Once again Steven Moffat has delivered an absolute triumph of a story. This two-parter was exciting, scary, beautiful, tear-jerking and completely engrossing. It exercised the nerves like only a Moffat story can, and was also generously laden with absorbing character drama, electric dialogue, and some of the most beautiful moments ever in this show. It featured a cast of wonderful characters, including the enigmatic River Song, Moffat here setting up one of the major story arcs of the Matt Smith era. I don’t know how Moffat does it, but, in each of his four stories that I’ve watched in this marathon, I’ve always been left quite blown away by what I’ve just watched. He’s an exceptional writer who has arguably produced more outright classics for the Doctor Who corpus than any other writer, and this is one of his best and one that I personally adore.
The setting for this story was ingenious, the largest library in the universe, spanning an entire planet. The Library is easily one of the most interesting worlds which have featured in Doctor Who, and I’d imagine if the show had had a bigger budget, this story could have been visually spectacular. The immediate mystery that strikes the Doctor and Donna, of course, was where all the people were in this enormous library. In classic Moffat style, the story is scarcely underway before the air of conspiracy and spookiness descends when the talking statue urges them, “Run. For God’s sake, run.” An altercation with some shadows and a rendezvous with an archaeology expedition later, and it becomes clear that they are dealing with the Vashta Nerada, which are, in truth, a bargain-price monster if there ever was one, but not that that detracts from their scariness and menace at all. In fact, the gimmick—that they can be “any” shadow—makes them more effective. I was too old to be genuinely scared by the Vashta Nerada when this story was first broadcast, but I’m sure if I had been a few years younger I’d have been properly creeped. That said, their devouring of the sweet Miss Evangelista, and her subsequent “ghosting” through her thought patterns stored on her communication device was surely one of the most disturbing things Doctor Who has ever shown. It was heart-rending and, as Donna said, quite horrible.
It becomes clear that the little girl, Cal, is somehow connected. I think the plotline around Cal and her absorption of people into the virtual world of the Library computer was marvellous writing which elevated this script from what would have been a fairly standard, albeit creepy, runaround to a true triumph of storytelling and drama. Cal in her living room seeing visions of the Doctor and the Library and controlling it all with her television remote was intriguing enough, but the virtual world that she created for Donna and, assumingly, everyone else she “saved” was just spellbinding viewing, and truly interesting experimental television. The sequences showing Donna living in her fictional world were really quite unsettling. When Miss Evangelista showed up, whom I initially thought was a Dementor, telling Donna that her perceived life was a lie, it all got very Matrix—in a good way—it was terrifically chilling: by the time Donna tore off Miss Evangelista’s veil, revealing a freakish distortion where that pretty face of hers used to be, I was totally mesmerised. The revelation of what CAL was, and how the little girl was connected to it all, was really well done. CAL’s identity, and the purpose of the Library, was touching. Cal, by the way, was played really well by Eve Newton, easily one of the better child actors we’ve seen yet on Doctor Who.
I wasn’t altogether impressed by the explanation for what would happen to the Vashta Nerada. I’ve read the transcript and I’m still not sure what happened to them, perhaps this story’s sole fault. Nevertheless, the resolution, with River’s sacrificing herself in the Doctor’s place to restore all the people downloaded to the computer’s hard drive, saying her heartbreaking farewell to the Doctor, was tear-jerking. It contained some of the most beautiful dialogue Moffat has written.
River: “If you die here, it’ll mean I’ve never met you.”
Doctor: “Time can be rewritten.”
River: “Not those times. Not one line. Don’t you dare. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s not over for you. You’ll see me again. You’ve got all of that to come. You and me, time and space. You watch us run.”
I thought all of the scenes between River and the Doctor in this story were incredibly touching, particularly the moment River uttered the Doctor’s name in his ear; that was spine-chilling, and Tennant’s acting when River did that powerfully conveyed the Doctor’s utter stupefaction. Moffat couldn’t have done better to set up River’s story arc. Further, it was obvious how painful it was for River for the Doctor not to recognise her. We were seeing at the same time the beginning and the end of a love story, the love story of two time travellers travelling in opposite directions. How tragic is it to see a lover pained by the love of her life seeing her and not knowing her? Perhaps equally as tragic as it was elating when the Doctor bounded furiously through the Library when he realised he could save River, restoring her to the Library’s virtual world with her friends, his first act of love for River. That was a genuinely stirring, heartwarming sequence, and I’m not ashamed to say I got a catch in my throat when I watched that. It was beautiful.
Another astounding script from Moffat, pulling off the feat of employing Moffat’s traditional talent for scares and chills at the same time as delivering a script with more than one memorable moment seized with emotion. Although Moffat has delivered superior scripts, this one certainly ranks among his best, and to an extent I love it more than any of his others; there’s just something about which plays on the emotions and makes one remember it so fondly. It’s a classic to be sure.