Doctor Who’s Love and Monsters is silly. It is grotesquely silly. It is unashamedly, unabashedly, laugh out loud silly. It’s also my favourite Russell T. Davies script of this season.
Not that it doesn’t have its flaws.
Here’s a bit of background that may give you some idea of what’s going on here. There is this children’s show in the United Kingdom called Blue Peter. In it a number of presenters engage the audience with craft projects, interviews, segments and whathaveyou, and it’s been around for as long (if not longer) than Doctor Who. This year, Blue Peter resurrected a classic contest, inviting kids across Britain to submit designs for their own Doctor Who monster. But whereas in the original contest, the prize was that the BBC’s special effects department would build the winning designs and showcase them on Blue Peter, this year Doctor Who producer Russell T. Davies promised that he would write an entire story around the best monster. Nine year old William Grantham won, and his Absorbaloff took centre stage.
It’s actually a pretty convincing (and somewhat icky) design (an alien that absorbs his victims, and has their faces displayed upon his skin), and it’s almost a shame that Davies decided to play the concept for laughs. Almost. Davies rises to the challenge, however, giving us a script that is only a throw-away on the surface. Beneath the silliness, beneath the eccentric characters and the comedic pacing, lies a tale that’s a lot deeper than most people would give it credit for and, ultimately, bittersweet.
Davies has been playing up two themes in the first two seasons of the revival, which he ties up very nicely in the season finale: that the Doctor’s effective immortality dooms his relationships to bitter ends, and that the Doctor and his companions are sometimes blind to the chaos they leave in their wake. This season has focused more on the former, with School Reunion and Girl in the Fireplace. Love and Monsters allows Davies to deal with the latter.
We meet Elton Pope, an average man whose average life is thoroughly disrupted by the multiple alien invasions the Doctor has thwarted over the past two years. Elton was there when the Autons broke out of the shop windows, when the Slitheen spaceship smashed into Big Ben, and when the Sygorax attacked. He knows that there is far more going on around him than he can possibly comprehend — and he is possibly the representation of the typical British citizen coping in the wake of these streams of chaotic disasters.
Elton: 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.
But whereas Donna in The Runaway Bride has hunkered down and ignored the threats around her with heaps and heaps of denial, Elton knows something that Donna didn’t and most other people in Britain don’t: that there is a powerful man out there who has stopped the aliens. Elton knows this because, as a three-year-old, he first saw the Doctor standing mysterious and grim in his parents’ living room. Elton has been given something that most other humans haven’t: an explanation of why the world around them is so strange, and unfortunately, that knowledge dooms him to the life of an outsider. He is, to put it kindly, a geek. Fortunately, he finds he is not alone.
Gradually, Elton finds other individuals who have been touched by the Doctor, and they form a kind of support group. Their developing kinship is heartwarming to watch as they work through other psychological traumas (Bridget lost her daughter… not to aliens, but to drugs), build their own social lives, fall in love some of them, and even form a band. And it’s worth noting that this element of Love and Monsters is not played entirely for laughs. As silly as the story is, Davies doesn’t take the opportunity to make fun of these social outcasts. That would have been too easy. Instead, he highlights the humanity of these individuals, and makes us care for them all the more.
The casting also helps. With the Doctor and Rose shoved into the periphery for the bulk of the episode, these otherwise-extras are left to carry the show. Marc Warren proves himself to be up to the task as Elton, and no surprise here, as he’s contributed to some of the best shows on British television. Hustle fans will recognize him, even if they don’t recognize his accent, but he’s almost unrecognizable as Mr. Teatime (Tia-Ta-Meh) in Hogfather. Wow, this guy has range.
Helping him every step of the way is Shirley Henderson as love interest Ursula Blake (you might recognize the actress as Moaning Myrtle from the Harry Potter films — again, she has range, as it’s hard to believe that this 41 year old is still playing the 15 year old Myrtle). She has excellent chemistry with Marc Warren and she carries key moments of the narrative. The fact that she is able to keep herself together to warn Elton away as the Absorbaloff absorbs her makes for a poignant scene.
