‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “Forest of the Dead”

(tons of spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode! and no comments from party poopers — this is a love fest only / previous: Episode 8: “Silence in the Library”)

Today I watched “The Stolen Earth” for the first time (if you must comment on that one before I get around to proper-blogging on it, please do so here), and the “Forest of the Dead” for the fourth or fifth time. So I’m, you know, kind of a basket case at the moment. Kind of still picking up the pieces of my brain from one side of the room and the pieces of my heart from the other.
If they were gonna do this kind of stuff to us, why did they bother to bring back Doctor Who at all? Seriously. It’s cruel. Every time I hear that theme music and see the TARDIS falling through the Vortex in the opening credits, it’s like being tickled anew all over again, and I have to giggle and marvel to myself about how I still cannot believe we have Doctor Who again. And then every episode is like torture. Gorgeous, wonderful, exquisite torture, the kind of total rapture you want from your entertainment, but still: They’re killing me. I’m gonna have to die from sheer not-being-able-to-take-it-ness. I’m going to lie down and expire from the unending Whogasm.

You know what I hate, and by “hate” I mean “love” (with a little bit of hate mixed in, too)? They — and by “they” I mean Russell Davies and the other writers, but primarily Steven Moffat, and David Tennant a little bit, too, though it’s kinda not really his fault because he’s just doing what Davies tells him to do (just doing it too damn well) — they are eliminating the need for fan fiction, and, dammit, just as I’ve gotten started with mine again after a very long hiatus during which I thought I had grown up. (Which, believe me, makes me feel like the biggest dweeb ever, but I can’t help it. When they pay you handsomely to write episodes of a TV show, that’s cool. When you do it for free for your own amusement, that’s just sad.) All the desire on the viewer’s part for thematic richness and emotional complexity hinted at but not fulfilled in the source material, the desire from which fan fiction springs, is actually being fulfilled by the show itself. Not that most fanfic achieves any kind of thematic richness or emotional complexity at all, of course, never mind filling in what’s missing from the source material, but it wants to do that.

But there’s nothing missing from the new Who. Everything that we would want to see is here… and then some. And you’re so wrung out after each episode that you can barely get your head around it, never mind getting your head around creating more of it. (That won’t stop me, of course, and I suspect that being the world’s biggest Doctor Who fanfic-writing dork is what’s going to get me through the chasm barrelling down on us next week as Who ends for six months.)

There is so much crammed into the concept of Dr. River Song — and I have to say that I simply adore Alex Kingston about 1,803 times more than I did before after this juicy portrayal of a woman worthy of the Doctor — and into the Doctor’s reaction to her that just unpacking it all is an adventure in itself. What the hell could possibly be preventing the Doctor from telling anyone his name — that seems to be the implication of his “There’s only reason I would ever tell anyone my name. There’s only time I could,” that he is forbidden from revealing it except under some extremely special circumstances — and what could she be to him that would fall under those circumstances? Surely it cannot be something so prosaic as, say, they’re being married? Which we could well assume from their reaction to Lux’s comment about how they’re “squabbling like an old married couple.” That would be lovely for them, I’m sure, and certainly we can at least assume that they are passionate lovers, if from nothing else but the way she looks at him, but how would even that connect to knowledge of his name?

When is the Doctor ever speechless?

When has the Doctor ever been this sad?

When did the Doctor ever get decked?

What a woman! “I bet I like you,” the Doctor tells her. “Oh, you do,” she responds, obviously thinking wonderfully wicked things about how much he likes her:

All that said… he is a selfish, thoughtless bastard. He sees, right here in the little girl, the upshot of uploading a human mind to a computer and leaving it there for all eternity: It goes mad. It does strange and unexpected things and then goes even madder. And he condemns River to this? Did he even really “save” her, or just a ghost of her consciousness? (And is that better, or worse?) Is she supposed to wait for him there forever? Does she imagine that maybe he’ll show up one day and download her into a new body? Does he imagine he’ll do that? “Everybody” doesn’t “live”! (Perhaps her ghost of consciousness needs to tell itself that, but that’s not the same thing as it actually being true.) River will wander a lonely purgatory — four friends, all likely destined for their own insanity, a crazy little girl, and the humanoid avatar of an antivirus program are hardly decent enough society to keep an intelligent woman occupied for long — possibly forever, and why? Because he couldn’t bear to let her go? That’s horrific. And very, very selfish.

But we’ve always known that, at least in these new Davies-created incarnations of the Doctor. He’s much more complex, much darker, much more alien than we’ve ever seen him before. And much more magnificent, too. And yet there’s this, too: For River to lament that this Doctor is sort of unfinished, unripe, not quite yet her Doctor, how much more magnificent can he be as she knows him?

I simply do not understand anyone who is not madly in love with the Doctor, with his grand flaws and all.

