Previously on Doctor Who, ‘Flatline’
Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
I must admit, after seeing the preview from last week in which a child dressed as Red Riding Hood runs through the forest, I wasn’t looking forward to this week. In my mind, either it was going to be too innocent or utterly horrifying… Torchwood’s “Children of the Earth” comes to mind. On the other hand, the title caught my fancy—”Forest of the Dead” is my favorite Who—and while this episode was not nearly that caliber, it was still interesting to see the trees, which previously inspired fear due to the Vashta Nerada, become heroes thanks to the Here. Let’s review.
After chaperoning a class sleepover at the Natural History Museum, Danny and Clara find the door jammed by a sudden forest that has sprouted up overnight, all over the world. Clara calls The Doctor with “something amazing to show him” but he already knows—one of the kids, Maebh Arden, had run off and, thanks to the voices/possibly Miss Oswald/definitely not the PE-Maths teacher Mr Pink telling her to look for the Doctor, is on the TARDIS now. The ever-pedantic Danny can’t believe Clara called him… and… really? “Who do you want to talk to, Monty Don?” she says. Exactly. (Monty Don is host of BBC’s Gardener’s World for my fellow Yanks.)
Danny starts plowing through the forest like the pragmatic soldier he is, determined to get the kids home. The Doctor can’t get any readings because they really are just trees and don’t communicate. Maebh’s Child Wisdom: “They communicate a bit though, otherwise how would they all grow at the same time, would they?” “So what,” he says, “you think that’s how spring begins? With a group message on tree Facebook?” Hee.
Meeting up with the rest, the Doctor first explains that the earth changes in a series of catastrophes, then realizes that trees are like a time machine—to create this “Global Afforestation” involves the manipulation of time. All the kids file into the TARDIS… all except Maebh, who’s once again wandered out into the forest unnoticed by The Worst Teachers EVER, which they discover when they find her homework books with some interesting illustrations. Ever since her sister ran away, Maebh’s heard voices; to the Doctor, that means she’s tuned to a different “channel.” He runs out after her, but before Clara can run after him, Danny notes her jumping into action after supposedly not being in contact for months. Mhm. The kids, likewise, are super nonchalant about the TARDIS. A forest popped up overnight, after all. And being the gifted and talented class, they have to touch everrrryyythingggg. Accurate.
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After 5 minutes, the kids are BORED like they’re in an Old Folks Space Home and pile out of the TARDIS. The Token Ginger of Truthiness, Ruby, dresses Danny down about letting Clara go off with a “Randomer” into the forest and now she could totally die die DIE!
A totally normal thought, according to the Randomer and Clara, who alternately yell for Maebh and reel off forest-related fairy tales. “The forest,” he says, “is mankind’s nightmare.” He certainly is going off quite a bit this season about nightmare origins, isn’t he? Maebh runs into a burn crew from the city but the trees are strangely fire retardant. One of her drawings shows a massive solar flare headed for the earth, exactly like the one that destroyed the Bank of Karabraxos, dated for today. People who have lost someone, the Doctor explains, are always looking for hope, always listening. And so they hear more than most.
Meanwhile, the wolves have broken out of the zoo and are hunting Maebh, who runs screaming to a fence. Luckily the Doctor and Clara are on the other side of the fence but you know who isn’t? A tiger. A tiger that Danny scares away by flashing a light at it like he does that every day. Okay, I’m calling it right now: Danny is Dick Grayson. He traveled with the circus until the mafia killed his family and now he’s teaching until the Dark Knight rides again. Amirite?
Anyway, as Maebh waves her hands around, the Doctor begs her to tell him what she’s hearing. She runs to a hollow full of spiderwebs, thinking she’s responsible because of the thoughts that come to her, but she’s not. The Doctor turns up the gravity with the sonic screwdriver… and there they are. No, not Shelob and Aragog, tiny swarming lights. And they begin to speak through her, because legion-channeling children are pretty much the creepiest things ever.
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They are the Here, the slivers of life that inhabit everything, and they come when they’re called. The Here are literally so old that they don’t know of or care about the Doctor: the sun called them. “We were here before you and we will be here after you,” they tone, releasing the child. The Doctor and Clara realize with horror that this combination of events could erase all the futures of earth, so Clara sets her jaw and heads for the TARDIS, determined to save who she can.
With military cadence, Danny leads the group back to the vine-covered time machine. The kids take selfies, juxtaposing the conversation happening over their shoulders. Clara tells the Doctor that this isn’t to save the children, because they’ll never stop wanting their mom and dad. It isn’t to save Danny, because he’ll never leave the children. And it isn’t to save her, because she doesn’t want to be the last of her kind. It’s to save him so he can keep saving others. “This is my world too,” he protests, “I breathe your air.” “And on behalf of this world, you’re very welcome,” she replies. He’s speechless as she sadly walks away, leading the crew home.
The Doctor watches the solar flare grow larger and closer on the monitor, when it suddenly occurs to him—flameproof forest. “I am Doctor Idiot!” he exclaims. Calling the class back to the TARDIS, he explains: massive solar flares have already hit earth before and should’ve destroyed all life, but they didn’t. Why? Trees filling the atmosphere with oxygen like a giant airbag. Here they were trying to save the earth but it was saving itself. Of course there is that tiny detail about the government prepping to defoliate them worldwide for removal. “What is it with you people?!” the Doctor yells. Time for that world-wide phone tree again.
Maebh dictates the children’s message: “Essential services have been disrupted due to an unexpected forest. We’d like to reassure you that the situation will be rectified very soon. Please don’t be scared. And please don’t chop, spray or harm the trees. They’re here to help. Be less scared. Be more trusting. Oh, and Annabel Arden, please come home.”
The Doctor offers to let them see the solar event close up but Maebh wants her mom… and so do all the other kids. Danny says he’s all good—this life is enough because he almost lost it in the war. But he does call her on the dated homework he found on the TARDIS, sending her to think about it before telling him the truth about her lying lies.
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From the TARDIS hanging in space, Clara and the Doctor observe the solar flare pour over the earth, the trees harvesting the solar energy. Then, on Clara’s balcony, they watch the Here release the trees from their roots, all the bits of light rising up and dissipating. How could she ever forget this? “You forgot the last time,” he says. “You remembered the fear and you put it into fairy stories. The human superpower of forgetting. If you remembered how things felt, you’d have stopped having wars. You’d have stopped having babies.”
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Finally Maebh and her mother reach their home, and the neighbor’s overgrown hydrangeas dissolve into light… revealing her sister Annabel. Missy, too, was watching. She likes surprises.
Interesting messages pervading this season. As in “Kill the Moon,” the Doctor did nothing and encouraged everyone to do nothing as well. He simply stepped out of the way for ancient beings of nature to do what they do. Life prevails.
Next time: Missy! Cybermen! EvilClara!