Recap: Doctor Who S30 E9 "Forest of the Dead"

Donna: How about you, are you all right?
The Doctor: I'm always all right.
Donna: Is "all right" special Time Lord code for... really not all right at all?
The Doctor: Why?
Donna: Because I'm all right too.

Donna, our favourite stroppy Londoner, has been having some funny turns recently. As we all know, she was a bit confused and spent a few years in a mental institution. There, she met a nice man called Lee, and now she's happily married with two kids. But lately, she's been having "lost time", and Dr Moon says everything is fine, and...

What?

But what about the library of the future, and the people-eating shadows, and River Song and everything? And then we see a familiar person in Donna's world: Miss Evangelista, one of the Red Shirts killed in the last episode. And she tells Donna that none of this is real.

When Donna rips of Miss Evangelista's veil it reveals that her face has become glitched. The little girl, watching all this on her TV, screams. So do you, because Steven Moffat.

Donna and everyone else aren't really in present-day London. They're in a Lotus-Eater Machine, and the computer is getting a little overloaded. Doing what? Saving all the people, of course... that's where they all went. They got saved... to disk. When the Vashta Nerada arrived, the library's computer tried to teleport 4022 people out all at once, and the system overloaded. Even the neural echoes of people, briefly captured by their suits' comm systems, get included. Which is how Miss Evangelista now lives on.

The Vashta Nerada usually live in forests. They hatch in trees. Trees... that were made into a planet full of books.

The little girl really was a little girl: related to the founder of the library, she was merged with the library's computer as a gift to her when doctors couldn't save her life. Her therapist, Dr Moon, is quite literally the planet's moon, which contains backup systems that stabilise the computer from above.

While the Doctor, back in the real world, works all this out, a couple more people get eaten by the shadows. The Doctor teaches the Vashta Nerada how to use the suits' comm systems to communicate, but it doesn't exactly help. He does, however, convince the creatures to give him one day, and after that, they can have the planet all to themselves.

The Doctor realises that he'll need to pull a Heroic Sacrifice to rescue Donna and the rest of the saved people. River punches him square in the face, handcuffs him to a wall and decides to sacrifice herself instead. Because she knows that if the Doctor sacrificed himself this way he wouldn't be able to regenerate, as the machine's continuous shock would kill him permanently in the middle of regeneration. And now she knows that this is not only his first time meeting her, it's also her last time meeting him... and that from his perspective, their entire relationship will have been based on the moment the Doctor saw her die. The Doctor is powerless to stop her, and asks her why she was able to whisper that one word into his ear — his name. His real name. Her only reply is a final "spoilers!", and with that, she dies.

All the not-dead people are transported back to the library. Donna desperately searches for her Matrix-world husband, whom she truly loves. But just when he sees her, he's teleported away to his own home, and she decides he must have been imaginary. The Doctor leaves River's diary and her version of the screwdriver behind in the library —

— she knew his name. He gave her his screwdriver. Why did he give her his screwdriver? Because the screwdriver has a neural relay with her mind's echo stored inside it. The Doctor races back to the little girl / computer and plugs in what's left of River. Her echo, and those of her companions who died today, can live on forever in the Matrix system. In a bittersweet way, Everybody Lives.


Tropes:

  • Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence: The people that were eaten continue living in Cyberspace. Word of God is that Moffat considers this to be as much being alive as most of us get. Their consciousnesses exist inside an electronic library containing the sum total knowledge of a huge slice of the Universe. They can virtually go anywhere, be anybody, and experience anything.
  • Ask a Stupid Question...: "It's a screwdriver. It works in the dark."
  • Badass Boast: Indirectly, and the more badass for it: "I'm The Doctor, and you're in the biggest library in the universe. Look me up!"
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Miss Evangelista's reason for wanting to help Donna escape her false reality.
  • Body Horror: Miss Evangelista's face is literally glitched. She looks badly Photoshopped, which is exactly the point.
  • Brain Uploading: "Zero survivors, four-thousand twenty-two saved."
  • Broken Record: "We have to go now. Doctor!"
  • Call Back: The "squareness gun" Captain Jack Harkness used on his first appearance. Word of God says it is the same gun — pilfered by River from the TARDIS where Jack left it at the end of "The Parting of the Ways".
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The screwdriver. He gave her his screwdriver.
    • she told the Doctor his own name.
  • Cuckoo Nest: Dr Moon tells Donna she hallucinated the Doctor, but is now cured. She's actually in a Lotus-Eater Machine.
  • Cyberspace: The core of the planet is the biggest library ever; big enough to hold a entire world.
  • Dashed Plot Line: Donna's life inside CAL is a subversion. It looks like we're only being shown selected scenes that take place years apart, but then it turns out that Donna is only experiencing those scenes as well. Only those scenes exist with nothing in between them.
  • Daylight Horror: Continuing on from last episode, but by this episode the sun is beginning to set, and then there will be nothing but shadow.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: The Doctor's so busy thinking that he stops paying attention to Other Dave, who has suddenly started repeating himself a lot.
  • Eureka Moment:
    • "You don't say saved, you say safe!"
    • When the Doctor realizes why he gave River his screwdriver, to "save" a copy of her into the virtual world.
      River: (voiceover) Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark (the Doctor begins to run back) if he ever, for one moment, accepts—
      The Doctor: Why?! Why would I give her my screwdriver? Why would I do that?
  • Everybody Lives: River Song's closing monologue is all about these "blessed days" where everyone is saved and everybody lives. Those stuck in cyberspace come back and are re-teleported without a problem. Everyone that was eaten is transferred to the library's core through Wi-Fi.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Anita, when she realizes she has two shadows.
  • Famous Last Words:
    • "We have to go now. Doctor!" are this for Other Dave.
    • "Hush, now. Spoilers."
  • Foreshadowing: Dr Moon maintains the dream-world's integrity at several points, but it doesn't dawn on what he represents until the Doctor is told that the moon that's rising in the sky isn't real, but an artificial doctor moon, which maintains the library database. He's the virus checker; a therapist for a computer.
  • Freudian Slip:
    Donna: I made up the perfect man. Gorgeous, adores me, and hardly able to speak a word. What's that say about me?
    The Doctor: Everything. (beat) Sorry. Did I say "Everything"? I meant to say "Nothing". I was aiming for "Nothing". I accidentally said "Everything".
  • Heroic BSOD: The entire third act is CAL having a BSOD after finding out about her reality.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: River Song straps herself in the library's computer system to allow it to use her personal memory. This kills her stone dead.
  • Holodeck Malfunction: When the Vashta Nerada hatched, CAL initiated an emergency teleport on everyone in the library. However, there was nowhere to send them. Thus, she "saved" them inside herself.
  • Hope Spot: Donna really loves her virtual husband, and promises to look for him in the real world as she's yanked out of the computer system. In the real world as everyone is restored, she asks after him, is told no one by that name was in the library, and unhappily concludes that — like her children — he was never real. However, he sees her and tries to call out her name, but is halted by his stutter and is teleported home before he can reach her.
  • I Know Your True Name: The Doctor doesn't trust River Song so to facilitate cooperation, she whispers his true name in his ear. This makes him trust her immediately.
  • Informed Attribute: CAL "loved books more than anything" but we never see her do any reading. It's a Justified Trope because she's not in her right mind and has forgotten everything about her life before the shadows came.
  • Insane Troll Logic: "If he dies, I'll kill him!"
