Doctor Who: Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead

What is there left to say about River Song's debut? Well, for one thing, I liked it a lot better than I remembered. I remembered this two-parter as my least favourite of current showrunner Steven Moffat's Russell T Davis-era Doctor Who episodes (my favourites are his first, 'The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,' and they go downhill from there. Yes, 'Blink' is a bit low down. I'm a rebel). And I still have problems with it, but I have to admit, when I re-watched it, I cried. And that's always a good sign. Spoilers follow. (Haha. See what I did there? I actually like spoilers though...)

Professor River Song is an archaeologist. One of my favourite things about this episode is that it offers a vision of future archaeology that feels real. Archaeology tends to be thought of as 'digging' but it doesn't have to be. Archaeology is the study of all the material culture of the past, including perfectly visible material culture like buildings. And so an archaeological expedition to a standing library, with the archaeologists wearing space suits in case there's no atmosphere or something, feels pleasantly like this really could be the future of archaeology. The team feel plausibly like archaeologists as well - their exact roles are undefined, but the money/landowner is there (Lux) with his assistant, and presumably the others include a pilot/technician for their spaceship and some more archaeologists. Even River herself behaves much more like a Professor and less like a super-soldier in this episode.

Of course, River's character changes quite a lot in later episodes, which tend to represent River as the gun-toting archaeologist of fantasy who never seems to do any actual work - indeed, for much of her time on Moffat-era Who, her primary identity is as a prisoner convicted of murder, not an archaeologist. 'Convicted murderer' is a very, very different character description than 'archaeologist' and River's character is correspondingly different: more violent, more aggressive, much less inclined to talk about history (not that she does that much here either, unless you count her personal history, which she talks about a lot). The River we meet here seems, frankly, a bit softer than the later incarnation that is actually a younger River. She does carry a gun, but only gets it out once and in extreme circumstances. She seems very shaken by Miss Evangelista's death despite all the horrors we now know she's seen (though that might be down to the super-horrible 'ghosting' that's going on at the time). She does mention that she's 'always lying' though, which certainly does fit the River we know and love. Perhaps 'Professor' Song has just mellowed in her old age. (And since she's part Time Lord, how old is she? Does she get centuries?).

That's about it for the blog-relevant content in this episode, though it's worth noting that Strackman Lux and his family are called 'Light' in Latin, as every Harry Potter fan knows. How very symbolic. Also, I think most Classicists, historians, archaeologists and other academics would be very happy with the idea of a library that covers an entire planet (though perhaps we could live without the continent of Jeffrey Archer books). Interestingly, the Doctor observes that no matter what technology came along as humanity developed, 'people never stopped loving books... you need the smell,' showing that like many of us, he likes the smell of proper paper books. And just recently, the Wall Street Journal has suggested that perhaps reports of the death of the print book have been exaggerated. Sure, e-books have their place and they're here to stay - but that doesn't necessarily mean that print books will disappear all together.

I have whole problems with the end of this two-parter that have nothing to do with Classics or archaeology. I get the impression that it's supposed to be a happy ending, with everyone living forever in this fantasy world. But I find the whole concept unbelievably creepy. Basically, they're all trapped in The Matrix forever? OK, a nice Matrix that they can bend to their will, but still. Anita told the Doctor that she'd like an old age, and that's exactly what none of them will get - they're frozen at the point they died and CAL's been a child for a century. Plus, I find the idea of spending eternity in a computer programme really unpleasant. Maybe if you're an atheist, and it's the computer or nothing, that seems like a good thing, but since I believe in an afterlife, the idea of my soul being trapped in a computer instead of going there (wherever there is) is chilling. I suppose it could be read the same way I've always understood Rimmer's hologram on Red Dwarf (the soul goes wherever it goes, the hologram is a separate entity - which makes his quest to be alive again rather pointless) but still. Creepy.

If you haven't seen the episode, I should probably mention that the Vashta Narada are also really creepy.

Random Who-type observations:

River's chronology really doesn't work now that we've seen more of it - why would she think Ten might have done the Crash of the Byzantium? Surely she must know the order of her husband's regenerations.

If the dust in sunbeams was a flesh-eating monster, I think we'd have noticed.

