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.
So this episode has quite the reputation, doesn’t it?
Charitably, one could perhaps call Love & Monsters a marmite episode. Certainly, it’s true that there are some who love it. But the marmite moniker indicates that, you know, the two sides are at least somewhere approaching equal in number – but they’re really, really not. Any time this episode is mentioned, there’s an overwhelming voice that dominates the discussion, and it’s always a very hateful one.
I love this episode, as I’ve mentioned from time to time in the past. Which makes this my opportunity to try and defend it, I suppose.
Admittedly, I think that’s going to be a little difficult for me, because I’ve never really understood why people dislike it. I’m going through the IMDb reviews now, and typically speaking they all seem to highlight aspects of the episode which are either wholly subjective (“the acting is really bad”) or in fact simply miss the point entirely. It’s quite odd, I think, for the consensus opinion to have formed like this – though, then again, it could be that the exact sort of fan who’s going to be ranting about it online is the sort of fan who’d be put off by what’s in this episode. Not sure if it’s that simple, though.
It is, I suppose, easy to dislike this episode because of how different it is to the average Doctor Who story. Certainly, it breaks every established convention of the program so far – the Doctor’s hardly in it, we’re following the antics of an entirely new set of characters, and it’s got the video diary conceit which is so unlike any other Doctor Who episode before it. Interestingly, though, that’s “any other episode before it”, and not since – the similarly maligned Sleep No More made use of that style of monologuing direct to camera, and indeed the very non-standard found footage model.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I quite enjoyed Sleep No More, for the fact it offered something new. And that’s a huge part of why I enjoy Love & Monsters as well – it’s something entirely new! One of the things I always highlight as a strength of Doctor Who’s premise is the fact that you can, quite literally, do anything with it – so the times when they really go for it and genuinely give us something new, something entirely unlike what we’ve seen before, are consistently amongst my favourite episode. It’s genuinely wonderful to see the standard conventions of the program challenged, and then re-explored from a whole new angle.
Of course, it’s not all new in this episode. We spend a lot of time with Jackie Tyler, who’s been part of the new show since the beginning. This time, though, we’re getting to see what she’s like when she’s alone; who is Jackie, without the Doctor and Rose hanging around?
The answer is that she’s lonely. She is so, so lonely.
Honestly, it’s actually more than a little upsetting to see Jackie here, and to realise how she feels when the façade drops. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this episode (even if it is, admittedly, one of my most rewatched Doctor Who episodes) so I hadn’t really registered quite how far the episode goes to show that Jackie is alone.
It’s presented as something comedic, of course, so I suppose that might be why some people might find it grating. Or, indeed, why they might miss the point entirely – one of those IMDb reviews I was talking about dismisses the whole thing as little more than “Jackie doing the slapper routine again”, which is a spectacularly short-sighted criticism to make. I do think it is quite subtle in some ways – or perhaps more accurately, it’s quite nuanced. The ostensible lack of subtlety is masking something with a lot more meaning; after all, the fact that it’s being played for laughs isn’t just a narrative conceit, but it’s also a coping device for Jackie. That’s how she deals with her loneliness – trying to laugh. Trying to connect with a stranger in the laundry shop, because she has no one else.
And it’s not like it’s played for laughs the whole time, because the comedic aspects are gradually stripped away as the episode progresses. After just a few short moments, you go from a joke about getting Elton to take his shirt off to the pair of them sat there, cold and slightly awkward, with Il Divo still rattling on in the background… and it is a little pathetic. I mean that in the sense of inspiring pity, of course – Jackie is so sad, it’s difficult not to feel bad for her
Possibly her standout moment, though, comes when she confronts Elton – and we really dig into the heart of Jackie. Because even though Jackie has been left behind, she will never stop defending her daughter, and she will never stop defending her daughter’s friend. Despite all her vulnerability, and her sadness, there remains a real steel to Jackie, and a real strength. It’s admirable.
And she’s a wonderful character.
Back to Elton, though. Because Jackie isn’t the only wonderful character here – there’s a whole host of them.
I’ve often said in the past, and I think this is in fact the prevailing opinion, that one of Russell T Davies’ greatest strengths as a writer is his character work. Reading his book The Writer’s Tale you definitely get the sense that it’s those aspects of the story that he’s more interested in; the arguably quite mechanical functions of the plot take a back seat to the emotional heart of the story during his writing. And, you know, that’s clear in this episode – it’s very much about the characters, with a relatively simple plotline.
Part of Davies’ skill with characters is his ability to create a pretty deft sketch of an individual in a fairly short space of time, and I think it’s never been more apparent than in this episode. Each of the LINDA group is distinctive in their own way, and even though in reality they have a pretty limited screentime, there’s something that feels quite real about them each. Moreso than any other Doctor Who guest cast, they have lives outside of the story – Mr Skinner and his novel, Bliss and her cooking, and Bridget and her daughter.
