Sometimes, it’s useful to place Doctor Who in a wider cultural landscape, to see how the themes it explores are put to use in other pieces of popular culture. So today, we’re going to look at season eight story “In the Forest of the Night” alongside the proto-Studio Ghibli film “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”, and the Gorillaz song, “Hallelujah Money”, and see how the the themes of the three texts intersect and contrast to form an unsettling but powerful commentary on the world we live in today.
Trees are a central image in each text, working as either a driving plot point, a key metaphor for said text’s commentary, or both of these things at the same time. “Hallelujah Money” opens with the line “Here is our tree that primitively grows”. Given the series of biblical references that run throughout the song, this line serves as a biblical allusion to the tree of good and evil (you could probably also draw parallels to other trees in the bible, such as the fig tree Jesus withers), a source of knowledge that can also be linked to a loss of innocence and purity. The link to the tree of good and evil is further emphasized by the lines “It is love that is the root of all evil/ Not our tree/ […] For beasts of all nations desire power”, a line that makes the tree representative also of the fragile nature of the nation state: it grows primitively, and can be shattered in an instant, coming under threat from “beasts of all nations”, and as such is projected jealously and angrily. The speaker in the poem simultaneously takes on a Trump-like voice, talking of of walls to be built and openly worshiping money, while cutting a figure that is simultaneously god-like and satanic, trying to tempt the audience into the comforting belief that the tree is not evil, will not be a source of harm, while also speaking in an authoritative, protective tone. It’s a heady mix of disorienting imagery and language, blurring the line between right and wrong, God and Satan, individual and nation, while also drawing a firm line between “us” and “them”, very much the Trumpian strategy for persuading and manipulating the worst instincts of his electorate.
Trees are also hugely significant to “Nausicaa”, namely the trees that form the toxic jungle, the part of the plot through which Miyazaki most explicitly explores the environmental themes that recur through most of his films. And it’s perhaps most interesting to explore the environmental themes alongside his other, initially seemingly contradictory, recurring theme: his love of engineering and machinery. Miyazaki clearly isn’t a man who is anti technological progress, rather he seeks to show the importance of finding a way the environment and technology can work together to create conditions to live in. The villagers in the valley use the wind as a sustainable source of power, and learn to harness it to fly on their gliders. The forest protects the village from the toxic jungle, and in return, the villagers use fire not in vast quantities to burn down the planet, as the Tolmekians and Pejites do in their literal scorched Earth solution to the problems humanity faces at the hands of the jungle, but in small amounts to protect the forest from the spores of the toxic jungle, enabling a symbiotic relationship between nature and humanity that keeps the forest and the village alive.
So, what is the forest in “In the Forest of the Night”? Well, first and foremost, it’s presented as a liminal space, of transformation and change. This hails back to a very old literary tradition, unsurprising for an episode that references William Blake’s “The Tyger” in its title. It’s a tradition frequently explored, for example, in Shakespeare’s early comedies, where characters leave civilization to go to the forest, a space outside of civilisation where the usual social order collapses: characters of lower class take command of characters of higher class, women take on the roles of men. The same upturning of social conventions are at play here: Clara continues her Doctor like transformation, tricking him to go back to the TARDIS in order to save his life, just as he does for her in “The Time of the Doctor”. The Twelfth Doctor becomes more connected to humanity, echoing Clara’s admonishment of his actions in “Kill the Moon” by saying “I walk your earth, I breathe your air.” The children, described by Clara as “Furious, fearful, and tongue-tied” become able to work together and save the planet. The Forest, or “Here” is also positioned as the unrecognized and forgotten protector of humanity, a role that links nicely to the biblical allusions of the tree of good and evil in “Hallelujah Money”. But where “Hallelujah Money” treats the knowledge represented by the “tree that primitively grows” as something fragile, that is jealously guarded by the rich and powerful, “In the Forest of the Night” presents humanity forgetting Here as a necessary suppression of the collective social subconscious, a way of avoiding the trauma that comes with the knowledge of our fragile state of existence. Forgetting is, after all, the human superpower. These allusions also allow for a striking contrast to the symbiotic relationship between the Valley of the Wind and the forest: humanity doesn’t need a symbiotic relationship with Here, we just need to literally not burn the trees down, and they will protect us, give us life. Considering what we do the the rainforests in spite of the benefits they give to the planet surprisingly comparable to the environmental situation in the real world.
“Fear a little bit less, trust a bit more.”
