They Aren’t the Villains This Time, Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night, Reviews, 26/10/2014

It took me a while to get around to seeing it this time, but In the Forest of the Night was well worth the wait. It was a remarkable Doctor Who story, not just because it finally had a child cast written by someone who actually knows how to write children properly. Myself, I’m a pretty big egomaniac when it comes to my own writing talents, but one task that I definitely have no idea how to do is write a child well. 

Danny Pink does a proper job of thinking of the children.
I know how to write a child badly. One way is to make them an idiot. Another is to make them so precocious that you want to smash their favourite toy just to laugh while they cry. Children don’t have quite the same singularity as adults because they haven’t yet learned how to speak with subtext yet. I think this is why real-life adolescents are especially insufferable; they’ve started incorporating multiple meanings into their speech, but are still largely terrible at it, so I cringe at their poor performance at covering up how horrible they are.

Children, on the other hand, have a special way of bullshitting that’s almost an anti-cover-up, as in a brief little comedy flashback when Danny and Clara discuss how remarkable it is that their students are not being twats in this very strange situation of a forest that’s grown up in the middle of London overnight. When Danny draws a triangle on a whiteboard, indicates an angle with an X and asks Ruby (appropriately cast as a ginger), she tells him that it’s right there at the top of the triangle on the board.

“But what’s its value, Ruby?” asks Mr. Pink.

“Why are you always asking me, sir?” pleads Ruby.

Frank Cottrell Boyce clearly knows how to write children, and I think he should be the go-to writer whenever Doctor Who needs any character under age 12. He’s written both the novel and the screenplay of Millions, as well as three sequels to the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang children’s novel that have actually been artistically successful. It’s a rare feat. 

But aside from his ability to craft multiple child characters in a single story who are not only non-obnoxious but also genuinely interesting, Boyce has made a wonderfully hopeful ecological fable in Doctor Who, which,


aside, is both a fantastically insightful tale as well as being fantastically naive. I’m on something of a home field here, as I wrote an entire doctoral thesis (under consideration for formal publication) on ecological philosophy. I describe it this way, and not as environmental ethics, because the scope of my Ecophilosophy manuscript is actually broad enough to constitute a complete philosophical perspective on how human society can adapt ecological principles to its structure and daily habits. 

In academic philosophy, writing on the environment means writing environmental moral philosophy, applying the existing moral theories of the philosophical tradition to questions of how to deal with human industry and environmental protection. There are moral principles in my Ecophilosophy manuscript, but the main thrust is adapting principles from the ecological and biological sciences (following the lead of several writers who had done so already) into the framework of the philosophical tradition to build a framework of human nature and self-conception that would result in ecologically sustainable habits on a personal and civilizational scale. 

Another theme I like this season is how frequently the
Doctor has been interacting with children, foregrounding
his importance as a mythical children's hero, even in a
season whose stories have a much more adult sensibility
thanks to their horror content.
In the Forest of the Night is about a forest that appears worldwide overnight, and the narrative follows the Doctor, Clara, Danny, a very special child named Maebh, and the rest of the gifted class from Coal Hill School figuring out what precisely is going on. Eventually, they’re able to figure out that the voices Maebh hears isn’t genuinely a sign of mental abnormality, but a burgeoning telepathic ability.*

* Some of the comments at Phil Sandifer’s review of this episode get into the controversy that the story seems to actively discourage children with mental illnesses from taking their medication. I don’t know what it’s like in Britain, but it’s common in North America to give heavy sedatives to two-year-olds to control hyperactivity. The last couple of generations of children are, if anything, over-medicated to the point of worn-out teachers, overbooked doctors, and overworked parents making them drug addicts before the start of puberty. Doctor Who is a modern myth for our society, through which we deal with major social questions through allegory. This was largely an ecological story, but we can have a behavioural-pharmacological theme running under it as well (if any show can have two allegories running under it, it’s one where the lead has two hearts ;) ). I had behavioural difficulties of my own as a child, particularly a short temper that would lash out whenever I felt afraid, and being very easily frightened that other people were going to hurt me. My mother had the good sense to avoid following the orders of doctors whose first instinct was to reach for their prescription pad before even meeting me. My problems were better solved with cognitive behavioural therapy to improve my consciousness of my own desires, urges, and thought processes. That, however, took the time and effort of a caring and sensitive child psychiatrist, which is too often too much for anyone to commit to.