At one point, the Doctor and River appear actually to be using the sonic screwdrivers as screwdrivers. At other times, 'screwdriver' becomes a much dirtier-sounding euphemism than 'dancing' was.

At one point, River and the Doctor are both distressed at Donna's apparent death - presumably River's also thinking 'I guess the universe is pretty screwed now too.'

The whole Lee-stammering-and-missing-Donna thing is so spectacularly irritating and such manipulative story-telling that I pretend it didn't happen.

Is it worrying when you start recognising perfectly respectable actors as 'hey it's that guy from Strictly Come Dancing'?!

Miss Evangelista looking like the woman in black is rather cool. The effects when she takes off the veil, less so.

The Doctor and River are remarkably un-bothered about the fact they got Other Dave killed. This is why Nurse Redfern is my favourite.

It's handy that the guy who actually knew what was going on didn't get got by the Vashta Narada isn't it?

I miss Donna.


Doctor: Head's too full of stuff, I need a bigger head!

River: Got a problem with archaeologists?
Doctor: I'm a time traveller. I point and laugh at archaeologists!

Miss Evangelista: My dad said I have the IQ of plankton - and I was pleased!

Doctor: She's a footprint on the beach, and the tide's coming in.

Doctor: I don't give my screwdriver to anyone.
River: I'm not anyone.

Donna: This isn't my real body? But I've been dieting!

Also, 'We're going to need a chicken leg' is almost as good as 'Get the cheese to sickbay!'

More Doctor Who reviews


  1. This story is the first point at which it became apparent that Moffat has issues when writing women. I wrote the following at the time:

    "There has been much comment on t'Interwebs about the portrayal of Miss Evangelista. On the one side, there's the suggestion that she is a manifestation of Moffat the misogynist, symbolizing the inability (in Moffat's mind) of women to be both pretty and clever at the same time. On the other, there's the 'she's just a character' approach, that points to the presence of rounded females such as River Song (of whom more later) and Anita. Predictably, I fall somewhere between the two, though perhaps inclining a bit more towards position (a). I don't think that Moffat is a misogynist writer - Coupling, where the men generally come off far worse than the women, is sufficient evidence for me. But ... a certain degree of background sexism is hard-wired into men by the societal norms in which we are brought up. We may be intellectually aware of this and suppress it, but if we don't concentrate, it can slip out and manifest itself. I do not except myself from this. For an example of a writer doing this, there's Joss Whedon. Now, the basic concept behind Buffy is a feminist one, and one can certainly take an overtly feminist reading of Season 7 (and I have). But, whenever he kills off one member of a romantic couple just when they've got (back) together, it's almost always the woman (or, in the case of Willow/Tara, the femme). And though women (specifically Buffy) do come back from the dead, more often that possibility is explicitly closed off, in a way it isn't for male characters. So, to return to Moffat, yes, there are decent women characters in this script. But he drops the ball with Evangelista, who is a stereotype from the moment she appears. Yes, he needs a character who can help Donna to see the unreality of what is around her, and yes, that character needs to be someone to react to a specific act of kindness from Donna, so needs in some way to be isolated from the others. But he doesn't need to do it in this way. Why, for instance, does her face need to be distorted, rather than simply anonymous and featureless?

    "I've moaned about how the ending is mawkish and sentimental. It looks very like the ends that RTD puts on some of his episodes, where you can clearly see the point at which the episode should have been concluded (in this case, with the Doctor walking away from the diary), but instead it goes on for another five minutes (case in point, 'Doomsday'). But apparently this is all Moffat, which isn't necessarily surprising when you find out that it was his idea that Jennie in 'The Doctor's Daughter' should live. ...

    "Besides, River Song is dead. A copy of her personality may well be in the computer, hanging out with imitations of her crewmates, but River Song, the archaeologist who travelled/will travel with the Doctor, is dead. Ken MacLeod has characters in The Stone Canal express the opinion that a copy, no matter how good, is not the original, and I'm very much with MacLeod here (it's why I blanch at the moral implications of teleporters that break people down into information and transmit them - cf. Spock Must Die). She's dead, and the Doctor wasn't able to think of a way of altering that."

