Clara and Danny are taking their gifted and talented students on an overnight trip to a museum, when they try to leave and discover London has been overtaken by trees. Not even scary trees like in “The Evil Dead” — regular trees.
Thus, the bulk of the episode involves them wandering around the forest, with the Doctor occasionally popping up like a puckish wood sprite, thinking what fools these mortals be. There’s a slightly psychic child with a missing sister, the deadliest game of “distract a cat with a laser pointer” ever and wolves that can climb over fences. Children, tigers and wolves, oh my! “In the Forest of Night” is full of fairytale references that are clearly designed to give an eerie “Into The Woods” feel, but literally the only way you could be scared during this episode is if you have a phobia of photosynthesis.
Our heroes and their pre-pubescent sidekicks getting chased by animals is the dramatic highlight of the episode. If there is a plot besides that, it’s as lost as they are. Eventually, it turns out that there’s about to be a massive solar flare and the trees are just protecting humanity — which begs the question about why they’re not taking over the world in an attempt to halt global warming — and then the trees all magically vanish.
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This is the plot of an award-winning primetime show that has been credited with reviving British Saturday night television, bridging the gap between children’s entertainment and something that’s actually good.
There’s the occasional gem — the Doctor’s dig at “Les Misérables,” the way Peter Capaldi pronounces “Les Misérables” — but overall this episode is an embarrassment even for a series that’s had its rough moments. The children are fairly lackluster, although Ruby (who clearly thinks she’s in a sci-fi version of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”) is delightful; Clara’s reveal that the motley juvenile crew are neither gifted nor talented — “I just tell them that to make them feel important” — was heartbreaking and a reminder of just how good this episode could have been. A group of at-risk kids teaming up to save the world? That’s bread and butter to this show.
Instead, they get a front row seat to the Clara, Danny and Doctor show, and slouch on the sidelines the rest of the time. And even the Clara, Danny and Doctor show isn’t interesting; Danny’s reaction — sort of annoyed, sort of not — made us long for the days of Rory’s not-entirely-misplaced jealousy.
There is no explanation provided for why Mystic Maebh’s sister ran away from home but if I was faced with appearing in this episode, my bags would be packed before you could say “no, that really was just an hour about trees.”
But on the bright side, the trailer for next week’s episode, the first in a two-part finale that sees a return of the Cybermen, UNIT and Osgood’s inhaler, looks like “Doctor Who” at its thrilling, terrifying best. Not only will we get an explanation for Missy, but Kate Stewart will be brilliant and posh and boss UNIT around, and Clara looks like she’s going to show Capaldi how you really show a well-loved character’s dark side.