‘Doctor Who’ Tells the Kids to Get Off His Overgrown Lawn in “In the Forest of the Night”

By  · Published on October 26th, 2014

BBC America

As much as I like the suggestion that the next Doctor Who companion should be an older woman, namely Emma Thompson, there’s something that I’ve always liked about small children on the series. And as this week’s wonder-filled fairytale of an episode, “In the Forest of the Night,” shows us, the younger may be the better for 56-year-old Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor. It’s not just the increase in age difference but also the greater contrast in personality. Matt Smith’s version of the Doctor was rather kid-like himself, so when he first hung out with Amy Pond when she was only seven, eating fish sticks and custard, the two seemed like equals. Next to the more cantankerous Capaldi, though, little Maebh (Abigail Eames) is a bright antithesis to the Doctor.

This season has already given us the show’s youngest companion ever (I think – if we consider that original sidekick Susan Foreman was a Time Lord and therefore not really a teen and that Angie and Artie Maitland were just one-time guests joining their nanny) with 15-year-old Courtney (Ellis George) hopping aboard the TARDIS for a couple adventures, one of them alone with just the Doctor (that qualifies her as an official companion, right?). So why not go ahead and bring little Maebh for a ride (or 20) next? Probably because it’s difficult to justify carting not just a minor but a very small child into harm’s way without a more proper guardian. It’d be more likely that we’d see her character become a companion when she’s older, like how Amy and Clara (Jenna Coleman) met the Doctor as little kids first and then joined him later as young women.

At the very start of Doctor Who back in 1963, Susan’s youth (she was depicted as high school-aged but was played by a 23-year-old actress, Carole Ann Ford) was meant to provide younger audiences with an identifiable character, someone whom they could imagine taking the place of in their dreams. Her counterpart, the First Doctor (William Hartnell), was, like Capaldi, in the form of a man in his 50s. She was an audience surrogate while he was a grandfatherly type (in fact, he was her grandfather). It’s hard to think of the Twelfth Doctor as a grandfather, though. He’s more of the childless grumpy old man type, almost literally shouting “get off my lawn” when the episode’s other children are messing with the TARDIS console. And it’s hard to think of someone as young as Maebh being an audience surrogate, if only because there are so many of us older fans, too.

But kids make great gateway characters for adults as well as for children, particularly in science fiction and particularly when scripted by this episode’s writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce. Among his many credits, he’s the author and screenwriter of the Danny Boyle movie Millions, which similarly focuses on a child protagonist and similarly works as well for older audiences as younger. He also wrote the recent “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” sequel books and other notable and award-winning children’s fiction. He’s got a talent for writing for younger readers and viewers but he also does great grown-up fare, including many of Michael Winterbottom’s movies, and with Doctor Who he displays a perfect balance of his abilities.

Not that there’s much in “In the Forest of the Night” that’s specifically adult, but there are little moments between Clara and Danny (Samuel Anderson) and in the intro to Maebh’s mum (Siwan Morris) that make for various generational perspectives and themes. Cottrell Boyce doesn’t go for anything so heavy as abortion (“Kill the Moon”), and the anti-meds message might not even be intended as such, but he at least filled this installment with substance. There’s even historical reference in the form of the 1908 Tunguska event, which next to “Kill the Moon”’s claim that the Moon is just a space-dragon egg is a welcome sign of intelligent contextualization for the show, particularly with astronomical entities. Funny that maybe the smartest and most mature episode of Series 8 is the one centering on kids and fairytale motifs.

The end of the episode, like many for this show, is rather silly, but we could all find relief in the problem not actually being that Mother Nature was out to get us, a la M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. I’m not sure if the science of increased plant life forming a shield against solar flares is sound, but it certainly isn’t the least plausible-sounding resolution Doctor Who has ever thrown at us. Also regarding the ending, though, I don’t think we needed the appearance of the ever-mysterious Missy (Michelle Gomez) interrupting the conclusion with little apparent reason (unless she’s somehow behind the solar flares and was also behind the ones in “Time Heist”), especially since she’s all over the next episode’s preview. Also, the very last bit with Maebh’s sister showing up and getting the final shot was unclear and really just weird.

“In the Forest of the Night” is far from perfect, with another issue I have being that Maebh’s drawings significance is yet another reminder of 2006’s “Fear Her.” But there is so much else to love about the episode, including the way all the principal characters each get their chance at being a hero, whether in the form of being the smartest one in the forest at different times or physically saving the day with a flashlight in a tiger’s eyes. I also always love a good take on the “bigger on the inside” line, and the students’ not being impressed only adds to the Doctor’s contrast as the old codger who doesn’t get why the kids don’t appreciate antiquated things like impossibility. Again, if the Doctor is going to be so uncool and unfun and uncurious, especially compared to Smith’s incarnation, there’s plenty of good humor to be found in having him clash with children.

Hopefully this is neither the last we see of younger and younger supporting characters – if not Maebh with her ability to give voice to tiny firefly-type creatures, let’s have more of the imagination-less Ruby (BAFTA Award winner Harley Bird), or hey, let’s see an episode where the Doctor has to mind a toddler (you may be picking up on the fact that I like movies like Up, Kolya and Bad Santa – nor the last we get from Cottrell Boyce as a writer for the show.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.