On my first listen, I would not have noticed the blatant political aims of “Hallelujah Money” if it hadn’t been for the fact that every article on the release was pointing it out (though the title and the weird experimental nature of the song do point towards a critique of Capitalism). But reading the lyrics, it’s pretty blatant, really:
“Scarecrows come from the far east/ to eat its tender fruits
[…] I thought the best way to perfect our tree
Is by building walls
[…] Even Stronger
Than The Walls of Jericho“
I especially love the last quote – that’s a tremendously cheeky biblical allusion: “stronger” than the walls that were broken down by Joshua’s army playing music. The song’s not shy or modest about what it aims to do.
And this is mixed with commentary on Capitalist impulses, and legal justifications for their excesses: “It’s not against our morals/ It’s legal tender“, a line that emphasizes the way legal justifications can made for any act that may feel uncomfortable or immoral. The phrase “legal tender” of course, means money that can be legally spent in a given nation: morality, the law, and financial benefit are all wound together in a self destructive circle. These capitalist impulses first flip biblical morality (“The Meek shall inherit the Earth” type stuff) on its head: “It is love that is the root of all evil/ Not our tree“. Money (“our tree”, which as we’ve established, is representative of the American Nation state, but in the context of the phrase “root of all evil”, also stands for money, western wealth in particular) isn’t the root of all evil, says the parody of Trumpian morality, it’s love, you understood it all wrong. Don’t be kind, or support those who are less well off. Pursue money, for money is the root of good. And of course, in the chorus, this perverted Christian morality fuses with the capitalist excess into literal worship of money in the chorus.
At least on this analysis, “Hallelujah Money” comes across as not so much an allegory on Trumpism, but more a commentary on the bizarre and unsettling commentary on the fusion of fundamentalist conservative Christianity, excessive Capitalist wealth, and hostility towards immigrants that makes up the far right coalition that is gaining traction across the western world at the moment. It is suitably unsettling, with its weird, off kilter music that is far from easy to listen to, mixing in a spoken second verse. And there’s also something to be said about the minimal role of the Gorillaz in this song. For all that it’s a Gorillaz song featuring Clementine, it feels more like a Clementine song featuring the Gorillaz, with 2D only getting to sing for the seven-line bridge: Damon Albarn has notably stepped back and given the platform of a song that parodies the rise of a racist demagogue to a young black man who lived as a homeless teenager on the streets of Paris.
The politics of “Nausicaa” are best explored through the commonly made observation that the story has no true villains. It is a claim worth questioning: while the Tolmekians, Pejites, and people of the valley all have understandable motivations, the story is a highly effective demonstration of the nature of oppression and colonialism. The almost utopian community of the Valley of the wind keeps a peace and harmony that is shattered by the tolmekian airship that crashes into their community, bringing the giant warrior, a symbol of war and the resources that drain the planet, with it. The POV faction in the film are a group that have no part in the war who are invaded by a civilization with vastly more resources for the purpose of arming themselves for their war: the Tolmekians may not be bad guys, but they’re definitely not good guys. Paarticularly telling is Kushana’s claim that “we’re not savages who’ve come to massacre your people” right after she bring an army to a defenceless village and kills the villages’ bedridden king, and then strips the village of all its resources. Princess Kushana justifies her actions through her desire (yes, seemingly genuine) to unite humanity under her rule to save humanity from the jungle, but this is hardly a case of the ends justifying the means. However, the Pegites’ methods are just as horrifying, highlighting the fact that there is no simple “good” side in this war, even if all sides perform actions that could be seen as villainous. The Pejites are also willing to sell out the Valley of the Wind, and tear down the toxic jungle without thought for the consequences: their plan to kidnap and torture the baby Ohm to bait the herd of Ohm into destroying the valley to enable the retrieval of the warrior is genuinely awful.
The film’s response to this image of war is a deeply principled stand in favour of pacifism, as Nausicaa’s horror at her own murderous rage after her father’s death results in her determination to stop the fighting at every turn possible. It’s a rare example of a male character being killed to drive a female character’s plot instead of the reverse, but in a telling difference to most “woman in refridgerator” plotlines, this drives the reverse of a revenge plot, as Nausicaa is instead motivated to keep the peace between the various factions in the war. A key quote here is Nausicaa’s repeated line “nothing to fear”, which she says to Teto at the start of the film, and to Kushana in their toxic jungle stand off. The finale of the film hinges on her ceasing the Ohm’s anger, driven by fear for the life of a baby Ohm, creating parallels between her “don’t kill it!” memory of keeping the secret Ohm as a child, through the visuals of the golden fields and the prophecy Nausicaa fulfils. Fear of the unknown is not the solution to war and destruction. Instead, the solution comes in the form of a willingness to study, learn, and seek out peace.
