Happy Times and Places: "Love and Monsters"
Reviewed by Tim Phipps
08 August 2006
In the beginning was a show called Doctor Who. It was about a mysterious old man and his granddaughter. Together with their human companions, they travelled through time and space in a rickety old police box.
Because the show involved time travel, it became known as something of a science fiction show. This happened quite without anyone noticing, as it was meant primarily to be a dramatic show with educational intent. In fact, much of the science in the show was beyond all silliness, and the show may as well have been based on magic.
But because there was a certain undefinable magic about the show, it gradually gathered fans. They weren't called fans, in the beginning. And there certainly weren't enough of them to constitute a "fandom." In fact, the first fan of the show was an actor, called William Hartnell.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, William Hartnell was the first person to play the part of the Doctor. He was also the first person to give a rat's arse about continuity between stories—mannerisms, references to past adventures, which button did what on the TARDIS console, that sort of thing. Most people working with him would really have preferred it if he'd just pressed whichever button was closest at the time because, frankly, if he got to press the button that he wanted to press, all the cameras would have to be remounted. Which sounds like such a pain.
Mr Hartnell's desire for some internal consistency, some continuity, was echoed eventually by the programme's viewers. As they grew up watching the programme, they became aware that other fans existed, too, and somehow a fandom was suddenly in place.
And lo! Fandom was a wonderful, wonderful place. Like-minded people met up, had conversations about things they loved, created new and strange publications that they called Queen Bat, or Perigosto Stick, or Cottage Under Siege. All references to the show, some more in-jokey than others. Most of them digressed over the years until they had little, if anything, to do with the show that had inspired their creation.
But Doctor Who had grown during its lifespan. Any show that runs for several decades is going to accumulate a lot of backstory. And sometimes, the best way to show that you're a fan would be to show that you know the most about that backstory. Because if you know more than anyone else, that must mean that you love it so much more, right?
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."
The show died, of course, in 1989. Bar a brief revival (for one night only), the show's torch was carried by a range of spin-off novels and audio plays. The people who wrote these stories were fans of the original show—and what's more, they went on to revive the show again in 2005.
Russell Davies is, of course, from the Olden Days of fandom. He lived through much of the above. I've no idea if he was explicitly thinking of Ian Levine when he wrote the Abzorbaloff, but I can't help but suspect that Levine was bouncing somewhere around the back of his head.
"Love and Monsters" concerns a group of people who have seen the Doctor at some point in their lives. They find each other, and they gather each week to talk about the Doctor.
There's Mr Skinner, the New Adventures author and fanboy, who talks of the Doctor in terms of archetypes like thief, stranger, king, and fool. He's John Tulloch—or me at the age of sixteen, when Tsuro the hare seemed like the most profound thing in the world.
Bridget, the Andrew Pixley analogue, who shows everyone her fan history slideshows of the Doctor's adventures throughout time. Bliss, who writes her fanfic and makes her fanart; not analysing the show—I mean, the Doctor—just looking at it—erm, him—from a purely creative perspective.
And then there's Elton Pope, the guy we most identify with—he'll try to tell you that he likes a drink, or that he likes Spain, but really we know that he just loves Doctor Who and ELO. Everything else is just camouflage.
Elton introduces us to his world with a selective history. Just as a fan might show a non-fan "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" to get them interested, before you hit them with "The Web Planet," Elton tells us about the time he watched a big slavering alien chase Rose and the Doctor up and down corridors. It's the pitch—it gets you interested. And, in a way, it invites the viewer to almost treat the entire episode as Elton's great work of fanfic.
This opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the show. The corridor chase actively spoofs the generic "running up and down corridors with a silly resolution" storytelling that earlier Who episodes would go for. This goes beyond homage, this is downright fun-pokery.
So these people, this fandom, they gather each week and talk about the Doctor. Then they start talking about their lives instead. Then they make their basement meeting place into the metafictional equivalent of the Fitzroy Tavern and start baking each other cakes. And then they form a band.
Just as real-life fandom branched out from talking solely about Doctor Who, all these characters start from a common interest and branch out their conversations until these are real friends. Like proper mates.
