“SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY” and “FOREST OF THE DEAD” – Series 4, Episodes 8 & 9, Story 195 – Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Euros Lynn – The Doctor and Donna head to The Library because his psychic paper told him to go there. Someone unknown to him is using the psychic paper and then when that person arrives, he still doesn’t know who it is. But she knows him. How? “Spoilers!” The Library is completely empty because 100 years ago something tragic happened and that something tragic has to do with shadows. Stay out of the shadows. Why? Because The Shadows Will Devour Everything But Your Bones.
“Everybody knows that everybody dies and nobody knows this like the Doctor,”
I am not going to argue that, at this point in his career, Steven Moffat is the most important writer in DOCTOR WHO history, nor will I say that he’s the best writer. What I will say is that no writer in WHO lore has a better batting average than Moffat.
In Series 1 (the relaunch year with the Ninth Doctor), Moffat wrote the best story of the season, the EMPTY CHILD/DOCTOR DANCES two-parter, a story that I consider as good as any other story in the history of the program. It’s that good.
In Series 2 (Tennant’s first year), Moffat contributed THE GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE, which also happened to be the best story of the season.
In between Series 3 and 4, Moffat got the job to write the Children in Need mini-episode, and delivered TIME CRASH, which brought the Fifth and Tenth Doctors together. CRASH was certainly not an all-time classic, but it is seven enjoyable minutes of seeing two Doctors on screen together.
But now we come to Moffat’s Series 4 contribution and it’s once again a two-parter: SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY and FOREST OF THE DEAD. Like Moffat’s other main-series contributions, SILENCE/FOREST has his signature sideways approach to sci-fi. What I love about these Moffat scripts is how inventive they are with their concept and yet how simplistic the actual story is that spins off of that concept. What makes Moffat’s stories complicated is simply how he presents the simple story to you, which is often done through disconnected chronology, something not out of place in a story with a time traveler.
In SILENCE/FOREST, we’ve got a really simple story – there’s a computer running a library and there’s killers about. The killers are the high concept – the guy who gave us killer statues now gives us killer shadows in the unseen guise of the Vashta Nerada. We don’t know this at first. At first, we’ve got the Doctor and Donna heading to a library the size of a planet in which there’s no one else walking around.
And then an expedition shows up and we’re introduced to River Song, a woman from the Doctor’s future that he’s just now meeting for the first time. It’s little touches like this that Moffat does so well – here we’re introduced to this sharp, sparkling-eyed woman who can put the Doctor on the defensive and she tells us that she’s had tons and tons of adventures with the Doctor.
Just not this Doctor.
“You’re eyes,” she says, “they’re so young.”
The Doctor is thrown by this, and her little blue book of spoilers. Donna is surprisingly thrown by this, too. She can tell there’s some connection between the two of them and doesn’t like it; I wouldn’t say she’s jealous of the inferred intimacy between this new woman and the Doctor as much as she is simply unnerved by it. When River reacts to Donna’s name refusing to tell her what happens to her in the future, Moffat has ever-so-delicately dropped two bits of fun speculation on us. Combine this with the spooky hints dropped by the Ood a few episodes back about the Doctor’s song soon to be ending and we’ve got a whole bunch of back burner issues going on.
And actually, given the Doctor’s words in that episode, “I’ve got my own song,” and the Ood’s reaction, “I fear it will be ending soon” and combine it with the end of this episode when River Song dies/gets placed in the Library’s computer for safekeeping, and you could actually put a bow on the Ood’s fortune telling if you wanted.
But that would be boring.
So River Song is potentially the Doctor’s future wife. How do we know this? We know it because she told the Doctor his real name. We also know it because she has his sonic screwdriver and Captain Jack’s blast-a-hole-in-the-wall-gun.
According to the Never Wrong, Russell T. Davies had originally wanted Kate Winslet to play River Song but ended up with Alex Kingston, instead. Which he was delighted with and which we should all be delighted with. Kingston has a weight to her persona that Winslet doesn’t; frankly, Winslet is also cut more in the Rose/Martha, young/cute mold while Kingston looks and sounds like a woman and yet acts with a sparkle in her eyes that speaks to a young heart, full of mischief.
It’s fun to see the Doctor paired with another experienced adventurer who knows how to handle herself, even if she does defer to the Doctor when things are at their bleakest. She doesn’t do it in a way that says, “I don’t know what to do and I am freaking the hell out,” either, but in a manner that says, “Things are bad. I trust the Doctor to get us to safety.”
Yeah, I said “paired” because once again Donna is tossed to the bowels of the subplot. At least Moffat gives her something to do, I suppose. She gets “saved” inside CAL and ends up living a false life that she believes to be real. Until she doesn’t. These sequences aren’t super interesting, but they do provide some insight into what she wants (a good husband and to be a mother).
Because shadows make for an interesting villainous concept but not a super cool visual, the Nerada end up taking over some of the bodies of the exploration team, who are walking around in their space suits. When the Nerada take them over, they turn into a villain from Scooby-Doo, from the Space Kook episode.
When you get to the big twist reveal, it turns out the computer is actually a little girl, some ancestor of the expedition leader. She was dying so the family built her this world so she could stay “half alive.” For much of the story we’re seeing this played out from inside the computer, which really does think it’s an actual little girl. There’s a great bit when her shrink tells her, “The real world is a lie and your nightmares are real.”
The more interesting twist comes from the existence of the Vashta Nerada, who came alive in the Library because all of the specially printed books were made of paper cut from the forests where the Nerada laid their eggs – meaning that each new book brought more spores into the Library. When the Doctor is trying to broker a deal with them to allow everyone to leave, the Nerada want to know why they shouldn’t just kill them. The Doctor’s response is to threaten them: “I’m the Doctor and you’re in the biggest library in the universe. Look me up.”
All in all, a really engaging two-parter that breaks the trend of most relaunch two-parters in that the second part doesn’t drag the overall story down. Why doesn’t this happen this time? Because Moffat lets the mystery deepen in the second half instead of just having everyone run around trying to solve the problem.