5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY/FOREST OF THE DEAD
Steven Moffat has a lot to live up to. First, he's written episodes for the new series that are some of the biggest fan favourites ever, including the superlative Blink. So he's set himself a high standard. And if that weren't enough, just before Silence In The Library screened he was announced as Who's future head honcho, an event guaranteed to have fans perched over the carcass of the double episode scrying its entrails for glimpses of Who's future direction. That's a heavy weight to carry. Does Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead live up to the hype?
Mmm… not quite. We're not saying it's bad: it's certainly the pick of the season thus far. We're not sure Moffat has it in him to churn out a bad episode. But unfortunately the really good stuff that's here is also undermined by some nasty flaws.
Silence In The Library starts fantastically well. The little girl catches you completely off balance and you have no clue what the hell's happening: always an excellent beginning. And the Library, as well as being an inspired idea, is just gorgeous: the location shooting works a treat.
Then the Doctor and Donna drop in. We were astonished to find that this bit has been criticised as being too slow: we think the pacing's perfect. The intrigue's at full throttle, having just the two of them draws the maximum possible attention to the location and underlines the creepiness of the situation, and they turn in a wonderful two-hander that's full of humour. "Cry for help… with a kiss?" "Boyfriends - sometimes you need the element of surprise." "Hands!" We were lovin' it. We were hoping it was going to be just the two of them, plus the little girl, as the Library gradually gave up its secrets.
No such luck. Instead, Generic Bunch Of Victims waltz in and trample all over the atmosphere, and in an instant the plot goes from the highly-desirable Could Be Anything to the rather less unpredictable Pick 'Em Off One By One. Boo.
The consolation, of course, is the wonderful Alex Kingston as River Song. The idea, that someone knows the Doctor but he hasn't met them yet, is so obvious for a time traveller that we can scarcely believe nobody's done it before in Doctor Who. Good for Moffat for spotting the gap and turning it to such advantage: the chemistry the two of them have is exactly right. And the Doctor's at his best, with the manic energy within reasonable limits and balanced by the dialled-down stuff Tennant does so beautifully: "Danger? Could be!" "Bet your life?" and the nicely handled "Oh, I’m Pretty Boy? " (capped off by Donna's "Yes! Oh, that came out a bit quick").
The trouble is, though, that the reason for all the racing around and pronouncing of doom falls a bit flat. As with a lot of stuff in here, the development of the Vashta Nerada isn't taken far enough. Are they dead scary, or aren't they? They seem pretty scary to us, but apparently the space-suited ones don't seem to think so. Why bother setting up all the stuff about not crossing the shadows when three seconds after the Doctor delivers his dire warning they're all tromping over each other's shadows like mad? Why, after the Doctor tells them to set up a circle of lights, don't they ever actually get round to doing it, even after they start getting munched? (And why don't they grab the lights and make a run for the TARDIS/their spaceship?) How come staying out of the shadows doesn't seem to matter when they're standing round waiting for Miss Evangelista's ghost to die?
Ah yes, Miss Evangelista. Ugh. First, there's the hideously clichéd setup, with her trying to make a point and being ignored, then she trots off to her doom, completely ignoring the Doctor's warnings about avoiding the shadows as she goes. After this unsympathetic beginning, we're then apparently supposed to be all choked up at the pathos of it all as her voice falters to a stop in the gathering darkness. Well, sorry. Unlike Donna, who cries yet again, we don't think Moffat works anywhere near hard enough to justify the emotion he's trying to wring out of us. Even with Murray being full-on wistful. And call us flinty bitches, but we also think the skeleton's just a little bit hilarious.
That's the problem with the swarm lurching along in Proper Dave's suit as well. Probably meant to be scary; in fact, especially when teamed with Donna repeating herself in the giant spoon, actually bloody funny. Oops. But we weren't too busy laughing not to wonder why, if the Vashta Nerada are such efficient hunters in the shadows, why they'd bother standing on each other's shoulders in a spacesuit, or how a spacesuit moving at the speed of frozen honey is supposed to be a danger in the first place.
The bits with the little girl, in contrast, hit all the right notes. They do give the game away a bit by having her thrashing around on a rug that's the same shape as the logo on the Access Denied screen, but other than that, the suspense is excellent. We haven't a clue whether the girl, her Dad, Dr Moon or none of them are evil or what, and that's exactly how it should be. The Doctor appearing on the girl's TV is a little too Blinkish, but this is made up for by her interacting with the Library. (We're particularly fond of the way she uses the buttons under the slidy bit on the remote control that nobody knows what they're for.)
Forest Of The Dead starts with a bang: not with the resolution of the cliffhanger, which is dull, but with one of the nicest subversions of TV convention we’re ever seen. The jump cuts we take for granted as a device to show the passage of time are here really all of Donna's new life. It's a terrific wheeze and we take our hats off to Moffat.
Meanwhile, though, it's more of the same with the Vashta Nerada. After telling everyone not to let their shadows cross, River rocks on up to the Doctor for a chat with their shadows forming a perfect X, despite the fact that they know the Vashta Nerada are actually in the room. If they don't take the threat seriously, how are we supposed to?
Just as well, really, considering that half the time they seem to have forgotten all about them anyway. They know Anita is infected, but River is turning her back on her half the time and the other half having heart-to-hearts with her about the Doctor. Gah.