They're creative. They're vital. They fall in love. They support each other. They cook for each other, sing for each other, perform together, and laugh through all of it.
Happy times and places.
And then, just like real-life fandom, the Superfan appears and sucks the life and fun out of it all.
Victor Kennedy's secret is that he's the Abzorbaloff. He literally absorbs people. He does it metaphorically too, of course, making him the closest thing to a Buffy the Vampire Slayer villain-through-metaphor that Who has ever had.
Peter Kay's performance is actually great. There is a downside, in that the switch to his native Northern accent when he turns into the Abzorbaloff is somewhat off-putting. But he does the whole menace and oddness thing very well when he's being Kennedy. (Plus, his lip-licking as the Abzorbaloff is actually quite disturbing—far more so than a gag about oral sex with paving slabs.)
Eventually, Kennedy convinces Elton to seduce Jackie Tyler to find more out about the Doctor and Rose. Elton can't do it, rebelling against Kennedy's orders. "It's all gone wrong, Mr. Kennedy, ever since you turned up! We used to come here every week, and we'd have a laugh," shouts Elton. It's the first time that we see Elton being angry, and it's affecting as a result. "We were friends. No wonder they stopped coming."
No wonder the show got cancelled back in the Eighties, he may as well say.
Kennedy responds by saying that Elton won't ever understand, that Elton won't ever know why he remembers seeing the Doctor when he was a child. He won't ever know what the Doctor was doing in his house.
And he's right. And Elton accepts it. Because while we might not ever see the whole of "The Web of Fear," while we might not know everything there is to know about the Doctor's history, the history of Who as a concept and as a show, we don't care.
Knowing about the show isn't what being a fan is about. Being a fan is about finding these people, knowing these people. People who love what you love, who understand it the way that you do. People to talk to on common ground, about common interests.
It's about friends. And about fun.
You have to grow up, eventually. Of course you do.
Most people? They would have watched Who as a kid, then they'd have grown up and grown out of it. They'd have left it all behind, because they found other things to occupy their time. They got too busy. We forget, because we must.
In the end, it's not the Doctor who saves everyone. He tells everyone how to save themselves. All the fans pull in opposite directions, Ursula reads the Abzorbaloff's mind, and they destroy him by themselves.
You see, the Doctor saved Elton when Elton was a kid. But here in the real world, the grown-up world, the Doctor can't save adults. He can't save Elton's mum, and he doesn't save Elton from the Abzorbaloff. He can't even save the Abzorbaloff's victims, save for resurrecting Ursula as a paving slab.
Think of Elton's final speech of the episode:
Turns out I've had the most terrible things happen. And the most brilliant things. And sometimes, well, I can't tell the difference. They're all the same thing. They're ... they're just me. You know, Steven King said once, he said ... "salvation and damnation are the same thing." And I never knew what he meant. But I do now.
Kennedy announces his entrance by declaring that "I am your salvation." And, in a way, he's right. It's getting back "The Web of Fear" again, or "The Power of the Daleks." But what happens when Kennedy is a part of the group is that the fun leaves, and the group are damned.
The Doctor saves Elton as a kid, but once you grow out of being a kid, you can't rely on your childhood heroes to be the heroes you thought they were. You need to start believing in yourself, and your friends. The Doctor, or whatever the subject of your fandom is, can't save you—frankly, he's not real. But what's real, what is absolutely real, is the connection you share with other people. It's proven here as Elton's friends literally become "splitters," stretching themselves away from the Abzorbaloff's body and saving themselves in the process.
In resurrecting Ursula as a paving slab, the Doctor saves Elton "one last time." But really, what saves Elton is Ursula. Her being there, their being together, is what saves them both. Without either Elton or Ursula feeling as they do, resurrection as a paving slab is no salvation at all.
And so we're saved. And we're damned. Because you might like football, or you might like Spain, but it's still just camouflage for what you really love. What really unites you with others.
The ending of "Love and Monsters" is pitch-perfect. An episode that, so far, has been a celebration of fandom, a potted history of Doctor Who fandom, no less, suddenly becomes something that lauds Oddness everywhere.
When you're a kid, they tell you it's all ... grow up. Get a job. Get married. Get a house. Have a kid, and that's it. But the truth is, the world is so much stranger than that. It's so much darker. And so much madder. And so much better.
