With this being the penultimate episode of the series, you may have expected In the Forest of the Night to feature something of a turning point or revelation to raise anticipation for the impending finale. But nope, there’s nothing of the sort as Clara’s love triangle and the Promised Land arc remaining frustratingly under wraps. In its place is a turgid standalone episode that has challenging ideas but can’t combine them into an interesting story.
Titled after William Blake’s poem The Tyger, this week’s “adventure” sees Clara, Danny and a gang of “gifted” Coal Hill pupils waking up to discover that a giant forest (beautifully realised by director Sheree Folkson) has sprouted throughout London, and indeed the world, overnight.
Meanwhile, The Doctor happens upon Meabh, a frightened little girl in a red hood who is lost in the woods and may hold the secret to unlocking this arboreal mystery.
Written by children’s author Frank Cottrell Boyce, this episode is rife with fairytale references from Red Riding Hood to Hansel and Gretel, but it also feels like an homage to the work of Roald Dahl with its cast of snarky kids who prove themselves to be much cleverer than the adults give them credit for.
Boyce also refuses to talk down to the show’s young audience, openly tackling environmental themes in his not-so-subtle premise. The main threat in this episode is a sudden climatic shift and a massive solar flare that has the power to rip the earth to shreds, and Boyce makes his point clear by having his characters constantly talk about how mankind invariably destroys the things nature puts on Earth to protect us.
There’s also a slightly more understated message about how modern society distrusts people or environments that are abnormal, such as when Danny reacts to Meabh’s odd behaviour by insisting she needs to take her medication.
These are smart ideas and well worth tackling in a wide-reaching show like Doctor Who; unfortunately, Boyce forgets the small matter of actually entertaining his audience as well.
Whilst there are brief moments of humour and a couple of scary scenes (especially the reminder of how easy it would be to wipe out all life on Earth), the majority of the episode feels slow and without purpose, a fault not helped by Boyce’s unconventional step of not having a proper monster to fight.
As the Doctor himself remarks, “What use is intelligence against trees?” and by making nature itself the threat, Boyce has succeeded in making the Doctor powerless to affect the event’s outcome.
In the end it turns out that nature is humanity’s saviour, the trees forming a “planet-sized airbag” to shield Earth from the impending solar flare. It’s a clever idea that neatly wraps up the episode’s thematic storyline; however, watching nature take its course doesn’t exactly make for the most exciting of viewing.
With the Doctor sidelined, Samuel Anderson is given more to do than merely talk on the phone. Danny gets a much bigger role this week, slipping into soldier mode and taking on the responsibility of leading the Coal Hill kids to safety while Clara explores the mystery of the forest. However, there are still times when he feels like nothing more than a nagging boyfriend and it’s hard to see him making a strong third companion – which doesn’t bode well for Clara and Danny’s future on the show.
While a handful of child actors make up the guest cast this week, it’s Abigail Eames who takes centre stage playing Meabh, an emotionally damaged young girl still struggling to come to terms with her sister’s disappearance.
Child actors are notoriously tricky to handle, and though most of the “gifted and talented” group feel like a grating bunch of stereotypes, Eames draws the likeable combination of vulnerability and inner strength that is vitally important to her role.
Ultimately, In the Forest of the Night is an unremarkable standalone that bravely tackles themes of climate change and social acceptance, but just can’t transpose those smart ideas into an engaging plot, all of which leaves the story feeling lost in the woods for most of its runtime.
Next week on Doctor Who… Has Clara been possessed or is a more sinister organization behind her torment of the Doctor? We finally get to travel to the Neversphere and see Missy come face to face with the Doctor in the first episode of the two-part finale, Dark Water.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night on BBC iPlayer