Love & Monsters is an episode I would never really watch again. It’s the worst episode ever produced during the Russell T Davies Era, with Fear Her, the following episode, being second to this episode on that list. It’s just really, really, really a terrible episode. According to the A.V. Club review:
Doctor Who is the BBC’s flagship program, but that doesn’t mean the BBC can actually afford to make the show. The original series’ budgetary limitations are the stuff of legend, but the revived Doctor Who is not immune to the realities of producing such a complicated show with the relatively small resources of British television. Every Doctor Who story demands its own unique costumes, sets, special effects, and even acting and writing styles. Such constant reinvention would be difficult to realize with the huge budgets available to shows on American broadcast networks of premium cable channels; it’s a miracle that Doctor Who is possible at all considering its budget is small compared to the typical Canadian show, let alone the average American show. (There’s a reason that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation helped fund the second season.) But the practical challenges of making Doctor Who are not merely financial. The production schedule for the first season was so compressed that parts of different stories had to be shot simultaneously. The show’s massive success meant the BBC was happy to commission a Christmas special in addition to the second season’s main 13 episodes, the production schedule remained the same length, forcing the Doctor Who team to make 14 episodes in a space of time that couldn’t really accommodate 13.
The solution to this logistical nightmare was the creation of what has become known as the “Doctor-lite” episode, in which Doctor Who would present a story that required only the most minimal participation from its two overworked stars. This type of story, born of sheer practical necessity, provided Russell T. Davies with an opportunity to explore what the show’s universe looked like when its main character was not around. To that end, “Love And Monsters” features a reworked version of a story that Davies had been kicking around since 2004, in which a person’s entire life is shaped by occasional, fleeting contact with the Doctor. But that was not the sole purpose of the episode; much like last year’s “Boom Town,” this story is what we might call a “checklist” episode, Davies used his final episode before the finale to fulfill an assortment of narrative requirements. In “Boom Town,” Davies sought to bring back Annette Badland as Margaret Blaine, explore the morality of the death penalty, show off the sights of Cardiff, and save money. If anything, the checklist for “Love And Monsters” was even more random, as the episode was designed to make David Tennant and Billie Piper’s roles as small as possible, make lighthearted fun of Doctor Who fandom, incorporate a monster designed by a nine-year-old boy as part of a Blue Peter competition, and feature a guest spot for stand-up comedian Peter Kay. Conserving the show’s precious resources was the lone commonality.
The result is an episode even less coherent and even more given to whiplash-inducing tonal shifts than “Boom Town,” which was never a story noted for its narrative consistency. Davies’ script shows flashes of insight into its characters and genuine compassion for the shared loneliness that brings them together, but it also ends by strongly implying that Elton Pope, the story’s fill-in protagonist, is engaging in oral sex with a slab of concrete. (It’s also possible that he’s hallucinating engaging in oral sex with a slab of concrete, which might actually be worse, somehow.) Indeed, the story zigzags in its portrayal of Elton. He generally comes across as a kindhearted if rather pathetic man, one capable of seeing the true danger that the Doctor represents, but there are moments—most notably his apparent recollection of the Doctor and Rose’s pursuit of the savage Hoix as something out of Scooby Doo, not to mention the fact that he might be imagining Ursula’s survival—that suggest his connection with reality is tenuous at best. It’s not that a man with possibly serious mental health issues is incapable of such understanding and perception; indeed, that would be a fine point for Doctor Who to get across. But the varying portrayals of Elton never quite gel together to make such an interpretation feel earned. Instead, he lurches from one characterization to another, depending on the requirements of a particular scene or moment.
Such inconsistency isn’t as big an issue as it might otherwise be because Marc Warren is so good in the role, making the most of the stronger material that Davies’ script gives him and finding ways to compensate for the weaker stuff. The story’s first-person perspective means that Elton is in every scene of the episode, and he spends a significant chunk of it addressing the audience through his video camera, at least when he isn’t dancing to the Electric Light Orchestra. If Warren had anything less that total command of his intentionally strange, occasionally off-putting character, “Love And Monsters” would be an unmitigated disaster. This story could so easily be one big joke at Elton’s expense, and there are moments where Davies’ script does read that way, but Warren manages to keep the audience on his character’s side.
Indeed, “Love And Monsters” generally works well when it is simply a portrait of Elton and his friends at L.I.N.D.A. These people are lovable losers, and both Davies’ scripts and the guest stars’ performances emphasize the “lovable” and the “loser” in equal measure. These are people who need the mystery and the magic of the Doctor to fill something missing in their own lives, and Davies is unmistakably poking fun at the obsessiveness of Doctor Who fans when he depicts Mr. Skinner’s professorial analysis or Bliss’ conceptual depiction of the Doctor’s true being. Much as“Bad Wolf” indicated at least a vague discomfort with Doctor Who’s chosen medium, “Love And Monsters” suggests that Doctor Who fandom is only risible for as long as people actually care about the Doctor; as soon as L.I.N.D.A. shifts its focus away from the Doctor, the episode takes them far more seriously. In context, that’s probably fair; after all, overenthusiastic appreciation of Doctor Who as a work of fiction is perhaps a bit silly (though it’s probably best if I don’t think about that particular point too much), but it’s very different from obsessive interest in a real person, even if the real person in this instance is a time-traveling, shape-shifting alien.
