Seriously, though, who turned out the lights?
Silence in the Library
We open on a therapy session with a little girl and Doctor Moon. She describes an immense library in her dreams, a place devoid of all human life. Her vision is interrupted by a pounding at the library door. The door bursts open to reveal the Doctor and Donna. They barricade the door with a book and ask if they can stop for a bit.
Okay, let’s rewind.
The TARDIS materializes in a 51st-century library, which is actually an entire world of books. It’s not a Sunday, the Doctor claims, as Sundays are boring. Donna picks up a volume, but Doctor tells her not to spoil her future. He’s also perplexed as the Library is silent.
The worldwide computer system only detects the Doctor and Donna as humanoid lifeforms, but registers a million million lives in other forms. That’s one trillion souls, or roughly 125 times Earth’s population in early 2020. Donna presumes that the books may be alive before seeking out a courtesy node to unravel the mystery. There they find a message from the head librarian to run. A second message tells them to count the shadows if they want to live.
The Doctor is intrigued and warns Donna to stay out of the shadows.
They move into the stacks where the Doctor reveals that he was summoned to the Library by a message on the psychic paper. They are chased out by the approaching darkness as the lights switch off. The Doctor sonics the door – not the wood part, obviously – before Donna takes matters into her own soles and kicks the door down.
We’re back where we started, except the little girl is a floating camera. The Doctor analyzes it, which causes the girl pain as the sonic buzzes, but she’s able to warn the travelers that “others are coming.” Donna asks the courtesy node in the room for help – distracted by the human-like face which was donated to the Library like a memorial park bench – before the Doctor notes the moving shadows without origins in the room with them.
The door blows open and people in spacesuits arrive. One of them turns on her face-lamp and smiles at the Doctor with two words: “Hello, sweetie!”
The expedition is staffed with archaeologists who remove their helmets but pretty much ignore the Doctor’s warnings until he points out that the way they came is now shrouded in darkness. The expedition is funded by the Lux Corporation, and one of the team members – Strackman Lux – is a descendant of the family that built the Library.
The Doctor identifies the problem as the Vashta Nerada, carnivorous creatures who hunt in the shadows. The team sets to work as River pulls “pretty boy” Doctor aside. She’s the one who called him, but he doesn’t know who she is. She consults a TARDIS-styled diary and asks him about milestones in his life, but the Doctor hasn’t yet encountered them. In fact, this is the first time that they’ve met. Well, the first time that he’s met her.
The team is interrupted by the ringing of a phone, which is happening in the point-of-view of the little girl. Her father ignores it because he can’t hear it, so she eventually reaches for it. The ringing stops as soon as she touches it. Moments later, the Doctor hacks into her television and makes contact, but the link is soon lost.
The Doctor tries to re-establish contact, momentarily reaching for River’s diary before she tells him that his own rules forbid it. Books fly about the room as the little girl presses buttons on her remote, and Donna consoles Miss Evangelista, Lux’s assistant and the expedition members who is alienated because she’s the stereotypical pretty and dumb one.
The Doctor spots the word CAL on the monitor and asks Lux about it, but he won’t speak about it since the Doctor didn’t sign the expedition contract. River didn’t sign it either, and she shares the confidential bit with him: “4022 saved. No survivors.”
There were exactly 4022 people in the Library when it went silent.
While they discuss the message, Miss Evangelista is ignored and wanders off. Her scream draws the rest of the team, but she’s already been reduced to mere bones. Moments later, she “ghosts,” which is her last moment trapped in the neural relays of the suit communicators. It lasts for an indeterminate amount of time after death until the footprint on the beach fades in the tide.
Donna takes it especially hard since Evangelista asks for her specifically. The Doctor implores Donna to help her pass, and soon the pattern degrades into a loop and she’s gone. River pulls the plug as the Doctor consoles his companion.
