Something odd happened with the reaction of Doctor Who fans to Fear Her. The day after it was first broadcast in 2006 I wrote a review and here’s a slightly abridged version of what I had to say:
It is a return to the psychological chiller this week for Doctor Who and further proof of the flexibility of the format – it could not be more different from the previous episode. This series has played on that versatility more than ever before; we have had comedy, horror, romance, sorrow, fear and fun. Fear Her also does something that Doctor Who has hardly done at all since the relaunch – it is virtually a monster-less story. Instead, all the scariness is generated by a slow build-up and the suggestion of evil lurking just behind the scenes. Of course, there are monsters of sorts – a child’s drawings given life. Apart from being another excellent special effect, this is a good example of something Doctor Who has always done well – taking ordinary, everyday things and making them frightening. Bring the peril close to home and you’ve hooked your audience.
Abisola Agbaje is the child in question, and she turns in a remarkably confident performance, which is fortunate as she is so central to the episode. She is particularly impressive when speaking with the voice of the Isolus.
The writer is Matthew Graham, making his Doctor Who debut. He cleverly sets his episode in 2012, during the London Olympics – not just because it is a publicity-grabbing setting, but also because it provides a good reason for a lot of people to be in one place at the same time. It also reinforces one of Russell T Davies’s key concepts for Doctor Who – to play on its Britishness. However, there have been so many episodes now set in London that it is starting to feel a bit forced, as if the TARDIS doesn’t quite know where else to go on the planet. Villages can be scary too, as 1970s Doctor Who ably proved!
There are one of two annoyances with this episode. An ongoing problem is the over-influence of Star Trek, with another mind meld and mention of a warp drive in the TARDIS. Also there is a bit too much technobabble, highly unusual for New Who, and the plot is slow throughout the middle of the episode.
But there are several stand-out moments: when the TARDIS lands the Doctor cannot get out of the door! This is a very funny idea and it is amazing nobody has ever thought of it before. “Fingers on lips!” is another example of the Doctor’s commanding presence and something that many children will recognise from school.
With Rose’s days numbered, it is good to see her running the show again, as she did in The Christmas Invasion. With the Doctor gone she has to save the world all on her own. And finally, there is the Doctor’s triumphant run with the Olympic torch – simply a wonderful, heart-warming moment.
Fear Her is the second of two nice little interludes between big hitting two-parters. There is a hugely exciting teaser at the end of the episode. Cybermen! Torchwood! And is it just me, or was there a Dalek extermination effect in there? Hold onto your hats, because the big finale is just around the corner.
That’s quite a positive, happy little review isn’t it. Mike, who writes the “view from across the pond” (see below), also wrote a review at the time which was broadly positive. His opinion today is included below this review. I could have included both his reviews to illustrate my point, and I hope Mike won’t mind me teasing him a little by mentioning I was tempted to cut between the two reviews, which would have read like an episode of The Two Mikes. I can almost picture 2017-Mike insulting 2006-Mike’s dress sense, while 2006-Mike says “you’ve redecorated. I don’t like it”.
So inadvertantly, and this is no criticism of Mike because his opinion probably chimes with 99% of fans whereas I am the out-of-step one, he has made my point about the odd thing with the fan reaction to Fear Her, because nowadays whenever Fear Her gets mentioned by fans, it is almost always slated. I can’t help struggling to understand the validity of the argument, and it makes me wonder the extent to which fan’s opinions get swayed by others, or maybe it is just that the episode hasn’t dated well for most people. It is only fair for me to mention that everything from this point onwards was written before I read Mike’s review below, so none of this should be read as any kind of tackling of the points he made. Any shared topics are entirely coincidental.
I have to admit that the episode has its faults. The ending seems a bit out of step with the rest of the episode because it moves rather jarringly from a tightly focussed local threat to a huge set-piece. But so do loads of Doctor Who stories. It’s a very common technique to up the stakes at the end of a story.
