. Should we be? And as this is FC-B’s Once Upon A Time, are we also ready to forgive him for the dire Happy Ever After coda when a swishing bush turns into Maebh’s long lost sister?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,

In the forests of the night:

What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

…and back to the beginning…

At a stretch, In the Forest of the Night could be interpreted as a modern spin on the original Doctor Who set-up. Capaldi as the tetchy, otherworldly Doctor. Danny and Clara as 21st-century equivalents of Coal Hill School teachers Ian and Barbara. And as for Susan, the original Unearthly Child… well, in Maebh we have, in a phenomenal sense, An Earthly Child. 

But whereas that first episode in 1963 transported us away from Totters Lane, there’s a gnawing anxiety that 2014 is depositing us in Cobblers Yard.

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Complete Radio Times Doctor Who Story Guide 1963–2014