Doctor Who recap: 'In the Forest of the Night'
After two episodes of equal parts horror and adventure it can feel a little odd to get back to one of Doctor Who‘s normal episodes of saving the world on a grand scale. Then again, a large part of what makes Doctor Who such a unique show is that saving the world is considered more mundane than saving a couple of people. “In the Forest of the Night” is anything but mundane, luckily. It’s probably among the funniest and conceptually interesting episodes this season, even if the plot gets a bit too contrived making things work.
The episode begins with a very young girl named Maebh (Abigail Eames)—whose name is not pronounced the same as a certain cousin from Arrested Development—running through a forest in her red coat, looking every bit like Little Red Riding Hood. She comes across the TARDIS, knocks on the door, and tells the Doctor that she is being chased and that Clara’s voice told her to seek him out. The Doctor is, as usual, uninterested until he realizes that they’re in the middle of a forest.
The Doctor gives Maebh a quick tour of the TARDIS while the girl tells him that she’s part of Danny’s and Clara’s school group. The Doctor tries to figure out what’s wrong with the TARDIS’ navigation system since it’s telling him that he’s in the middle of London despite the forest all around it. Maebh informs the Doctor that the TARDIS is correct and she pulls him out of the TARDIS to show the Doctor that they are actually in Trafalgar Square. It seems all of London is covered in a huge blanket of forest.
Danny and Clara, meanwhile, have been chaperoning a group of troubled children on an overnight stay at the museum. Upon exiting the museum they see that the city is covered with a forest. It’s then revealed that the entire planet is absolutely covered in trees, not just London. Even the ocean is a tint of green. The planet is absolutely covered by greenery.
The Doctor phones Clara to inform her that he has Maebh, and he and Clara share information about what they’ve noticed about the forest so far. After the call, Clara lies to Danny about who was on the phone, but Danny assumes she was speaking to the Doctor. He has been under the impression that Clara and the Doctor have not interacted in a long while, but Clara defends her recent interaction with the inexplicable nature of their situation.
The school group make their way to Trafalgar Square to meet up with the Doctor and Maebh. While the latter two wait, Maebh watches a government broadcast announcing a plan to clear a path through the trees with fire squads to establish emergency routes. They ask that everyone stay in their homes as well but it still seems more than a little unrealistic that London seems to be absolutely devoid of any human life except for a scant few people.
The Doctor attempts to scan the environment for an inkling of what’s going on, but can’t detect a thing because it’s all wood—the one thing his devices have never been able to interact with (Robin Hood target shooting aside). A pretty bare-bones subplot gets introduced involving some of the episode’s minor characters including Maebh’s mother setting out to find her daughter in the forested mes, and the troubles of some of the students in the class.
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Eventually the school group meet up with the Doctor. Not Maebh, though. She decides to run off for reasons never established. The Doctor verbally dazzles as he is wont to do, butting heads with Danny a bit. Clara stands between the two men, literally and figuratively, like someone trying to get two different friends to develop a friendship with each other. The Doctor, not really paying attention to anything around him, thinks out loud to figure out what’s going on. He runs into the TARDIS and the school group follows him in.
On the TARDIS, Danny finds Maebh’s notebooks and the Doctor realizes that Maebh’s illustrations in it have accurately predicted what is going on. The Doctor surmises that the sheer amount of extra greenery is creating a huge amount of excess oxygen, and that an impending solar flare from the sun will use it to ignite the entire planet.
Following a pretty amusing sequence where the Doctor does not remember who Maebh is, everyone realizes that Maebh is missing and they didn’t notice… again. Clara and Danny must be really bad at chaperoning if they fail to notice the same girl missing twice, especially when they set out to find her in the first place. Clara informs the Doctor that Maebh has been hearing voices and is on medication ever since her sister disappeared a year ago. The Doctor can’t believe that humans could be that stupid, again, and says that Maebh is the key to finding out what’s happening.
As the Doctor sets out to search for Maebh, Clara volunteers to go with him and tells Danny to stay with the children. Danny reveals that he’s much more observant than Clara and the Doctor assume he is; he’s noticed that Clara is not acting like she’s seeing the Doctor for the first time in months. As the Doctor and Clara head out, Nelson’s Column comes crashing down. Its fall spurs Danny and the school group to leave the TARDIS and go after the Doctor and Clara.
