There’s a lot of things you need to get across this universe. Warp drive… wormhole refractors… You know the thing you need most of all? You need a hand to hold.
It’s odd, because I find myself in the position where I’m writing a review of another critically maligned episode of Doctor Who, just a week after the last one. The general consensus from a lot of people is that Fear Her is a pretty awful episode; it came in at 240/241 in the recent-ish DWM First 50 Years poll, with an average score of about 4/10, and a whole twenty places lower than Love & Monsters. In the 2009 Mighty 200 poll, it was in 192nd place, while Love & Monsters was at 153. During the actual 2006 season poll, it also came last, falling just a few hundredths of a percentage short of Love & Monsters.
That’s actually quite interesting, you know. I knew it had a poor reputation, but I didn’t realise that it was – by every popular metric – actually considered a fair bit worse than Love & Monsters; the way fandom talks about them, I’d sort of expected it to be the reverse. I’m actually feeling a little validated in my appreciation of Love & Monsters, as it goes. Nonetheless, I’m always inclined to be positive towards and defend Doctor Who – so what’s the real situation with Fear Her?
Actually – and indeed quite weirdly – I realised that this episode might well be one of the ones I remember best from Series 2. Which is not to say it made any particular impression on me, or that it was very good; one of those memories was the Cybermen in the next time trailer, after all. And even then, they’re pretty weird and idiosyncratic moments that I picked up on – I remember the girl who played Chloe Webber giving an interview on either Doctor Who Confidential or Totally Doctor Who, and playing a game on the Doctor Who website where a scribble monster chased you through a maze while that kookaburra song played. So, in terms of Alex’s Personal History of Doctor Who, I guess that makes Fear Her one of those important but utterly bizarre little details that you include to point out that the past really was another country.
Which isn’t to say that the episode doesn’t have some good stuff in it either, mind you; I think the interactions between the Doctor and Rose are quite well written in this episode, for example. (Even if, you know, Matthew Graham is riffing quite heavily on The Christmas Invasion in a way rather unlike essentially all of the other writers.) There’s undeniably a lot of fun stuff here, and I think if you’re the sort of person who derives a lot of enjoyment from seeing the Doctor and Rose together, you’re likely to enjoy this episode; they’re very clearly positioned as close friends, really enjoying their time together. Just mucking around through time, as pals. On the flip side of course, I am starting to understand why Rose does grate on some people – the sort of irreverence and playfulness in these scenes does straddle a thin line between fun and obnoxious, and if it’s not to your personal tastes, it’s the sort of thing that could very easily dissolve any and all enjoyment you’re getting from those scenes.
Another interesting thing that this episode tries for is a sort of… I want to call it “social realism”, but I’m not sure that’s the right term for what I’m trying to convey. I imagine it’ll become more apparent shortly, in any case.
Immediately speaking, it is difficult for something like Doctor Who to do those “near future” stories – while in 2006 they may not have known that the show would still be running in 2012 (even if it turned out to not actually be on the TV very much that year) and beyond, it was, so we can look at this episode and point out all the little errors. “Shayne Ward’s Greatest Hits” is laughable in hindsight; he’s become my go to reference for an obscure musician. David Beckham carried the Torch, not David Tennant, and it didn’t even look like that anyway.
Mind you, they got one thing right – there was absolutely some panic about empty seats!
Still, though, those are just surface details, and we can forgive those in the same way we forgive historical inaccuracies – it’s the same thing, just from the other perspective. When it gets down to it, there’s a much deeper tension to this episode in terms of its attempts to tackle what are, essentially, real world issues. It’s epitomised at the beginning of the episode, really; upon seeing the missing children posters, Rose asks “What sort of person would do this sort of thing?”, and she’s sad in the same way many of us are sad, confronted with the horrors of the real world. That sort of self-defeating horror and sadness where we’re all resigned to the facts of it anyway.