The politics of “In the Forest” are mostly rooted in the episode’s environmentalism, but I think you can also make a case for this line being a sly anticapitalist dig:
“CLARA: Why would trees want to kill us? We love trees.
DOCTOR: You’ve been chopping them down for furniture for centuries. If that’s love, no wonder they’re calling down fire from the heavens.”
Just as Capitalist impulses are linked to religious imagery in “Hallelujah Money”, and “Nausicaa” provides a reversal of the Genesis creation myth that links to Hiroshima in the visual representation of said myth, “In the Forest of the Night” provides a further biblical allusions in the form of the Doctor’s reference to “fire from the Heavens”. But where “Hallelujah Money” links its religious imagery to the worship and jealous guarding of wealth in capitalist culture, “In the Forest” presents biblical rage as nature’s response to the decimation of the environment for the creation of capitalist produce. Where Nausicaa and “Hallelujah Money” subvert their biblical allusions, “In the Forest” plays its allusions straight, invoking its version of divine justice as a natural consequence of humanity’s destruction of the environment.
Also significant to the politics of “In the Forest” is fact that the kids get to be the ones who save the day. A diverse group of neuroatypical kids who’ve been dismissed by our education system and society at large as the type of people who won’t contribute anything of worth to the world save the earth. Just as Clementine takes centre stage on a song that ostensibly is a Gorillaz single, the Doctor gives the Coal Hill gifted and talented the platform, deciding they are the people whose voices need to be heard. It’s a moment that relies heavily on age based dualism, just as Blake’s poetry focuses on the divide between innocence and experience: the hope of the young is place against cynicism of the old, and the systems of power our society perpetuates. “We want to help” say the kids, and for probably the first time in their lives, it’s acknowledged that their voices matter, and when they’re given the platform they need, they save the world. That will never not be beautiful to me.
“Why does everything have to go?”
Roughly three minutes into “Hallelujah Money”, Clementine stops singing, and instead intones
“If this is the end/ Then so it shall be”.
All three texts are deeply preoccupied with the possibility that humanity has come to the end of its existence, and that there may be nothing we can do to stop this. Clementine’s spoken lines are philosophical, calm. There is nothing we can do to stop this ending, so all we can do is meet it. The imagery linked to book of Revelation in the lines “And Beasts of all nations/ Desire power” does more to position this ending as something inevitable, that cannot be stopped placing it on a larger, cosmological scale. But the two words “Desire power” emphasize the small scale, human responsibility for this grand, unstoppable ending. This inevitable ending, that we have no option but to meet with measured calm, is not the result of the inexorable arc of history, but has instead been brought about by the human pursuit for power.
In “Nausicaa”, the exploration of environmental themes leads to an implicit parallel between the fate of humanity as it and the fate of the jungle, made clearest in the scene where Nausicaa shows Lord Yupa the purified plants from the toxic jungle she has been growing, and reveals that the soil is polluted, not the water feeding it, or the plant life that grows there. The very foundations of the jungle are the source of corruption, just as it seems to be the case that humanity’s will to fight and kill one another in search of increasingly scarce resources is at the core of our nature, the poison in the soil we have grown from. It’s a metaphor that raises the real possibility that it’s too late for humanity, that we are doomed to war and hatred and destruction of the environment until the world is no longer a place we are able to live in. This metaphor is further explored through the Giant warriors, who are equated to weapons of mass destruction: they are mechanical beings that torched the Earth (which looks somewhat like Earth of the present day from the little we can make out in brief flashbacks) in seven days, mixing the real world world parallel with biblical connotations: just as the earth was created in seven day according to creation myths such as the one in the book of Genesis, the Warriors destroy the Earth in seven days. The brief scenes of the warrior attacking the Ohm, and sending huge clouds of destruction, coming from a Japanese filmmaker, result in parallels to Hiroshima that are plain to see: there’s an implicit fear that the greedy use of technology we have engaged in over the last hundred years could result in humanity causing levels of destruction that go beyond the scale of natural reason, a fear that comes from a collective cultural memory of the wars that ravaged the 20th century, and caused death on a seemingly unnatural, yet frighteningly real, level.
