Doctor Who And The Silence In The Library (Incorporating Doctor Who And The Forest Of The Dead)

This look at series four two-parter Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead originally appeared in a fanzine, albeit in an unapproved truncated form because the designer wanted to fit in some flashy headings; unfortunately, this resulted in some parts of it not actually making sense. You can insert your own jokes about the full version not making any sense either here. Many of the more pertinent points raised in this review, and some which rambled way off topic and have subsequently been trimmed, ended up reworked into a mammoth overview of the entire Eccleston/Tennant era which you can find in my 'anthology' book, Well At Least It's Free. Many of the less pertinent points are, well, less pertinent, but even so, what's interesting in looking back at this is how so many of what were originally in all honesty little more than grumbles about not really having enjoyed the episodes being reviewed have since become major talking points about the show's more recent direction; in fact there may well be something on that very subject appearing on here soon. Also, see if you can spot the bit that I wouldn't even dare to include if I was writing it now...

In those technological dark ages before the internet revolution came along, libraries were always a special place for fans of Doctor Who. Where else could you find a full set, albeit one annoyingly spread out according to the author’s surname, of the tie-in novelisations, in their hardback ‘WH Allen’ editions to boot? Venture only slightly further afield, and you might well come across such oft-forgotten gems as A Day In The Life Of A Television Producer, a photo-heavy book with disorientatingly large print in which John Nathan Turner explained how he prevented the Foamasi from being too frightening (by, one can only assume, making them rubbish).

And once you were finally allowed in the adult section, oh what esoteric joys awaited you. The dense and impenetrable Doctor Who – The Unfolding Text! That book about the Radiophonic Workshop where Roger Limb talked about having sex with synthesisers or something! Tons of American ‘Movie & TV Guides’ informing you that ‘Dr Who, the famous British sci-fi show on BBC, was created by Terry Nation’! And, if you were one of that small percentage of fans who later had reason to visit a ‘larger’ library in search of back issues of the Radio Times, many joyful hours of exasperatedly frowning at the demented Blake’s 7 fan who had gone to such great lengths to remove a small and fuzzy publicity photo of Paul Darrow.

When reading about Doctor Who, especially in one of those new-fangled ‘libraries’, you get to familiarise yourself with a lot of words. There’s ‘crochety’, for a start. And ‘emblazoned’. Yet even those pioneering fan writers, who knew an interesting word that they could repeat and repeat and repeat until their typewriter started crying out for mercy when they saw one, could never quite muster up more than a handful of superlatives between them. And that’s the problem with trying to review Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead – how can you really do it justice when you’ve already used every single superlative in existence twice over when discussing Steven Moffat’s previous Doctor Who contributions, even though they weren’t what you were supposed to be reviewing in the first place?

But hang on, don’t go scrambling for your copy of The Third Doctor Who Quiz Book just yet; it’s not that there wouldn’t be gratitude for your superlative-scouting efforts, just that there might not actually be any need for them. You see, these two episodes might well be great, but do they really match up to the established might of The Girl In The Fireplace, Blink or indeed The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, in either its combined or individual incarnations?

In strict adherence to the Dewey Decimal System (probably), let’s start with Silence In The Library and work our way across the shelves from there. Even by New Doctor Who standards, this episode was awash with anticipation and high expectation. The deservedly lofty reputation of Steven Moffat’s previous contributions to the series is a troublesome enough thing to have to live up to, but this episode also had to contend with another of those excitement-multiplying ‘mid season break’ thingymajigs replete with the standard issue attendant fan speculation (which we’ll come back to in a minute), and a really rather splendid teaser countdown on the BBC’s own Doctor Who website wherein an astutely-judged collection of fan-pleasing tomes (including the works of Douglas Adams, Monty Python and, erm, Terrance Dicks) jostled for shelf space with well-worn prop books from the original series, and a battered handwritten diary that, brilliantly, flicked past a pencil sketch of Rose Tyler at midnight every day. So, not much riding on it then.

Following all of that build-up, some of it intentional and some purely inadvertent, Silence In The Library almost delivers. Almost, but not quite. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it in itself. In fact, there’s an extraordinary amount right with it. The tension takes a long time to start building up, but when it finally does it proves well worth the wait; the idea that the whole sense of danger is based on nothing more clever or sophisticated than making sure you don’t stand in the wrong place, like an episode of The Adventure Game gone nightmarishly wrong, works fantastically and is nastier than any amount of spaceships straying too close to dangerous things could ever hope to be. Meanwhile, the flashing between the library and the mysterious little girl who claims to be able to see it all in her head really does keep the viewer guessing, and hands up who else mistakenly thought that they’d spotted the forthcoming end-of-series story arc and that The Doctor and Donna had accidentally slipped into some sort of non-reality while the ‘real’ universe carried on oblivious?

