Back when Doctor Who first returned to our screens, Russell T Davies used to justify the lack of alien planets by pointing to Stargate and explaining that having your regulars running around a different forest every week just wouldn’t fly with a mainstream BBC One audience. However, since then the series has proved that you can make captivating use of woodland if you’re clever enough about it – remember 2010’s “Flesh And Stone”, which put the forest inside a spaceship. Frank Cottrell Boyce’s first script for the series tops that by putting London inside a forest.
It’s an irresistible high-concept which makes for perhaps the most fascinating teaser in the series’ history, and which has such magical, mythic resonance that it proves pretty much bullet-proof. The resulting mystery is engaging, and the realisation of the basic idea is extremely accomplished, with a handful of beautifully done visual effects of an overgrown capital bolstering what was surely a fairly cheap shoot (let’s face it, sticking some Underground signs and telephone boxes in a wood couldn’t exactly have broken the bank). If there’s one disappointment, it’s that the “Night” of the title turns out to be purely metaphorical – “The forest is mankind’s nightmare”, as the Doctor puts it. How much spookier would this episode be if it all took place as twilight was approaching?
One possible criticism is that the Doctor is rather crowded out of the picture by the supporting characters, forced to compete for our attention not only with Clara and Danny Pink but a gaggle of school children – when we start seeing flashbacks to the kids acting up in the classroom it does start to feel a little bit much. But the Coal Hill kids are so well-characterised that this would be a churlish complaint. None of them, individually, gets more than a few moments of screentime, but they all register as three-dimensional personalities.
This isn’t Trafalgar Square’s first on-screen appearance in Who. Daleks were seen patrolling it in “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth”, Ian and Barbara were pictured there in “The Chase”, and of course the TARDIS was carried there by UNIT helicopter in “The Day Of The Doctor”.
They also provide some very funny lines. This is an extremely witty episode, with a rich seam of quotable dialogue. Yet it’s also memorably poetic, and, at times, lump-in-the-throat moving – especially the scene where Clara bids the Doctor farewell, which once again showcases just how good an actor Jenna Coleman is when she’s given first-rate material to work with.
True, the eventual explanation for it all (er, so let’s get this straight: invisible fireflies that pre-date mankind materialising into trees to save the Earth from a solar flare that humanity, with all its advanced technology, is apparently incapable of detecting) proves about as plausible as, say, a giant creature hatching out of the Moon and then laying an egg the size of itself. Plus the final scene, in which little Maebh’s missing sister returns home, is perhaps a spoonful of sugar too much, not to mention puzzlingly absurd – has she been hiding in a hydrangea bush all this time? But these are comparatively trivial issues which don’t detract too much from an episode whose fairytale imagery lingers in the mind long after the credits have rolled, like a strange, vivid dream.
Doctor Who airs on Saturday nights on BBC One in the UK and BBC America in the US.
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