River wants a word with the predator that killed one of her crew, and the Doctor offers to introduce them. Using a lunch from River’s pack, he hunts for the Vashta Nerada while River talks to Donna about her relationship with the Time Lord. River recognizes her as Donna Noble, but specifically by her absence.
Meanwhile, Dr. Moon tells the little girl that, given the difference between the real world and her nightmares, her nightmares are the reality and only she can save the team from the shadows.
The Doctor finds the Vashta Nerada and throws a chicken leg into the darkness. Only a bone remains. They are everywhere, like the dust in a sunbeam, but the only way to survive them is to run. Donna spots a potential way out, but the Doctor stops them. It seems that one of the team members, Proper Dave, has two shadows, one of which is being used to keep him fresh. The Doctor has the team don their helmets and alters their suits. River helps with her own advanced sonic screwdriver.
The Doctor uses a teleporter to send Donna back to the TARDIS, but her signal is intercepted. Meanwhile, the second shadow has moved into the victim’s suit. His visor goes pitch black – “Hey, who turned out the lights!?” – before he’s consumed from within. His helmet light is restored to reveal a skull as he attacks the Doctor. The team is cornered as the swarm in a suit expands its shadows, and River blows open a wall with a “squareness gun” to escape.
The little girl has a message: “Donna Noble has been saved.”
The team takes a rest and the Doctor amplifies the lights in the stacks. He notes that River’s sonic is similar to his, and she tells him that she got it from him. The Doctor realizes that Donna never reached the TARDIS, and he finds a courtesy node with her face on it.
In horror, the node repeats “Donna Noble has left the Library. Donna Noble has been saved.” The tension ratchets as the lights go out and the swarm in the suit approaches.
Forest of the Dead
River blows a hole through the stacks and the team escapes as the little girl watches their progress on her television. She also watches a medical show where Donna is taken by ambulance and rehabilitated over two years by Dr. Moon. In this reality, the facility is named CAL and the adventures were only a dream. Donna meets man named Lee, gets married, and has two kids over the next seven years. The image is interrupted as the Doctor tries to break through the signal.
The survivors find a new room. They’re surrounded by the Vashta Nerada, and as the Doctor scans for a way out, Donna professes her faith in the Doctor to get her team out of this scrape. When the Doctor’s screwdriver isn’t enough, River offers hers. It precipitates an “old married couple” squabble before River whispers something in his ear to prove herself.
Energized, the Doctor tries to figure out what new signal is interfering with his screwdriver. They determine that the moon – the “doctor moon”, a planetary anti-virus – is the source. While the Doctor tries to figure it out, team member Anita gains a second shadow. They’re suddenly visited by Proper Dave’s animated corpse and are back on the run.
In Dr. Moon’s reality, Donna tries to figure out what’s going on. She’s visited by a cloaked figure who leaves a letter stating that the world is wrong and asking her to meet at a local playground. Donna goes the next day and learns that time progresses differently in this dream state. Her visitor is what remains of Miss Evangelista. They are the Dead of the Library.
On the run, the Doctor tries to reason with the Vashta Nerada, asking them for a dialogue. They typically hunt in forests, but hatched in the Library. The Doctor argues that there are no trees in the Library, but then realizes that they’re standing in a forest of dead trees. The Other Dave is consumed, but the Doctor escapes from a trap of Daves by using a trap door as sunset approaches.
River laments that the Tenth Doctor is not her Doctor. This version isn’t yet done cooking, but hers could make armies run with a glance and open the TARDIS with a snap of his fingers. The Tenth Doctor arrives with a word – “Spoilers!” – and figures out what saved means in the context of the Library.
At the moment of the Vashta Nerada hatching, the Library evacuated the 4022 survivors in the only way that it could. It saved them to the hard drive, ready to be transmitted when the time was right. Donna is in that same condition, but Evangelista gained considerable knowledge when her signal was warped on transmission. Evangelista brings up the word CAL, but the little girl fights to keep that secret, including removing her father from the world and setting the planetary autodestruct. That act could “crack the planet like an egg.”
