Sunday, October 26, 2014

In the Forest of the Night - "There are wonders here."

In the Forest of the Night - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 8, Story 10 (Overall Series Story #255) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via Beat That For a Date

If last week celebrated Banksy, this week, we knew we were in for at least a bit of a cap tip to William Blake when we saw the previews, which included a tiger, and put it all together with the title.

THE TYGER (from Songs Of Experience)
     By William Blake 
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Here's the thing, I'm no Blake scholar, and I'm liable to come precariously close to sounding a fool trying to put the pieces together, but here goes. If it were only the title, and there were no other links to Blake or his works, then we'd say "In the Forest of the Night" was a cap tip and nothing more. But Clara and the Doctor encounter a tiger in the forest. And there's the Doctor's monologue about an acorn planted in 1795. (Because I went googling around trying to brush up in advance of this episode, I had 1794 in mind as the publication date of Songs of Innocence and Experience.) That acorn in 1795 being the tree in the middle of London in the present, in time to save the Earth, and that tree being a sort of time traveler by having a little bit of 1795 in it ... that's, effectively, Doctor Who arguing for saving the world by looking to William Blake. As sure as I'm only nibbling around the edges of the significance, I've a pretty fair idea where to turn for guidance ... and where not to *koff* reddit.

Sure enough, as much as the vast bulk of fandom seems to have loathed this story, our man Dr. Sandifer thought it fantastic. I've done the whinging about the science, recently, and over time where the classic series went apeshit bungling it, but what Doctor Who is doing these days, and especially this week, is something completely different from science fiction -- this is not extrapolating from current knowledge and theory to some future we can use to look more deeply at our lives, our society now. This is science fantasy (and maybe just fantasy), pulling from old myths to tell a fable. All that fairy tale stuff that was getting to be a bit much when Eleven was our Doctor, it's never gone away, and the fairy (or faerie) is very much at the heart of this story's plea that humanity be less fearful and more trusting.

One of the other connections to Blake, and one I couldn't have made without reading around, was that Blake's writings were inspired his visions and voices he heard. In the story, we've got Maebh hearing voices, and (sonic screwdriver wavey-wandy) receiving a vision in a clearing in the forest. Give her her tablets so she stops hearing the voices, that's how everyone -- save the Doctor -- responds to her. But we're forced to compare her to Blake here and wonder, would the world have been better off if Blake had been treated by the physicians of his day to quiet the voices he heard?

Now, here's where I worry about DW possibly getting in over its head. In some cases, we do want to help people not hear voices the rest of us don't hear. Whether they are able to articulate a plea for help or not, when the voices tell people to harm themselves or others, I'm not against society saying that person needs the best available help we can offer to prevent harm. A facile reading of this story might yield the conclusion we shouldn't treat mental disorders. I'm not sure that's the correct reading; if it is, I'm inclined to say that's not a tenable position. Acknowledging we're not very good at it, we should at least try be trying to get better.

Time and again while writing these posts, I've lauded those stories where we're reminded to have brave hearts, to approach the world with compassion and trust. This story is clearly, explicitly, and in full knowledge of its agenda, saying that this is what Doctor Who is, this is why the story is being told: To save us from the fearful side of our nature so we don't destroy ourselves and the world.

It may not seem like it, but I don't only write about Doctor Who on this blog. One of the other great influences on my imaginative life is the collected work of Kim Stanley Robinson. Apart from writing brilliant novels and stories, Mr. Robinson makes some fairly pointed arguments in interviews and in his public speaking. One of the arguments he makes frequently is about our future on Earth -- and it may seem to be in stark contrast to the visions of the future he puts to paper: he acknowledges that our technology almost certainly will continue to make tremendous, rapid progress, but the constraints of the laws of the physics, confine humanity to our solar system. Forever. And, within our solar system, there is no other planet on which we can expect to live and thrive apart from the one we're on.

When he writes about terraforming Mars, he's writing science fiction. It's sci-fi with a useful lens to turn towards our activities on Earth. We are terraforming the Earth, but we are doing so in a way that it is going to render it hostile to our continued existence because we refuse to grow up and deal with the effects of human-driven climate change. We must find a way to deliberately, reasonably, shape our society (our governments' policies, our lives) so that we can continue to live on Earth. I'm straining here to draw two parallels between disparate styles of storytelling, two narratives that are informed by different ways of looking at history and storytelling, and offering two different (but, crucially, not incompatible) solutions. Stan's embraces the scientific method, suggest we act based on reason, conduct experiments, be bold in the quest for solutions, but remain clear-eyed and honest with ourselves about what it's going to take to effect change. Doctor Who is asking us to embrace a more imaginative, fantastical worldview and to live bravely with each other's mad genius, to trust one another to do what's best. I see one trying to open our minds so our hearts can be guided with wisdom, the other trying to embolden our hearts, so when we find the wisdom, we're ready to pursue the path it shows us.

