Stranger, Darker, Madder… (Love & Monsters)

Love & Monsters, in my opinion, is one of, if not the single best, episode of Doctor Who since its triumphant revival in 2005. A lot of readers will stop there and not bother with the rest of this post, for that statement will undoubtedly elicit a plethora of angered derision from outraged fans. Love & Monsters, to put it mildly, is not popular. It was ranked 220th out of 241 in the latest official Doctor Who Magazine poll; the fifth lowest ranked episode of the revived series. Positioned, as it is, at the end of David Tennant’s hugely popular second season, in an era when the show had reached new heights of popularity, with almost every episode receiving unconditional praise from fandom, its low esteem is decidedly anomalous. This post will analyse the episode, probing into why it’s so unpopular with fandom, and providing evidence to support my claim that it is one of the greatest scripts ever presented under the banner of Doctor Who.

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Love & Monsters is what the production team titled a ‘Doctor-lite episode’: episodes that featured only a limited appearance from the Doctor (David Tennant) due to overlapping filming schedules. The uninitiated may immediately latch onto this as an explanation for the episode’s unpopularity, but the answer is not that easy, as the other two Doctor-lite episodes, Blink and Turn Left, are two of the show’s most popular. With the Doctor only being able to take a small part in the action, the episode instead invents a new protagonist, Elton (Marc Warren). Elton is an average guy, apart from the fact that as a child he briefly encountered the Doctor one late night in his family home, and ever since he’s been driven to discover what purpose the mysterious time traveller had for being there. One of the episode’s greatest innovations is that the story is being retold by Elton via a video blog. Immediately, we see that Elton is an ‘untrustworthy narrator’, as he tells the story from his perspective, in his zany, childlike manner. Examples of this include him witnessing the Doctor and Rose (Billie Piper) chase a monster back and forth down the same corridor (a reference to an often mocked budgetary restraint of the series) and his computer exploding as the Internet goes into meltdown with rumours about the Doctor. This over the top manner of storytelling is one of the main targets of criticism from fans, who don’t seem to understand that we’re viewing Elton’s personalised version of events. 

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The fact that narrow-minded fans are unable to appreciate Elton’s individual take on the Doctor’s adventures is not surprising, as it is exactly these fans that the episode sets out to expose and criticise. In his search to discover the identity of the Doctor, Elton encounters others on a similar journey, and together they form LINDA; a group dedicated to this cause. LINDA’s fascination with the Doctor draws a clear comparison with Doctor Who fandom and their devotion to the show. Elton’s Doctor Who fan club has a hugely positive effect, bringing a selection of diverse characters together to share their individual opinions of the Doctor without fear of malicious criticism. It encourages their talents – Bliss’ (Kathryn Drysdale) sculpture and songwriting, Mr Skinner’s (Simon Greenall) novel, Bridget’s (Moya Brady) cooking – and the whole group play as a band together. As they bond, they are also able to support each other during emotional ordeals, such as when Bridget confides in the group about her drug-addicted daughter, who is missing in London. LINDA is a beautiful representation of what a shared love of Doctor Who can inspire, and an ideal example of what fandom can achieve if it is respectful of individual opinions and just allows itself to celebrate its mutual love of the show. Elton’s preferred style of Doctor Who and his democratic version of fandom would not be tolerated by some who’re unable to accept anything that doesn’t conform to their strict outlook. Sadly, in this case, life has imitated art, as it is exactly this sort of fan the episode goes on to criticise, and exactly this sort of fan who has been unable to understand and appreciate its deeper complexities. 

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It is with the arrival of Victor Kennedy (Peter Kay) that everything starts to go wrong for LINDA. Victor embodies the kind of cruel, opinionated, overbearing personality that is prevalent throughout Doctor Who fandom. He quickly takes charge of LINDA, enforcing his views and his law upon the group. The group meetings become no longer about sharing individual opinions, talents and troubles, and having fun, and are transformed into strict, regimented classes, dedicated solely to fulfilling Victor’s vision and seeking out the Doctor. This criticism of conformity is not only directed at overbearing Doctor Who fans but other forms of conformity. There are clear comparisons made between Victor’s running of LINDA and the strict conformity of school life. Victor reshapes LINDA’s headquarters into a regimented classroom, with each member sitting at a school desk littered with maps, calculators and books, while he acts as teacher, sitting behind a large desk at the head of the class, surrounded by filing cabinets, atlases, and shelves covered with folders. He assigns the class homework, they are made to raise their hand and ask his permission before voicing an opinion, and when Ursula (Shirley Henderson) rebels against him, he labels her, “most likely to fight back”. Once set their assignments by Victor, Elton declares, “Better get to work. Lots to do” and Ursula responds, “I never thought of it as work”. What was once a fun, educational environment, a place to develop talents and interests, that promoted equality and individuality, is transformed into a cruel dictatorship, where one law is taught, and no form of dissent is tolerated. Also, at this point, members of the group begin to mysteriously disappear, including Bliss, and also Bridget, despite her previously developing a romantic relationship with Mr Skinner.

