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Doctor Who: Love and Monsters (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Love and Monsters originally aired in 2006.

Someone wants a word with you.

You upset my mum.

Great big absorbing creature from outer space, and you’re having a go at me?

No one upsets my mum.

– the Doctor, Rose and Elton get their priorities straight

Love and Monsters remains one of the most divisive stories of the Davies era, if not the revival in general. It’s the show’s first “Doctor-lite” episode, a production featuring as little of the lead actor in possible in order to make the season’s arduous production schedule just a little bit easier. The Christmas Invasion had added another episode to the mix, and so the idea was that Love and Monsters could be shot during the production block of The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit in order to allow for a standard length season without increasing an already impressive workload for the leads.

As such, it’s easy to imagine that the “Doctor-lite” episodes could be throw-away adventures, episodes chopped together to meet the quota of stories for a given season – churn them out and focus the attention on to the “bigger” and “more important” adventures. Instead, the “Doctor-lite” episodes have proven to be some of the most experimental and creative episodes of the entire Davies era. While critical and fan opinion remains divided on Love and Monsters, the subsequent “Doctor-and-companion-lite” episodes – like Blink, Midnight and Turn Left – are counted among the best of their respective seasons.

Love and Monsters is a show about Doctor Who. More specifically, it’s about Doctor Who fandom, and a romantic ode to the importance that the show can have in some people’s lives.

Reach out and touch faith...

Reach out and touch faith…

To be fair, Love and Monsters has a significant advantage as an episode without too much David Tennant or Billie Piper. Marc Warren is a fantastic young actor, and the episode manages to do a lot of the heavy-lifting by casting Warren as the episode’s lead character. Warren is a young British actor who tends to bounce around British television, but his work is consistent and high-profile enough that he’s recognisable to most fans of contemporary British television, without really having a persona or being a “name.”

As Love and Monsters leans heavily on Elton – with a significant amount of the episode’s runtime devoted to Elton narrating the story to his web camera – Marc Warren is pretty key to the episode’s success. While Davies’ script is clever and playful, it relies on a performer who can bring that to life. Warren’s work here is essential, in much the same way that Carey Mulligan’s work in Blink contributes significantly to the success of that “Doctor-lite” episode.

Face-to-errr...

Face-to-errr…

Love and Monsters is very much “inside baseball.” It’s essentially forty-five minutes devoted to what it’s like to be a fan of Doctor Who, which is an interesting choice for Davies in the show’s second season. There’s a faint sense of desperation around Love and Monsters, much like the rest of the back-half of the second season. The revival’s sophomore season was thrown into disarray by Billie Piper’s decision to stay on for the full season instead of departing at half-way through the year.

While this was undoubtedly a good thing for the show – Rose was popular, and this allowed Davies to push her departure to the season finalé – it also caused problems. In particular, this sudden change led to a quick reshuffling and reworking of scripts at the last minute, including the decision to drop Stephen Fry’s script for the show. There’s a sense that Davies and his writers are really doing whatever they can to get scripts filmed, and running with ideas that they might not use otherwise.

Not running through corridors...

Not running through corridors…

It’s easy to imagine a producer with a bit more time culling Love and Monsters, or placing it on the back burner. After all, the revived Doctor Who is only two years old at this point, so writing an episode about fandom means delving into the fandom of the classic series. While it’s undoubtedly a valid part of the show’s history, something that might be potentially alienating or niche to viewers tuning into one of BBC One’s flagship entertainment television shows. This was also particularly daring when Davies was being so careful about introducing iconic and recognisable parts of the show’s legacy into the revived series.

So, Love and Monsters is not your conventional episode, feeling rather distinct from what came before. In a way, engaging with the notion of Doctor Who fandom in the show itself is as logical a progression as reintroducing the Daleks or the Master or the Cyberman. It’s a conscious and clear way of identifying what the show is and cementing ties to the franchise’s past. Davies made those connections very skilfully and gracefully, but Love and Monsters might be the most overt connection yet.

Getting to the meat of the matter...

Getting to the meat of the matter…

Love and Monsters is about a Doctor Who fan. Elton is a big fan of the character and the world he represents. Being twenty-something, Elton’s memories of his first encounter with the Doctor will be familiar to some of the older members of the audience watching at home. “What was it?” he asks himself. “I must have been three or four years old. Middle of the night.” Davies stops just short of having Elton hiding behind the couch, but he could just as easily be describing childhood memories of catching the end of the Colin Baker era or the Sylvester McCoy years.

