Aired 7 June 2008
‘Forest of the Dead’ concludes the events set in motion in ‘Silence in the Library,’ masterfully piecing together every dangling plot thread it wanted to and offering a few surprises along the way. This is still a story very much based around concepts Steven Moffat has already used, but the end result is an extremely entertaining one nonetheless.
The ending probably deserves the most note, cleverly turning the ever-present sonic screwdriver into a legitimate plot device as it holds the ghostly data fragments of River and thus saves her life in the only meaningful way the Doctor could hope to achieve. It would have been entirely appropriate to simply end the episode with a still shot of the spoiler-filled journal, but the extra motivation from the Doctor to save River certainly creates an altogether more memorable ending for a character that seems like she may still find her way back into the programme at some point in the future.
Moffat also proves adept once more at subtly inserting horror into seemingly normal situations. The revelation that every male and female child in Donna’s life is the exact same is chilling, and the casual realization that six people are standing in the room when only five have survived is genuinely unnerving. Likewise, the Vashta Nerada continue to offer a suitably menacing presence, able to instantly kill anything that enters their shadowy border. Notably, this is a species who is clearly intelligent and amenable to conversation, and after the Doctor’s haunting speech where he tells them to look him up, they reach an unsteady accord with those remaining in the library. This may take away from the overall threat that they possess, but it certainly adds another layer of depth to what could quite easily have devolved into a one-dimensional- albeit effective- threat. The link between the library and Vashta Nerada is also quite satisfyingly understated.
The entirety of the story flows very logically and fluidly, and tying the library into the titular forest is a nice twist. Having CAL turn out to be the young girl as well as Dr Moon’s protective purpose may not come off as the biggest surprise, but it smartly ties together several pieces of the plot while giving an enormous degree of humanity to a character who up to that point had done little more than present a stereotypical corporate veneer. And while the episode did further tease the importance of River Song to the Doctor, it cruelly did not offer any resolute answers. Despite the mystery and back-and-forth banter, a strong emotional core is obviously shared between the two characters, and the hints that she may perhaps know an older Doctor, a TARDIS-themed journal and her mentioning that she has never seen the Doctor so young being the most overt, certainly holds great potential for future appearances. Still, the fact that she was present at the one occasion where he would tell her his true name suggests and incredibly important person to further explore at some point.
As for Donna, who really takes centre stage in this story in a fascinating subplot, she continues the step away from the strong character she has been written as since the start of the series. In fact, Donna is nearly written as the original bride version of herself than as the more tempered version she has become in some instances. That said, the virtual reality dominated by television conventions in which she lives out her dream life with a husband and children is expertly done, and the lasting repercussions of having that torn away from her could obviously be quite severe. This is a series that seems determined to puts its leads through the wringer on a seemingly weekly basis, and as always they step up to the plate admirably to deliver fantastic performances. Still, having Donna go against her previous claims of wanting to find the Doctor rather than a man, only to have her dream sequence being a traditional family life, seems like a bit of a misstep for the character even though it makes perfect sense in the narrative.
All in all, ‘Forest of the Dead’ successfully completes the tale begun in ‘Silence in the Library.’ It may not be the most groundbreaking or satisfying simply because of the work Steven Moffat has done previously for the programme, but it’s another very strong entry in this already-strong series. Hinting at future events for the Doctor with the immensely likable Alex Kingston as River Song who has already met her end is tantalizing, but the weaving together of plot threads and the emotionally heightened situations for each of the leads are truly the strength of the story, beyond the incredibly intriguing and dangerous beings in the shadows and even if Donna’s characterization skews a bit from what she has become over the course of the series.