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Comparisons are also drawn between Victor’s takeover of the previously independent LINDA and the tyranny of greedy organisations and corrupt governments. Victor’s attire, including pinstriped suit and suitcase, resembles that of a high-class businessman or politician, and he is heard to yell slogans at the group, such as, “complete your targets”. With Victor in charge, the group is pushed to exploit the poor and vulnerable, lying to and manipulating them for their own selfish gain. Elton is sent undercover to gather information from Jackie Tyler (Camille Coduri). Jackie is characterised as lonely, emotional and vulnerable. Left behind by her daughter, Rose, she utters dialogue such as, “(I) can’t bear it silent”, “It’s just me these days, rattling about” and “She’s so far away. I get left here sometimes and I don’t know where she is. Anything could be happening to her, anything. And I just go a bit mad.” Elton, witnessing Jackie’s distress after receiving a ‘phone call from Rose, has an epiphany and realises, as he puts it, what’s “really important”. He puts a stop to his exploitation of Jackie, realising where LINDA has gone wrong with its selfish pursuits, and also his love for Ursula. This leads to what I believe is one of the most emotionally affecting scenes Doctor Who has ever produced. Discovering Elton has been using her, Jackie professes the lengths she will go to to protect her daughter and the Doctor, and her disgust at being exploited by Elton. The revived series is often lauded for its emotional content, but I feel often the wrong instances are given credit. Girls falling for mysterious heroes, such as depicted in the popular relationship between Rose and the Tenth Doctor, are standard fare on the big and small screen, but Jackie’s emotional outburst offers something altogether different. Jackie represents the oppressed and underprivileged fighting back against the selfish tyrants who seek to exploit them. Jackie displaying her selfless loyalty and devotion to protecting others’ well-being, which she maintains despite the selfish cruelty she’s been victim to, is truly inspiring, life-affirming stuff, and it hits hard on a real emotional level. 

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An angered Elton returns to LINDA headquarters and simultaneously declares his love for Ursula and leads the group in rebellion against Victor. As the group walk out in anger, Mr Skinner is persuaded to stay, as Victor offers to help him track down Bridget. At this point, the cause of the mysterious disappearances is revealed. Ursula realises she has left her phone behind, and she and Elton return to discover the true identity of Victor Kennedy. He is, in fact, an alien creature known as an Abzorbaloff. The Abzorbaloff is a personification of conformism; a creature that absorbs individuals into himself, feeding off them and forcing them to be one with him. He has been absorbing the members of LINDA: their faces still visible on the surface of his slimy green flesh. His ultimate goal, to track down the Doctor and absorb him; stealing all his knowledge of space and time. The Abzorbaloff is one of the best representations of evil that Doctor Who has ever presented; far superior to the clichéd representation of Satan, seen in the preceding, far more popular episodes, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. Here we see a truer and more disturbing representation of evil as the Abzorbaloff manipulates people into obeying his will by exploiting their good nature, and provides them with a fate far worse than death, as they are robbed of their free will and identity. He absorbs Mr Skinner by using his love for Bridget against him, and when Ursula attacks him, declaring, “Let those people go!” (echoing Moses’ declaration to the Pharaoh to let the Jewish slaves free; again connecting Victor’s regime to a corrupt government), he plays on her caring nature, acting weak and defenceless, and when she lowers her guard, he absorbs her too.

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With Ursula absorbed, Elton confesses that he has lost everything he ever wanted. Ursula pleads with him not to say that, but the Abzorbaloff coaxes him into sacrificing himself, tempting him with everlasting peace, and he submits. It is at this point that the Doctor finally appears. Although all seems lost, he cajoles LINDA into fighting back! The absorbed members start working together as a team, pulling the Abzorbaloff apart from the inside, giving Elton the opportunity to smash his cane, which it is revealed holds him together, and he is absorbed into the earth. The Doctor reveals why he was in Elton’s house all those years ago and what motivated Elton’s obsession with him. It was on that night that Elton’s mother died: killed by one of the Doctor’s foes. The Doctor defeated the monster but was unable to save Elton’s mother. As well as finally giving him peace and allowing him to move on from his mother’s death, the Doctor has a final gift for Elton. Using his sonic screwdriver, he is able to extract biodata from the earth so that Ursula’s face and conscious are preserved on a paving stone. This is revealed in Elton’s final vlog and is another source of criticism for the episode. Many fans protest that living a life without the use of a body would be no sort of life at all for Ursula, and they’re disgusted by Elton’s confession that they still have a love life. It has been suggested by some, that as we’re seeing Elton’s version of events, perhaps Ursula was not saved, and it is all in Elton’s mind: his way of coping with the trauma. This ambiguity adds another dimension to the episode, but I prefer to believe she did survive. Many people have been through traumatic events like Ursula, losing the use of their bodies, but do not see it as a reason to give up, and it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be entitled to a love life. Ursula’s survival, LINDA not giving up and battling against the odds, and the heroic actions of Jackie, support the episode’s theme of staying strong in the face of adversity and fighting for what you know is right. It is with Elton’s final speech to camera that much of the episode’s other themes are summed up.

ELTON: “when you’re a kid, they tell you that 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.”

Elton explains that in life we must not conform to what is expected of us or pushed on us by other people. There is so much more to the world than one single vision, and although we will face bad times and uncertainty, this is part of life, and we must rise above it, take pride in our achievements, and find happiness with others and with ourselves. I hope that I have given people who have dismissed this episode a new perspective, and shown that a script can be multilayered without being overcrowded or resorting to the plot puzzles of popular Doctor Who episodes such as Blink. This isn’t disposable television; this is a scriptwriting masterclass, filled with important life lessons and technical innovations. An engaging, moving, witty, alarming, enjoyable story, which in comparison to more popular episodes is so much stranger, so much darker, so much madder. And so much better.

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