Did we like it?
A typical Steven Moffat script – a wondrous, delightfully indulgent imagination, monsters that scare through inaction rather than barminess or bluster, disorientating plotting and an almost indistinguishable absence of any coherent narrative (in order to put in place the cliffhangers for Forest of the Dead).
What was good about it?
• Steven Moffat stories are welcomed like the Second Coming partly because of their ambition and imagination, and partly because they are so distinct from the more agreeably lucid Russell T Davies capers. And their most marked contrast is in the nature of the beasts the Doctor encounters.
• In Davies’s stories the enemy is often a more conventional foe, with Moffat the Doctor has faced casualties of war wrongly repaired by well-meaning, but misguided alien nanobots, clockwork robots, living statues and now ‘the dark’ (or the Vashta Nerada), all of whom have one thing in common – they don’t talk, save for a haunting scratched-record refrain of “Are you my mummy?” or here, the brilliantly effective, “Hey! Who turned out the lights?” turning blithe, innocuous questions into harbingers of lethal imperilment.
• The plot was also loaded with more oblique mysteries than a series of Lost – who is the little girl who can communicate with the Doctor through the electronic devices in her seemingly normal living room, why have the Vashta Nerada congregated in the Library, why did the future Doctor’s companion Professor River Song (the excellent Alice Kingston) regard Donna with a look of pity when she discovered her identity, what is CAL, and what happened to Donna?
• The only one we can hazard a guess at is that Donna has been ‘saved’ by being flung into the world of the little girl and Dr Moon, who were among those ‘saved’ when the Vashta Nerada first invaded (or are their descendants). While slightly more vague stabs in the dark are that the girl is the manifest consciousness of the security system of the Library, and that CAL is very similar to HAL, the malevolent, near-sentient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
• The superb sets that added to the voluminous creepiness, as darkness closing in always seems more sinister when it does so in large spaces. The rows and rows of books were effective to, like something out of the mind of JG Ballard. And the nodes, effectively information points, were great too, bearing the real face of a ‘dead’ person who now have the personality and vocal range of an automated cashpoint and which was brought to its logical zenith when Donna’s face appeared on one.
• While Moffat may eschew volubility in his monsters, he compensates with a pithily sketched supporting cast who even when they snuff it, have already been moulded, sometimes cynically so, into people the audience cares about. Here it was the dumb Miss Evangelista who wandered off to have her flesh stripped to the bone by the Vashta Nerada, but whose consciousness lived on for a short while through her “neural communicator” (no, we didn’t really understand it either, and it seemed to be a case of spewing up jargon in the hope that nobody really noticed it was nonsense), and whose doomed, disembodied voice pleaded with Donna not to tell the rest of her assembled crew about their intimate chat, which recalled Thanto and Martha’s chat just before she was murdered by the Master.
• Along with Kingston the supporting cast including the sonorous Colin Salmon and the precocious Eve Newton, were very good, too.
What was bad about it?
• As perhaps befits a very complex, convoluted tale, plenty needed to be crammed into the first episode by way of introduction of characters, proposing atmosphere and guarded exposition – the teasing River Song, notably – left very little time for any drama.
• This only came in the shape of the staple horror movie cliché of idiot wandering off to needless death in spite of credible warnings of deadly danger and another chase, of which there have been far too many this series. However, much of this criticism is negated by the fact that all of this preparation should set up a superb finale (although we thought the same of Army of Ghosts, The Sound of Drums and The Sontaron Stratagem, and they yielded the slightly disappointing Doomsday, Last of the Timelords and The Poison Sky).