March 25, 2013

Who50: "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead"

Who50 counts down to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who by reviewing my favourite episodes and serials over the history of the programme, counting down from #50 to #1. Today, #32: "Silence in the Library" and "Forest of the Dead", a 2008 two-part story written by Steven Moffat and directed by Euros Lyn.

The Doctor and Donna arrive in a massive intergalactic library, only to discover it is mysteriously - and ominously - deserted. Soon they encounter an archaeological team led by Professor River Song, a woman from the Doctor's future who knows a lot more about him that he expects. Before long they are all on the run, as the deadly reason for the empty library becomes clear and they must all run from the shadowy Vashta Nerada.

While he's done a brilliant job as executive producer since Season 5 (at least he has in my mind), Steven Moffat's best Doctor Who scripts are almost all from the preceding four seasons, when he didn't have the responsibility of guiding the series as a whole but could instead focus closely on one exceptional story at a time. He is to my mind one of the top three writers of Doctor Who ever, alongside the unassailable Robert Holmes and the phenomenal David Whitaker.

A lot of the appeal of Moffat's earlier episodes is, I think, the ease with which children can turn the monsters into playground games. They're either easy to impersonate, like slowly shambling after your school friends asking "are you my mummy?", or they're adaptations of existing playground games anyway, like the Weeping Angels. In the case of "Silence in the Library" the Vashta Nerada are as simple as child's game as you can imagine: don't step on the shadows.

They're wonderfully creepy in the way that a person killed by them will simply start repeating the same line of dialogue over and over: it's very easy for Moffat to distract us with foreground action and fooling us into ignoring the fact that in the background someone was killed 30 seconds ago. Doctor Who is at its best when it's creepy. I think children love being scared, and few television programmes for children have been as strong in recognising that desire as Who.

Of course the Vashta Nerada are now profoundly overshadowed by the story's introduction of Professor River Song, a character that Moffat would re-introduce two years later and make an integral part of his tenure as executive producer. She is not loved by all Doctor Who fans - some find her excessive flirting and smugness annoying - but she's certainly adored by me. Alex Kingston is a fantastic actor - I loved her as Dr Elizabeth Corday in ER, which probably remains her most famous role.

It's worth considering River purely in terms of this episode, rather than in her broader significance in later years. She exists here as a means for the Doctor to see his own future, and there are massive implications here that he will only become more powerful and legendary as time goes on. The episodes do a wonderful job of making him feel small: under Russell T Davies' leadership the series had made the character more and more powerful, and it's outstanding that Moffat manages to right the balance not by taking away that power but by indicating that it is in fact nowhere near as powerful as he shall become. The episode's climax, in which the Doctor effectively saves the day by banking on his own future reputation, is either an appalling cheat or an incredibly clever bit of writing. I think it's the latter.

I really do hope that the Doctor revisits the library at some point: I feel there's one major plot thread hanging that begs to be corrected.

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