  • Jerkass Fašade: Strackman Lux, set up as a paranoid, un-co-operative type obsessed with patents and IP, but it's all a front to keep CAL safe, who is his child-like aunt. He's actually quite nice.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall:
    • The scenes appearing on CAL's TV, complete with music. She, like many of the viewers, spends a good part of the episode clutching a pillow and trying not to scream.
    • Time in the computer progresses "like a dream" — people just mention where they're going to be, and then they're there. In other words, it's like television. Cutting between scenes in a conventional way, and then revealing that that's how the characters are experiencing it, adds a meta level to the are-you-sure-you-know-what-is-and-isn't-real theme.
  • Living Shadow: Invisible air piranhas, who are very light-sensitive (or maybe just appear as shadows, and are very slow-moving) but can strip the flesh from a chicken leg in the time it takes to fall to the ground.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: The world created by CAL is virtual reality contained within a gigantic hardrive.
  • Meaningful Echo:
    • River's end-of-episode speech has her quote the Ninth Doctor: "Everybody lives".
    • River quotes the First Doctor upon sacrificing herself, telling the Tenth Doctor that he "can't rewrite history. Not one line!"
  • Meaningful Name:
    • CAL is an acronym of the girl's full name.
    • Dr Moon is the doctor moon.
  • Medium Awareness: Donna starts noticing the episode's editing when she's in the computer. This is because the cuts represent the computer basically teleporting her and giving her fake memories. It saves an awful lot of space.
  • More Expendable Than You: River takes out the Doctor to do a Heroic Sacrifice in his place.
  • No Sympathy: The Vastha Narada don't really care that Anita was scared, Doctor.
  • Oh Crap!: The Doctor, when he finally realises Other Dave's been eaten.
  • Orphean Rescue: Getting Donna back out of the computer requires some help from someone who knows the truth of the matter.
  • Papa Wolf: Technically the little girl for whom Strackman Lux is willing to go to such lengths to protect is his aunt but she has the mentality of a child. It plays out the same.
  • Le Parkour: In one scene the Doctor essentially follows the Parkour principle of "Getting from point A to point B ASAP" as he runs, jumps over carts and shelves and even just jumps into a hole instead of using the mobile transport to save River.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: The Library exists for the sole purpose of keeping CAL occupied, which makes this an inversion. The library itself is the inversion — there is a child with a terminal, incurable illness, but her family is rich, so her brain is uploaded and she is given a library the size of a planet to keep her entertained. However, when something threatened the people in the library, they all tried to teleport away at once and ended up getting stored in the computer. That was causing problems for the child, so in a way the lifeboats were Powered by a Forsaken Child.
  • Self-Destruct Mechanism: The Library has one of these. It starts at twenty minutes. Then it will "crack like an egg".
  • Smash Cut: Lots of them while Donna is in the virtual world. They show that the smashes are missing.
  • Ship Tease:
    • The Doctor and River.
      The Doctor: Oh, I like you.
      River: Yeah, you do.
    • Even the fact that River is going to die in a few moments doesn't stop her from dropping one last Double Entendre.
      Doctor: Why am I handcuffed... why do you even have handcuffs?!
      River: (smirking) Spoilers...
    • Watching Donna's husband try to call out to her at the end, but caught in a stutter.
  • Spooky Silent Library: Slightly louder since the last episode because so many zombies are talking in broken records.
  • Stable Time Loop: The Sonic Screwdriver, many of River Song's mannerisms and rules, including "spoilers!" and the blue diary, she initially got from the Doctor, who in turn got them from her. We see one "end" of their time loop here, and another end (there are at least three) in "Let's Kill Hitler". Another example is opening the TARDIS with a click of the fingers; the Doctor hadn't even thought of doing that until River mentioned it but she was remembering about how he used to do it.
  • Staring Down Cthulhu: The "look me up" scene is The Doctor confronting a swarm of living shadows and making them blink.
  • Swiss Army Weapon: The Doctor's got his screwdriver, and River's got hers which has a red setting and dampeners.
  • Trust Password: River convinces the Doctor to trust her by telling him his real name.
  • The Un-Reveal: River Song knows the Doctor's real name, but only whispers it to the Doctor. We never hear it in "Forest of the Dead", and have still yet to as of series 7.
  • Virtual Ghost: The final fate of River and her crew is to live forever as data inside The Library's hard drive.
  • Wham Line:
    • "BECAUSE SHE'S FAMILY!"
    • "River, you know my name."
    • "You know what? I really liked Anita."
  • The X of Y: Forest of the Dead


River: Sweet dreams, everyone.

Alternative Title(s):

Doctor Who NSS 4 E 9 Forest Of The Dead