Friday, 24 January 2014

Here's One We Made Earlier

Doctor Who
Fear Her
Series Two, Episode Eleven

Damn it!  We were that close to getting a Doctor Who episode by Stephen Fry.  When his script (presumably entitled Night Of The Dazzling Special Effects) was deemed too costly and complicated, it was shelved until Series Three.  (Fry never had time for a rewrite, so his episode went unmade.  Boo.)  A replacement was needed, preferably one that wouldn't cost an arm and a leg, so we got Fear Her instead.  Fair enough.  These things happen.

I only mention all this because frankly, it shows.  It doesn't matter that this script wasn't their first choice, and it doesn't matter that it was up against the budget.  What matters is that both of these things are apparent when watching it.

The matte paintings have really gone downhill.
Fear Her takes us to an unremarkable suburb in 2012.  (Back when it was the future.  Bless!)  The Olympic torch is due to pass the end of the street, so everyone's excited.  Also some children have disappeared, so everyone's worried.  The overall mood is pretty weird, especially since the police have apparently given up looking for the missing kids, one of whom goes missing as the episode progresses.  I know people are excited about the Olympics, but there are three missing kids in one street, all gone in one week.  There are Missing posters on a few lamp-posts, but where are the cops?  And the news vans?  Come to think of it, where are the parents?  Shouldn't they be front and centre, and tearing their hair out?  As it is, you could cut the tension with a foam finger.

The Doctor and Rose arrive, tediously clocking the Missing posters the moment they exit the TARDIS.  (It makes me yearn for episodes that begin part-way through.)  The Doctor is intrigued, if a little naive about who's behind it all.  ("What makes you think it's a person?"  You probably don't want to know, Doc.)  Anyway, he's right: the culprit is an alien working through a little girl.  Desperate not to be alone, the Isolus gives Chloe magic powers.  When she draws things she can see (such as children and animals) they are transported into pictures.  When she draws things from scratch (such as scribbles and nightmares), they come into the real world.  It's a bit like Penny Crayon with a split personality, and there's a lot of potential.  It's literally a creative idea.

And it works really well, sometimes.  Take the scribble monster.  Incredibly simple and utterly different.  I like it.  Then there's the drawings: you don't need very much budget for a bunch of doodles, and the sight of one coming to life is both creepy, and simple to animate.  All this is good, especially on a shoestring budget.  But then what?  Only one scribble monster, plus a drawing of Chloe's violent dad that comes to life off-screen.  There are references to drawings that move, but we mostly don't see them.  As for what goes on in the cartoon world, where at one point the Doctor is trapped, forget it.  We just don't go there.

Possibly the best and worst design ever.
There's potential for something genuinely unusual here, and it isn't realised.  What's left is suspiciously like something we've already had.  Do a quick Find-and-Replace, swap "2012" with "1953", "the Olympics" with "the Coronation", "monster that eats children" with "monster that eats faces", "the Doctor disappears" with "Rose disappears", and presto, you've got The Idiot's Lantern, except even less interesting.  Instead of the Wire, which is evil and wants to feed on everyone, we've got the Isolus, which is lonely and just wants to be loved.  Unintentional plagiarism mixed with a complete lack of threat or excitement and you say this episode wasn't their first choice?  Get away!

You might expect the characters to be well developed, given that there's almost nothing else here, but Chloe and her mum are a complete non-starter.  Little girls can be very creepy, a fact utilised by a lot of horror movies, but Chloe just sits there drawing things and talking in the third person.  For "alien menace", read "dodgy Batman impression".  Her mum's a fascinating masterclass in How Not To Be A Parent, as she knows Chloe's responsible for the missing children and does nothing about it, she's asked not to leave Chloe alone and instantly forgets, and she freely admits that when her abusive husband was still alive, "Chloe always got the worst of it".  Best Mum Ever!  As for the supporting cast, the neighbours all sound like extras in a car insurance advert.  No wonder I want to know where the missing kids have been going.  It's got to be more interesting than here.