This telepathic ability is that Maebh can communicate with trees. In the mythical context in which the imagery of the story places us, this is the ability to communicate with the world of faerie. But in the more scientific context in which I understand our mythical narratives, she can literally communicate with trees. 

After all, Doctor Who has always been about awakening
children to the wonders of the strange, so that we never
rest content with a world that feels familiar to us. If we're
never afraid of what's different, we'll be open to
understanding the alien, an epistemic issue on which
the future of our species could very well depend, and . . .
Wait, did I get the wrong picture again? Well, at least
this mistake was easier to make.
Our era’s ecological crisis is, in a fashion, a failure to communicate, or rather a failure to understand the ubiquity of communication. If I can be extremely quick in this argument, one of the ideas I dealt with in my Ecophilosophy manuscript was an underlying principle of systems theory. The mathematical models of systems theory are excellent at describing ecological relationships, because ecological processes are the interactions of multiple overlapping feedback loops at a variety of scales, all affecting each other in unique ways. 

However, the only things that can move back and forth between bodies in systems theoretical models are affects, and the influential philosopher of systems theory, Niklas Luhmann, therefore concluded that there is no true communication among bodies. This is because affects can have no content, only form, that form being a pattern of disruption across various media.**

** I should give props to a wonderful essay by Carey Wolfe for explaining this notion quite clearly, and connecting it with core themes of nihilistic post-modernism that are essential to the early work of Jacques Derrida. I disagree with it completely in the larger sense, but this only helped me solidify my own interpretation of the general post-modern paradigm, as a split between the hopeless nihilism of Derrida and the joyful perspective of Gilles Deleuze.

However, as anyone familiar with information theory or the most profound ideas in contemporary philosophy of language can tell you, form IS content. To communicate is to send a particular pattern of fluctuations across some medium, and have it transition to another medium while keeping the pattern intact. Thought or language is the recognition and interpretation of such patterns. A given pattern doesn’t have content or not in itself alone; it has content if an interpreter of that pattern can make sense of it. So content emerges from the relation of interpreters and media. 

The core lesson of In the Forest of the Night is that we
shouldn't run from what's strange and frightening (no
matter how central running is to Doctor Who), because
listening to what is beyond our knowledge and learning to
understand it could save our lives.
The core human mistake we’ve made that got us into this ecological crisis is that too many of us only know how to understand human language, and every other kind of pattern transmission among bodies, we take to be a mere affect. The Doctor begins to solve the problem of In the Forest of the Night when he realizes that Maebh can understand the patterns transmitted among plants. In the scene in the glowing glen, the Doctor is able to translate the plants’ patterns into human speech.

If only it were that easy to understand the lives of all the other organisms and ecosystems on our planet, we’d live in a much more harmonious, clean, and just world. 

Humanity is lucky In the Forest of the Night, because this time, the trees are here to save our ecosystems from dangerous solar activity. The sun brings life, because it supplies Earth with the energy to produce metabolisms and ecosystems, but it brings death because it’s also an enormous ball of nuclear fusion explosions. The trees are giving us a chance not to destroy our own world with our stupid, short-sighted thinking that can't understand ecological relationships, as when David Cameron orders all the trees burned down instead of trying to understand what happened.

And we forget because we humans are stupid, and so few of us know how to communicate with anything but what’s already just like us. It’s hard enough to get people to learn a second human language, let alone speak with trees. Communication is simply finding new ways to understand all the transmissions that surround us all the time. 

As the Doctor says, if we remembered that, there would be no war and no injustice. But we forget to probe what we can do, and instead rest stupidly content with what we already know, as if that’s all that’s worth knowing.

In the Forest of the Night. A classic.

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