So the question is, does Doctor Who do the latter well? I take it as a premise that the ends are good, so the question is about the means. Do these sorts of fairy tale inspired stories, un-moored from science fiction and the usual rigors the genre entails, fit the aim of the story? And, if we say they do, are the elements of the story put together coherently, executed well enough to lead the viewer down the path the storyteller intends to take us?

Yes, I think stories like "Kill the Moon" and this one using storytelling techniques that suit the moral of the stories. It's in the execution that the stumbles occur. But, they're stumbles don't take us off the path. TV as a story-telling medium has been around long enough that we've gotten pretty good, as viewers, at identifying when constraints of format and budget have forced attempts at hand-waving keep the narrative on track, and under the 45 or so minutes allotted. That's not to excuse them, only to say certain flaws are understandable.

The haters are getting this one wrong though. They're missing the thematic forest for the problems with the trees. And, yes, there are problems with the trees. Conceded. The science of trees springing up to protect the world from a solar flare, then disappearing in puff of fireflies is, of course, no science at all. And if you're trying to put it in that box, then of course it's not going to fit. We don't criticize fantasy literature for using magic; criticizing DW for magicking up the science is misunderstanding what mode of storytelling it is using and applying the wrong standards to judging it. Or, they're getting it and dismissing the thematic elements as inadequate. But if you opine that this was the worst Doctor Who story since "Fear Her," without so much as mentioning Blake in the reasons for your assessment, then I'm afraid you haven't tried hard enough.

(Oh, and there's another reference that clicked on third watch which I haven't seen anyone else mention yet, but I think firmly cements this as a faerie story. Maebh Arden sounds like a name that means something, one chosen for a reason, but the pronunciation obscured what I now think was. Mercutio's speech in Romeo and Juliet: "O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you ..." Maebh is a variant of the Irish name Medb, which I've seen as possible source of Shakespeare's naming of his faerie Queen Mab, who has the power to craft dreams for sleeping humans. A forest popping up and covering the world, filled with wolves and tigers, and little girls in red jackets running from those wolves, who are in turn running from a tiger, feels very much like a sort of dream logic. Maebh is the key to this story, the one who delivers the message to humanity that the trees, of which she had first dreamt, must be preserved. Now, the last name I'm not able to place, but I hear Arden and think of the Ardennes, the site of WWI and II battles in the forests of Belgium where the British Empire sent tens of thousands of men to die.)

Having just finished reading Master & Commander, I've had at least some exposure to how Admiral Nelson fits in the British psyche. The statue that the forest tumbles, nearly crushing the Doctor and Clara, that's of Nelson, who died in the Battle of Trafalgar, for which the square is named. Wonder why the camera panned down to show the statues left arm broken off? Nelson lost an arm in a naval battle. It may not speak to the international audience quite so directly, but I expect this was picked up on by the British audience and resonated in a way it simply couldn't for us outside England.

Got to admit I thought it was an odd decision to let the camera drift down and linger on the statue's broken arm on first watch, it wasn't until I decided it must have been done for a reason that I went to check on why. But that's back to my point that I find so much of the lambasting this episode has taken frustrating, because so much of it is so glib. It's so obvious, the redditors moan, this is a terrible episode. But reasons either aren't offered, or when offered are often either wrong (the Doctor didn't "do nothing," as so many have complained -- now whether setting Maebh up to make the call to the whole world worked dramatically or not, that's fair to criticize, but I think we were supposed to imagine the planned defoliation campaign would have undercut the trees' ability to absorb the shock of the solar flare), or focused more on ticky-tack complaints that don't bear the weight of the condemnation. Child actors are what they are. Some are better than others. This lot are not the worst I've ever seen. Nor are they the best. Maebh's arm-waving while running looked, well, like a child actor told to wave her arms around while running, not like she was trying to brush away little faeries she didn't understand. But, I don't blame the young actress for that. A better to film that should have been found, perhaps by showing us her perspective and cutting it against what everyone else saw?

The harshest critics of "In the Forest of the Night," based on what I've seen (again, that's mostly on reddit or at gallifreybase) aren't demonstrating that they've tried to dig in to why the story has tried to weave Blake, faerie elements, and an apparent tearing down of the idols of Empire, into story based on dream logic. "There wasn't enough technobabble to make the trees scientifically plausible," strikes me as saying the same thing as, "We weren't spoon fed enough of the story that we could make any sense of it by simply recalling trivia from past episodes."

Not all the criticism can be easily dismissed, I don't mean to imply that, only that the hatred of this episode doesn't look like it tried very hard to find meaning in the symbols, or address the mode of story telling as appropriate or not for the moral.

One thing we all seem to agree on though ... how about that preview for next week?!

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