A First-Timer Watches Doctor Who: “Forest of the Dead”

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Lots of heartbreak this episode. There was pain in store for Donna, who was transported to a computerized reality where she got married to a great guy and had a couple of kids—only to learn that it was all a simulation. And the Doctor went through his share of pain, having to watch River die before he could learn her true identity.

Picking up where “Silence in the Library” left off, this episode explains an important question: what’s the deal with that little girl who has visions of the library? Turns out she is the uploaded mind of Charlotte Abigail Lux, the aunt of Strackman Lux, one of the men on the expedition whose grandfather originally built the library. As a child, Charlotte was dying, so her family stuck her inside a computer in the library to allow her to live forever—sort of. (Apparently she was a real bookworm, that one—loooved reading.) In any case, she’s been saving the victims of the Vashta Nerada by uploading them to her simulation. Which is how Donna is being kept alive.

This was a tough one for Donna. Not only does she have her face grafted onto a pod, she also loses her family. Sure, it was a fake family—but it still hurts. I felt a sense of injustice in this storyline. Donna has been somewhat mocked as a romantic figure: in her first episode, she gets ditched at the altar for a spider, and she hasn’t had any suitors since. When Donna’s love life is mentioned, it’s usually in the context of her lamenting her singleness à la Cathy comic or expressing her lack of romantic interest in the Doctor. So even though it was obvious from the get-go that something was off about Lee and her kids, it was still disappointing to discover that her one authentic romantic prospect was actually a simulation.

Doctor Who does well with creepy kids’ stuff. “The Empty Child” is arguably one of the most memorable episodes of the reboot due to its unsettling treatment of a lost little boy. And in the most recent season, “Listen” provided a similarly nerve-wracking exploration of childhood fears. “Forest of the Dead” also uses creepy kids for dramatic effect. Donna’s children are adorable yet somehow “off”—and even they know it. “We’re not real, are we?” her daughter asks in the sweetest, saddest little voice. Donna’s pain is amplified by that of her own children, who are heartbreakingly aware that they aren’t really children at all.

Even though this episode has a clean finish—the library is saved! Donna is saved! River is saved!—it’s also a cliffhanger for seasons to come. We know that River is an important person in the Doctor’s life. But we don’t know why or how that happens. She seems to be a very cool woman who has lived a fascinating life—so it will be interesting to learn what that’s all about in future seasons. Kind of takes the pressure off for the Doctor, too. He knows he has an important romance in his future, so he can just chill and stop getting into going-nowhere flirtations with his companions.

There’s also the mystery of the Doctor’s name. River knows it, and the Doctor says there is only one reason he would ever tell it to someone. This is curious: perhaps Time Lords’ names unlock secret powers—or make them more vulnerable. So why did he tell River? And more importantly, what is his name? Gladyshkt? Sir Ellran De Barnet? Steve?

Guess I’ll have to keep watching to find out.