Random thoughts on “Forest of the Dead”:

• I love all the stuff with the little girl flipping the TV around, coming upon scenes from the library with different music that suggests she’s watching drama, action, mystery, etc. And Donna, in the “book” of her life, jumping directly from one relevant bit to another, skipping over the boring transition stuff. It’s all like how we watch TV and movies, and read fiction… how we understand stories, that the boring bits are indeed all left out, but that we can assume they happened. But it’s about how a life like that is not worth living.

• And yet… the Doctor is an actor in his own life. We’ve always known that his buffoonery is an act, that his bluster is an act. But we see it very clearly here, immediately after he is rendered speechless by River’s whispering in his ear. He flounders around for a moment trying to find his bearings, and then he leaps into a performance-rant about his sonic screwdriver and hair dryers, and it’s all about pushing away his own confusion, trying to forget it. It’s one of Tennant’s many amazing moments in this episode.

• “A million million books hatching shadows”? Don’t they always do that, though… something about repeated memes…?

• Oh, how cruel to have Donna miss her guy by mere seconds… and he can’t call out to her! Moffat is a bastard.

• Great quotes:

“I trust that man to the end of the universe, and actually, we’ve been.” –River, on the Doctor

“Dear God, you’re hard work young.” –River to the Doctor

“Why am I handcuffed? Why do you even have handcuffs?” –the Doctor
“Spoilers.” –River

“I’ve seen whole armies turn and run away, and he’d just swagger off back to his TARDIS and open the door with a snap of his fingers. The Doctor and the TARDIS, next stop, everywhere.” –River

“This isn’t the real me? This isn’t my real body? But I’ve been dieting!” –Donna

(next: Episode 10: “Midnight”)

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Sun, Jun 29, 2008 6:20pm

“Dear God, you’re hard work young.”

Funny, I heard that as ‘Dear God, you’re hard work Jan’ (pronounced as some europeans do ‘yaan’. Its a version of the name John). It sounded like a name she used for him, which I thought was why he reacted confusedly.

Poly in London
Poly in London
Sun, Jun 29, 2008 6:33pm

“For River to lament that this Doctor is sort of unfinished, unripe, not quite yet her Doctor, how much more magnificent can he be as she knows him?”

Of course, more than likely, her Doctor is more magnificent just because it’s hers.
I thought that she telling him that he is not the Doctor yet was a bit cruel, in a wonderful human way. He couldn’t be hers, and she tried to make him feel less than he was. This being Doctor Who, he compared him with a future him rather than another man.

Alex Knapp
Sun, Jun 29, 2008 6:55pm

“I’ve seen whole armies turn and run away, and he’d just swagger off back to his TARDIS and open the door with a snap of his fingers.”

What’s really spooky is that BOTH OF THESE THINGS HAPPEN IN THIS EPISODE. In a way, River MADE her Doctor, didn’t she?

And poor, poor Donna. She lost a husband and two children at the same time. Sure, the Doctor “lost” River, but he knows he’ll see her again. What does Donna have? If all the premonitions of this season come to pass, nothing good. I am keeping pace with Sci-Fi and haven’t peeked ahead yet, but I’m really hoping she gets some grand moment soon, because right now RTD and the other writers seem to have decided to create the best Companion ever only to torture her mercilessly.

Poly in London
Poly in London
Sun, Jun 29, 2008 6:59pm

“RTD and the other writers seem to have decided to create the best Companion ever only to torture her mercilessly.”

They do it to the Doctor all the time, she should take it as a compliment :)

Poly in London
Poly in London
Sun, Jun 29, 2008 7:05pm

Although I get the point that life inside a computer is not real life (and there are so many moral questions around this choice), the moment she says: “Everybody knows that everybody dies and nobody knows it like the Doctor” I well up. We get the Doctor trying to defy, reverse, cheat death, not because he doesn’t understand its inevitability, but because he does.

It’s a bold moment in every way, suddenly at the last five minutes of the script we get voice over, it shouldn’t work but it does.
And then we have the Doctor sprinting back (David Tennant jumping over furniture while he delivers dialogue, I don’t think he gets enough credit for the wonderful athleticism of his performance) and the energy and exhilaration are sweeping.

And then he goes back to the TARDIS: the look on his face when he opens the double door is more moving in its happiness than many of the sad moments. I can’t quite make myself feel bad about River’s fate inside the computer when he is so happy. Not while I am watching the episode anyway.

Sun, Jun 29, 2008 7:13pm

Brilliantly written and played. One of the best things about it, I think, is that it directly addresses what’s probably the most basic question about the Doctor. On one hand, he’s a Time Lord and enormously powerful; on the other hand, most of the time he acts rather ordinary, and, apart from the sonic screwdriver, he doesn’t use much technology. So why is he holding back this way?

The short answer is probably that it’s a children’s show and anyway the Doctor is meant to stay within a human scale, particularly when it comes to problem solving — not much suspense if your hero is too powerful. But the question has been treated seriously in the Davies series. And the answer that’s tended to emerge is that the Doctor just isn’t very well integrated. He holds back in order to be humane (as in “Human Nature”), but fundamentally he’s got a dark, ruthless streak, which he sometimes restrains by brute force, if at all (as in “The Runaway Bride”). He’s trying so hard not to be as arrogant and out of touch as a Time Lord, and not to be a bully, that he’s failing to be who he actually is. Bringing in the Time War helped to materialize all this.

