Monday, 20 January 2014

And Now For Something Completely Different

Doctor Who
Love & Monsters
Series Two, Episode Ten

Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Coming right after two of the scariest, thinkiest episodes of Doctor Who ever, Love & Monsters was bound to jar a bit.  It's easily the oddest episode so far, with a comedic narrator, flashbacks, Peter Kay, humour that lampoons a few things and outright spoofs others, deaths that are played for laughs and deaths that aren't, and to top it all, almost no Doctor and Rose.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, many fans hate it with a passion.  Is it really that bad?

"Oh God, he's doing that one!
Yes it's that bad!  Quick, switch it off!"
- Many Fans
As the show's first Doctor-lite episode, it's an uphill struggle just to keep the audience interested.  Filling the Main Character's parking space is Elton, played by Marc Warren.  He's an average man, likeable if a bit pathetic, whose life is tangled up with the Doctor.  He's seen rampaging shop window dummies, a spaceship crashing into Big Ben, and been woken up by another one on Christmas Day (no doubt noticing a third of the population standing on the rooftops).  He even saw the Doctor once, when he was little.  When you think about it, Doctor Who has a cast of thousands all like Elton, and we never get to hear from them.  It's not such a bad idea to meet one of them.

Russell T Davies set up in his first episode that people have noticed the Doctor.  Elton's not alone, so he forms a group called LINDA to investigate the Doctor, the TARDIS and Rose.  This is an obvious allusion to Doctor Who fandom, and it's one of the main reasons people seem to hate Love & Monsters.  The Guardian called it "a parody of Doctor Who fans".  Okay, let's look at LINDA: three women and two men of varying ages, who get together to discuss sightings and theories.  So far, so internet forum.  But there's more to them.  They share other interests, discover things in common and become good friends, in some cases more than that.  The Doctor is what got them all together, but their lives don't begin and end on that one subject.  That's a positive image of fandom.  If anything, Davies has sugar-coated it.  (These guys don't argue half as much as the real thing.)

So, what about Elton?  Marc Warren's narration borders on a Nick-Hornby-epiphany at times (as Mitchell and Webb put it, "All this time that I thought my life was A, it was actually B!"), but it's creatively done, popping backwards and forwards and taking pot shots at narration in general.  It's different, and I like it; anything that'll shake up the Doctor Who formula ought to be worth trying once.  But Elton's story isn't all unreliable-narrator jokes.  He strikes up a lovely rapport with fellow Doctor-spotter Ursula (the wonderful Shirley Henderson), and the mystery of what happened when he was little, when the Doctor came to visit, is neatly and poignantly done.  The final reveal, coupled with a montage of his mum, is worth waiting for.

This bit's good, so I'm not doing a funny caption.
"You do funny captions?"
Shut up!
The good bits don't begin and end with Elton, either.  When LINDA is effortlessly taken over by Victor Kennedy, a man determined to find the Doctor, he encourages Elton to investigate Jackie Tyler.  We're treated to a few days in the life of Rose's stuck-at-home mum, and it's a tour de force for Camilla Coduri.  You'd expect her to flirt when a man pays her attention, and she does – and then some – but there are moments of quiet sadness and real determination peeking through Jackie's story, especially when she thinks Elton has sinister intentions for Rose and the Doctor.  Jackie isn't a lot of people's favourite character (she certainly isn't mine), but Love & Monsters shows how far she's come.  She's a three-dimensional person, another great example (besides Elton) of people who orbit around the Doctor, and the toll that takes.

When you really look, there's a great deal to like about Love & Monsters.  While we're being honest, I even like Peter Kay.  It's tempting to cry "Stunt casting!", something that's rarely helped Doctor Who in the past: Joan Sims, Richard Briers, Ken Dodd and Hale & Pace all appeared on the show in the late '80s, and all of them were rather conspicuous.  Nowadays they're synonymous with its decline.  But Victor Kennedy is a nicely judged character, sinister and funny, with a lot of witty lines such as "Oh, I could kiss you!  Except I can't, of course.  My exzeema."  Take a breather, fandom: it's okay for Doctor Who to be funny, or even silly, sometimes.