The same goes for Forest Of The Dead, pretty much. Although the tension seems to flag very quickly indeed, the journey through Donna’s apparent dream world is nicely surreal and unsettling, and the twist when it comes is startling but makes perfect sense, unlike so many other attempts at ‘big reveals’ in New Doctor Who and Torchwood (well, mainly Torchwood). Despite the obvious disadvantage of using a big gleaming clinical modern library rather than a creepy old wood-panelled look, both episodes are visually impressive and strongly directed, and there’s also plenty of well-judged dialogue and character interaction, although Steve Pemberton seemed curiously underused – particularly annoying given the strength of the Douglas Adams allusions, as he was pretty much the only even halfway good thing about the movie version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. And then there’s the ‘corrupted’ face, the poignant final non-encounter between Donna and Lee, the way that the Vashta Nerada even sounded frightening... and, erm, Alex Kingston.

So, where to start with Professor River Song? The idea of The Doctor meeting a character from his future, who knows all about him in all sorts of intimate ways that he doesn’t even know of himself yet, is a brilliant one with bags of potential. However, something about it just failed to work, and in the end she seemed nothing more than Just Another Character, failing to elicit much sympathy from the audience (who probably cared more about Lee to be honest), nor indeed much interest in her sonic-screwdriver-owning-Tardis-diary-waving-future-event-referencing antics. It’s hard to pinpoint where this went wrong exactly, as there was nothing amiss about the character’s scripting or portrayal, but she just somehow failed to make quite the same sort of impact as her close conceptual counterpart Jenny (although in fairness Jenny stood out in a largely shabby episode that seemed to have stolen its plot from the old Viz strip The Adventures Of The Human League In Outer Space, whereas River was jostling for space on a largely fantastic one). Because of this, her knowledge of The Doctor’s name seemed insufferably smug rather than a moment of audience shock, though on the other hand her obsession with ‘spoilers’ was one of the highlights of the story. In these days of rampant spoilermania it’s hard to know which side of the fence you’re on, with the glory-hunting fans determined to be the first to know even the most inconsequential detail (and in a moment of impressive postmodernity, Steven Moffat felt compelled to wade into a speculative online discussion of Silence In The Library, still some months away from broadcast, to remonstrate with one particular repeat offender) seeming every bit as ridiculous as the media lunatics who implode their own heads with effort to keep details of even the most pathetically inconsequential sitcom ‘under wraps’, so it’s nice to see the whole concept being broadly mocked in such a disdainful fashion. Take that, feeling like you have to have an opinion on things!

‘Hang on’, you’re probably not unreasonably asking yourself, ‘if these two episodes are so good then what was all that ‘almost, but not quite’ business about’? Some minor yet still severely niggling problems with them is what it’s all about, and not just that pretty dodgy attempt at making a joke out of stammering. As impressive as both episodes were, there was a sense that regular viewers had pretty much seen them done before, only better, and usually by Steven Moffat to boot. Plot twists aside, nothing about them seemed particularly unexpected or ‘new’, and the overall effect was a bit like when a band (naming no Portisheads or Blurs) follows up a highly successful and acclaimed album with one that, while intrinsically good, pretty much does the same thing only to noticeably less impressive effect. In addition, the two episodes seemed to sit very awkwardly next to each other, with the sharp detour from the nailbiting end of the first into the surreal ambience of the second not quite working as well for the viewer as might have been hoped. Still, no matter how much they may or may not impact on enjoyment, these are really cosmetic issues - you could even argue that the variation in pace and style might be a result of their being designed for rewatching, something that was never really a consideration in the cliffhanging days of old - and they’re still pretty impressive in their own right, not to mention streets ahead of that Cybermen two-parter.

You probably don’t get too many Doctor Who fans lurking in libraries any more – after all, it’s much easier to just hop online and get the latest up-to-the-minute news on why ‘harrysaxon88’ thought Fires Of Pompeii was an eight out of ten but now thinks it might have been only a seven – but now they’ve got another, entirely different reason to feel affection towards those most dusty, wooden and book-festooned of places. And no, it isn’t 'because they all look like the Secondary Console Room'.

You can find my huge piece on the entire Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who in my book Well At Least It's Free, available as a paperback here or as an eBook here.