Doctor Who complete reviews: Love & Monsters
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Spot The Doctor, in this controversial 'light' episode...
Good grief. What have we here? Stories have come and stories have gone, but few have polarised opinion to such an extent as Love And Monsters.
Love And Monsters is what's now known as The Doctor-Lite story of the season, an annual occurrence in the David Tennant years. Because this one was filmed back to back with the Impossible Pit two-parter, The Doctor and Rose only make fleeting cameo appearances. The trick would be re-used with Blink and Turn Left (although Catherine Tate's Donna would carry the action after chilling out in a spa and missing out on the crazy ride to Midnight).
So Love And Monsters is largely known as the Experimental One of NuWho's second season – or more precisely, the Experiment That Failed, since a sizeable number of fans don't like it. The episode's been attacked for a number of reasons: The cartoony humour. The rather inappropriate adult humour at the end. A green monster in a thong which resembles a four-month walking cadaver of Bubbles De Vere from Little Britain. Occasional self-indulgence?
On the surface, Love And Monsters is a tad flimsy. It concerns the misadventures of social misfit Elton Pope, a man who's devoting his time to investigating the mysterious time traveller known as The Doctor. He's then aided and abetted by a small motley crew of similar misfits who form a clique called LINDA (London Investigation N Detective Agency). Before you know it, the fun time gang is disrupted by the enigmatic Victor Kennedy, who orders a more formal hunt for The Doctor – but in case you didn't know it, he's actually a portly green blob in a thong called the Abzorbaloff – and get this, most of LINDA are absorbed into his disgusting green belly. In the end, the Abzorbaloff is only defeated by Elton breaking a stick, for which his reward is living with a paving slab head of his lover Ursula.
So I can understand why people don't like it, since the whole plot is basically ridiculous. The Abzorbaloff itself is cringe-inducingly awful – as it happens, it was designed by a nine-year-old Blue Peter fan who won a contest to produce a winning Doctor Who monster. Quite what the young scamp made of the finished article is anyone's guess, although you can easily picture the poor chap blubbing into his signed photo of Zoe Salmon after Love And Monsters first went out. Personally, for me, it doesn't help that Victor Abzorbaloff is played by Peter Kay, revered by many as a comic genius, and groaned at by me for being about as funny as cleaning your teeth with a cordless drill and a tub full of superglue. Appropriately, as soon as Kay's character strides down the stairs into the LINDA basement, the fun goes out the window for the group. Which is much the reaction that I'd show if someone suggested to me that I should watch one of his re-released DVDs with a tacked on value-for-money five-minute extra of his latest crass bid for pop stardom.
But the silly monster aside, if you peer close enough, there's more to Love And Monsters than meets the eye. In fact, it's not so much a comedy larkabout, it's actually quite a bleak tale that examines the themes of loss and loneliness – the trick is is that it's wrapped up in a sunny, cartoony package.
There's certainly never been a Doctor Who like this before. Love And Monsters breaks the mould with its wacky realisation. There's speeded up chases, along the lines of Scooby Doo Where Are You? There's odd random cuts to both Elton John singing Daniel and past experiences of Elton's life. And most crucially, the action mainly unfolds from the viewpoint of Elton's camcorder. He outlines his background and the story to us directly, like the video diaries that are frequently shown on TV. It's a brave move to take, and it's actually one that should be applauded for its innovation. Dan Zeff makes his only directing contribution to Doctor Who, and he treats it very much as a visual comic strip. Zeff does a great job of translating Davies' script to screen, and his finished product is packed full of interesting visuals such as quick jump cuts, flashbacks and sped-up action sequences.
"It's nice that Davies doesn't portray the group as stereotypical nerds with sticky-tape NHS glasses"
He's also managed to assemble a pretty impressive guest cast. Peter Kay's the obvious big name, but you also have Marc 'Hustle' Warren as Elton; Shirley 'Moaning Myrtle/Voice of Noosha Fox' Henderson as Ursula; Simon 'Meerkat/Cup Of Beans, Mr Partridge' as Mr Skinner; Moya 'Bill' Brady as Bridget and Kathryn 'Two Pints of Lager/Benidorm' as Bliss. Another good example of Doctor Who's reputation as The Morecambe And Wise Show in its ability to attract well-known guest names. And in fact, they all do a fantastic job, making LINDA a sympathetic bunch of likeable, everyday people. Marc Warren, in particular, gives the standout turn here. He's asked to carry the episode as the leading man (since The Doctor just pops up here and there with serious looks to the camera and requests for spades) and he really sells the character of Elton as a happy-go-lucky chap on the surface and a tormented, troubled soul underneath – look at the frequent, sad gazes into the distance - excellent stuff.
The group of LINDA is often regarded as a sly take on the world of Doctor Who fandom. Random people are brought together in their admiration for the enigmatic time traveller. It's nice that Davies doesn't portray the group as stereotypical nerds with sticky-tape NHS glasses or bowlcuts, but ordinary people with different lives and interests. Elton also likes football, Spain, a few drinks and of course, a bit of ELO. Yup, you can't beat a bit of ELO, although one of the featured songs, 'Mr Blue Sky', is a classic case of a breezy pop ditty being multi-handedly decimated by the tune-free burblings of a pompous choir. Hmmmm, ring any bells, Mr Gold?
Anyway, it's nice to see the main 'fan' as a bloke with everyday interests who just happens to follow The Doctor. Bit like me – I just happen to fit prattling on about Doctor Who in between lots of meals, drinks and walks in the country with my lovely wife, music, drumming, guitaring, harmonica playing, bike riding and cartoon drawing, for example. And sure enough, it's great to see Elton bonding with the other friends, who use LINDA as a social outlet rather than one long ponderous chinwag about The Doctor. They make cakes, read poetry and even form LINDA the band (performing Melanie's 'Brand New Key' and ELO's 'Don't Bring Me Down'). This is all rather charming, and we get to see that LINDA is also a welcome diversion from the real strains of everyday life. Mr Skinner is rather awkward and quiet, but manages to muster up growing confidence through poetry recitals and his growing bond with the rest of the group. He even plucks up the courage to ask Bridget on a date.
