This article covers the Doctor Who episodes Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead, which together form a single story. Doctor Who is often scariest when it makes monsters out of everyday things. At one time it used to get into a lot of trouble about it (dolls and policemen in Terror of the Autons), but nowadays the writers are always looking for ways to make children frightened of the normal world around them. Here Steven Moffat turns shadows into deadly killers; he has a knack of thinking up incredibly creepy ideas that don’t cost a lot of money – shadows don’t take much CGI, which allows the money to be spent elsewhere, with some breathtaking shots of the library and Miss Evangelista’s terrifying Picasso-face. The skeletons in spacesuits are also budget-friendly but very effective monsters.
This is a Steven Moffat story, so there is some clever playing with the fourth wall. Moffat likes to put the Doctor on a screen and show us a screen within a screen, which he did very effectively with the DVD in Blink. Here we have the Doctor appearing on a television screen in CAL’s world. The way Donna’s imaginary life progresses is phenomenally clever, calling attention to the way television cuts between scenes. We are completely familiar with this narrative technique, but here the bits we don’t see really are missing bits. Donna’s life merely consists of the scenes we are witness to, and she has no existence beyond what appears on our own screens.
Much of this story is inspired strongly by The Time Traveller’s Wife, complete with the meeting in the library, but the inspiration for the library itself is much more Lovecraftian (the Pnakotus Archive from The Shadow Out of Time). An impossibly large library is not uncommon in sci-fi and fantasy (e.g. the Unseen University library in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books) and is often a way to introduce mystery. It is the perfect place to raise some fundamental questions about the Doctor himself.
The story hurtles along, showing just how effective the old 90 minute duration can be if the script is good enough. Like the best of modern Doctor Who it gives you fear, excitement, tears, and joy. The emotional impact is created by three bittersweet stories: each tragedies in their own way but with a hint of hope. Firstly there is CAL, a little girl who died tragically young but lives on in her library. Beautifully played by the talented Eve Newton, she is the brave saviour of thousands, who is forever a child but will never live a normal life. Then there is Donna, who lives a life in minutes, finds the man of her dreams and walks away from him, thinking such a perfect man could not exist. Their moment of parting, with Donna unaware that he is even there, is frustrating for the viewer but obviously necessary so Donna’s travels with the Doctor can continue. This is especially bittersweet, with the continuing hints at an unhappy ending to come for Donna: “where am I in the future?” Finally there is River Song, who suffers a similar fate to CAL. Her fate is a moral grey area – has the Doctor saved her, or instead condemned her to a living death?
The introduction of River Song is a brave move. She is clearly the Doctor’s future wife – it doesn’t take much reading between the lines. But it is done so cleverly that it raises more questions than it answers: at what point in his life will the Doctor meet her? Why, when he could not even bring himself to tell Rose he loved her, will he make a commitment to River Song – what’s so special about her? What is so special about his name that he will never tell anyone, except his wife on his wedding day (which is the clear implication)? The other ingenious aspect to her inclusion in the story is the tantalising glimpse it gives us into the Doctor’s future. Over recent stories in particular (and really from day one, November 23rd 1963) we have seen how fallible the Doctor is – he is a flawed hero. There are a lot of big hints here that, amazing though it may seem, he is going to become an even better person, a greater hero.
Some days are special. Some days are so, so blessed. Some days, nobody dies at all. Now and then, every once in a very long while, every day in a million days, when the wind stands fair, and the Doctor comes to call. Everybody lives. Sweet dreams, everyone.
So, as the Doctor clicks his fingers to close the TARDIS doors, we are left with the hope of even better things to come. And after all we’ve seen the Doctor do over the years, that’s quite a promise for the future. RP
The view from across the pond:
“Hey, who turned out the lights?!”
Steven Moffat returns for his fourth attempt at scaring our pants off with the two part Silence in the Library and The Forest of the Dead, this time focusing on the fear of the dark. And what a fear it is! The Vashta Nerada are similar to those Lovecraftian entities that we never see in their actual form and that leaves the brain free to imagine what they look like. We see the result of a person eaten and taken over by them, but we never actually see them. And that’s magnificent. It allows the mind to be the playground for the special effects work. That’s the mark of a good writer! Yes, I admit that typically we want to know what the thing looks like, but now and then, letting the mind create the terror… that can be a lot of fun. For you it may look totally different than it does for me!
This is such a big story that it’s hard to consolidate everything into a few paragraphs. Moffat likes to subvert what we see in front of our eyes. “Nothing is as it seems” may be his mantra of choice when writing Doctor Who. Some instances are: Dr. Moon is shown to be a man, but ends up being an artificial moon. Charlotte Abigail Lux is a little girl who appears to have emotional troubles, but is actually a part of a computer system in the library. How about Ms. Evangelista? Beautiful airhead or terrifying looking genius? That’s a can of worms in its own right. Does beauty impact intellect? We could probably spend a chapter on her alone. And then there is the biggest subversion of all: River Song. Introduced to us for the first time, we are not sure what to make of her. Is she friend or foe? Is she actually another Time Lord? Romana? Susan? Is she, as the hints are laid out for us, actually the Doctor’s wife? But she doesn’t even make it through the story! Surely she is just a one-time companion; a red herring with all the allusions to her status in the Doctor’s life!
But Moffat understands something about Doctor Who that we have never seen so clearly in classic Who: the Doctor travels in time. Time is not a strict progression of cause to effect, but a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. Why we never encountered the Master in various forms before is anyone’s guess. Delgado’s Master aside, due to his untimely demise, there’s no reason why we could not have had the burnt out Master turn up in the middle of a run of Ainley stories! Or the Rani could have been played by another actress if O’Mara wasn’t available. That’s the beauty of timey-wimey storytelling. And this is the first time in nearly 50 years of the show that we are given a chance to see the effect of jumping around in time, in relation to another person. In a show all about time travel, there is no challenge for this flavor of storytelling like it could have been in a more linear show. The side effect is that it puts us on a very emotional journey with River over the course of her story and that spans several Doctors.
While the episode is utterly brilliant at creating terror in the shadows, it’s the lore that is created that really moves this one into such stratospheric heights. River is an incredible creation. She at once opens the door for potential stories while giving a finite run to them by showing us how it all ends for her. Or an ending of sorts as she is uploaded and saved to the computer. But that also opens another subject worthy of picking apart. Moffat knows that the Doctor is often seen as a messianic figure, a savior, and he jumps in feet first. The whole back story of CAL is that she “saves” people. “Donna Noble has left the library. Donna Noble has been saved…” When the Doctor gives River his sonic screwdriver, he evidently had a reason behind it and he does what he’s good at: he saves her. Her “soul” gets uploaded into the “cloud” and she appears on a grass covered “heaven” surrounded by her friends. The imagery could not be more direct, making the Doctor a savior in more ways than one. It’s not Tennant’s first encounter as a religious figure as Gridlock gave us a chance to see him in a similar light. River sums it up in a very spiritual way: “Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark, if he ever, for one moment, accepts it.” It’s the reason we fans tune in “religiously”; the Doctor saves people. In some ways, he’s saved us all too.
There is just too much to talk about in this story and it bears repeat viewings. We could talk about Donna’s relationship which is both heartbreaking and endearing. Or the Doctor learning to open the TARDIS doors with a snap. But Moffat was still at the pinnacle of his writing game and he justified our trust for when he would become the lead writer. It was just a matter of time for us to learn if he could keep up that momentum! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Midnight