Where Love & Monsters falls down – and I admit, it falls down quite hard – is how funny and how silly.  Russell T Davies has an unusual grasp of tone, loving to juxtapose horrible moments against light-hearted ones.  He's been doing that since Day #1, as per my Rose review: "Davies obviously feels that silliness makes the horror more horrific.  He’s partly right.  Trouble is, it also makes the horror feel a bit random."  A good example is the way Victor murders members of LINDA.  Comically detaining one of them after the others have left, we follow the group outside and hear a scream.  (Curiously, they don't notice this.)  It later turns out they've been absorbed by Kennedy, in reality an alien, and they're doomed to exist as faces growing out of his body.  One of them protrudes from his bottom.

It's one thing to ask us to feel bad about this, another thing entirely to ask us to laugh about it afterwards.  When Ursula is absorbed, she begs Elton not to touch her lest he gets absorbed as well.  Then Elton begs Kennedy to let them go, but it's too late.  Shortly afterwards, with nothing left to live for, Elton is content to let Victor kill him.  All very grim and a bit upsetting, except ho, ho!  Remember, there's a face coming out of his bum!

There's no way around it.  The Abzorbaloff is horrible.  Scroll up to the top of the page and take a good, long look.  Designed by a nine-year-old for Blue Peter, it's actually a terrifying concept, and a good design, but oscillating between terrifying and ridiculous was never going to work.  The sight of a fat-suited Peter Kay snarling and rampaging after Elton is like seeing through the eyes of someone who hates Doctor Who.  It's heart-freezingly naff, and unlike Victor, utterly misjudged.  Switching Peter Kay into his natural Bolton accent makes it even sillier.  When the Doctor and Rose turn up (so Rose can chastise Elton for upsetting her mum – something Rose has never done, obviously), pointing out that he looks a bit like a Slitheen isn't just lazy. (Oh look, green!  Did I mention I invented the Slitheen?)  It also turns an already silly monster into a spoof of one we've already had.  I actually quite like the "What's the twin planet of Raxacoricofallapatorius?" joke, but that doesn't stop it sounding like part of a Comic Relief skit.

INT: Russell T Davies's writing room.
"Of course!  That's the perfect ending!
They'll LOVE it!"
And this isn't even the worst bit, though by itself the Abzorbaloff sequence is nearly enough to undo what works about the episode.  Capping it off is the fate of Ursula.  The Doctor, using his "magic wand" (which is a pretty solid nickname for the sonic screwdriver) manages to resurrect Ursula.  But only her face.  Elton scrapes her off the pavement and, we are told, lives happily ever after with a talking paving slab.  Thanks to the Doctor, Ursula gets to live as a disembodied face, Elton has a loved one he can never show to anyone, and – you knew this bit was coming – it's suggested the two of them "have a bit of a love life".  Incidentally, all this happens right after the sad montage about Elton's mum.  Uh, too soon maybe?

A better example of mixing something horrible with something ridiculous, you will not find in this episode.  In his summary at the end, Elton (quoting Stephen King) suggests that "salvation and damnation are the same thing".  Following that thread, Love & Monsters seems to think that you can jumble up any two emotions and just call it juxtaposition.  In reality, suggesting that Ursula's future as an oral-sex-paving-slab is a Happy Ending isn't quirky, it's wrong.

It's a shame when five terrible minutes threaten to overwrite forty good ones.  Love & Monsters really is worth recommending for the most part: a departure from the norm that says a few very thoughtful things about the people in the Doctor's life, or at least on his periphery, and it's funny, if trying a bit too hard sometimes, as well as emotional.  It's not a bad episode, it's just different.  And then you get to the clusterbomb ending which I can't defend at all.  What can I say?  Unfortunately for Love & Monsters, sometimes you can't help remembering the bad jokes better than the good ones.