Which is to say nothing of Elton himself either, who’s our lead for this episode. Part of me almost wishes they’d mocked up a new title sequence with Marc Warren and Shirley Henderson in the top spot; it’d probably have to be made of newsprint or something though, the time vortex wouldn’t feel appropriate there. In any case, though, the pair of them would deserve it, because they both do fabulous work here.
On a basic level, Elton is a lot of fun to watch. He’s a pretty average guy, but in an entirely endearing way – he’s not hugely confident, he’s not the most charismatic guy, he’s just a nice bloke. He likes football, he likes Spain, and he likes a bit of ELO. (And so do I!) It’s nice to get this very down to Earth approach to Doctor Who, because it’s a whole new lens through which to view our show – while Rose might once have represented the ‘normal person’, insofar as such a person exists, she’s now very much part of the Doctor’s world. Elton lets us live in the Doctor’s world from the perspective of… well, we’ll get to that.
There is, of course, a greater depth to this character than what’s immediately clear on the surface, because part of this episode is about Elton working through the grief of his mother’s death. It’s about coming to terms with that, and accepting that in life there are moments of sadness, and moments of tragedy. To quote Elton quoting Stephen King, “salvation is damnation”. Or, to quote another wise man – any life is a pile of good things and bad things. I’ll concede, of course, that this isn’t exactly telegraphed early on in the episode; the reveal about Elton’s mother does come as something of a surprise to the audience. I think it still works, though, because we’re viewing it through the lens of Elton’s diary entries, so we only come to know of it when he makes that realisation, and properly processes the event. Which does beg the rather interesting question as to whether or not Elton is an unreliable narrator – how much of this really happens? It’s perhaps worth asking what we consider to be the objective viewpoint, Elton’s camera or “our” camera – and then, depending on which one we choose, be it both or neither or only one, to what extent we can trust what happens.
It is worth mentioning for a moment Ursula’s fate at the end, because that’s something the episode comes under a lot of criticism for. The fellatio joke… well, to be honest, I never really got that until a few years ago, so I’ve spent quite a lot of time under the impression they really were just kissing. And, you know, there’s nothing that says they don’t mean that. In any case, I’m loathe to dismiss an entire episode simply because of one joke that doesn’t quite land properly – particularly in an episode which is at times genuinely very funny. As to the ethical implications of Ursula living as a stone head… yes, if you try to look at it from a “realistic” point of view, you’re going to come up with a hell of a lot of quandaries. But the episode invites you to read it as a happy ending, and I think that is the best way to approach it – it’s meant to represent a grace note at the end, where two people are able to find some form of happiness, even despite everything.
And that, in a roundabout sort of way, brings me onto the final point I wanted to make. This is probably my longest Doctor Who review ever, and it’s only now that I’m getting onto the final, and indeed most important, point of the episode.
It’s about joy. It’s about finding happiness in fandom. And it’s about community.
One of those IMDb reviews I was reading spoke about how this episode mocked and parodied fans, but that couldn’t be further from the case. This episode is about Doctor Who fans, and there’s honestly no better representation of us on television at all. These are real people, with real lives, who are drawn together through a shared interest – but their relationship grows beyond that, and it becomes something more.
I’ve spent a lot of time on Doctor Who forums over the years – I first signed up to one in May 2011, but I’d been trying to start my own, real life Doctor Who fan club for years by that point – and they are genuinely nice places. Certainly, the aforementioned forum was genuinely the nicest group of Doctor Who fans I’ve ever come across; there was a sense of community there, and I’d like to think a degree of friendship too. Even though the forum itself has sadly faded, I’m still in contact with a few of those people. It’s not limited to the internet, though, of course – my best friend and I initially bonded over a mutual love of Doctor Who and similar such things. (Admittedly, it began with Star Trek. I know, I know, I’m a traitor.)
That’s the real value in Doctor Who, of course. In any fandom! It’s not textual devotion, or anything like that. It’s the passion and the creativity and the love. It’s… well, I can’t believe I’m going to say it, but the real meaning of fandom is the friends we made along the way. It’s no accident that the villain of this story is the type of person who doesn’t engage with the concepts in such a way, acting simply as gatekeeper and archivist, and generally not really understanding how anyone else works. “I don’t like to be touched, physically or emotionally.” Of course you don’t, Victor Kennedy.
We’ve all known a Victor Kennedy at some point – hello IPFreely! – and it’s fairly common knowledge that RTD based Kennedy on a particularly prominent fan in Doctor Who circles. I imagine he hated the episode, for some dull reason or another. But we don’t let them win, because they can’t win. No matter how hateful some of those people might be, you can never let them take over something that so many people love so much.
That’s why I love Love & Monsters, in the end. It’s a love letter to people like me.
And, you know, the thing is, when you’re a fan of something, they tell you it’s all… binge watching. Anoraks. Forums. Antisocial maladroits, and that’s it. But the truth is, fandom is so much stranger than that. It’s so much darker. And so much madder.
And so much better.