Doctor Who has always been somewhat of a question mark in terms of quality - you never know just what an episode has in store for you the majority of the time, and you can be in for a real treat one week and an unmitigated disaster the next. Admittedly, the show levelled out somewhat when Moffat took over, removing both the highs and the lows in order to preserve a consistent line of good enough, a line that has been slowly creeping higher and higher as this new, Peter Capaldi led season goes on. But "In the Forest of the Night" perfectly encapsulates the ever oscillating quality of Doctor Who, providing an episode that, despite potential, ends up doing an almost aggressive amount of things wrong.
"In the Forest of the Night" follows Clara, Danny and a gaggle of school kids as they discover that the entire surface of the Earth has been covered in thick foliage over night. Naturally, this has pretty much shut down the entire world, so Danny takes it upon himself to get the school children under his care home safely. However, one of the more troubled children has gone missing (great job Danny), and has somehow stumbled upon The Doctor and his TARDIS.
The hook of this episode is very much the mystery of the sudden appearance of the trees, and it works quite well really - it's not overly predictable or too far fetched, and there is no 'villain of the week', which is actually nice change of pace after the last 3-4 weeks of episodes that have been focused on an immediate, malicious threat. Unfortunately, this more relaxed pace does mean that the episode meanders at times with no clear direction, but it does recover to provide a satisfying, if unbelievable, conclusion to the plot.
This lack of direction isn't helped by the fact that the emotional undercurrent of the episode is sorely lacking. I can understand that the writers had this happen in the middle of a school trip in order to give the audience some extra characters to care about as well as giving Clara and Danny extra baggage to deal with, but I remained apathetic to the school children throughout thanks to incredibly poor writing and some of the worst child acting I think I've ever seen. The children in this episode suffer from the same syndrome that Courtney did in "The Caretaker" and "Kill The Moon" - they are quite obviously written by someone who either doesn't understand or actively dislikes the newest generation. We get out of place, black and white flashbacks to the kids in school at one point, presumably in order to gain some kind of connection to them - but it fails spectacularly, actually giving you further reasons to dislike these already annoying characters. Most of the kids are one dimensional and offer nothing to the episode, with the exception here being the main child Maebh, who contributes to the plot, but still fails to provide a compelling reason to care about these kids. Her back story is one that should elicit an emotional response, but it fails in ways that I don't quite understand, the end result being that the emotional high that the end of the episode tries to achieve instead comes off as boring and cheesy.
At every turn, the episode tries to point at the children as a way of reminding you how high the stakes are, but it only serves to remind you how little you really care. I want to be able to say that I wanted the Earth to be destroyed every time one of the children was on screen, but that would imply that I ever believed for a second that there was any real chance of that happening. The stakes are artificially high for the characters, but as an audience you know that nothing bad is going to happen. Episodes such as "Flatline" mitigate this by building up tension and having disposable characters that they can kill off, but you just know that the BBC isn't going to kill a bunch of school kids or allow the show to completely obliterate the Earth, so the ending of the episode is never really in doubt.
There is a very strong environmentalist message throughout the episode, just as heavy handed (although admittedly, less controversial) as the message in "Kill The Moon". What could have been a subtle nod towards the issues of global warming instead becomes a song and dance about the benefits of trees, sacrificing any subtlety that the episode could have had otherwise. The Doctor actually ends up monologuing about how great trees are on two separate occasions, which is especially frustrating given that the subtext of the episode would have easily got the message across on it's own.
I haven't spoke much about Clara, Danny and The Doctor because frankly, there isn't a lot to say. They all serve a purpose in the episode and stay true to character, but other than a good moment between Clara and The Doctor towards the end of the episode that relates back to the argument they had in "Kill The Moon", not a lot really happens. We get some small development in the relationship between Danny and Clara, but it's all artificial - from a character perspective, it doesn't feel that anything meaningful or lasting actually happens. I suppose that at a push, we learn more about the differences in Danny and Clara's view of the world, but it isn't substantial enough to prop up an otherwise unengaging episode.
I actually started this review intending to say that "In the Forest of the Night" was a good episode with some noticeable flaws, but I think I've convinced myself that it's actually a barely passable episode with some major problems that simply cannot be overlooked. It's probably one of the more forgettable episodes of this season, thanks in no small part to the lack of direction throughout the majority of the episode, while also failing to get audience empathy. It's by no means the worst episode of this season, an award that goes firmly to "Robot of Sherwood", but it's amongst the worst. And that's a shame when we are this late in an otherwise pretty good season.