No, your life isn't "typical." Yes, your life involves a deep love for something that you feel you need to camouflage—but you shouldn't need to. Because what you love, you love. And whether it's a TV show, a paving slab, an untrendy 1980s electropop act ... it's what you love. And yes, it might be stranger, or darker, or madder than anything that someone with the "typical" life might understand.
But that, more than anything, is what makes it better.
Me? I love this show, as if it weren't obvious already. Sometimes it's horrifically bad (see this season's Cybermen episodes). Sometimes it's sublime (see "The Girl in the Fireplace").
But always, there's that undefinable magic. And always, there's the sound of the TARDIS.
The sound of the universe.
I'd love to tell you more about this episode. About how it sets up perfectly, with Jackie Tyler's isolation, Rose's departure at the end of "Doomsday."
About how Marc Warren, Shirley Henderson, and everyone else in the cast give absolutely spot-on performances.
How the use of ELO, and Elton dancing in his underpants, makes us love him immediately.
I'd like to tell you how we get treated to a glimpse of next season's Doctor in this, with Elton's line about how "we forget, because we have to." We shouldn't expect a moping Doctor next season, and that's a good thing.
Part of me would like to consider how Russell Davies is now Chief Fanboy, rather than Ian Levine, and the impact this has on the interpretation of the Abzorbaloff character. After all, there's no bigger fan than the fan who gets to write the show—would it be so terribly difficult to see Russell Davies as the Superfan now?
Another part of me thinks that there's serious potential in looking at how this episode rehabilitates Jackie Tyler's character as sympathetic, much as this season's early episodes rehabilitated Mickey Smith.
If I really wanted to talk about the fandom nonsense some more, I could suggest how the "this isn't Doctor Who!" responses to this episode that I've seen on the internet are wrong, and how this is the most Who-ish thing I've seen in donkey's years. About how Who has always been about intention more than form or execution, and the intention behind this story is wholly right.
Or I could compare it to the previous season's equivalent episode, "Boomtown," which also had the job of being a "filler" episode to set up the season finale. I could say how "Love and Monsters" does a far better job of setting up the character motivations at play in "Doomsday" than "Boomtown" did of introducing us to the TARDIS's happy endings circuit required for "The Parting of the Ways." There are obvious links, with hindsight, to Rose's fate at the end of "Doomsday"—saved with her family, and yet damned to be separated from the Doctor. A Doctor who just carries on in his TARDIS, who forgets because he must. Compare this to the Magic TARDIS of last season, with its anvil-clangingly awful setup and ... well. There is no comparison.
And I could go on to emphasise that this isn't just a disposable filler episode at all. Things happen that mean something here—like Jackie's wonderful rant about being the one left behind. It's equivalent to Sarah Jane's appearance in "School Reunion," except it's also a darn sight more subtle and in-character than most of "School Reunion." That rant alone makes us love Jackie, just as the sight of Elton dancing in his underpants made us love him—if nothing else, Russell Davies understands the power of a vulnerable character.
There are other little moments of joy. Like Jackie remembering who Mickey is, the first mention of him since he left the show four episodes earlier. Rose completely missing the point of the Doctor denying his "nice" image, and the potential impact on the relationship that she thinks they share. The brief flicker of Elton John near the beginning, singing a song about letting people go away because they have to (quite probably foreshadowing "Doomsday," again).
But I'm not going to do any of this.
Over-analysing this episode feels like going against the entire spirit of it. Some things you get additional mileage from with further analysis—there are reams that could be written about the characterisation in "The Girl in the Fireplace," for example. And while that could be done here, while it's Russell Davies' most consistent script for quite a while, I don't think I could pull it off.
Because every fandom has its loves, and every fandom has its monsters.
"Love and Monsters" falls definitely into the former category. And how can I be objective about something I love?
My esteemed editor has pointed out to me that almost all of my reviews end on a one-word summation of my opinion. I'd love to break that trend here, really I would. But I can't, so you're going to have to cope with it one more time.
Because this isn't "typical" Who. And this isn't "traditional" Who. It's darker, and it's stranger, and it's madder.
And it's so much better.