  2. Part 2 of comment:

    "Just out of interest, why is the Library full of dead books? I mean, I approve of the book as an artefact as much as anyone one, but clearly the Library has all this stuff electronically anyway - that's how CAL accesses them. (And apparently how the Vashtu Nerada look up the Doctor - how does that work anyway? It's a nice moment, if reminiscent of the what-do-monsters-have-nightmares-about line from 'Girl in the Fireplace', but in the light of day, it doesn't make much sense.) ... Why did the Lux family print off a new copy of every single book that's ever existed? And why doesn't anyone one suggest clearing out the books so that the Library can subsequently be accessed? And (taking up something I've seen raised elsewhere) what have the Vashtu Nerada been eating while everyone was 'saved', and what will they eat now? I'm afraid I can't consider this to be the greatest NuWho ever when it falls apart on close inspection.

    "And finally, can Steven Moffat write a story that isn't a clever time paradox tale? In 'The Empty Child'/'The Doctor Dances', this is only peripheral; Jack's con is based on sending junk through time to a point just before it will get destroyed. But in his other stories it's central - 'The Girl In The Fireplace' is about meetings between the Doctor and someone else where their personal timelines are moving at different rates, 'Blink' about someone collecting messages from the Doctor in the past so that she can pass them to the Doctor in his personal past so that he can pass them to her, and now the Doctor meets someone who has met him already in her past, but his future. And that's not the only similarity between this and earlier Moffat stories. 'Nobody dies' echoes 'everybody lives' from 'The Doctor Dances' (except then it was true), and compare the gas-masked and space-suited zombies. For the scary statues of 'Blink', substitute shadows. My concerns about the way the show was going crystallized when it started to recycle its own ideas, round about 'The Runaway Bride', so this has to raise certain questions about what the show will be like under Moffat, certainly if he writes as much of it as RTD has.

    "This is not to say that I disliked this story. I thought the first part was excellent, and if the second disappoints, it's certainly not the worst the show has been. But I'm not blind to its faults."

    Interesting reading that again five years down the line.

    1. So much I agree with here! I did have a whinge about the 'look me up' bit in my random observations at one point - it's daft. And after writing this, I re-watched The Pandorica Opens, which just makes it more daft... I'm glad it's not just me that's bothered by the fact these are copies of people, not the people themselves! I can live with it on Red Dwarf because all the signs are that the Rimmer hologram develops more and is a better being than human Rimmer ever was (also, it's a sitcom). But here... not so much.

      You were completely right about Moffat's writing as well! Basing stories on time travel weirdness seemed like such a good idea when it was fresh and new but re-watching Pandorica Opens I found myself thinking how much I missed really getting into an alien civilization or historical period and telling a single story in that setting. I wonder if Moffat needs reined in a bit - whereas I enjoyed RTD's stories more and more as time went on, with Midnight and Turn Left both brilliant (maybe not so much the finale), I enjoy Moffat's less and less and less...

  3. I'm not bothered by Red Dwarf because there's no pretence that the holograms are the original people, whereas in 'Forest of the Dead' the clear implication is that the Doctor is saving River's life, rather than saving a copy of her. This is a complicated philosophical issue, and I had a long conversation with someone who didn't see why this wasn't River waking up in a new existence. Of course, there's a sense in which it is, as the copy, if precise enough, will have all of River's memories, and will perceive herself as having died and woken up. And to those encountering here there will be no difference between the River and the other one (assuming they gain access to the Matrix). But for me, there is a difference to the original person, who is no longer alive. Of course, if you believe there is no afterlife, then the original person won't perceive anything. But I still think there's a problem. One point I make is that the library copy could have been run at the same time as River was alive, and therefore it is a copy, not the original.

    I think Moffat at the moment is overstretched, especially with Sherlock, and could do with stepping back a bit from the writing on Who (as the production teams did in the old days). Also, Moffat is at his best when he has his wife Sue as a producer, as she I think is able to tell him when he's not good enough, where others don't. Unfortunately, I think she has no interest in Who, so he's on his own

    I did get some stuff wrong in my original post - I excised a long section where I predicted that we'd never see River again!

  4. I've never watched an episode, aside from a minute or two that confused me to no end. I suspect getting tossed into the deep end of the series, one would be completely lost.

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