vashtaDoctor Who has been much on my mind lately, what with the new Matt Smith season starting up. (Next Saturday’s episode will be the one penned by master horror/fantasy wordsmith Neil Gaiman, and I’m quite looking forward to it.) But as I was discussing earlier episodes with a friend who is watching through them for the first time, I realized one of them touched on a TeleRead-related topic, and I didn’t mention it when it was originally on the air.

The episode in question is the season 4 two-parter “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead”, written by now-showrunner Stephen Moffat. It can be viewed streaming as part of the Doctor Who collection on Netflix, or in a low-resolution form via YouTube; there’s also a transcript here. You don’t really need any context to enjoy it beyond knowing that the Doctor is an eccentric time traveler who likes to travel with human companions. I’m going to spoil it a bit, so perhaps you should just take my word that it’s good and watch it first.

This isn’t really a full “review” of the episode, as I only touch on a couple of e-book-related plot elements, but suffice it to say it’s very creepy and atmospheric, with a number of interesting characters and ideas—well worth watching. But as for those plot elements…

“People never really stopped loving books,” the Doctor explains as he leads his companion Donna Noble out of the Tardis into a library. “51st century. By now you’ve got holovids, direct to brain downloads, fiction mist, but you need the smell. The smell of books, Donna. Deep breath.” I cannot now recall my exact feelings the first time I heard that line, but I would like to think I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to laugh or throw something at the screen. Even in Doctor Who do you find “the smell of books.”

And you also find the contention that printed books will never die. While Doctor Who’s chronology can be a bit suspect at times (another episode had 20th century TV shows being re-staged in the year 100,000 AD!), book-lovers can take solace in the fact that, in the Doctor Who universe, three thousand years from now there will be a library the size of a planet. (At the rate people publish books, there will probably have to be a library the size of a planet to hold them all, if they all come out in print!)

But it turns out that this is not necessarily a good thing (and here come those spoilers), because the books carried along with them a sort of infection or infestation. The trees that were pulped to make the books had been the home of sentient piranha-like living shadow creatures called the vashta nerada, that can strip all the flesh off a person’s skeleton in less than a second. And the Doctor is faced with having to protect a team of archaeologists from the threat and find out what happened to the thousands of staff and patrons who had previously inhabited the library, who the library computer rather ominously explains were “saved” even though there were “no survivors.”

So you could say that one subtext of the episode is that e-books are better because they are guaranteed 100% shadow-piranha-free. But perhaps that’s not the only e-book-related thing that’s worth pointing out about this episode. It turns out (another spoiler) that those staff and patrons had been “saved” by being digitized onto the library’s hard drive via the library’s transmat system—much the way print books can be “saved” by being digitized into e-books on hard drives.

I may be reaching a little here (given that the episode never explicitly makes this parallel), but it’s an amusing interpretation, isn’t it? And it does go right along with the way the episode subverts the love of print books even in an age of “fiction mist” by making those print books home to the monster of the week. (And who knows how many other giant libraries are similarly-infected?)

At any rate, if you want to explain to someone why e-books are better than print books, you can point to this episode and explain that e-books won’t eat the flesh off your bones. (They’ll just eat up all your free time, if you let them.)


  1. This episode certainly has a strong ecological message about the damage to ecosystems with the destruction of vast forests of trees to print books.

    DOCTOR WHO has always had a love affair with paper books and authors. The episode with Agatha Christie comes to mind where the Doctor pulls out one of her books that has been printed way into our future.

    Of course, a sleek ebook reader would look so out of place in the steampunk insides of the TARDIS.

  2. “At any rate, if you want to explain to someone why e-books are better than print books, you can point to this episode and explain that e-books won’t eat the flesh off your bones.”

    Obviously, you haven’t recently watched any of the Doctor Who episodes where computers are the villains. 🙂

    I was vastly amused to encounter this post at the top of the TeleRead blog, because I came here immediately after replying to a Netflix e-mail asking me whether I enjoyed rewatching “Forest of the Dead” last night. Given the constraints placed upon the scriptwriters of this series (Doctor. Monster. Lots of Corpses.), I’m a bit reluctant to turn any Doctor Who episode into a grand thesis on the future of technology.

    A much more direct e-book connection, though, comes from the fact that the BBC has periodically given away free e-books of Doctor Who novelizations as a way to stimulate inteest in the series. In addition, the BBC, faced with the fact that a number of the Doctor Who episodes from the 1960s and 1970s were wiped, has placed online photonovels that combine still images with accompanying recordings, as a way to retell those episodes. The BBC has also made use of online animation, short online prequels to episodes, online documentaries, online images and character galleries (they have four decades’ worth of characters to draw upon) . . .

    In other words, the BBC has made full use of the virtual world to promote Doctor Who.

    Of course, some of us still like to snuggle up with a 1970s print novelization. (*Pauses to smell the binding.*)

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