Well, that was a little bit disappointing. I still think Steven Moffat is the best writer for the new version of Doctor Who, the BBC's action-comedy about an eccentric time traveler. But after watching the second part of Moffat's haunted-library two-parter, I have a fuller understanding of exactly what people are talking about when they say Moffat's work shows some weird issues with women. (Even though he created the awesome Sally Sparrow.) At least, "The Forest Of The Dead" was chock full of woman-related weirdness, as this clip illustrates. Spoilers ahead.
Okay, so what on earth is actually going on in this clip? First we have Donna, who's been turned into a total pile of mush by two utterly generic children — children who are so generic, they literally are copies of every other child in the world. And yet Donna's so attached to them that even after the truth is proved to her in the universe's most incontrovertible, she still won't believe it. What is going on with that? I was waiting, through the whole episode, for Donna to have a moment of awesomeness where she not only accepted her situation, she also discovered a way out. Or at least found a way to make a difference. Instead, she just gets rescued. Bah.
The other participant in the scene, of course, is Miss Evangelista, who is comically ugly. Last week, she was incredibly beautiful (and wearing 10,000 times too much makeup) and so stupid she kept mistaking the escape pod for a toilet. I sort of rolled my eyes at the sexist caricature, but assumed she was just a throwaway character, or else Moffat was going somewhere with it. Like she was just pretending to be stupid. But then we get this — she becomes a super-mega-genius, but at the cost of her looks. Because you can't be pretty and smart. It's Asimov's law. Worst of all, Miss Evangelista intones some mock-Victorian rubbish about how you can only see the truth if you're unloved. She's in a virtual world. Can't she look like whatever she wants, or whatever the computer wants her to look like? Isn't any "love" inside the virtual world just an illusion? Why didn't Doctor Moon give Miss Evangelista her own fake husband anyway?
The other major female character in "Forest Of The Dead," meanwhile, is River Song, the Doctor's old friend whom he's never met. And I still really, really like her and hope we get to see her again. But I did start to have some misgivings. Mostly about her ending, actually. First she sacrifices her life in the most contrived and cliched way possible, the same way Sergey Brin sacrificed himself a few episodes ago (thumping the Doctor and taking his place.) I wasn't really clear on why someone needed to sacrifice his/her life anyway, because the script suddenly got very techno-babbly. And then it turns out she's not really dead, because the Doctor's future self left an escape hatch. Instead, she can be resurrected inside the world's most boring virtual reality scenario, trapped forever with the crewmates she showed no sign of liking earlier. And she gets to look after the little girl whose brain is hooked up to the computer, plus the two generic children that Donna was mothering earlier.
Let's just unpack that for a sec: She's stuck mothering three little kids, two of whom are basically scraps of junk code and none of whom will ever age — forever. This is what the Doctor came up with for her? He had hundreds of years to figure out a way to save her from frying her brain, and this is the best he could come up with? I think the words "fate worse than death" floated into my brain at some point. But at least she's not ugly, so it's fine. Oh, and hey — Miss Evangelista's suddenly not ugly any more either! Happy ending!
I only have one more criticism before I mention some things I actually liked about the episode — and I liked a lot about it, really. I mentioned last week that a lot of the story elements felt a bit similar to previous forays into the Moffat-verse. For example, I had an inkling that the whole thing about people's conscoiusnesses being stored, and the missing people being "saved," would turn out to be similar to the way the medicinal nano-genes in "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" turned out to be the key to the whole gasmask mutation, and to saving everybody. I figured it might wind up being a bit similar, but I wasn't expecting an actual repeat of the "Everybody lives!" line from "The Doctor Dances." Not once, but several times. It's a bit worrying for 2010, when Moffat takes over as the head writer for Doctor Who, if he's already repeating himself like poor old Proper Dave.
But oh yeah, before I get devoured in seconds by a swarm of angry shadows, I should mention what I actually did like about the episode. I liked, once again, the hints about the Doctor's future and how awe-inspiring he's going to be. (Although I hope we never actually see that version of the Doctor, since his adventures might be quite boring.)
I was definitely intrigued by the mystery about the Doctor's real name, and what were the only circumstances under which the Doctor could share it with another sentient. I'm assuming it's a sound that a human mouth can make, so is there a reason it's hard to say except under controlled conditions? Also, why is his name so special? (Were Borusa, Spandrell, Kelner, Romanadvoratrelundar, etc., those people's real names, or not?) Anyway, it was intriguing.
And I felt like this episode was sort of groping towards a really interesting metaphor — the library is supposed to be the sum of all human knowledge, but more than that, it's supposed to be all our stories. And yet the physical medium on which those stories are reproduced lets us down. You can print them on paper books, but then they get infected with evil shadows and stuff. (Or in the case of the little used bookstore near my house, actual weird-smelling mold.) You can store them digitally, but you run into storage problems — which is why Donna's "fictional" children are so rubbish. The only way for stories to stay vital is for living people to keep telling them. Or maybe I'm just pulling that out of nowhere. Anyway, I was on the edge of my seat for large parts of this episode because I felt like the library planet, and the books, and the shadows, and the virtual reality, and the creepy Doctor Moon, and the fake kids, would all connect up in some brilliant way. They didn't, quite, but they managed to feel like they at least belonged in the same story, which is pretty great.
Bottom line: I enjoyed it a lot, but the weird stuff with Donna and Miss Evangelista (and River Song's truly bizarre "happy ending") marred it a bit for me. Plus, Moffat is showing dangerous signs of running out of gimmicks. But it was still an engaging and entertaining romp, and it made me curious about the Doctor for the first time since mid-season one. And I'm still (somewhat cautiously) excited to see what Moffat does with the show when he's got the magic show-controlling gloves on. What did you think?