Forest of the Dead
Forest of the Dead was the ninth episode of the fourth series of Doctor Who. Its major impact on the mythos of Doctor Who was its depiction of the death of River Song. This narrative end point would be respected in future series that told River Song’s out-of-sequence story.
River Song uses her sonic blaster to create a hole in the wall. The Tenth Doctor and the others escape the Vashta Nerada-possessed Proper Dave down a corridor.
These events are watched on television by the girl. She switches channels to one showing Donna being taken out of the ambulance on a stretcher. Donna wakes up in a facility being treated by Doctor Moon. When she tries to remember reality, Doctor Moon quietly tells her that she has been in this facility being treated by him for years. She accepts the reality he presents to her. The way time progresses in her virtual world seems to be led by her thoughts; Doctor Moon suggests she walks by the river and she suddenly appears at the river. She occasionally finds this odd, but is reassured by Doctor Moon. He introduces her to another resident named Lee, who has a stammer. Before she knows it, she is married to her ideal man, and they have two children.
She is contacted by a hooded figure, who tells her the world is not real. They arrange to meet in a playground. The figure reveals herself to be Miss Evangelista, whose consciousness was copied when she was killed. In this reality however, she has become much more intelligent. She again warns Donna that the world is not real. Donna is stubborn and skeptical, but to her horror she sees that all the children in the playground – including hers – are identical.
This revelation drives the little girl into hysterics, making her father and Doctor Moon disappear with her TV remote. The Library starts to enter a meltdown, and is set to explode.
Meanwhile, the others in the Library have been on the run from the Vashta Nerada. The Doctor and River Song argue, so to gain his trust, she whispers something in his ear. He is stunned, and seems to trust her completely now. Unfortunately, Anita now has two shadows. She remains brave in the face of her impending death, as the Doctor darkens her visor in the hopes that it might trick the Vashta Nerada into thinking they have already infiltrated it. They then realize that “Proper Dave” has caught up with them again, and they flee. The Doctor stops to try to reason with the Vashta Nerada. River tells Other Dave to stay behind to help the Doctor, who teaches the Vashta Nerada to use the suit’s communicator to speak to him. In doing so, he learns that they came as micro-spores in millions and millions of books, and then hatched. Other Dave, in the meantime, has also been killed by the Vashta Nerada, leaving the Doctor trapped between the two Daves. He escapes through a trap door hatch, and sets off after the other three.
Elswhere, River Song is telling Anita about the Doctor she knows. She has seen whole armies turn and run away from him in the future, and he can open the TARDIS by snapping his fingers. The Doctor arrives, and says that is impossible. As he returns his attention to the present, Anita asks him what River whispered in his ear earlier. She reminds him that she’s about to die, and so his secret is “safe” with her. This prompts him to finally realize the significance of the oddly-worded “4022 saved” message. He figures out that the Library’s computer hard drive – CAL – literally “saved” all of the four thousand twenty-two people in the Library to its hard drive a hundred years ago, and has done the same with Donna.
The team travel to the core of the planet to the computer. The little girl is in fact the hard drive. She was Strackman Lux’s grandfather’s youngest daughter, Charlotte Abigail Lux (aka “CAL”). She was dying of an incurable disease, so he made an imaginary world for her to live in and and every book ever written for her to enjoy. He also gave her a “Doctor Moon” to watch over her, but the stress of having so many minds integrated into her own is causing her to overload. She has initiated the self-destruct and is about to destroy the planet.
The Doctor realizes that to restore the “saved” people, the Library needs extra memory. This can be achieved by linking himself to the core. River Song says that this will burn through both his hearts, and kill him without a chance of even being able to regenerate. He sends River and Lux upstairs to prepare for the restoration. As she exits, River tells Anita to watch him.
Anita asks the Doctor what he intends to do about the Vashta Nerada. He states he intends to materialize the people, get them off the planet, and then leave the world to the Vashta Nerada. When asked if he thinks the Vashta Nerada will take his offer, he reveals Anita has already been consumed by them. When they, using Anita’s suit, threaten to consume him and everyone else, he reminds them he is the Doctor… They are in the biggest library in the universe, and he tells them to look him up. They pause after a moment of consideration, and then agree: they will give him one day to evacuate everyone. They then abandon the suit and withdraw.
River returns to find Anita dead, then knocks the Doctor unconscious. He wakes up, finding himself handcuffed to the wall. River has hooked her own mind up to the computer, planning to carry out the plan in his place. He tries desperately to persuade River to let him do this. He remind her that she whispered his real name into his ear, which he could only tell someone for one reason… She refuses, and sadly notes that during all the time they shared and will share together, he always knew this is where and when she dies. She links in when the countdown reaches zero and dies, as the Doctor looks on.
Donna and the other saved people return in the library, and begin to be evacuated. Donna cannot find Lee, and she and the Doctor conclude that perhaps he never really existed at all. The real Lee sees as he steps onto a teleport, but his stammer prevents him from calling out to her before he is teleported away. The Doctor and Donna briefly muse over River Song’s diary, as it contains details of her life and their future. Ultimately, they decide not to look in it, and leave it behind on a shelf along with the sonic screwdriver his future self gave her.
Suddenly, the Doctor comes running back. He realizes that since he knew River’s fate all along, his future self would have had years to think of a way to save her. He knows that he wouldn’t just give her a sonic screwdriver without a good reason. Opening it, he finds that it contains a hidden neural relay. As with the data ghosts, her consciousness has been saved there. However, it is fading. The Doctor takes River for “one last run”, as he sprints back to the core. He uploads River’s data ghost into the Library’s computer, as the face of Charlotte looks on and smiles. River appears in a virtual reality created by Charlotte and is reunited with all of her team members for all eternity.
In the real world, the Doctor returns to the TARDIS. Standing before it and concentrating, he tries opening the TARDIS doors with a snap of his fingers and is able to do so. He goes inside to join Donna, and turns to look back outside with her. As he snaps his fingers to close the door of the TARDIS, River closes the blue TARDIS-shaped diary. River is sitting in the kids’ bedroom of Donna’s house in the virtual realm, and has been telling the story of the Doctor to Donna’s two children, and Charlotte, who has moved to live with them. Charlotte has a real family now, human consciousnesses to keep her company in her “Dream”. Smiling, River turns out the lights, saying “Sweet dreams everyone.”