Doctor Who episode 761: Silence in the Library (31/5/2008)

‘Hello sweetie.’ The Steven Moffat years begin, fittingly, with a story that’s out of time, arriving a dozen episodes before his formal debut. But by this point he knew he was going to be the next showrunner, and with that in mind it’s difficult to see this as anything other than a prologue. It has all the hallmarks of his earlier Doctor Whos – an impossible girl, something hunting the main characters, a Bob Baker and Dave Martin style phrase – combined with the arrival of River Song.

Right from the start, River is established as a future associate of the Doctor: it’s not a mystery, as she tells Donna in simple terms. The real mysteries are the nature of that relationship – she seems more than just a companion given she has her own sonic screwdriver and a book full of spoilery encounters with the Doctor – and why Donna doesn’t feature in any of them. In retrospect, the continuity doesn’t quite stack up given Tennant’s decision to depart with RTD rather than remain for Moffat’s first series (surely River would know it was the 11th Doctor she met at the crash of the Byzantium), but the point is she’s on the Doctor’s horizon not a blast from the past. It’s an intriguing idea (if fairly standard for a time travel show – e.g. the future Sinclair in Babylon 5; the mysterious antagonist in Enterprise’s temporal cold war), and one that signalled Moffat’s interest in further exploiting both the “timey wimey” opportunities of the show, and the Doctor’s inner life.

Here, too, some of the more annoying aspects of the character (her tendency to smug knowingness) are mitigated because River is as discombobulated as the Doctor by their meeting – she knows too much about his future; he knows nothing about their past. The result is compelling – here at least. The downside: Donna is unusually sidelined for this episode, wandering about and doing the bog standard RTD companion thing of empathising with this week’s underdog (here, the naïve Miss Evangelista). However, in light of the next episode (and the season’s themes) this isn’t as troublesome as Rose’s abandonment in The Girl in the Fireplace.

Silence in the Library

This central mystery plays alongside others: what is CAL? Who is the little girl and the mysterious Dr Moon, both seemingly linked to the library while living a life outside it? And there’s Moffat’s by-now expected super-scary monsters: the Vashta Nerada, living shadows – creepy enough (and, like many of his monsters, very playable for kids), and made vividly horrible by their victims, eaten to the bone. Proper Dave’s skeleton-in-a-spacesuit stalking the corridors might be ripped from any number of pulp SF and horrors, but that doesn’t make it any the less striking. There’s so much going on, so many unanswered questions and set piece moments (like Miss Evangelista’s data ghost), so many great images – like Donna transformed into something like the faces on Rassilon’s tomb – that reinforce the ideas of living death, that it’s almost easy to overlook how static a lot of this is, how much of it takes place in just a couple of rooms. But, with some SFX compromises, you could basically have done this as a Sapphire and Steel in the early Eighties.

Next Time: Forest of the Dead

One comment

  1. Pingback: Doctor Who episode 760: The Unicorn and the Wasp (17/5/2008) | Next Time...

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