Amazingly, Fear Her does actually get worse.  Left alone with some colouring pencils and Sky News (Best Mum Ever!), Chloe proceeds to draw everyone in the Olympic Stadium.  This would be shocking if it wasn't so hilariously executed: the tragedy hits home when Huw Edwards notices Newsreader Bob has gone.  "Bob?  Not you too, Bob!"  Later, with the Doctor gone, Rose realises two things are required to make the Isolus leave: heat and love.  Huw, moving on instantly from the 80,000 people who just disappeared, lets us know that the torch is "a beacon of hope, and fortitude and courage, and it's a beacon of love!"  So stop laughing! Rose chucks the pod in the Olympic torch, and that's that.

Let's face it, being in Doctor Who makes him this happy every week.
There's a last ditch attempt to scare the audience, with the unseen Dad Of Doom coming back to life, but the power of love is enough to sort that out as well.  (Oh, goodie.)  But then, disaster!  The torch bearer collapses, prompting Huw to ask "Does this mean the Olympic dream is dead?", but I said stop laughing! the Doctor turns up, grabs the Olympic torch and personally delivers it to the stadium.  Huw, continuing heroically with the worst dialogue in the episode, helpfully tells us "He's carrying the flame and no one wants to stop him!"  And then, "It's more than a flame now, Bob!  It's heat and light, and it's hope, and it's courage, and it's love!"  This is hilarious, mostly because it's the cherry on a cake of sheer saccharine awfulness, and partly because the Opening Ceremony unavoidably looks so much worse than it did in real life.  (If you can't afford monsters, you can't afford the Olympics.  What were they thinking?)  By the end of the episode, I'd sprained a cringe muscle.

Fear Her gets a lot of flak from Doctor Who fans, possibly even more than Love & Monsters.  (Which as we've established, really doesn't deserve it.)  This time, I can understand why: it's boring, unoriginal and cringe-worthy.  But there are plus points, which prevent it from being Worst Episode Ever material, despite its reputation.  Here there are.  Have a pad and pencil ready.

First, there's the scribble monster.  Good idea, well-executed.  Second, there's a (deliberately) hilarious bit where the TARDIS lands the wrong way round it's funny, and long overdue.  But the big plus, for me, is David Tennant.  The Doctor's the best thing here, for once.  He's funny ("I'm being facetious.  There's no call for it"), caring ("Can you help?"  "Yes I can!"), but best of all, slightly odd.  Fear Her's full of strange little Doctor moments, where he sniffs things, makes jokes to himself, starts eating other people's marmalade, or makes a throwaway reference to his family, all of which reminds us (albeit very gently) that the Doctor isn't quite normal.  It's not massively important, but it makes a difference to me, especially where this Doctor – who often blends too much into the background – is concerned.  I'd genuinely watch Fear Her again, just to watch what he's doing.

So there we go.  It's not much, but it's not all bad.  Honest.


  1. So Stephen Fry STILL hasn't had time to rewrite?

    1. Guessing not. Maybe the constant companion Merry-go-round was too much of a bother?

  2. Ugh, I can't STAND this one...but good review, and yeah you're right, maybe we tend to forget what little good stuff there is in this one because of all the cringe-stuff. Now that I think about it, I did quite like the Doctor and Rose here, and the scribble monster was kinda cool. But the dialogue was just so clunky ("I'm coming to HURT you Chloe!!" - Evil Bad Dad) and everything was just so overblown - that nonsense with the Olympic Torch makes me want to barf.

    I look forward to seeing what you make of the next two - will you do them in one entry, or split them?

    Cheers :)

    1. Glad you liked this. Next two will be one entry, knowing me. I'm curious what I'll make of them too, and keen to finish Series Two! So long, Rose...

  3. The thing I liked about this episode at the time was that the Doctor acted how I sort of felt he SHOULD act. It was this episode that made me like the 10th Doctor and he never acted like this again, so every other appearance of tenny disappointed me. Then Matt Smith came along and acted like this all the time. Just that slightly offness, that not-quite-in-sync-with-humans stuff, I enjoy that muchly.