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
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?"
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!"
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.