A debate occasionally arises between people who excoriate Doctor Who for not being “real” science fiction and those who argue that it’s meant to be science fantasy. Steven Moffat’s episodes take the science fantasy argument a step further: he writes science fairy tales. “Forest of the Dead” is the clearest example of this yet, as people surrounded by books read us fairy tales about a character called the Doctor–and we all know how much bad stuff goes down in fairy tale forests, don’t we?
Moffat’s science fairy tales hearken back to the grim (and Grimm) yarns that tend to have sad endings. Even though Moffat doesn’t kill characters in his stories (it’s true–“everybody lives!” in “The Doctor Dances,” and other characters die of natural causes), the stories themselves are often sad. This one is no exception–Donna lives a fairy tale life that grants her everything she ever wanted, but she ends up losing every real thing she built there. The Doctor loses someone who knows his name, and timey-wimey stuff means that every time he runs with River in the future, Dr. Moon’s “and then you remembered” will be the scary thing waiting in the shadows. It’s lovely that River gets her sparkly princess gown (because who doesn’t want one of those?), but she and her crew are still mostly dead and lost to the rest of us forever. If “I’m all right” really is special Time Lord code for “really not all right at all,” then I’m with Donna on this one.
There’s magic all over the place, too, as there often is in fairy tales. There are magic words that change everything. The little girl who turns out to be CAL has a magic wand that makes things disappear–it looks a lot like a remote control. The Doctor can magically open doors with a mere snap of his fingers (although I do have to wonder if that’s just the TARDIS letting him win one after a hard day). People shapeshift and transform like they do in fairy tales: the Doctor isn’t yet what he will be; Miss Evangelista is no longer stupid and pretty; the Vashta Nerada are using Anita; Donna’s been dieting with a body that isn’t really hers. It makes you wonder–did the Frog Prince ever count calories? Did the Beast ever work out? Is it worth bothering when magic has ensured your body isn’t really yours?
And all of this forest magic is just as it should be in a story where a little girl is snatched from death and given dreams instead. Charlotte Abigail Lux is Sleeping Beauty, she’s Snow White, only instead of just sleep, she has every story in the world to dream and a moon to watch over her. Even better, this is a Doctor Who science fairy tale, which means CAL doesn’t just sleep and dream–she saves the world while she’s at it, because that’s what people on this show do: they hold on and try and do their best, and then the Doctor comes along and helps them become bigger on the inside so they can save the world together.
Because Steven Moffat is, well Steven Moffat, he can’t help but mess with structure a bit. Classic fairy tales are coming-of-age stories, and parents have to be removed from the picture to introduce conflict and allow the protagonist to grow into adulthood in a scary world. Our CAL gives that a try, erasing both her “father” and Dr. Moon with her magic remote control, but soon finds that just makes things worse. She needs other people, people who will help her fix the data core and conspire with her to save a few more people than she already has and read her fairy tales and wish her sweet dreams. She finds those people, not just in the Doctor and River, but in Donna, her own nephew, and Miss Evangelista. That’s a reassuring moment for a show meant as family viewing but willing to suggest minutes before that children magically disappear when their parents close their eyes.
I imagine some people will find River’s fate unnerving–is death preferable to a ghost life, especially if she doesn’t have any more practical clothes? It’s a fair question, but I like to think of her as viewing the library as an eternal set of possibilities–maybe she doesn’t get to indulge her archaeologist’s curiosity by folding space and time anymore, but indulging it by getting to live the millions of books in this library has to run a close second. And maybe, when she’s a looking for a little down time from every adventure in the universe or when she’s missing a particular person, she likes to go back and read fairy tales about a wild character named the Doctor to CAL and her imaginary friends. I like to think the fairy tales she reads are all written by Steven Moffat and are all contained in a book that looks like a TARDIS and all end like this:
When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it will never end. But however hard you try, you can’t run forever. Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever, for one moment accepts it. Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day. Not today. Some days are special. Some days are so, so blessed. Some days, nobody dies at all. Now and then, every once in a very long while, every day in a million days when the wind stands fair and the Doctor comes to call, everybody lives. Sweet dreams, everyone.
With Moffat taking over as showrunner, is this what we should expect–fairy tales where people rarely die, but things are still sad? Next chapter’s this way…