Friday, 31 March 2017

Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead

Chapter The 47th, from when a Moffat scripted story was a rarer and more wonderful thing.

A little girl in her normal suburban living room starts having visions that her imaginative fantasy - a planet-sized library containing every book ever written - is real, and has been invaded. The Doctor and Donna are two of these invaders, having come to the library following a call for help on the psychic paper, with a mysterious kiss at the bottom. A team of space archaeologists arrive hot on their heels, led by a Professor River Song, who sent the message; she's met the Doctor loads of times, but he's not met her yet because time travel. They're investigating as 100 years previously something happened in the library, something to do with the shadows. All the people were locked in, but there’s no one inside to be seen, and no bodies. It’s all down to the Vashta Nerada, a carnivorous swarm, which has somehow infested the place. Trying to save the crew, who are getting picked off one by one, and bickering with River who appears to be his wife from the future, the Doctor at least manages to send Donna back to the TARDIS to save her. And it does save her, but not perhaps in the manner he was expecting. To be honest, to say anymore would spoil it, sweetie. If you haven’t seen it before, go and find it and watch it now… Go on, I’ll be waiting here for when you’re done… I mean it, go and watch it – it’s on Netflix for a start off, or Blu-Ray or DVD. Go!

Watched on DVD, with a week separating the viewing of each episode, not because it was planned to recreate the original experience, it just turned out that way. As well as myself and the Better Half, only the middle child (boy, aged 7) watched the whole thing, but his older brother (aged 10) joined us for episode 1. They liked it, but were not as effusive as their Mum and Dad.

First-time round:
I remember being very interested in this one before it was broadcast: there was some puzzle you could do, if I’m remembering correctly, on the official BBC Doctor Who website, which earned one a viewing of a clip. I went ahead and did it, I was that excited to get a glimpse of the new Moffat story. I don’t remember the last time I even visited the official website, let alone stayed long enough to do a puzzle. These days, of course, I’d see the clip online because the first person to do the puzzle would have uploaded it somewhere, and it would appear on one social media feed or other before the official website had even got its boots on.

Puzzles on official websites have almost the same dusty whiff of history about them as VHS tapes or novelisations now, and yet in other ways this story feels recent. Perhaps David Tennant was so popular that he cast a long shadow, as it still seems like he only left a short while ago, but it was eight years, and his last full series, of which the Library story is part, nine years ago. I have to remind myself that when this was first shown, only one out of three of my children existed. Our eldest would have been under two, so I’d imagine there was some time-shifting involved, but we’d have watched each episode later on the same evening of its initial BBC1 broadcast.

This presents the tricky situation for the blog of trying to be measured and calm when I FLIPPIN’ LOVE THIS ONE!!!! It’s definitely a top 5 favourite, and that’s of all Doctor Who, not just of the new series episodes. I will try not to gush too embarrassingly, but it really is very good indeed. I have many reservations about Moffat’s work following this story; but as a writer for hire from 2005 to 2008, he was unsurpassed, melding his take on his showrunner’s emotional approach with intricate and deft plotting. Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead is a little bit messier than, say, Blink or The Girl in the Fireplace, but that’s a good thing: those earlier stories can seem too pat. The Library story is about life - particularly married life, but family life too - and that’s never straightforward.
In the course of two 45 minute episodes, the script manages to marry off its two main characters, the Doctor and Donna, and then effectively kill off their spouses. Then, it has its cake and eats it too, as both those spouses – River Song and Lee McAvoy – don’t really die. A criticism sometimes levelled at Moffat is that none of his Who characters ever really die.  But – and I won’t spoil it – though he survives, what happens to Lee McAvoy in his final brief scene is devastating, to the point where you want to (okay, I did) shout ‘No!’ very loudly at the screen, the first time you see it. This manages to counterbalance the literal fairy tale ending for River Song.
Putting out of one’s mind the future recurring role of Alex Kingston as River, and just concentrating on the character as one-shot concept, it’s very strong. Two romantically involved time travellers who don’t meet in the right order, though not necessarily 100% original – it’s The Time Traveller’s Wife squared – is something Doctor Who had never done before. Making the first meeting for him, the last ever meeting for her, is a wonderfully dark twist. River has to sacrifice herself to save the Doctor, because if it’s the other way round, they will never have a life together. Being in a relationship with someone where you want to be together, but you know one of you has to die first to make it even close to possible: it’s a perfect metaphor for marriage in my book. [But, then, I have a happy marriage; I explained this theory to a fan friend once, and he told he certainly didn’t feel that way… about his first wife; I had to concede the point.]
If you do consider all the future adventures of River Song, it’s remarkably consistent; nothing in the plotting contradicts anything we see in later stories, and there’s a remarkable amount of foreshadowing. I very much doubt Moffat had it all mapped out in 2008, but it’s testament to his attention to detail. It’s also testament to a storming performance by a wonderful actor: Alex Kingston arrives with the character fully formed, and owns it. She manages to have an equal level of chemistry with three very different Doctor actors over the years; that’s not luck, that’s skill.  In fact, there’s many parallels with John Barrowman’s Captain Jack, another recurring character turning up first in a Moffat two-parter, with a well-rounded story life away from the Doctor. It’s a shame the two characters never appeared in the same story.  If it wasn’t for Moffat seeming to have completed River’s arc in his two latest Capaldi Christmas specials, I’d be hoping he has this team-up saved for December 25th this year. Never mind – Big Finish will probably do it (if they haven’t already).
If I had to pick holes, there’s probably too many ideas. Apart from River Song, there’s the Vashta Nerada who provide enough material for a story just on their own - swarms that look like shadows and strip flesh from bone in a nanosecond, shadows that lock on to a victim, counting the shadows as a defence mechanism, people turned into spacesuited skeletons. Then there’s a child plugged into a dreamscape in a massive computer, who becomes a de facto viewer of Doctor Who’s adventures on her TV; the data ghost concept, allowing the catchphrase-tastic repeating of everyone’s dying words over and over; and Doctor Moon, and the nodes with donated faces, and the ‘saving’ of people, including the corruption of Miss Evangelista which gives her a bigger IQ.
This makes episode 1 a bit of bombardment, with idea after idea hitting the viewer. But episode 2 pulls everything together to a breakneck, apocalyptic but emotionally complete conclusion, and contains scene after scene of the most effective dramatic moments ever in Doctor Who.  Far too many to list, but two that I must call out as they showcase what a wonderful actor Catherine Tate is: the gut wrenching, horrific scene where her two ‘children’ disappear, and she claws at their bedding in desperation, and the last scene between Donna and Lee as they slip further and further away from each other, disappearing into the white void: “Am I real?” “Of course you’re real…I know you’re real… oh God, I hope you’re real.” All accompanied by the best single music cue Murray Gold ever wrote.

