I’ve gathered that there are some popular criticisms of this, Frank Cottrell Boyce’s first Doctor Who episode. Admittedly, there are some awkward bits. I’m reminded of something I read recently in relation to the series 7 episode “Nightmare in Silver”: That the director tried to boil a pizza. Contrary to the evocative and spooky title, and the Doctor’s explanation of the forest as “mankind’s nightmare” and the root of the fear of fairy-stories, mostly this episode looks like a pleasant stroll through a sunny and gentle wooded park. Though the script seems to want to go for the haunted woods of “Flesh and Stone” or “Hide,” the tone of the episode never feels particularly scary. Though the kids are mostly charming, none of them manage the kind of rapport with the adults so expertly displayed by Courtney earlier this season. (Can we have her back, please?) There’s the campy fakeness of the zoo animals and the bizarre way Maeve flail’s her hands strays occasionally into the realm of annoying.
But past the strange directorial choices, there are some lovely ideas from this new scriptwriter who obviously comes bursting with a love for Doctor Who and the imaginative tradition of storytelling. A celebrated children’s author and winner of the Carnegie Medal, he has written of the pleasures of being asked to write for this show. Like Neil Cross and Neil Gaiman before him, he has some work ahead of him to figure out exactly what works and why in Doctor Who, but if a writer’s ambition and imagination outstrip achievable reality occasionally, then that’s a good problem to have.
Mostly what we have is a writer very happy to be writing Doctor Who. He writes in the article above of his childhood memories of the show, a pleasure which his children now enjoy. The idea of surrounding the Doctor (especially this Doctor) with a bunch of kids on a field trip is a charming one, and the images of them milling around the TARDIS and listening patiently while the Doctor gives his presentation are delightful. The blunt Ruby especially works well, arguing with Mr. Pink about how to find the value of x (“It’s right there, at the top! Look!”) and taking Clara’s remarks about her “lack of imagination” literally. With her passion, red hair, and gob, she seems a mini-Donna in training.
Lack of menace aside, the episode really is quite beautiful. The aerial shot of London covered in green trees and vines, is gorgeous, as are the sequences of the camera chasing Maeve, in her Little Red Riding Hood coat, through the forest. The connection of the fear of fairy-tales being connected to the very modern fear of lost children is a nice notion, and Clara’s increasing “dread” during Maeve’s disappearance as well as the eucatastrophic joy and relief at the return of Annabelle are effective. Indeed, much of this story is about the mixture of seemingly incompatible elements which define the fairy-tale: pain and joy, fear and fun, danger and comfort. This is the alchemical union of opposites. Somehow fairy-tales manage all of these at once, as does life. The ominous and omnipresent trees turn out to be the beneficent saviors of the Earth. The beautiful and exotic animals can become figures of peril. The life-giving sun can occasionally turn against the Earth it nourishes. Nature cares for itself, occasionally burning away the old and making way for the new, like the phoenix. Or the Doctor. It can seem cruel, but is vital to the nature of life and progress. This dichotomy was of course iconically explored in the poem from which this episode takes its name – Blake’s “The Tyger.” (One feels that this is certainly the only reason for the inclusion of the tiger at all.)
When the stars threw down their spearsAnd water’d heaven with their tears:Did he smile his work to see?Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
The tiger and the lamb spring from the same source, just as the majestic sky can be the source of destruction. As the Doctor beautifully summarizes at the end, pain and fear are as necessary to life as comfort and happiness:
“You forgot the last time. You remembered the fear and you put it into fairy stories. It’s the human superpower, forgetting. If you remembered how things felt, you’d have stopped having wars and stopped having babies.”
It’s an interesting twist on the theme of memory, which has permeated all of New Who through both the Davies and the Moffat eras: From Donna’s tragic fate to the crack in Amy’s wall, the Library to the Silence. Time and time again we are told that memory is what defines you, to the point of it achieving nearly sacred status. Memory is how you learn, how you change and improve. But, says Boyce via the Doctor, opposites can be unified. Paradoxically, forgetting can create new life as well as end it. The Doctor, of course, manages both. He’s both “the man who regrets and the man who forgets,” each in due course. Interesting that Twelve seems a particularly forgetful Doctor: He can’t remember where he’s seen his current face before; He forgets memorable adventures like “The Girl in the Fireplace;” He forgets Maeve almost as soon as he meets her. As the first of a new cycle of Doctors, he seems particularly keen to drop the baggage and more forward.
It’s interesting to look at these paradoxes in relation to Clara, who is another character who likes to straddle fences and unite opposites. Except that Clara doesn’t so much like to combine worlds so much as hold them separate and jump between them. She is still holding Danny and the Doctor apart. Danny catches on to the fact that she is once again lying, out of a misguided belief that the truth should be avoided. With her inability, or rather refusal, to unite her opposite worlds she is forcing herself into a position of having to pick a side, and it’s not clear that her choice will be the best one. Her choices have become increasingly worrying, and we get the continuation of that theme in this episode with her being more concerned about showing off to the Doctor than caring for her young charges. There may be something to Danny’s veiled criticism that Clara, whose name evokes clarity, losing perspective. To risk a terrible analogy, is she too focused on the forest to see the trees? She wants to control everything, save everyone, be the Impossible Girl for the Doctor and the perfect girlfriend for Danny. Sometimes everything works out: The world is saved and lost children are returned home safe. But sometimes, the wheel of fortune turns and disaster happens unexpectedly. That, too, is a truth of fairy-tales.
Edit: And if you’re worried about the dodgy science, Moffat says you’re wrong.