There once was a time when being a fan,
Was a lonely place, for a lonely man.
But life can get better, and sometimes you’ll find,
With a like-minded friend, that life can be kind.
This is one of those love-it-or-hate-it episodes. I love it, and to explain why I need to give a little bit of background about what being a Doctor Who fan was like before Doctor Who came back in 2005. Nowadays Doctor Who has a wide demographic, with an appeal across ages and genders, but it wasn’t always like that. Being a fan in the 90s was very different, and with the series gone it was niche. Female fans were not unheard of, but were a rarity. A lot of the male fans seemed to be lonely or a bit damaged – at least that was the impression I took from conventions at the time. Doctor Who had become something of a lifeline to those who needed it. So when Love & Monsters came along some fans took it personally and thought it was poking fun at them. This couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Love & Monsters celebrated what it was to be a Doctor Who fan – showing us a collection of people who were different from what a lot of smaller-minded people might consider “normal”. But these were good people, who found their own paths to happiness. Through their fandom they developed friendships and their reasons for getting together widened to far more than just the Doctor. This happens, and when it does it is magnificent. So Love & Monsters was actually showing us an aspect of being a fan pre-2005 that was wonderful: the way the Doctor could bring people together and make their lives better. Far from being a dig at fandom, it in fact could be accused of giving us a rose-tinted view of it, because the sad reality was that unless you lived in one of the big cities, assembling a group of fan friends like this was an unattainable dream for many. Love & Monsters is feel-good, and it is hope.
In order to really appreciate what Love & Monsters achieves, we need to look at the ingredients that went into it.
(1) A Blue Peter monster.
(2) A Doctor-lite and companion-lite episode.
(3) Peter Kay.
Looks like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it. But…
(1) A long time ago, when the world was still black and white, Blue Peter held a competition to design a Doctor Who monster. There was never any intention to include the winner in the programme, and the results were amusing to say the least. With Doctor Who a phenomenon again, Russell T Davies decided to have another go at the idea, but this time the winning design would be included in Doctor Who. A big risk, some might think, but with Doctor Who’s huge popularity there were 43,920 entries, so plenty to choose from to find something good. The winner was William Grantham, whose Abzorbaloff design was an obvious choice. It really is a wonderful concept, and the brilliance of it is its practicality – perfect for a combination of prosthetics and CGI.
(2) Let’s start this by looking at the television landscape in the UK in 2005, when Doctor Who came back. Frustratingly, we had spectacularly failed to master the ensemble cast format of so many US dramas. So while Buffy, Angel, Star Trek etc all ran for pleasingly long seasons of 20 or more episodes, over here we tended to get a series of about 6 episodes at best. Sometimes a new series of something would be announced and it would be something laughable like 3 episodes. Doctor Who was different. It came back with 13. It still baffles me how that happened. There must have been total faith in Russell T Davies, because this just wasn’t happening at the time. There was virtually no sci-fi being made, family drama viewing was supposed to be “dead”, and Doctor Who comes back with 13 episodes. Looking at that, we have the equivalent of roughly 26 episodes of Classic Who, and give or take a couple of episodes that’s all we have ever had per year since the 60s. And there is no comparison to be made there, because in the 60s whole episodes of Doctor Who were being made within about 3 hours – virtually filmed as live. So 13 episodes was a lot to ask, and was horrendously difficult.
Then Doctor Who got hugely popular and the BBC wanted a Christmas episode.
14 episodes per year was clearly going to be a step too far, so RTD in his typical spark-of-genius way thought up the “Doctor-lite”, an episode where the Doctor would barely feature. The problem with this is that the only way to make Doctor Who work without the Doctor is to throw in another lead character and make him/her utterly brilliant, and then find an utterly brilliant actor. Luckily we got that with Love & Monsters (and boy did we get it with Blink). This is Marc Warren’s show, and he turns in a thoughtful performance, and Jackie featuring strongly is also a big help to the episode.
(3) Peter Kay was giving us some fairly broad comedy around this time. Nowadays he is one of the greatest comedians of all time. If you haven’t seen Car Share, then you really need to. It is 10 episodes of complete perfection. He was still a huge star at the time of Love & Monsters, and brought a lot of welcome publicity to the series. It’s not a subtle performance, but it is a lot of fun, and could certainly have been a lot worse than what we ended up with. At times the comedy takes precedence over realism, which is brave and just about works.
It is just a shame that the episode ends in such a downbeat fashion. How much nicer and ending would it have been for the Doctor to save Ursula completely (what he in fact does seems cruel). The suggestion that the Doctor ultimately brings only death and sadness has been toyed with occasionally before, but it is a bold move to deal with that here so overtly.
So, what was Blue Peter winner William Grantham’s reaction on seeing his monster in the flesh? “It was supposed to be the size of a double-decker bus!” Well, we you can’t have everything in life I suppose, but to be the creator of one of Doctor Who’s most successful and scary monsters at the age of ten isn’t a bad start. RP
(I’ll leave you with some of the music of ELO, which I unashamedly adore, set by some youtube genius to flash mob footage – have a listen while you read Mike’s review below!)