Despite the decision to present Elton as something of an awkward nerd (perhaps a little too awkward), it’s clear that Davies has a strong affection for Elton’s type of Doctor Who fandom. He paints an endearing portrait of the “select few” fans that Elton meets up with in his attempts to engage with the Doctor, to venture deeper into the Doctor’s world inhabited by those “with their stories of the Doctor.”

Hands-on approach...

Hands-on approach…

Everybody in Elton’s group have their own reasons and interests. Mister Skinner, for example, approaches the Doctor as a writer. “To me, the Doctor isn’t a man, he’s more a collection of archetypes,” he argues. Bliss, on the other hand, sees the Doctor as an avenue for her own creative urges. “What I’m trying to do is sum up the Doctor. What he means to us. What he could represent and what he should represent, and what he never won’t represent, sort of thing.”

Like Mark Millar’s vigilante superhero fans in Kick-Ass 2, there’s a sense that these are lost individuals trying to engage with the world on their own terms. There’s even a parent dealing with the loss of her child through her fandom, welcoming the opportunity to sahre with the group, and to talk about what happened. “I started all of this because me daughter disappeared,” Bridget explains. “It wasn’t aliens that took her away. It was just drugs. I come down to London every week, and I just keep looking for her.” As such, you can see how the Doctor represents an escape.

Oh, he prepared a power point...

Oh, he prepared a power point…

Davies presents Doctor Who as a force that brings people together, to share common interests. LINDA quickly become friends. They talk less-and-less about the Doctor and spend more time getting to know one another, and helping each other out. They even form a band, because it’s fun. It’s meant to be a hobby, something for people to share and love together. This is something that Davies hits on quite frequently in his work on Doctor Who, arguing that there’s no point in wondrous stuff if you’re just going to lock it away.

Although Love and Monsters never emphasises it quite as heavily as it probably should, Davies is quick to argue that Elton is actually well adjusted. Relatively. He has a life outside the Doctor. He has a professional job, and a house. “I should say, this isn’t, you know, my whole life,” he insists, perhaps too hard. “It’s not all spaceships and stuff, because I’m into all sorts of things. I like football. I like a drink. I like Spain. And if there’s one thing I really, really love, Jeff Lynne and the Electric Light Orchestra. Because you can’t beat a bit of ELO.”

A bigger fan...

A bigger fan…

Elton’s ELO fandom is a rather inelegant but effective way for Davies to keep looping the lyric “hey you with the pretty face, welcome to the human race” into the episode – another conscious effort to reinforce the idea that nerdiness must be offset with a real life outside fandom, or even through fandom. Fandom for the sake of fandom itself, Davies seems to argue, is self-defeating at best and toxic at worst.

Which brings us to Victor Kennedy. The “super-fan.” Kennedy is a controversial character, and not just because his monster form was designed by the winner of a Blue Peter competition or because the use of Peter Kay is quite blatant stunt casting. Instead, Kennedy seems like a particularly bitter and direct attack upon a certain kind of fan, if not a certain individual fan. While LINDA are using their interest in the Doctor to enrich their lives, Kennedy arrives to try and control and pervert their fandom his own ends.

Feed me!

Feed me!

I don’t want to get into the whole “Victor Kennedy is Ian Levine” debate. It’s quite clear that Davies has little time for Levine (“Ian, no offence, you’re not a journalist, so $£@! off”), and even The Guardian has conceded that “rumours persist” about the influence of Levine on the character. What matters, as Tim Phipps argues, is that Victor Kennedy is a brutal “take that” directed at a particular type of fandom, which is popularly associated with Levine:

Eventually, a man called Ian Levine became the figurehead of the “I know more than you” movement; so much so, in fact, that he actually got paid by the show’s producers to be a “continuity consultant.” Even though Ian Levine looked a bit sweaty, didn’t have much of a sense of humour, and would later inflict the boyband Take That on an unsuspecting public, fandom accepted him. In time, he ended up being viewed as the figurehead of the continuity obsession that killed the show. Whether that view is deserved or not is another debate entirely, and this is only a simple telling of a secret history.