So here’s Moffat’s answer: the Doctor is just too young yet to have worked things out. And yeah, now Moffat mentions it, you can see the Doctor’s working around all this by refusing to grow up. When he finally does grow up, he’ll be potent and emotionally mature, yet still humane, and, for that matter, will finally start to use some of the technology he’s got lying around (such as the Squareness Gun he gives River, or the improvements he makes on the sonic screwdriver).

That resolution has been a long time coming. The frustrating thing about Doctor Who has always been its way of insisting on the Doctor’s harmlessness as if it were a guarantee of ordinary human decency. That plays to lots of British attitudes, and fits into a children’s show; you get small people finding clever tricks to play on large people. But a lot of the time you wish the Doctor would allow himself to be adult, and alien, and show us a bit of what he’s got.

You can see Davies working towards that right from the beginning, And if all of this arrives at River Song instead of Rose Tyler, I don’t see anyone’s got anything to complain about.

By the way, I think the Doctor actually did say his name in one of the later Tom Baker episodes. It was a throwaway line — Baker rushes through about a paragraph’s worth of nonsense syllables and says that’s his name, and it’s too long for people, and that’s why he just calls himself the Doctor. But I think we can agree that anything that John Nathan Turner ever touched didn’t really happen.

And, right, as for him being a selfish bastard in saving River, they do make a point of saying that the computer has been fixed, which implies that it isn’t the same kind of situation that drove Cal and the others mad. And if River’s in there, the door’s open to getting her out again.

Haven’t seen the last two episodes, but I’d be surprised if that business about the stars going dark before the Doctor would give up isn’t a neat piece of foreshadowing (as well as working nicely in the context of a show about living shadows).

Sun, Jun 29, 2008 11:19pm

This nearly ruined Kung-Fu Panda for me. Possible spoilers follow.

The thing that bugged me about Kung Fu Panda was the Training of Po. He gets trained from Zero the Master in, at most a couple days. It’s something I feel messes with the secret wisdom of the Dragon Scroll, and basically says “Screw hard work and knowledge, if you suck at the Martial Arts, it’s your teacher’s fault”.

Usually, that’s not a problem for me. As long as the movie isn’t stupid enough to contradict itself, I can usually rationalize the details in my head. The scene where Po meets Sifu for the first time, there’s enough to put in my mind that Po studied Kung Fu obsessively from an academic standpoint, but was never able to translate that knowledge into action with the traditional path.

But these two episodes were just so damn tight that I wasn’t willing to put up with that. There’s just so many details, callbacks, and subtle foreshadowing notes dropped into otherwise throwaway or expository dialog that I spent the walk home from Kung Fu Panda mulling over how they could have integrated more preparation to show that maybe Po wasn’t quite so useless, or modified the story to give Po some REAL time training time… or…

Turned one little quibble of an otherwise solid, fun movie into an exercise in screen rewriting. It’s almost as bad as the “Secret of NIMH” rewrites I started doing back in animation school. =P

Mon, Jun 30, 2008 10:38am

I thought that she telling him that he is not the Doctor yet was a bit cruel, in a wonderful human way. He couldn’t be hers, and she tried to make him feel less than he was.

Totally: that was her lashing out in her frustration.

the Doctor just isn’t very well integrated. He holds back in order to be humane (as in “Human Nature”), but fundamentally he’s got a dark, ruthless streak

Yes, that’s it exactly. That’s what made him feel so much alien than he used to: we’re actually seeing him struggle with his attempts to integrate something alien (ie, human, which is alien to him) into himself, and failing. So he’s not only alien (to us), he’s a little insane as well.

Tue, Jul 01, 2008 8:38am

I enjoyed this episode, but not as much as I was expecting. (That’s not really a critism of Moffatt, he’s just set the bar so high for himself, that some disappointment is pretty much inevitable.)

The only part I had real problems with was the end, with River cut off from the Doctor forever in her Unreality. It didn’t ring true emotionally – she was happy when sorrow and even anger would have been more understandable.

Mon, Jul 07, 2008 11:20pm

You know…I don’t think the River is cut off forever.

I think (wishful thinking?) that Our Doctor saved River in the computer…and future doctor will go back to the planet and download her back to reality. I think they live happily ever after…long after the show is eventually cancelled…and the lights dim and his performances for us are over.

Because just because we stop watching doesn’t mean he’s done.

I imagine the moment the Doctor is done with our time…he goes off and is broadcast on some alien world maybe…and that is where he meets River Song.

Wed, Aug 20, 2008 10:00am

“Is she supposed to wait for him there forever?”

see – what i took from it – was that she got her perfect happy dream life. You saw that she had 3 children – but you didn’t see the father (so you could assume it was the doctor).

She gets to live in a permanent lucid dreaming state – creating her own reality/happiness that feels absolutely and completely real.