Then there is Peter Kay, who plays the Absorbaloff, who infiltrates the group as Victor Kennedy, with promises to help them to at last track down the Doctor (and do… what, exactly? The group doesn’t seem sure. At this point, they don’t seem too interested in finding the Doctor as they are in living the improved lives they’ve built for themselves, but they don’t question Victor’s eagerness as it is the reason the group was founded). The comedian plays the human version of the Absorbaloff with considerable grandeur; he is more than a match for the timid support group he takes over, and it is an underdog struggle for Ursula and the rest to stand up to him (and quite satisfying when they do). As the Absorbaloff… well… what can I say? If you’re going to be silly, be unabashedly silly.
But an unexpected star of this episode is Camille Coduri as Jackie Tyler, whom Elton tracks down on Victor’s orders to try and find the Doctor through her. She is simply stunning as she articulates the special loneliness affecting those who are loved ones of the Doctor’s companions; the pain of her loss makes Elton’s look tiny by comparison, and we cannot help but share Elton’s feelings as his sympathy grows and he seeks to alleviate her loss any way he can. But as soon as Jackie realizes what Elton was up to (wonderfully the moment after he abandons his deception and reaches out to her in genuine friendship) she shuts him down with her most passionate and strong speech ever:
Jackie: Let me tell you something about those who get left behind. Because it’s hard. And that’s what you become. Hard. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I will never let her down. And I’ll protect them both until the end of my life. So whatever you want, I’m warning you… Back off!
The story is quite self contained and content to explore the themes of its loneliness, which makes it a rather special treat this season. The Doctor and Rose’s appearance at the end of the tale is well handled, for laughs as Rose has a go at Elton for upsetting her mother even while the Absorbaloff is breathing down their necks, and for a few tears as the secret behind the Doctor’s appearance in 3 year old Elton’s living room is revealed.
I only really have two complaints about Love and Monsters; one is a nitpick, and one amounts to what I would label a bad call on Davies’ part. The nitpick first: were I in charge, I would have rearranged the opener, because it’s pretty insubstantial: Elton runs across a scrub field, spots the TARDIS (nice iconic shot, there), hears the Doctor and Rose’s shouts, runs to investigate and almost gets eaten by a razor-toothed monster. The camera then quick cuts to Elton’s bedroom where he describes the scene further. It establishes the episode’s conceit — that Elton will be addressing viewers directly, but not to great effect. This is even more pronounced as, after the opening credits, we cut back to Elton being menaced by the monster, only to have the Doctor intervene with a steak. Elton then stands and watches while the Doctor, Rose and Monster go through a French farce of doors, only to have the Doctor stop, peer at Elton and say, “Excuse me, don’t I know you?” That would have been such a perfect ending for the teaser scene, I’m shocked that the teaser wasn’t structured as such.
Then there is the final fate of Ursula, after the Absorbaloff is beaten. Rebecca Anderson says it best: “Pavement!Ursula = Teh Ew”. Look, if you as a writer are going to relent and bring back the tragically killed love interest, bring her back. Sure, you can scar her a little bit, but the suggestion that Ursula would be in any way happy to spend the rest of her life as a face on a paving stone shatters my suspension of disbelief, which had otherwise been strung up pretty tight by this otherwise perfect episode. Oh, well.
But Russell T. Davies still achieved remarkable things on what would otherwise have been a throwaway episode. To put it mildly, I was surprised, and ultimately pleased.
One Year Ago Today
The Conservative government is a year old today, and should last at least another three months (I predict another nine to twelve), leaving Clark’s record as the shortest-serving Conservative prime minister comfortably in the rear window.
Overall, I would give this government’s performance a solid C+. They’ve done decent work. Yes, there are plenty of things that they advocate that I disagree with, but they’ve worked with parliament enough to give us a government that is serving the needs of Canadians, albeit in unremarkable fashion. On the other hand, there have been stumbles, and a disturbing growing sense of entitlement that make me wonder what the true face of the Conservatives would be, if it were given a free hand to unmask itself. These stumbles are not, as some Conservative supporters complain, examples of the party “rushing to the middle”. As a centrist, I find these moves upsetting as well, and I’ll go on about them in more length two days from now.
If an election were held today, I would hope for exactly the same results as last year. Stephen Harper has earned his minority government, and hopefully he will maintain it for months, if not years, to come. But this government is nowhere near ready to be handed the reigns of majority power in this country.