  1. I quite like this one overall too, I'm in pretty much complete agreement with you here. It's a shame the last five minutes or so muck it up so badly. It's not like 'Fear Her' - which grates on me the whole way through - 'Love and Monsters' is actually pretty great fun for most of its run-time. And Camille Coduri hits it out of the park with Jackie in this one - I remember watching this one for the first time and being thrilled that she was getting a bit of attention, having liked her from the start.

    The Absorbaloff is a hideous design, but that's actually kinda good - it's supposed to be a hideous creature. And I really like the engagement with the fans that it represents - featuring a kid's drawing competition entry in the show? That's brilliant, a sure way to secure lifelong fans. A neat way to make some kid out there feel special too, and who knows? Maybe the kid will even be inspired to make a future career in TV or something.

    As for the episode being 'Doctor-Lite' and focusing on previously-unknown background characters, I really applaud that, I think it's brave and innovative, and I would far rather watch a show that's prepared to take these sorts of narrative risks than one that just plays it safe all the time. I even think the Raxicoricofallipatorious (?) joke is RTD's way of nudging us to say he knows it's a bit naff, but just go with it.

    So yeah, I think there are 'fandom narratives' that become set in stone about how a certain episode is either stellar or crap, and then that's how they get remembered, quite apart from what's actually IN the episode. I think we all need to approach each older episode with caution, set aside the fan consensus and make up our own minds, realising that it's all subjective - I'm sure there must be at least one fan out there who hates 'The Doctor's Wife' for instance ;)

  2. I genuinely know someone who doesn't like The Doctor's Wife, so it does happen!

    Definitely agree about received fan wisdom. The Caves Of Androzani is perfect, The Creature From The Pit is appalling, etc. Make up your own mind, folks. Love & Monsters is a sad example: it's used as shorthand for "bad" in certain corners of the internet. I think the ending is responsible for a lot of that, although some people just never got on with the different format. (Oddly, no one seems to complain that Blink is a Doctor-lite. Although saying that, I know someone who does!)

    Fear Her is a similar situation, everyone hates it. I'm not sure I'll be as charitable with that one...

  3. I LOVE this episode! Mind you I love Doctor Who AND ELO (in fact I was extra excited when Elton stated his love for them!) so it's catered for me!
    My wife also is very fond of Marc Warren so it's a win for her as well!

    1. I like this episode a lot. (The majority of it.) I'm glad there are others who do!

      Nothing wrong with a bit of eye candy for the ladies. It's only fair: Doctor Who has never been shy of a scantily-clad companion...

  4. MInd you Fear Her is a load of old bobbins, so fan wisdom isn't always wrong! :)

    1. That's certainly what I've been hearing. I'm concerned about watching it again, but part of me feels determined to find the good in it...

  5. I think I like this episode too (but haven't seen it in a long time). A lack of the irritating duo is probably not a bad thing. They get very very smug in series 2. The only part I don't like is a) Rose having a go at Elton when the whole point is SHE is the horrible one, and that Jackie and Elton don't get to stay friends, and b) the horrendous idea that the Doctor would condemn someone to live 'life' as a paving slab as if that is some heroic deed. However, since it is established that Elton is an unreliable narrator, I always take the epilogue here to be his imagination, after all, there's no hint of it for the rest of the episode and it is deliberately tagged on as a second ending.

    1. There's something to this, in the vein of "Ferris Bueller is really in Cameron's imagination" conspiracy theories. That bit at the start, with the Doctor and Rose running away from a monster Benny Hill style, could be exaggerated. (Please, let it be exaggerated.) So why not the rest?

      But isn't this ending even worse? That Elton is just so crushed, he's gone completely insane by the end? Did the Doctor leave him dribbling on the pavement? The horror!

      Another thing I noticed this time: during at least some of Elton's video diary, Ursula is still alive, holding the camera. Odd that he started it before the whole thing finished, when the implication is that he's recounting it all in retrospect.

    2. Is it out of sequence? I mean, she is filming the outdoors stuff, isn't she, presumably part of their investigations, which he has edited into his tale later on?

    3. Yeah, that. I just found it odd because she's past-tense in the rest of it.