Bridget herself sees the group as a breather from her daughter's drug habit. However, all of this good-natured joie-de-vivre is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Victor Kennedy, who you could argue, represents one or two types of fan: The more intense type of fan who takes the programme way too seriously (from now on, LINDA members are forced to work school-style in a rather more serious quest to find the time-travelling one). That, or the type of fan who doesn't rate the more emotional side of 21st century Who – heck, Kennedy even hates being touched physically or emotionally, maybe a sly dig at those who don't rate the touchy-feely side of NuWho. Also though, you could argue that the episode could be seen from the point of view of people who don't like Doctor Who at all, and instead dismiss it as a silly kids' show with rubbish monsters. Maybe that's why most of the last 10 or so minutes are a bit rubbish. The Abzorbaloff's high-speed chase of Elton and his frequent burblings of “Join us!”, not to mention the demise of the monster are all totally ridiculous, even by Who standards – but then maybe it's meant to be. Maybe Davies is trying to parody the way in which non-believers regard the show – but more to the point, he turns this craziness on its head by adding some deeply moving stuff in the last few moments too. And thus proving that Doctor Who is far, far more than some silly kids' show.
"It's worth asking how much of that final sequence is real and how much of it is taking place in Elton's head"
In fact, we finally get to see that Elton's obsession with The Doctor stems from the death of his mother when he was a young boy. Throughout the story, we've seen Elton remembering The Doctor staring at him forlornly in his mother's lounge, but the link isn't made until the Time Lord explains that Elton's mother was killed and that he had arrived too late to save her. It's quite moving stuff, as we see flashbacks to Elton's mother, accompanied by the last strains of ELO's 'Mr Blue Sky' (“We forget because we must,” says Elton, sadly). It underlines the themes of loss in the story – Ursula too is also sucked in by the Abzorbaloff creature, and in a neat pre-empting of the season finale, the hero doesn't ride off into the sunset with his girl. Ursula does apparently manage some sort of obscure life as a paving slab, but this is where the story gets that bit more complex.
Note that at the end we never see Ursula's face on the paving slab in the sequences where the camera looks at Elton. You could argue that maybe, Elton's been driven quietly mad by the whole experience – it's only in his head that Ursula's living a crazy paving kind of life. The idea of The Doctor allowing someone to live on in such a way is a pretty grim one, so it's worth asking how much of that final sequence is real and how much of it is taking place in Elton's head.
Either way, Elton's encounter with The Doctor is a good example of how the Time Lord affects other people's lives. It's interesting in that this season looks at his flaws and criticises him for these shortcomings. Queen Victoria is quick to banish him at the end of Tooth And Claw for his obnoxious behaviour. He's taken to task for his actions by Sarah Jane in School Reunion. But it's in Love And Monsters that we see the downside of linking yourself with The Doctor. Not only does he fail to save Elton's mum from the deadly Shadow, he also fails to save his new gang of friends (and if it's true, then a paving slab's a pretty thankless life). More crucially, we also see how The Doctor's presence has affected Jackie Tyler.
This is the story where we get to see past the fake tan and bling, and we finally get to witness the rather sad tale of Jackie's loneliness. Not only has her husband passed over to the other side, her daughter's just been ferried halfway across the universe by a crazy alien in a police box. Jackie cuts a rather tragic figure in this – a woman desperate for friends and company, and naturally, she latches onto Elton in the local launderette like no tomorrow. At first, this is flirting of the highest order: She invites him round to her flat for various home repairs. She wears a low-cut top and a skirt that's shorter than a man's life expectancy in a lion cage at the zoo. Heck, she's even not averse to sticking on a bit of Il Divo to crank up the sexual tension. But even these poor attempts at flirting make her realise that in the end, she just wants a bit of companionship (“I just go a bit mad,” she says sadly after getting off the phone to her daughter).
"Far from being the filler story of the season, there's a hell of a lot to digest in Love And Monsters"
Elton though has made the classic howler of leaving a photo of Rose in his jacket pocket. This all leads to a scene that really defines Jackie and her isolation. Rightly, she takes Elton to task for using her as a way to get to find her daughter than making a new friend. And as she explains, being left behind has made her harder because it's hard to get used to being on your own and worrying about the fate of a loved one day in, day out. It's quite a moving scene, especially since Jackie says that she will always put her daughter first – a far cry from the whinging stereotype of the first couple of adventures. Camille Coduri is at her peak here, and turns in a bravura performance that flirts between bubbly fun and melancholy despair.
Far from being the filler story of the season, there's a hell of a lot to digest in Love And Monsters. Loneliness. Despair. Relationships. Fan worship. OK, so the monster's deeply silly. OK, so the paving slab love life gag is pushing the envelope a bit too much. Try and get past all that, and in fact, what you're left with is one of the more rewarding stories of the season. It's an experiment that's hampered by one or two inadequacies, but overall, Russell T Davies has managed to weave a tale that's both good fun and rather moving. It's a sly salute to the fan base of Doctor Who, which never quite slips into schmaltzy hero worship. Instead, it presents a slightly more complex and darker look at the way in which The Doctor affects people's lives. As Elton himself sums up in the final coda, “The world is so much stranger than that. It's so much darker and so much madder. And so much better.”
Just like Love And Monsters. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but look beyond its obvious problems, and you may find one of the more challenging and interesting examples of 21st century Doctor Who.
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