The Doctor and Clara find Maebh’s phone on the ground and wonder if it’s a breadcrumb trail like in the story of Hansel & Gretel or a threat, whether the forest is benign or a threat. Maebh, meanwhile, runs through the forest waving her hands in the air like she just doesn’t care. Occasionally she stops the frantic, fleeing partying to leave items as a trail for the Doctor and Clara. It’s never explained why she had to run away and leave a trail as opposed to telling the Doctor to come with her, so we’re stuck with this Exciting Chase Sequence.
The Doctor and Clara come across one of the government issued fire squads failing to burn down a tree. Not because they’re incompetent, mind you. The trees simply will not catch fire or even singe. Anyway, remember that Red Riding Hood simile earlier? Guess what’s back. Maebh finds herself being chased by wolves that have escaped from the London Zoo. The Doctor and Clara find her thanks to her screams and stare down the wolves from the other side of a wrought iron fence. But the wolves are scared away by something bigger and scarier: a tiger.
Danny appears with the school group, scaring the tiger away by strobing a flashlight in its face until the tiger says “Well, screw this,” and walks away annoyed. The celebration and flirty banter between Clara and Danny is cut short by Maebh’s even more frenetic hand-waving. Maebh’s party mode starts upsetting everyone and the Doctor opposed the others’ insistence that Maebh be given her medication.
Maebh runs off again and the rest follow her to a section of forest with a large golden light. Maebh apologizes for causing the tree situation, but the Doctor consoles her by saying it’s not her fault. Maebh starts up the party mode again but, this time, doing the responsible thing and telling someone what’s going on—she’s seeing the thoughts in front of her. The Doctor realizes something and uses the sonic screwdriver to reveal that Maebh has been plagued by tiny glowing creatures all along.
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They communicate through the girl that they are an ancient entity that lives in the greenery of the planet and will be there long after humanity. The Doctor asks why they sent Maebh to him, but they say they have no idea who he is, seemingly thinking that the Doctor is another human. After the Doctor releases them from the sonic’s hold, they leave Maebh.
Clara and the Doctor realize that the situation they’re in is hopeless. They have no way to stop the forest covering the world and no way to stop the solar flare. Clara suggests that the Doctor can save at least the school group and themselves. But when they get back to the TARDIS, the opposite of “Kill the Moon” happens. Clara lied to the Doctor about saving people to get him to go back to the TARDIS. She tells the Doctor to leave by himself and abandon the rest of them because if this is going to be humanity’s end, then humanity should end. The children won’t be able to go on without their families, Danny will never leave them, and she does not want to be the last of her kind. The Doctor says that the Earth is his world, too, but begrudgingly gives into Clara’s demands. Before he leaves he even apologizes to Maebh for not being able to help her, sealing this moment as the complete and utter opposite of what “Kill the Moon” established for his and Clara’s characterizations.
As the Doctor leaves he has a House MD moment and returns to the school group. He brings them back into the TARDIS to explain what he has realized, but succeeds only in scaring everyone further since none of the children knew about the impending world-ending danger. He refers to the Tunguska Event and Curuçá River Event as moments when the Earth should have been destroyed but only received a few thousand destroyed trees each. The Doctor has realized that the trees and the tree spirits are not seeking to destroy the planet but are rather protectors of the planet. They stopped the Earth from being destroyed during both those past events, and they’re doing it again now. They’re creating the excess oxygen so that it will burn away and leave the rest of the planet untouched.
The school group puts together a message to be broadcast around the world making the case to not tear down any of the trees so that they can get the full protection. Maebh delivers it in her sweet, innocent girl way and then sees her mother approaching the TARDIS when she’s done. She runs out to meet her mother and the affection between the two triggers the other children to suddenly become very homesick in a very sudden end to any subplot involving them, resolving none of the teamwork or bullying or lack of confidence issues some were displaying through the episode. Clara asks Danny if he wants to come and see the sun flare from space but Danny insists that he’s more interested in the wonders on the planet than he is the wonders off the planet. He also asks that Clara take some time to gather her thoughts and tell Danny the truth of what’s going on in her life in regards to the Doctor.
The Doctor and Clara watch from space as the solar flare slams against Earth and burns up the excess oxygen around the planet. Also watching is Missy, on a screen far away. She remarks about the interesting nature of the situation before the attention goes back to Earth, where the overnight forest disappears immediately in clouds of tree spirits. Clara asks how people will react, but the Doctor says that humans will forget it—it’s their superpower so that they can make sense of the world when they don’t understand what’s happened. The episode ends with Maebh and her mother finding the lost sister in front of their house hiding under a tree spirit bush. It’s about as forced of an ending as it sounds, but the dangling thread has to close, right?