Expectations were high for Steven Moffat’s first outing of the 2008 series. The man whose spine-tingling episode Blink won a BAFTA last year and who is standing in the wings ready to take over when Russell T Davies steps down as head writer, has delivered some of the very best episodes of the modern series. Could he pull it off again?
Quite simply: yes.
All the Moffat trademarks were there, and firing on all cylinders. Childhood fears made real in grandiose adult setting; teasing glimpses of what’s really going on; an even more compelling and personal time-travel mystery than in Blink (and, at least on the surface, owing even more to The Time Traveller’s Wife – as I mentioned last year); sparkling dialogue; and added in to the mix – something the writer more often than not has no direct control over – some excellent performances from the ensemble cast, featuring Alex Kingston (Crocodile Shoes, Moll Flanders, ER – and so good to see her back on our screens again!) and Steve Pemberton (Benidorm, Blackpool, The League of Gentlemen).
The Doctor and Donna land in the Library – a vast edifice occupying an entire planet and containing every book ever written – and are confused by the total lack of readers. Human readers at least. The Library’s system can detect only 2 humanoid life-forms, but over a million million “other” life-forms.
Meanwhile the Library, its contents and even the Doctor and Donna also seem to exist in the mind of a small girl who is undergoing psychotherapy. She appears in the library as a floating sphere – which the Doctor attempts to analyse with his screwdriver, much to the girl’s consternation as its sonic vibrations tear through her head.
The Library is staffed by Nodes – tall statues with real faces (another strangely unnerving aspect to the story) – one of which passes on a warning message from the librarian and tells them to count the shadows. It adds “Others Are Coming” just before a team of 51st century archaeologists arrive to find out why the Library has been silent for 100 years. They’re led by River Song, who soon reveals she already knows the Doctor. Not only knows him, but has a small notebook with a TARDIS-like cover that seems to contain details of all his adventures. I wonder if the book can hold more pages than any book of that size has a right to, if you know what I mean? What’s more, she even has the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. “You gave it to me,” she tells him.
For a Time Lord, the Doctor seems inordinately confused by meeting someone from later in his personal timeline. I’d have thought this sort of thing happens all the time to members of his race. Still, it’s an intriguing mystery and one that’s sure to play a part in the rest of the story – or even in future series!
Back in the girl’s world the phone is ringing, but she’s the only one who can hear it. When she doesn’t pick it up in time, the Doctor tries a different tack to communicate from within the Library, and comes through on her telly. This proves quite dangerous though, as the girl begins to play with the remote in an attempt to get the picture back, and causes the books to start flying all over the room. When she discovers the VCR section of the remote and presses “record” a secret door opens in the Library, which is bad news for one of the more obviously dispensable archaeologists. She wanders into a room full of shadows and is immediately eaten by one of them. It doesn’t take the Doctor long to work out that they’re not really shadows at all. They’re Vashta Nerada. A race of beings that look like shadows and are present on every world making up a proportion of what people THINK are shadows.
Way to go Mr Moffat! Last year you had all the viewers casting nervous glances at stone statues in their local churchyards and civic places. That was bad enough, but now every shadow in all of our houses will be under suspicion of scoffing the Sunday roast. What will your next story make us scared of? The cracks in the pavement?
Miss Evangelista spends a poignant few minutes “ghosting” while her communication device – which retains some of her personality – runs out of power. The remainer of the team don’t have much time to grieve though, because Dave has developed way too many shadows for any normal person in the path of a single light source. Pretty soon he’s a walking skeleton wondering who turned out the lights, Donna’s teleportation to the TARDIS has gone woefully wrong and she becomes “saved” – which we finally realise means she’s been turned into a node (nodified?), and the rest of the crew along with the Doctor are running from the encroaching shadows.
Wow. Mystery piled upon mystery in this extremely involving, convoluted and hyper-scary story. The Library, although immense, provided a really claustrophobic setting full of the shadows that we all soon learned to fear. Who is the girl? What is her connection to the Library? How does River Song know the Doctor (and Donna)? How can Donna be denoded? What will stop Dave the Walking Skeleton?
The two part story concludes next week with Forest of the Dead.