A contributor in a Doctor Who fan forum I occasionally frequent, with whom I disagree about virtually everything, once made a penetrating observation about fan opinion, and, for once, I actually agreed with them. They (I know not their gender) postulated that unconventional stories like Love & Monsters that fall short of fans’ standards will provoke a far more intense backlash, merely for straying from standard tropes, than equally bad stories that nevertheless follow standard Doctor Who formulas, like The Idiot’s Lantern. Notwithstanding that Love & Monsters really was a terrible, positively retch-inducing episode, the memory of which I’ve done my utmost to repress, there’s more than a grain of truth in that observation. For fans of a show that premises itself on the literally boundless concept of “anywhere, any time, any thing”, we can be surprisingly conservative and sceptical towards the show straying from the accepted storytelling tropes it uses over and over again.
I feel that much of the fan hostility towards Frank Cottrell Boyce’s divisive script has much to do with that conservative attitude towards the kinds of storytelling the show should employ. What distinguished In the Forest of the Night from “normal” Doctor Who was that, as was revealed in this episode’s denouement, there was no actual threat. It was basically an episode following the Doctor, Clara and a gaggle of schoolkids around as they became bewildered over a freak, but entirely harmless, natural occurrence. The viewer was waiting for the moment when the Doctor would be struck by a brainwave and figure out how to save everyone from the… inconvenient trees. Expecting that, the viewer is disoriented when the brainwave finally does come, but it’s in the Doctor realising that, actually, there’s nothing to save anyone from — there was no need to worry at all in the first place.
This is different; for once, the story isn’t about the Doctor beating the monsters, or the Doctor and Clara getting themselves out of a dangerous situation. It was about everyone learning a heartwarming and joyous lesson: nature is our friend, not our enemy — trust it. The Doctor has no real role to play other than being the one who realises what it’s all about. This is certainly a departure from what we’re used to, but it’s also a return to the show’s origins. In the first Doctor Who serials, the Doctor was no more the hero of the piece than the (usually captured) companions were; the show was more about following the Doctor and his friends on their adventures than about the Doctor saving the day. It was only later that the Doctor became a pseudo-superhero who saved the world every week. Many of the earliest Doctor Who serials, like Marco Polo and The Edge of Destruction, would be considered very experimental in modern Who. This episode probably wasn’t the best exemplar of non-traditional storytelling, but perhaps the show would actually benefit from expanding beyond the present narrative confines that the script-writers impose on themselves?
So, in general, despite its very visible faults, I rather liked it. It’s inoffensive, charming, enchanting, cute and heartwarming. It was different. I mean, the idea of invincible trees springing up overnight and carpeting the Earth was a bit silly, I admit, but, gosh, wasn’t it intriguing? Wasn’t it just magical? Wasn’t it at least more interesting than the constant alien invasions of London we were subjected to in Russell T Davies’ era? I actually found the idea that the Doctor was helpless to combat the green, wooden scourge to be a fantastic narrative device. We don’t see it happen enough. I thought the characters really enhanced this story, too. The children were amusing, and brought a smile to face, especially the mouthy ginger girl, Ruby. This was actually one of the few times I’ve liked the child actors in Doctor Who. Danny is the most likable and sympathetic he’s been all series, in his grounded, down-to-earth, responsible attitude towards everything, contrasting effectively with Clara’s reckless wanderlust and thrill-seeking. And wasn’t the episode just visually stunning? If nothing else, this episode was surely one of the most aesthetically beautiful the show has ever produced.
There were a few things that annoyed me, but they’re not really significant enough to unduly diminish my enjoyment of the episode. For one, the episode felt slow. With not all that much to actually do, it indulges in a lot of filler material involving escaped zoo animals and other flotsam and jetsam. There was one scene in particular where Clara and the Doctor stood around having a conversation in which they just repeated things we already knew. I felt the urge at that moment to channel Monty Python in admonishing them both to get on with it! Secondly, the scene where the tree spirits (or whatever they were) were speaking through Maebh would have been so much more effective if I could actually hear what they were saying. All I heard was a resonant rumbling in a frequency too low for even my young ears to pick up. Finally, I hate to be a grouch, but I cringed over that final scene, where Maebh discovers her lost sister hiding in the bushes. I don’t usually hate on things like this, but this time I did; I found it unnecessary and emotionally dishonest. Nevertheless, as I said, these gripes don’t overtly diminish my enjoyment of the episode, which I found, for the most part, engaging viewing.