21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: Love And Monsters

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).

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 inappropriate adult humour at the end. A green monster in a thong.

On the surface, Love And Monsters is a tad flimsy. It concerns the misadventures of Elton Pope, a man who devotes his time to investigating the mysterious time traveller known as the Doctor. He's aided and abetted by a 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. In case you didn't realise, he's actually a portly green blob called the Abzorbaloff, which absorbs most of LINDA into his disgusting 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.

With all that in mind, I can understand why people don't like it, since the whole plot is basically ridiculous. The Abzorbaloff itself 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 it's possible that the poor chap ended up blubbing into his signed photo of Zoe Salmon after Love And Monsters aired.

Personally, for me, it doesn't help that Victor Abzorbaloff is played by Peter Kay, revered by the majority of people as a comic genius, and groaned at for being an unfunny bore by seemingly only me. There's only so many times that you can chortle at garlic bread and t'internet. One if that. 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 would be my reaction if someone suggested to me that I should watch one of his DVDs.

Silly monster aside however, 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 a bleak tale that examines the themes of loss and loneliness. The trick is that it's wrapped up in a sunny, cartoony package.

There's never been a Doctor Who like this before. Love And Monsters breaks the mould with its wacky realisation. There are speeded up chases, along the lines of Scooby Doo Where Are You? There are 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 video diaries that are frequently shown on TV or the Tube of You. It's a brave move to take, and one that should be applauded for its innovation.

Dan Zeff makes his only directing contribution to Doctor Who, and he treats it like 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 speeded-up action sequences.

He's also managed to assemble an impressive guest cast. Peter Kay's the obvious big name, but you also have Marc 'Danny Blue from Hustle' Warren as Elton; Shirley 'Moaning Myrtle from Harry Potter' 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. 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 sells the character of Elton as a happy-go-lucky chap on the surface and a tormented, troubled soul underneath. In between bopping along to ELO and regaling the viewer with tales of his experiences, Elton frequently gazes into the distance with sadness in his eyes. Excellent stuff. Warren's thoughtfully multi-layered performance ranks as one of the all-time great guest appearances in the show.

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. I agree that 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?

It's refreshing to see the main 'fan' as a bloke with everyday interests who just happens to follow the Doctor. Elton and his new friends use LINDA as a social outlet rather than one long ponderous chinwag about the mysterious Time Lord. 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').

LINDA functions as a welcome diversion from the real strains of everyday life, and it's also a place to meet new friends and form possible romantic liaisons. Mr Skinner is 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, and as a bonus, looks set to pay a visit to a nearby bar or restaurant with Skinner. Same goes for Elton and Ursula, whose metaphorical prawn crackers are crumbled by the arrival of Kennedy.

Victor Kennedy, 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 Doctor Who. 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 stupid. 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 Doctor Who standards – but then maybe it's meant to be. Perhaps Davies is trying to parody the way in which non-believers regard the show.

But in a clever twist, he turns this craziness on its head by adding some moving stuff in the last few moments too. Thus proving that Doctor Who is far, far more than some silly kids' show. 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 a poignant scene, 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. There's a strong argument 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 troubled bonce.

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 finally get to witness the 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 tragic figure in this episode – a woman desperate for friends and company. 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, all she's after is a bit of companionship (“I just go a bit mad,” she says sadly after getting off the phone to her daughter).

Elton though has made the classic howler of leaving a photo of Rose in his jacket pocket. This all leads to a scene that 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. As she explains, being left behind has made her harder because it's tough to get used to being on your own and worrying about the fate of a loved one day in, day out. Jackie's promise of always putting her daughter first is a far cry from the whinging, annoying stereotype of her 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 lot to digest in Love And Monsters. Loneliness. Despair. Relationships. Fan worship. OK, so the monster's silly and 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 represents both sides of the emotional coin. Fizzy fun one minute. Emotionally draining reality the next. It's a sly salute to the fan base of Doctor Who, which never quite slips into schmaltzy hero worship. Instead, it presents a 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 Doctor Who.

* If you've formed your own LINDA group and are looking to swot up on some classic Doctor Who, you may like to check out my online reviews of the William Hartnell & Patrick Troughton tales as well as my value for money ebook guides on the Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker & Peter Davison stories (the bumper guide to the Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy & Paul McGann eras is due early next year).


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