We’re heading into the final stretch of the season, with only the two-part finale to go after this episode. (Very sad.) Then the long, miserable stretch from Nov. 8 to Christmas with no new Doctor Who episode. (Also very sad.) In the meanwhile, however, we have “In the Forest of the Night” to contend with.
Trying to reach London, the Doctor opens the TARDIS doors to find himself in a forest. A young girl, Maebh, in a red coat knocks on the door and asks for help, and the TARDIS assures the Doctor that he has landed in central London. Meanwhile, Clara and Danny are chaperoning young Coal Hill School students - the “gifted and talented” group, though that’s clearly a euphemism - in an overnight stay at the Natural History Museum. The next morning they open the museum doors to find the same forest. When they realize that Maebh is not with them, they set out to search for her. Naturally, they encounter the Doctor.
With the gang all together, the Doctor tries to understand what caused the forest to appear so suddenly. After a few false starts, and a small chat with the forest, he correctly deduces that a huge solar flare is about to occur, which would wipe out life on Earth. The mystical forest, however, which is impervious to fire, has provided a protective cover for the planet, just as it has done on previous occasions. The children join the Doctor in the TARDIS to send a message across the planet not to harm the trees - in London, the authorities are about to use an exfoliant after the controlled burn failed - and the day is saved.
This episode is clearly in the “fairy tale” classification of Doctor Who stories, from the little girl in the red coat, lost in the forest (Little Red Riding Hood), to her later dropping objects in the forest to lay out a trail (Hansel and Gretel), to the use of the forest as a dark, mysterious, mystical place (any number of fairy tales). Sometimes that works - I thought it worked in “Time of the Doctor” - and sometimes it doesn’t. “In the Forest of the Night” was a less-successful example, in part because having small children on screen for most of the episode is a sure-fire way to kill a story (see “Nightmare in Silver,” “Fear Her,” and “Kill the Moon” while Courtney is on screen), in part because of the heavy-handed environmental message (“trees are our friends, so don’t hurt our friends”), and in part because of the absurd sappy ending tacked onto the episode (Maebh’s missing sister turns up out of the blue at the end).
When Danny, Clara, and the children find the Doctor, Clara has an odd trust that the Doctor will simply figure out what’s going on and solve the problem. She seemed out of character in that scene. Later in the episode, Clara seems all too eager to abandon her charges and go with the Doctor, until Danny reminds her that she has a responsibility for the children’s safety. That scene is no doubt meant to illustrate how traveling with the Doctor has changed Clara - she enjoys and even needs the adventure, while Danny is content to be a math teacher - but seemed odd. Even odder was the scene when the Doctor believes he can’t stop the solar flare from destroying life on Earth. He says he can’t save humanity, but he can save the Coal Hill School children, along with Clara and Danny. Clara rejects that idea, saying that the children would be sad if their parents all died and they didn’t, and thus, in her belief at least, she condemns the children to die. Seems like an unusual choice, to say the least.
The episode did have some good moments. Echoing “Kill the Moon,” the Doctor tells Clara, “This is my world too. I walk your earth, I breathe your air,” and, in contrast with the earlier episode, he doesn’t abandon humanity. When Clara rejects leaving in the TARDIS, and the Doctor doesn’t understand why, she says, “Don’t make me say it. I don’t want to be the last of my kind,” having seen what that has done to the Doctor. And in a comical moment, the Doctor and Clara peek out of the door of the TARDIS as the solar flare engulfs the Earth, after the Doctor has worked out that the forest will save the planet. Looking down at Earth, he tells her, “I hope I’m right. Be slightly awkward if the world was destroyed at this point."
The episode is by no means bad, much less unwatchable. Capaldi’s Doctor and Coleman’s Clara Oswald are always a joy to watch, and seeing the Doctor puzzle out the situation was fun. In a weak season, this would have been a better-than-average episode. In what’s been an amazing season so far, however, the episode falls a little short by comparison.