And then the Doctor says “What makes you think it’s a person?”, before dashing off. The implication being, then, that it’s aliens.
In and of itself, I’m not really sure how well something like that works. It feels very crass to bring up something that is, in fact, a genuine real world horror, and then just explain it away with that kind of fictional logic – oh, it’s just aliens. But, then again – murder is a genuine real world horror, and we have aliens murdering people all the time. So, you know, why not? What makes this tasteless but that okay? I do find it hard to say, and I’d be interested in other people’s opinions if you want to drop me an ask.
It does get worse though, and I’m much more inclined to be emphatic in describing this next bit as a mistake. Because this is the episode featuring a child who’s been a victim of domestic abuse, and the embodiment of her abusive father (who was killed while drink driving, let’s not forget) coming back to haunt her… all while children are being captured in drawings. Tonally, it’s a little mismatched; you’re dealing with some astonishingly dark stuff in this episode, to the point that I’d argue Fear Her may well be the darkest episode of the entire new series at this stage, and then you’ve also got the bloody scribble monster running around. While I don’t doubt that you could bind these things together into something really impressive, the fact is that Fear Her just sort of… doesn’t. There’s nothing going on beneath the surface here; it feels as though the abusive parents was just thrown in for the sake of it. And that is something that can only really be described as dropping the ball.
I am quite hard on Doctor Who when I feel like an episode has tried to tackle an overtly political theme, and then dropped the ball; Kill the Moon being an example in recent memory, though interestingly I was a lot less critical at the time than I remember. I suppose in my youth (!!) I was a bit more worried about openly stating political opinions on the blog like that. Fear Her feels like it fits into that same tradition; the story of abuse told here is done in such an awful, tone deaf way as to make the episode deeply, deeply uncomfortable.
Weirdly, that’s actually the second time this season we’ve got a particularly tone deaf story about parental abuse – The Idiot’s Lantern made a similar hash of the whole thing, but at least also had the courtesy to be sort of interesting to watch most of the time. Fear Her really does just sort of feel a lot like filler, with not a huge amount going on other than the crappy stuff.
There’s another thing in there that I think is perhaps worth talking about though, particularly today. I’m not sure to what extent what I’m saying will be particularly coherent, or indeed insightful; it may simply be that I ruin some perfectly entertaining Doctor Who commentary with a load of old nonsense. We shall see, however.
Much is made of the Olympics in this episode. Particularly it’s the Oympics as a symbol of hopes and dreams and aspirations; the Olympics as a symbol of unity, and of love.
I’ve never really made up my mind on what I think about the Olympics, to be perfectly honest. I’ve never really been interested in sport, and at the time of the actual Olympics in 2012 I don’t think I actually watched very many of the events. In fact, I do actually recall ignoring one of the races to read a Doctor Who book, which probably tells you a lot about me – or perhaps tells you very little, given much of that could be surmised from the blog itself.
There is, of course, the fact that any sufficiently large organisation is going to experience issues with corruption – the Olympics is no exception. Just look at Rio, really; that could well be a disaster. While as far as I’m aware the London ones went reasonably well (and I stress that awareness is a limited one) it’s to be acknowledged that the Olympics in practice aren’t always what the Olympics symbolise in theory.
But it is very nice symbolism, isn’t it? The world, drawing together, to celebrate skills and abilities and, above all, to have a bit of fun together.
And that is, in a roundabout way, what this episode was trying to say. That we’re all better off together. That strength is found in communities; that isolationism ultimately only hurts us.
That what we need is a hand to hold.
In a strange cosmic coincidence, then, the anniversary of Fear Her – the episode dedicated to a moment which, in many ways, defined us as a nation – has fallen on a day which will also come to define Britain for a very long time.
Now, I don’t know about you, but… I think I’d rather reach for the optimism of the Olympics than the alternative posed to us today.
(I mean, for all the nice Olympic symbolism, the episode was still a bit naff – I’m only being kind because of the extenuating circumstances!)