The view from across the pond:
(Note: the following was written at the time of broadcast and featured on the original Doctor Who Review website – details here )
In 40 years of Doctor Who, there have been a lot of ups and downs, but rarely have there been experiments. When J. Michael Strazynski wrote Babylon 5, he took some leaps of faith, attempting such things as episodes done from a newscaster’s viewpoint, an episode done as seen through the eyes of maintenance men and even an episode chronicling the million years of influence the B5 space station had on the universe. As continuing science fiction stories go, Babylon 5 was the best it ever got. So in the most enjoyable, best loved and longest run SF series, why have we seen so few experiments? Enter Russell T. Davies: the man behind Love and Monsters. In 40 years, have we ever seen something so surreal? The Doctor and Rose are on the sidelines throughout. They are felt mostly in brief flashback and the rest is carried by their presence. Reminiscent of the Virgin novel Birthright in that the Doctor is present in “presence” only yet is felt throughout. But experiments, no matter how well intentioned, don’t have to work! B5’s own Deconstruction of Falling Stars is barely watchable. How does this fare by comparison?
I like Mr. RTD. I don’t think he can write that well, short of those brief bursts of genius (The Parting of the Ways) but I think he’s the best thing to come to television for bringing back Doctor Who. That said, Love and Monsters is a cute “filler” episode. It does not have meat or substance really. In the grand scheme, it doesn’t seem to further a story at all. It’s great for maintaining continuity with scenes from Rose (mannequins), Aliens of London (space ship crash) and The Christmas Invasion (alien arrival). Also, the mention of the “bad wolf virus” is a nice piece of continuity but does it make sense? How does the Absorbaloff get access to Torchwood files? Another piece of clever continuity is what appears a throw-away line spoken by Bridget: “all these different Doctors…” And was it a nod or a hidden dig to all fan(atics) when we hear about the archetypes the Doctor represents? Or L.I.N.D.A. being a nod to U.N.I.T. – a convention group/fan club? There are many according to Ursula! The story, like the Doctor himself, is laid out like a puzzle, in the same way as “Pulp Fiction” or “Go”. You start with a middle, then rewind, then go forward, but ultimately it comes together. The end result: a message about how good life is, how strange and wonderful and that sometimes, as Mr. Spock once said, it is better to want than to have.
But there are a number of things detracting from what would otherwise be a very light-hearted, fun episode. For instance, when Mr. Kennedy arrives, he has the lights turned off, then comes down via lift and announces “LIGHTS” and they come on – how?! Did no one wonder who threw the lights? And did any time go by from when the Doctor asks if he knows Elton to the time they leave via TARDIS, because the TARDIS dematerialization can be heard immediately after Elton leaves, but we never see the Doctor go out or after him! And wouldn’t a person remember a strange man in his/her house the night his/her mother died, even if he/she is only 4 years old? How could one remember the man over one’s own mother lying dead on the floor? And would the Doctor ever REALLY reassemble a woman if nothing more than a face would be alive? Wasn’t that something he learned was a curse in The Five Doctors???? (And did Elton really need someone to read the monster’s thoughts to know he was about to be chased?!?!) Oh, and how awful to hear that Elton has a love life with a head… did we really need that image? I guess if American Pie can become a cult classic, maybe this episode is the TV equivalent?!?!
In fairness, that’s not a lot to bring the episode down. There is a lot of fun to be had in this episode. Elton is the most likable guy, even if he starts off a little goofy (a typical sci-fi nerd according to many stereotypes perhaps? I hope not!). The word “endearing” comes to mind, but whether that’s a blessing or a curse remains to be seen! The flash to Elton John when we are introduced to the character is unique. The music, specifically ELO, was great and certainly didn’t bring the episode down! There are so many comical lines too:
Elton: “…She keeps everything pretty close to her chest”
Ursula: “That’s a hell of a chest!”
“One girl in 10 million…” “Oh, that’s Rose Tyler!”
Along the same lines, Elton’s 5 step approach to getting to know Jackie falls into his lap perfectly. That was hysterical!
And “eczema” – every time Mr. Franklin said that word, I had to laugh! Or Elton’s shock at the Doctor and Rose as they yell at him instead of bat an eyelash at the Absorbaloff – “great big absorbing thing and you’re having a go at me?” The realization of the name “Absorbaloff” was great too, as was the shocking piece of news: Raxicoricofalapatorius has a sister planet… named Klom. Wonderful…
Peter Kay, who I am unfamiliar with, is funny in this episode but it is Camille Coduri who gets the standout award in this. Her attempts at seducing Elton are extremely funny, but her willingness to protect the Doctor and Rose just make her one of the best recurring characters since the Brigadier!! Bravo Camille!!
So the only thing that remains is the foreshadowing. In The Satan Pit, we are told that the valiant child (Rose) will die in battle. Here, Elton asks how long before Rose and the Doctor get burned by the life they lead? How long indeed????
Too many funny and endearing things save this episode from an abysmal rating in my book. It’s not the best Who has had to offer, but it is far from the worst!! Perhaps “Fear Her” will have more to offer!!! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Fear Her