Then comes the big revelation about everyone being saved in the database. Now we say revelation, because the Doctor shouts it out, waves his hands around and draws on the table, and Miss Evangelista explains it all over again. We, on the other hand, were dumbfounded, because it had been obvious to us (and we seriously doubt it was just us) ever since they mentioned people being saved in the first episode. Why else would the Doctor go on about the giant database, and then follow it up with Donna's pattern being lost during the transport and then recreated? Do they think we've never heard of Star Trek?
Meanwhile, as with the Vashta Nerada something else scary is being thrown away: Miss Evangelista. The figure in her black dress and veil is utterly chilling: it gave us the creeps more than anything else in these episodes. (The distorted face under the veil, by contrast, isn't scary at all. We've all got Photoshop, haven't we?) But hey, it turns out that she's not actually scary at all: she's trying to do Donna a favour. Or is she? Let's be charitable and go that way instead, shall we? Then we can pontificate about whether Donna's ideal life with the perfect man and the perfect kids is, even if not real, worth more to her than her real life. If so, the figure in black really is a figure of doom.
Unfortunately, though, Moffat takes this line of inquiry in a direction that's even more stickily sentimental than Miss Evangelista's ghost. Donna clinging desperately to her fake children ladles on so much slush we were going down for the third time. Sentimentality is frequently Moffat's Achilles heel, and this trips the episode up and lands it face down in a pool of treacle.
Having left the two spacesuit swarms behind, despite the fact that the Vashta Nerada are everywhere including clinging onto Anita, it appears they're no longer scary. Emergency! Better hit the worst panic button in the world: the completely gratuitous autodestruct sequence! Why would a library even have one? As one of us remarked: "This story's going nowhere: better put in a ticking clock." Honestly, this is so dumb and so random that it's utterly unforgivable. Big slap on the hand. It isn't even consistent: one minute the remote control's broken, signifying the destruction of the library, and the next it's magically working again to zap Dr Moon.
Oops, back to scary again, as the Vashta Nerada finally get around to chomping up Anita and picking their teeth with her bones. Aaaand…not scary. All it takes is a quick cross-reference in the card catalogue, and they're off for a nap. So much for that. Why didn’t the Doctor try that a few skeletons ago? Of course, they seem a bit gullible, considering that they used to have an ecosystem with things to eat in it and all the Doctor's giving them back is a few dead trees which they seem to be in possession of already, but hey. They're a swarm, what can you do?
And on we go to the happy ending. Everybody lives? We don’t think so. "Trapped in a living death" is more how we'd put it, which made the ending as far as we're concerned rather more horrific than Moffat was probably aiming for. (We'd like to think there's meant to be some ambiguity about that, but with the huggings and the sunny voiceover we're not so sure.) We particularly like the way she rushes up and enthusiastically hugs her former crew (not to mention Miss Evangelista, who nobody liked anyway). How would you like to spend eternity with your workmates?
So who is River Song, anyway? We think Moffat sprinkles in enough clues for us to have a fairly confident guess, but we'll leave it up to you to make your own interpretation. If they tell us later, they tell us, but we can't see anything wrong with a bit of mystery. It's a relationship done very nicely and, unlike some of the more sugar-coated parts of this story, it has genuine emotional heft. And we love the "not one line" reference.
It's got a lot of problems, and it draws rather too heavily on The Time Traveller's Wife. But there's mucho good stuff in here, with an original if not well-developed adversary, terrific exploration of some of the implications of time travel and virtual reality and some genuinely surprising turns. It's not Moffat's best, but it's still a win.
MORAL: Reading may be hazardous to your health.
So now the sonic screwdriver can't work on wood? What, the door has a wooden lock? They've dug themselves a deep, deep pit.
Why when River and the others first come in are they walking all ponderously and portentously as if through knee-high snow? They have no trouble running in the suits later on.
So River knows the Doctor when he's much older, right? And since she talks about him looking young, the implication is that it's this regeneration too. Soooo, given that we normally witness regenerations, don't they realise that implies David Tennant will be the Doctor for, like, decades?
BUT I'VE BEEN DIETING
So the Vashta Nerada have been hanging round in the library all by themselves for a hundred years, yeah? What have they been eating?
So how does Donna end up on the spoon? The original explanation of the spoons is that they draw the faces from donated faces held in the flesh bank. But Donna's face can't be there: her face is part of the ones and zeros stored in the database when her transporter went wrong. So that's a bit of a cheat.
DEAD MAN WALKING
That misdirection with "We should go - Doctor!", repeated until it gradually dawns on you what's happened, is very nice indeed. Had us all fooled.
The Doctor drops through a grate in the floor, and the closeup of the open grate shows its two hinged sides. However, just before this the Doctor is standing on a plain board floor with no grate in sight. That’s very definitely cheating.
REVERSE PIKED PIROUETTE
How does the Doctor drop downwards and end up hanging under a girder?
BRAIN THE SIZE OF A PLANET
We love the idea that the database is a big pulsing red globe with lightning around it. Can't wait till IBM bring that one out.
BOUND FOR GLORY
That pensive shot of Tennant in handcuffs was fanbait if ever we've seen it. If they don't make it a poster they're seriously missing a trick.
OUT FOR THE COUNT
4022 people? In the whole library? And why did they come back all wearing black? Did 4022 goths hire the library for a convention that day? We seem to be going from the ridiculous (Russell T Davies's million billion trillions) to the other ridiculous.
DISK FULL I
The universe's biggest database has run out of space but there's enough extra in a brain to make a difference? Couldn't someone just plug in a thumb drive?
DISK FULL II
So why can't River be brought back like the people in the database? Only bits of her left, like the dead people in the neural relays? So if the Doctor had all that time to think about saving River, why didn't he give her a screwdriver with a bigger hard drive?