Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
For a long time now I have had a pet theory that Doctor Who isn’t really a science-fiction show. Yes, there is a strong element of sci-fi, obviously, but it is one of many elements and if you scratch a little deeper you will find the true heart of Doctor Who: fantasy. Steven Moffat recognised that right from his first script, and once he took over as showrunner he set about making his children’s fantasy fiction version of Doctor Who. Frank Cottrell-Boyce runs with that, referencing Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. Fantasy fiction in Doctor Who rarely equates to fairy tales. As much as it would be a useful shorthand for describing Doctor Who post-2010 it doesn’t really fit very often, but this is one of the big exceptions where it hits the nail on the head.
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?
The forest calls up a primal human fear, which Clara notices and even the Doctor is not immune to. After all, Gallifrey is not devoid of trees, and where there are trees you can find the Forest. And this Forest is populated by fairies, Little Red Riding Hood Maebh in her red coat, wolves, Daddy Wolf Danny protecting his young, and a tyger. That last one doesn’t quite fit does it. That’s because it doesn’t come from the world of the fairy tale, but the world of poetry, and we’ll get to that.
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?
If you want Doctor Who to be all rational and scientific then you will be disappointed with this episode. In fact, I would say you are probably watching the wrong series because Doctor Who is rarely constrained by scientific logic and those who look for that are trapped in a cycle of finding constant fault. This isn’t Star Trek. If you want it to be, then you might as well skip this episode altogether (and lots more Doctor Who besides) because Cottrell-Boyce rejects biology and physics wholesale, substituting them out for magic. And that’s not an accident. It’s part of the philosophy of this episode. Yes, the science is complete nonsense, because it’s supposed to be.
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
The clue is in the title, which is taken from William Blake’s most famous poem. The episode uses the rules of poetry, and that has nothing to do with realism, science or logic. In this instance it is a beautiful expression of the mystical. Blake was considered mad in his own lifetime and his poetry was based on visions. Maebh is living those visions, a clear parallel for Blake, and is also of the Forest (Arden) and of the world of Faerie, named after an Irish Fairy Queen. She sees and hears ideas flying around her, and once she is medicated this is lost. Her medication suppresses her abilities. This opens a can of worms about the use of psychiatric medication, but I don’t have the necessary experience to be able to explore that any further. We have a comments section for that.
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?
The other children help to bring an energy to the story and they are the problem children labelled not as broken but “gifted and talented”. Clara has also been broken by her last few adventures with the Doctor, to the extent that she would rather die than become like him: orphaned from her race. I use that word “orphaned” quite deliberately to illustrate how wrong she is, but this is the side effect of the Doctor’s reply to her question of whether she was a good Doctor in Flatline. She can see the effect she thinks isolation from his own people has had on the Doctor, and she doesn’t want to be that person. This gets to the heart of her fundamental misunderstanding of the Doctor. Deep down, she thinks he is a monster, and yet she is the one person who should know him better than anyone else. The last few episodes have brought her to that point, but it is a bleak vision of Doctor Who and one that I would reject as out-of-step with the vast majority of what we have seen over the years, even if you take the post-Time War episodes in isolation. Also it seems to have been forgotten that Clara lost her own mother. She should be the one showing how you can find your own place in the universe, even when the ties to your childhood are gone.
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Faced with the prospect of the whole planet burning bright, the Doctor tries to learn his lesson from Kill the Moon, in which he tried to learn his lesson from The Beast Below, and this time the pendulum swings back to a Doctor who feels like he belongs to this planet as much as Clara and wants to help. That’s better. But they are all guests in the Forest’s own story. The trees are in control of the situation. All he can do is to ask people not to hurt them, which you can read as environmentalist if you are so inclined. And everyone lives (unless your fridge logic is taking you down the scientific blind alley and you are thinking about space stations and satellites), even Maebh’s lost sister. I am not a big fan of the coda ending here, because the emotion falls a bit flat, but more importantly it takes a simplistic approach to a complex issue, just like the meds thing. However, this is a matter of taste, in a story that is born from magic and rejects any rational judgements. It is fairy tale, it is poetry, it is pure beauty. If only this series had ended here… RP
The view from across the pond:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
William Blake’s poem opens with this and we (Americans at least) immediately think: was that supposed to rhyme? That’s because we pronounce symmetry with a tree at the end, as in, “see how symmetrical that tree isn’t?” Perhaps in England it would be pronounced the way it is spelled, with the try ending, as in “I’ll try my best to make this rhyme!” This may seem like a total non sequitur but like the dichotomy above, the Doctor Who episode In the Forest of the Night is both outstanding and awful at the same time. How can that be?
Well it’s an absolutely clever idea and again, like Flatline, something we have not seen in Doctor Who before. In this case, we are confronted with a problem that has no villain or negative intent behind it. There is a mystery that is created by nature and has no resolution other than to be allowed to run its course. As an idea goes, that’s outstanding. Once the Doctor warms to the children, watching him interact with them is marvelous. The finale, where Maebh’s missing sister comes home, is heartwarming and great. There are a lot of pros to this story.
But as clever and interesting as the story is, it’s a terrible idea for Doctor Who. Firstly, the Doctor is again made useless, being little more than Paul Revere telling people to stop burning the forest. But every now and then, he can have a day off, so this is the most insignificant problem with this story. The network of forests must have an underground communication system like the web where they planned for this event. They (the plant life) coordinate this global event but decide it best to minimize the structural damage as best they can. (Well, short of Nelson’s Column). But houses and museums are left largely intact, meaning the plants decided to grow around houses. This also means that much of New York was probably obliterated by the solar flares because the houses are so closely packed together, the trees could not spring up. Another issue is that Maebh goes maverick and escapes the museum at some indeterminate time. And that child escaped through, what? The front door? The same doors that are so blocked by trees that Danny can’t really push them open himself. You know, “PE”? The military man? Yeah, but Maebh can? And what were Clara and Danny doing while watching the children that one was able to escape? (Don’t worry, we don’t have to have “the talk”, but I have my suspicions…) And why is it that a major city, like London, only has about 15 people roaming the streets? It may not be as populous as NY, but there would be hundreds of people in the street, cars alarms going off everywhere… But London is clearly populated by … recluses? At the very least, every one of the parents of those kids should have been out roaming the streets! Ok, I can live with that since the show doesn’t have the budget to do something on such a grand scale, but there are other issues.
There’s the Doctor, the star of the show… a show that started as a children’s show back in the 60’s… acting like kids are pests. Yes, as I said above, he warms to them but the initial reaction is to make them go away; they are someone else’s problem. Then, what I consider the worst message of all in Doctor Who (possibly to date) is when the Doctor says Maebh should not be on her meds. Let’s consider this: the girl hears voices but this particular kid should not be on medication because she happens to be hearing actual voices? What does that say for people with emotional health issues? “Maybe I’m hearing real voices; I should be off my meds!” It’s another of the Capaldi era’s major blunders that forgets who the viewing audience is. Go back to Vincent and the Doctor, and that had an announcement at the end of it offering people with issues contact a help line; but now, it’s “who needs meds!” And so a Doctor tells a child to get off her medication… yeah, Frank (Cottrell Boyce, the writer), not a good message; you may have wanted to think that through a bit more.
A good story, but not necessarily a good Doctor Who story. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before we have the Doctor telling children it’s ok to hide in refrigerators or play with matches. Something about this jars more than a little. Sort of like a bad rhyme! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Dark Water