Dr. Moon tries to talk her down, but the girl deletes him as well. Luckily, Lux offers to take them to the secret of CAL at the planet’s core. The team of four descends on a gravity platform.
Meanwhile, Donna’s world is fragmenting.
When the team reaches the core, they hear the computer – the little girl – asking for help. The Doctor tries to wake it up because it is dreaming of a normal life. Lux reveals that it is driven by a courtesy node with the girl’s face, and her name is CAL. Charlotte Abigail Lux, Mr. Lux’s grandfather’s youngest daughter, was dying of an incurable disease. She was preserved in the Library with an imaginary world of every tale ever told to live in.
Now she’s suffering from four thousand people in her mind.
The Doctor proposes building another processor to transfer the consciousness into, deciding to use his mind as the vessel despite River’s protests that it will burn him alive without hope of regeneration. He also notices that Anita has been eaten. The Doctor threatens the Vashta Nerada, telling them to look him up in their forest. They withdraw for one day.
Then River sucker punches him.
He wakes up handcuffed, out of reach of the sonic screwdrivers with River on the transfer platform. He trusted her because she knew his real name – it was what she whispered in his ear – and she tells him about their last night together in a future incarnation. About all of the time that they spent together. That they will spend together.
But she refuses to tell him anything else. The countdown ends and she completes the circuit. Four thousand twenty-two people are saved, rematerialized in the Library, but River Song is dead.
Later, the Doctor and Donna are reunited, both mourning lost loves that they barely knew. They take hands and walk to the balcony where they discuss Donna’s future over River’s diary. Together, they decide that peeking at the end would be spoiling the adventure, and they walk away.
“He just can’t do it, can he? That man. That impossible man. He just can’t give up.”
River’s diary and screwdriver are left behind, but only for a moment until he realizes that her echo remains in the sonic. He grabs it and dives into the planet’s core, sprinting to the computer and plugging in the sonic. River’s essence is uploaded into Dr. Moon’s virtual reality and she is reunited with her expeditionary team.
Triumphant, the Time Lord returns to the TARDIS. He opens the doors with a snap and a smile, and River reads her children a bedtime story with a happy ending: It was a special day, one where the Doctor came to call. It was a day when everybody lived.
So much energy, so much talent, so much fun. This is the episode that makes me just a little bit scared of the dark.
The acting and the story are an elegant concert with this story. We have Donna’s joy as her dreams become reality in Dr. Moon’s virtual space, contrasted by her anguish as they disintegrate before her eyes. River tries to balance the conflict between her confidence and faith that the Doctor will triumph, even considering the looming foreshadowing of her own death, and her sorrow that he’s not quite the man that she knew. The Doctor has to keep his own scales in check between saving the innocent and solving a mystery of his own future.
Every one of those plates keeps spinning as the tension continues to ratchet. The two twists in this well-crafted tale – the supposedly useless character becomes a critical piece of the puzzle while the young girl’s story is really at the core of the entire thing – were well concealed underneath the character drama.
We get a lot of nods to the history of the franchise hidden in the stacks: There was an operating manual for the TARDIS, Origins of the Universe, The French Revolution, A Journal of Impossible Things, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (written by former writer and script editor Douglas Adams), Everest in Easy Stages, and Black Orchid.
We also get another crack at the Doctor’s true name, a question that hearkens back to the early days of Doctor Who and has threaded throughout the years in An Unearthly Child, Silver Nemesis, The Girl in the Fireplace, The Shakespeare Code, and The Fires of Pompeii thus far.
This continues Steven Moffat’s theme of childhood fears – Blink had statues that came to life, The Girl in the Fireplace highlighted monsters under the bed, and The Empty Child & The Doctor Dances tackled the fear of war – but we also get a taste of what’s to come from his upcoming run as producer with reference to River as a clever girl. That word is one of his favorites in this universe.
It also highlights his pattern of not letting characters die. That will come back to haunt his run.
Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Midnight
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.