There are two key scenes through which we can understand the approach “In the Forest” takes towards discussing the end of the world. The first comes when the Doctor first meets Clara, Danny, and the Coal Hill gifted and talented:
“CLARA: Everyone, this is the Doctor, and he’s going to sort everything out. Isn’t that right, Doctor? It’s what he does.
DOCTOR: Well, having looked at things, I think, probably, the answer to that is no.
CLARA: He always says that. He’s really clever.
DOCTOR: Oh, yes, I am. Very clever. But what use is clever against trees? They don’t listen to reason. You can’t plead with them. You can’t lie to them. They have no moving parts, no circuits. This is a natural event.
DANNY: How can it be natural for a tree to grow in one night?
DOCTOR: Exactly what they said about the Ice Age. How can whole glaciers just pop up out of nowhere? Well, they just did. That’s how this planet grows – a series of catastrophes. Farewell to the Ice Age. Welcome to the Tree Age. Possibly. When the Ice Age was here, you lot managed to cook mammoth. Now there’s a forest, you’ll just have to eat nuts.”
Here, the nature of the threat this episode is laid out: trees have grown overnight, the latest natural catastrophe to reshape our planet. But this is a catastrophe that can be lived with, albeit with a drastic change to human life. Later in the episode, we get a similar, less hopeful, exchange between Clara and the Doctor, after they’ve discovered a solar flare is coming to wipe out the planet:
“CLARA: This really is going to happen, isn’t it?
DOCTOR: Stars implode. Planets grow cold. Catastrophe is the metabolism of the universe. I can fight monsters. I can’t fight physics.”
The end of the world is, of course, something we’re confronted with a lot in Doctor Who. And from a dramatic perspective, it does seem strange that the show is trying to sell the end of the planet as something that’s likely to happen in the season’s cheap, kid friendly episode placed just before the dramatic finale. Sure, Doctor Who tries to sell “The end of the world” as a viable threat most weeks, and has succeeded in doing so at various points in a given season. But here, suspension of disbelief isn’t possible. So, let’s not read this episode through the lens of “suspension of disbelief”, as suspension of disbelief is patently not what an episode that starts with a forest growing overnight is aiming for. Instead, let’s read the world’s potential ending through the lens of the running reference to “catastrophe”, and the idea that huge natural disasters that lead to a drastic reshaping of the planet are what drives existence itself. We’re invited to consider the end of the world not as an exciting escalation of dramatic conflict, but in the terms of the end of the Antropocene: an endpoint of human history, and humanity’s time as the dominant species on the planet. And the terror represented by this kind of natural disaster is best explified by the other running thread in these two scenes: the Doctor’s claim that he can’t “fight physics”, that he can’t “reason” with trees. The threat they represent comes because they are something human ingenuity, the thing that led to the Antropocene, can’t prevent.
But of course, our planet’s current ecological crisis isn’t just something human ingenuity cannot prevent. It is, ultimately, something we have caused. Because we’ve become too attached to our cleverness. To the convenience of cars and planes that takes us where we want to go quicker than more sustainable forms of travel. To the benefits of a consumer culture where supply cannot indefinitely meet demand. The Dinosaurs were wiped out by a natural disaster they couldn’t prevent. One day, a comet plummeted towards the earth, and that was it. Millions of years of prehistory, finished in an instant. Meanwhile, the ingenuity that has sustained our species for centuries could now result in us creating our very own natural disaster, just as humanity’s creation of the giant warriors in “Nausicaa” leads to the destruction of the earth in five days. The Doctor and the children tell humanity to stop burning the trees, because they’re keeping us alive. Our society has been sent the same message, but we keep burning the trees all the same. Instead, we turn to reactionary politicians like Trump, for the comforting embrace of hatred they offer as a sedative to the existential crisis we face. For the lie those politicians and people in power are more than happy to tell, the lie that we don’t have to change our consumer culture, for our tree isn’t the root of all evil. Which is why why need to listen to the message delivered by people like Clementine, and the coal hill Gifted and Talented. People of colour who are harmed by Trump’s racism. Neuroatypical people who are harmed by his ableism. People who see neoreactionary politics for the false sedative to our planet’s problems that it is, and who respond with a message we have to hear. We’re killing our planet. We need to save it, and ourselves. But will we hear the message? We have to. It is, and I truly believe this, our only viable alternative to the destination we’ve set for ourselves.