If I were ten years old, I would think “In the Forest of the Night” is the greatest episode ever. As it is, it feels like a very good episode…but of some other program entirely. Because its focus is on the school children and their teachers, Clara and Danny, and because the Doctor’s presence once again feels more like a cameo than anything else, the whole thing has the feel of being some other program, like an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures without Sarah Jane. It’s a good story, despite all its plot holes, but “In the Forest of the Night” is missing something.
In fact, the same could be said of the entirety of Season 8 so far. For the most part, the scripts and acting are decent, but something’s just not there. If I were to put my finger on it, I’d say what’s missing is the Doctor himself. We’re almost at the end of his first full season, and we still don’t have a handle on who the Twelfth Doctor is. There’s very little consistency in the way the character is being written (the Doctor in “Deep Breath” and “Into the Dalek” seems quite different from the Doctor in “The Caretaker” and “Kill the Moon”) and half the time he feels like a sidekick in a sitcom about Clara’s romantic complications. The Clara Show, with special guest star the Doctor.
**MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW**
“In the Forest of the Night” has a lot of missed opportunities. Courtney should have been part of the school outing, for example. Her presence could have helped the other children not be so scared of the Doctor, and could also have shown that the Doctor is having a positive effect on the people around him. The story of Maebh’s sister’s disappearance is glossed over so quickly that the sister’s return at the end doesn’t pack the emotional punch it ought to. It’s also difficult to understand what’s happening because of the way her return is presented. Did the sister run away and return home after hearing Maebh’s cell phone call? Did the sparkly forest fairies, or whatever they were, bring her back home somehow? Were they responsible for her disappearance in the first place? The sister seems happy to be back, but gives no indication of why she left, nor signs of trauma that she was taken against her will. She’s just there and we’re supposed to feel happy about it, cue end credits. On the other hand, Maebh herself is a very interesting character and I felt the episode came alive whenever she was on screen.
It’s impossible to understand Clara’s reasoning for telling the Doctor not to rescue the children from the solar flare that will destroy Earth. So they would miss their parents, at least they would survive and the human race would go on! It was incredibly selfish — and damn near murderous — of Clara to make that decision for them without even asking, and to make it for Danny, too. It’s not presented that way, of course. We’re supposed to side with her, but how can we when it’s such a bad idea? I did like the Doctor repeating Clara’s words from “Kill the Moon” back to her (“It’s my world, too. I walk your earth. I breathe your air.”), and Clara’s assertion that she doesn’t want to be the last of her kind the way the Doctor is (a moment that could have been explored a little more, in my opinion, even if it was just by Clara adding, “I’ve seen what it did to you, and I don’t think I could handle it”).
One thing that did work for me, surprisingly, was Clara and Danny, finally. I liked them at the start of their relationship, but then, once Clara started lying to him about her continued travels with the Doctor, it felt forced and stupid. Now that they’ve talked it out in a remarkably mature manner that I found very welcome indeed after all the relationship-drama histrionics, I like them again. Here’s hoping they don’t add any more forced and unrealistic roadblocks to their relationship. (Believable roadblocks are fine, of course, and the essence of all good drama.) But then, this is Steven Moffat we’re talking about and he’s writing the two-part finale that’s coming up next, so something ridiculous is more likely to happen to one or both of them than not.
Speaking of the finale, I can’t believe we’re there already! This season has gone by remarkably quickly, something I credit to the stronger scripts. With so much less to roll my eyes over than in the last couple of seasons, I’ve been pulled along for the ride. But alas, we’ve come to the finale, which means more of Missy, who is without a doubt the weakest part of the season. She and her “Promised Land” are supposed to be the season-long arc, maybe even the Big Bad, but Missy has been kept separate from everything else that’s happened this season, relegated only to brief cameos at the end of a few episodes. As a result, she feels more like an intrusion than a threat. She doesn’t feel important, and if she’s the key to this season’s arc, she needs to. We’ll see what happens, obviously, but with Moffat’s track record of confusing, nonsensical, and all around dreadful finales, I’m bracing myself for stupid. (From the trailer, it also looks like Missy is controlling Clara somehow as a trap for the Doctor, just like Madame Kovarian was controlling the Flesh duplicate of Amy, so I’m bracing myself for another of Moffat’s repeated plot lines, too.)