“Note to self: By episode ten, David and Billie will probably be knackered. Real risk of them appearing on top of Welsh parliament building with sniper rifles if I make them do more work. Plus not sure they can be at two places at same time, thanks to filming requirements of episode nine. Must come up with story that doesn’t involve Doctor or Rose. Hmm. How about story like Star Trek’s Lower Decks that focuses on other characters? Or like The Zeppo on Buffy? I love Buffy. I wish I was Buffy.”
From Russell T Davies’s “Production Notes: Doodles in the Margins of Time” © BBC 2007
Love and Monsters was quite a brave episode. You have to admire Russell T Davies for at least trying something new. A story that pretty much doesn’t feature the Doctor or his companions at all? Unheard of! (When was the last time? Yes, you there at the back. Mission to the Unknown, back in the Hartnell days? Well done!)
But does it succeed? Could it have ever succeeded?
Elton (Marc Warren) has a thing for the Doctor. He’s been obsessed by him, ever since he saw him in his front room when he was just a kid. But it’s not until shop window dummies come to life and spaceships loom over London that he starts to look for answers. Through the magic of the Internet, he comes across a group of people with similar interests. At first, they spend their evenings trying to find the Doctor. But soon they become friends, start a band and generally have a fun time of things.
But all good things come to an end and soon a flamboyant stranger called Victor Kennedy (Peter Kay) joins the group. He has big plans for finding the Doctor. Under his leadership, they come closer to finding the mysterious Doctor than they ever have before but at a price – the group starts to fall apart, members stop turning up to meetings and the fun seems to go away.
If you look precisely 2mm below the surface for sub-text, you’ll easily spot that Love and Monsters was about the dynamics of Doctor Who and other similar fan groups. Doctor Who fans usually get together at first to talk about their favourite episodes, etc, but pretty soon they’re just nattering on about the usual stuff. Then someone with a disorder straight from the scary pages of the DSM-IV will turn up and it’ll all turn to rubbish. Before you know it, you’re all hiding upstairs with the lights turned off to stop him thinking you’re in. But when he’s gone, you can all have fun again.
Nice idea though that is as the basis of a story – indeed, it’s almost Russell T Davies’s love letter to fandom – it didn’t quite work onscreen. For one thing, I imagine kids were bored out of their mind for most of the show, since most of Elton’s narrative probably went above their heads. Certainly, there wasn’t much happening in terms of aliens and action for them to lap up and even Davies’ usual devices for bringing the kids in (gross humour and fart gags) didn’t arrive until three-quarters the way in. So essentially we had a group of not very exciting but essentially likeable adults milling around for half an hour, dancing to ELO, before it all gets ruined by a load of childishness – just as the kids have stopped watching.
On the adult side, my test audience (my sister, who likes the new series despite my force-feeding her with the original series during our formative years) and my wife (who gives me a continual look of “And you like this programme why?” whenever she catches an episode) thought it was a load of pants. And I felt the usual RTD-induced cringing for a good percentage of the episode, so it wasn’t just them.
But although it wasn’t fantastic, it was certainly good in places. RTD’s gifts for dialogue and jokes only adults will get were out in force; Peter Kay, still a touch too comedic to be a truly frightening adversary, was very good, particularly as Victor Kennedy; and ELO was outstanding as always.
Warren, best known for his work on Hustle, and the rest of the guest cast, including Shirley Henderson (Bridget Jones’ Diary, the Harry Potter movies), didn’t quite make their characters real, perhaps spotting the sub-text too easily and playing up to the fan stereotype, something not especially helped by the wardrobe department. But they were still able to bear the weight of the Doctor-less story without too much difficulty. Camille Coduri, although still not liable to win a BAFTA for her performance, had enough character-building moments that even the most committed Jackie Tyler-o-phobe would have felt some sympathy for her by the end of the episode.
All in all, not bad, but could have been better if someone other than RTD had been allowed to polish it up afterwards.
PS Infamous 80s producer John Nathan-Turner got rid of the sonic screwdriver because he thought the writers were using it as an easy device for solving problems in the plot without any thought on their part. Although he was much hated at the time, I’m now beginning to realise he was a God-like genius and prophet. Seriously, enough with the sonic screwdriver already, guys. It’s only tiny. It can’t fix everything. It’s sonic, for one thing.
PPS RTD comes up with such wonderful ideas for aliens that he just throws away in lines of dialogue. An energy shade? A living shadow? I want to watch that episode!