Saturday, August 27, 2016

Be Afraid Of What Is Really In The Dark: "Silence In The Library" Succeeds!

The Good: Plot, Performances, Moments of character
The Bad: Light on character development, Set-up without resolution
The Basics: "Silence In The Library" effectively introduces River Song and the Vashta Nerada to intrigue Doctor Who fans and give them nightmares!

In the history of science fiction, there are remarkably few adversaries that are either not ruined by overexposure or remain ridiculously underdeveloped. A great example of the former is The Borg from the Star Trek franchise; they began as horrifying, menacing, and virtually unstoppable in Star Trek: The Next Generation and were weakened into essentially a cybernetic cult in Star Trek: Voyager. A great example of the latter are the Vashta Nerada. To date, the Vashta Nerada only appear in the Doctor Who two-parter "Silence In The Library" and "Forest Of The Dead."

While the Vashta Nerada make their debut in "Silence In The Library," their appearance is largely overshadowed by the first appearance of River Song. River Song is an immensely popular secondary character in Doctor Who and given that viewers get to see her and not the Vashta Nerada, it's unsurprising that fans remember "Silence In The Library" for River Song instead of the shadowy adversary. "Silence In The Library" follows on the tradition of "Blink" (reviewed here!) in creating an incredibly scary adversary that is based on something that is (more or less) around everywhere.

Opening with a little girl suspended in midair above a massive library, the girl is revealed to be in therapy. During her session with Dr. Moon, the girl is alarmed when someone tries to break into the room she is in in the library in her mind. Unbeknownst to her, it is The Doctor and Donna Noble. It is the 51st Century when The Doctor and Donna arrive at the Library, an entire planet that serves as a repository of all humanity's printed works. The Doctor is shocked to realize that there is no one in the library, though some form of life is registering on the planet at more than a million million lifeforms. Donna theorizes that maybe the books are registering as life forms, but before that can be explored, a Node contacts The Doctor and Donna with a message from the library itself. The Node's message is laced with menace that someone has come to the Library and another message advises people at the library to count the shadows.

Running from the darkness, The Doctor and Donna enter a room with a levitating security droid. The droid houses the personality of the little girl and the girl foresees others coming into the library. Moments later, a team of astronauts arrives in the library, led by the archaeologist River Song, who appears to recognize and know The Doctor. The Doctor informs Donna that the fear of the dark comes from an entity called the Vashta Nerada, which are like shadow piranha in the air. Shadows can be infected with Vashta Nerada, which then consume the people in contact with the shadow. The Vashta Nerada consume Miss Evangelista, removing all of her flesh from her body (though her space suit's interface continues working even after she is dead). After the last echoes of Evangelista fade, the Doctor explains what the Vashta Nerada are and he tries to get Donna out of the library while the rescue team is attacked.

"Silence In The Library" features a message for The Doctor that comes through space and time to his psychic paper, much like the Face Of Boe did on "New Earth" (reviewed here!). That immediately puts River Song on par with Captain Harkness. It's intriguing to see someone who recognizes The Doctor, but claims he looks younger than she has ever seen him, which makes sense for The Doctor encountering her for the first time. The mystery in "Silence In The Library" comes from River Song: when the Library was sealed 100 years before, a message went out to the owner's family stating that 4022 people were saved, without any survivors. Figuring out what that means is the conceit that allows the expedition to be in the same time and place as The Doctor and Donna.

The other major conceit in "Silence In The Library" is the narrative technique of the little girl's world set opposite the "real" world of the library. The entire subplot with the little girl and Dr. Moon is established to explain the mystery of the people who went missing when the library was sealed one hundred years ago. The mystery is not resolved in "Silence In The Library" and while CAL and Dr. Moon are referenced, how they tie in with "Forest Of The Dead" is in no way clear in this episode.

Donna Noble continues to be characterized as the ultimate pragmatist in "Silence In The Library." She calls bullshit on the sonic screwdriver not working on wood. She bonds with Miss Evangelista, the resident personal assistant in the group of astronauts. Both Noble and Evangelista are fish out of water; so the brief time that Evangelista is in the episode, she gives Donna Noble a very humanizing moment and an actual relationship.

The corporate aspect that is prevalent throughout Davies's tenure as showrunner for Doctor Who is present in the form of Mr. Lux, the owner of the library. He is, in many ways, a stereotype or a parody of a businessman. Still, he adds a convincing realism to an episode that is chock full of either long, slow build-up or seemingly supernatural aspects.

The performances in "Silence In The Library" are universally good. Alex Kingston explodes onto the screen as River Song and she and Catherine Tate share a scene that, in lesser hands, could have been boring exposition. Kingston is given a surprisingly heavy emotional scene and she does an excellent job of adding weight and the impression of experience to one of her earliest scenes with Tennant's Doctor. Tennant and Tate continue their incredible chemistry together with well-written banter passing between them seemingly effortlessly. The big surprise is how quickly Kingston and Tennant get into a repartee.

"Silence In The Library" is not flawless and not just because director Euros Lyn has a shot where River Song takes The Doctor's hand and starts running only to have the shot reframed and they are no longer proximate enough to be holding hands. The episode is much more a set-up episode than a clever execution of its ideas. It is a remarkably effective introduction of River Song and the Vashta Nerada. But while "Silence In The Library" is more than enough to make viewers afraid of the Vashta Nerada that could live in any shadows, it is not quite enough to make viewers care about River Song. Fortunately, it gets an amazing follow-up and is clever enough to make viewers want to follow up upon it!

For other works with Josh Dallas, please visit my reviews of:
Once Upon A Time - Season 2
Once Upon A Time - Season 1

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Fourth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the final season of David Tennant as The Doctor here!


For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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