You can't get much better a connection than a story in a museum followed by a story in a library, and I didn't cheat either, completely random.

Deeper Thoughts:
Play Some Old! I said above that I was very excited in advance of this story’s original broadcast. Steven Moffat at the time was reserved one slot of the year, and annually delivered a cracker: The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink; each one built on the last in terms of crowd-pleasing scripting, and the productions were getting more sophisticated too. A lot of people at the time, at least online, thought the Library episodes were a slight disappointment, but only because a very high standard had been set. Then, before anyone had too much time to dwell on that, Moffat was taking over as showrunner, and would be delivering much more than one script a year; how could it fail to be utterly brilliant? Hmm.

We are now fast approaching the time when there will be no more Moffat Doctor Who scripts. I don’t think he’ll be tempted back to do any more once he’s delivered Capaldi’s Xmas swansong. Russell T Davies set a precedent of not writing for the show again once he’d vacated the boss role, which Moffat will probably emulate; plus, Steven will have delivered a lot more than Russell by the time he types his last INT. TARDIS. DAY. He’s done his duty. It’s doubtful that his work on the show as a whole will be thought of as well as those first four stories written for someone else’s production. As showrunner, he’s come in for a lot of flak, at least online, just as RTD did before him. Doctor Who is an extensive canon, and baked into its format is variety. No one likes it all, not even its biggest fans; often, the bits that were broadcast a while ago are said to better than the stuff being broadcast right now. This didn’t start with the World Wide Web. John Nathan Turner, producer in the 1980s, faced horrible levels of “it ain’t what it used to be” hostility. This didn’t even start with mass organised fandom; as was mentioned in my post about The Deadly Assassin, even at their start, the fan organisations were already used to the sharpening of knives.

This is common in all walks: every band who ever made more than one record is plagued by the clich√© that the new material isn’t as good as ‘the early stuff’. But it sometimes seems that Doctor Who attracts more than its fair share of ire. Amusingly, someone recently tweeted a newspaper review complaining that the quality of Doctor Who had dipped. It was published during the broadcast of An Unearthly Child, the very first story in 1963. They didn’t even wait for the first whole story to be finished before they got stuck in to Verity Lambert’s work. So, Steven Moffat is in august company.

Not that it matters much anyway, but all this matters even less for Moffat, I think. If, heaven forfend, his obituary came to be written next year, I suspect it would describe him as “Sherlock and Doctor Who writer” in that order. Sherlock is the flashier show, with a fervent international fanbase, and two movie star leads; plus, Doctor Who, though his admirers and detractors alike will admit he’s made it his own during his tenure, does not belong to Moffat alone. Good luck to him in his future endeavours, but it’s hard to see how he will knock Sherlock from the top of his list. And that despite the later episodes being definitely not as good as the early ones – don’t get me started, blah, blah, blah …

In Summary:
DONNA: Is "all right" special Time Lord code for... "really really good, near peerless, best the show has ever managed, utterly utterly marvellous"?


DONNA: Cos Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead is all right.

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