I think a lot of people dislike the way the episode is unconcerned with being scientifically realistic. So is 99% of Doctor Who. OK, the scribble monster being defeated by an eraser takes a bit of believing, but by and large I couldn’t care less if an idea is grounded in science or not. I know that bothers some people more and I can understand that. Yes, the Olympic stuff is a bit annoying at times, especially the commentators – could anyone really be that professional when presented with the sight of a stadium full of people emptying and just carry on with commentating? Well yes, it’s Huw Edwards, and he probably could.
This was six years pre-Olympics and Britain was buzzing about hosting it. Five years post-Olympics and it does all jar a bit and looks all very wrong, but this was written for people watching television in 2006, not 2017. If we can forgive The Tenth Planet for showing television viewers of 1966 the Mondasian Cybermen invading earth in 1986, then we can forgive a representation of the 2012 Olympics in 2006 that didn’t quite hit the nail on the head.
I really can’t see anything majorly wrong with this that would place it at the bottom of the pile of Doctor Who stories rather than where I see it: pretty average, maybe a bit forgettable, but by and large a pleasant viewing experience. It actually does what some of the very best Doctor Who episodes do, and tackles a major issue that could affect some of the viewers: domestic abuse. And ultimately this presents us with a form of fear that is much stronger than an alien invasion, because it hits much closer to home. It’s a brave episode.
Interestingly, looking at the Audience Appreciation figures this got 83/100. This is not stellar, but it is not so far off universally loved episodes from the same series such as School Reunion and The Girl in the Fireplace, both of which scored 85. It’s broadly in line with what virtually every episode of Doctor Who achieved in 2017, exactly the same as six of the twelve episodes received, and better than four. So I think it’s fair to say that the contemporary viewers didn’t hate it, and its reputation is very much a fan thing.
I have seen several Doctor Who stories veer from being universally loved to universally hated (The Celestial Toymaker) and vice-versa (The Gunfighters) over the years. Maybe opinions of Fear Her will change one day but ultimately it really doesn’t matter. Watch it with an open mind, decide for yourself, and you might just be pleasantly surprised. RP
The view from across the pond:
As we get closer to Halloween, the fear factor should increase. What could be more frightening than the subject of missing children and an abusive father? Fear Her provides an answer, and unfortunately, it’s: a damned weak script. Ok, maybe it’s not more frightening, but if you’re a writer on a show geared to the whole family, you’ve got to do better than this!
Fear Her is not without some redeeming elements: David Tennant giving the Vulcan salute is great. One of my favorite scenes is inside the TARDIS where the Doctor thinks Rose is offering her hand just as he’s talking about having a hand to hold. It’s a great scene. Actually, my favorite scene is when Tennant picks up the… I don’t know, marmalade?… and scoops some out with his fingers, while Rose shakes her head in horror that he could be so rude! Laughed out loud! And there’s a lot of joy felt when the Doctor lights the Olympic torch, but we can thank David Tennant for being such a fun Doctor and great actor. The Doctor’s ability to quiet people with a gesture is quite good too.
But barring that, it’s a ridiculous episode. Plot-wise, it’s as empty as a blank piece of paper on a world without an Isolus! It’s one of the weakest stories of Tennant’s long run. It sits between two far better stories and it feels grossly out of place. Chloe, played by Abisola Agbaje, does the best she can in the role but her whispering alien-inhabited voice comes off sounding like a kid pretending to be an alien and not actually threatening. Furthermore, is there any way we can explain the notion that drawing a person captures them on paper? I’ll even accept Voyager-style logic here! The scribble monster is the one creature that was weaker in concept than the Kandyman! And what’s with our favorite show that alien races have to have what they are in their names? The Isolus is isolated?
Nina Sosanya, Trish in the episode, is a great actress and her presence here should have boosted the rating, but nothing really could make this episode better without being a different episode! Nina has appeared in a number of other roles with David Tennant and she’s consistently great. As a scared mother, she plays the part well, but at no point did I feel there was a threat coming from, or to, Chloe. So even she could not help the episode out of its rut.
Sadly, the episode doesn’t increase in fear short of the notion that it might go on one minute more. The biggest positive of the episode is it give a name to those little edible round things on cupcakes. And who doesn’t love edible ball bearings? ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Doomsday