He was the only one, we believed, who could get us back the whole of The Web of Fear. Deleted so callously by the BBC in the mid-70s, along with so many other things that fandom had blindly decided would be great, our deal with the devil was this—get us our classics back, help us stumble towards the zenith of knowledge of the show, help us show our love, and we’ll follow you. We’ll accept your continuity dogma, even if it gives us Attack of the Cybermen—because for every Attack, we stand to gain a fully colourised Mind of Evil.

Kennedy is precisely that sort of fan, the fan with more information and more leads and more wealth and more power, who uses that power to lord it over his fellow fans. Indeed, Kennedy even tries to hold Elton in his sway by teasing him with details of some lost earlier adventure, a none-too-subtle shout-out to the missing episodes. “But you can’t leave!” Kennedy protests. “You’ll never know what he was doing. The Doctor. You’ll never know what he was doing in your house all those years ago.”

I think it just blue Elton's mind...

I think it just blue Elton’s mind…

Kennedy is a monster, one whose powers serve as pretty overt metaphor. He feeds on others, seeking to dominate, possess and consume them. When Ursula orders Kennedy to release the others from his grasp, all Kennedy can care about is his own warped appetite. “Oh, but they taste so sweet,” he assures her. “Just think about the Doctor. Oh, how will he taste? All that experience, all that knowledge.”

This isn’t the first time that Davies has explored this sort of character. In Dalek, Henry Van Statten was presented as a greedy and selfish individual who ran a private museum populated with trinkets and collectables that he refused to share with others, using them to reinforce his own wealth and status. Keeping the last surviving Dalek locked up in his vault, Van Statten couldn’t help but seem like a condemnation of the kind of “super fan” rumoured to keep lost episodes tucked away for their own pleasure and enjoyment. While Kennedy is a more direct condemnation of that sort of fan mentality, it’s nothing new to the Davies era.

Yes he cane...

Yes he cane…

In contrast, Elton’s fandom is presented as more wholesome and more honest. Indeed, Love and Monsters even finds time to suggest that there’s common ground between those more devoted fans like Elton and the more casual viewers who have been tuning back in since the revival went on air. Elton meets up with Jackie Tyler, a woman living on her own, completely separate from Rose. Not only does Love and Monsters do a lot to humanise Jackie, it also suggests that she also escapes into fantasy and wonder to escape mundane reality.

“Go on, go and sit down,” she urges Elton. “Put the telly on if you want. Can’t bear it silent.” While Elton has been a fan of Doctor Who from childhood, and fits all manner of clichés and stereotypes about fans of cult television, Jackie is a different type of viewer altogether. She’s a newer convert to the cult of the Doctor. Even if her devotion isn’t as obvious and as deep-rooted as that felt by Elton, she still needs some escape from some mundane reality. Both Elton and Jackie are lonely individuals, and both try to find something to help them make sense of the world.

Let's see what's on the slab...

Let’s see what’s on the slab…

Love and Monsters romantically suggests that all you need to fill that gap is people. Elton and Jackie might live boring lives, but they aren’t meaningless – and they don’t rely on the Doctor to provide them with meaning. Whether it’s a kind soul you keep tricking into helping with DIY jobs at the flat, or a bunch of people who share your common interests, as long as you have somebody to talk to, the universe can’t be that bad.

Love and Monsters isn’t the smoothest of episodes. It seems like it was hastily put together. Elton occasionally seems more like a stereotype than a character, and the scenes with Victor Kennedy are a little on the nose – even if Peter Kay is brilliant in the role. There’s also the occasional ill-judged sequence. In particular, the infamous closing scene where it’s revealed that Ursula as been turned into a paving slab, but that’s okay.

A doorway to Doctor Who...

A doorway to Doctor Who…

“We’ve even got a bit of a love life,” Elton boasts. “Oh, let’s not go into that,” Ursula remarks. It’s a short exchange that probably seemed witty at the time (Davies even brings it up again in The Writer’s Tale), but it’s also something that raises all sorts of uncomfortable gender issues; in that apparently a woman with a mouth is all that is needed for a couple to have a healthy love life, which has unfortunate connotations. Again, it’s a bit of a minefield, but the way the episode ends with Elton boasting about his “love life” with a paving stone does raise some awkward questions that the show just tries to laugh off.

Still, Love and Monsters is a pretty bold experiment for the show, and a pretty ingenious way of working around a production restriction. It’s not everything that it could be, and it’s notably weaker than the later “Doctor-and-companion-lite” episodes, but it’s still an experiment worth attempting.

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