This is incredibly late, considering the episode came out more than a few weeks ago now, but I’ve been rewatching Peter Capaldi’s first series of Doctor Who. The series in general is absolutely fantastic: Kill the Moon, Mummy on the Orient Express, and Flatline in particular are my highlights of the series. It featured a lot of character development for Clara through using the new Doctor’s unstable personality as a catalyst for change. It’s a brilliant series, probably up there with the third and sixth series for my favourite. One problem though: episode ten, In the Forest of the Night is so, so bad. Of course, this will contain spoilers so if you care at all about Doctor Who and haven’t seen the eighth series yet, I suggest you don’t read this.
In the Forest of the Night sees the entire world suddenly covered in a thick, dark forest for seemingly no reason. Companion to the Doctor, teacher Clara Oswald, and her boyfriend Danny Pink are taking a class of troubled children on a school trip when the forest appears. One child, Maebh Arden, is found by the Doctor when she turns up at the TARDIS separated from the rest of her class. It turns out she’d predicted the forest days before it actually happened, as well as a coming solar storm that would wipe out all life on earth. It’s made clear she has some mental health problems due to the traumatic event of her sister disappearing.
Clara, not wanting her pupils to be the last remaining humans alive by being saved by the Doctor, takes them all away and await their deaths. Luckily, however, the Doctor figures out what is going on. Maeve can psychically communicate with the trees, which have appeared to protect the earth from a coming disaster. Her mental health problems were not caused by her sister disappearing, but by her psychic abilities. And so the earth is saved, the trees were able to help protect from the solar storm, nobody dies and everyone lives happily ever. A nice happy end to an utter train wreck of an episode.
Firstly, and my more minor point: the way Clara behaves in this episode is completely the opposite to how she’s acted since she was introduced to the show. Clara was a nanny (twice, once in The Snowman and again from The Bells of Saint John onwards), she protected a child who was part of a religious ceremony in an alien system in The Rings of Akhaten, she convinced the Doctor to help Courtney Woods when he hurt in the events leading to Kill the Moon. Clara has consistently been shown to be caring of any children she meets, and yet in this episode she is always forgetting and ignoring the children she is meant to be protecting. Danny Pink, who I personally didn’t like for the entirety of the series, acted more like Clara than Clara did.
Rather than want the children to have a chance at life (which she showed she believes is important in Kill the Moon, choosing to risk the earth for the sake of one alien life), Clara decides to just give up and let the children die – she chooses burning to death over her pupils not having their parents. Being orphans is worse than being dead to Clara in this episode, even though Clara’s mother died when she was younger. This sudden decision is completely against Clara’s character. Flatline made me really like Clara’s character, In the Forest of the Night made me hate her.
My second point is more major: it really messes up how it portrays mental health in a way that is really, really damaging. As I mentioned, Maebh is in the class because she has some form of mental illness, triggered by the disappearance of her sister. In the earlier parts of the episode, references are made to her medication and how she needs them to function. Then the Doctor comes blundering in and tells a small girl to listen to the voices in her head because they’re telling the truth. Her voices were real. The Doctor telling a child to stop taking their medication can be dangerous. Children look up to the Doctor as a role model, him being fictional doesn’t change that. Coming off of medication for psychological illnesses can be very dangerous, and so this encouragement from him, and his belief of it just ‘shutting up’ people, just did not rest easy with me.
Maebh feels very similar to the old savant trope; a child with difficulties in some way actually has incredibly power. Rain man could read books incredibly quickly, Gary from Alphas was a walking computer, and Maebh is psychic and can talk to trees. This is an incredibly damaging trope because it creates this perception that anyone who is neurodivergent has some sort of power to ‘equalise’ it; savant syndrome is incredibly rare in the real world, yet it is incredibly over represented in the media.
Doctor Who has handled mental illnesses and learning difficulties incredibly well since Steven Moffat took over as head writer (for all the criticisms against his run as lead writer, this is one big positive.) The most notable of these is in the Eleventh Doctor story Vincent and the Doctor, which dealt with the subject of depression very maturely and responsibly. It didn’t shy away from discussing it, and it didn’t shy away from showing just how bad it could be. Another good example is in The Hungry Earth, a character named Elliot is frustrated by his own dyslexia – he can’t read or write. When the Doctor arrives and needs a map drawn, Elliot believes he can’t do it because of his difficulties. The Doctor replies that it doesn’t matter, and suggests drawing as opposed to writing. This was incredibly supportive; even when an unknown species is burrowing towards the surface, the Doctor was willing to work around Elliot’s difficulties.
In the Forest of the Night brazenly uses and abuses mental health as a plot subject (and then be willing to just throw the character away if Clara’s approach was accepted), it is a major step back in the themes and messages the Eleventh Doctor’s stories had. This was the only episode of Capaldi’s first series that I can say I actually hated, and put a major dampener on the series as a whole for me. Here’s hoping the next series doesn’t feature any episodes like it.