Anyway, such specifics aren’t important, at least not in this instance, as the real takeaway is that the fandom represented by L.I.N.D.A. offers its members a chance to build a community, to find what they had missing in each other instead of the Doctor. That’s a worthy theme, and I wouldn’t have complained if “Love And Monsters” had just been 45 minutes of the L.I.N.D.A. team bonding over baked goods and ELO. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine how Davies could fit a plot into such a scenario; I suppose he could have built the story around the L.I.N.D.A. team uniting to find Bridget’s missing daughter as Elton confronts his own repressed tragedy, with no monsters at all and only the briefest of cameos from the Doctor, but that would have been ridiculously experimental. The issue is that “Love And Monsters” is at its best when it is steadily drifting away from the Doctor Who universe. The story requires Victor Kennedy to drag the story back on track, and it’s his intrusion that ultimately dooms the episode.
In fairness, Peter Kay isn’t bad at all as the human form of Victor Kennedy. One of Britain’s most successful standup comedians, Kay is only an occasional actor, and he won a role on Doctor Who after sending Russell T. Davies a letter praising the new series. Kay was reportedly committed enough to spend significant time with Davies during the writing process fleshing out the character, and that does come across in his work as Victor, as he conveys an unsettling mix of oily charm and primal hunger. His performance as Victor isn’t a revelation, but if it were the worst part of the episode, then “Love And Monsters” would be in pretty good shape. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Kay’s work as the Abzorbaloff. Buried under tons of frankly disgusting prosthetics, Kay’s work as the monster is an over-the-top, pantomime-style performance. Whatever nuance Kay was able to bring to Victor Kennedy is lost after his transformation into the Abzorbaloff.
Moreover, the reveal of Victor’s alien nature is an odd fit for the story’s initial themes about fandom. It’s generally agreed that Victor is meant to represent the controlling, joyless super-fans; I’m not sure that’s an entirely fair characterization of Doctor Who’s most hardcore fans, but at least his initial takeover of L.I.N.D.A. tracks with that notion. A more logical endpoint for that theme would be to reveal why a human Victor is so obsessed with finding a man he seems to despise; one could imagine some youthful trauma that Victor now blames on the Doctor. That might not be a better direction for the episode to explore, but it would be a more organic extension of the ideas that “Love And Monsters” presents; after all, say what you will about annoyingly hardcore fans, but very few of them are actually murderous aliens. The idea of the Abzorbaloff absorbing L.I.N.D.A. members one-by-one sort of illustrates the domineering nature of the most devoted fans, but that was already more ably illustrated when the human Victor Kennedy was just bossing people around. Still, the Abzorbaloff had to go somewhere, I suppose.
In discussing the Abzorbaloff, I find myself in the uneasy position of criticizing the work of a 9-year-old boy—or, perhaps more accurately, the production team’s decision to prominently feature the work of a 9-year-old boy. Young William Grantham designed the creature as part of a competition on the children’s variety show Blue Peter, one of the very few active shows whose inception predates that of Doctor Who. In one of the most ambitious manifestations of the two shows’ long-running partnership, the production team agreed to sponsor a “Design A Monster” competition, even promising that the winning creature would appear on an actual episode. The Abzorbaloff—which Grantham actually intended to be several stories tall—isn’t a bad idea for a Doctor Who monster, but its internal logic is so silly, so clearly that of a young boy, that it doesn’t translate well to the screen. The monster would be an excellent fit for one of the Doctor Who tie-in comics, or it might work better in an animated format, but it’s too ludicrous and frankly too disgusting to work well in live action. The essential silliness of the creature is most clearly on display after Ursula is absorbed, and she’s still wearing her red eyeglasses. It’s a small point, I realize, but it breaks whatever suspension of disbelief I had left.
Ultimately, the best part of “Love And Monsters” is neither L.I.N.D.A nor the Doctor and Rose; Russell T. Davies’ greatest success with this episode is his portrayal of Jackie Tyler. It’s taken nearly two seasons for the show to give Camille Coduri the sort of material it previously found for Billie Piper and Noel Clarke, but this is the episode that reveals the human side of Jackie, her flaws very much included. The funniest sequence of the episode is Elton’s attempt to infiltrate Jackie’s life, with his voiceover explaining the steps that the lonely Jackie is all too happy to take care of. Her attempted seduction of Elton could be read as mockery of Jackie, but both Davies and Coduri stay on the right side of the line. It’s made clear that Jackie is just lonely, and it feels distinctly, recognizably human for her to deal with her abandonment issues by going on the prowl for a casual hookup.
Much like Elton, Jackie can be a ridiculous figure, but her behavior is only a reaction to the impossible situation in which she finds herself. The one area in which the episode’s constant tonal shifts work like gangbusters is the final evening that Jackie spends with Elton, as the story rapidly moves from goofy sex comedy to melancholy human drama to righteously angry confrontation. Coduri nails all three incarnations of her character, revealing all the different ways in which one can be left behind. Her final, angry rebuke to Elton shows the very best of Jackie Tyler, as she promises to protect her daughter and the Doctor for the rest of her life. Given everything she has said (and will say) about the Doctor and what he has done to her daughter, that moment of unwavering support is a major revelation. The fact that the Doctor and Rose aren’t there to hear it only adds to her moment of triumph. After all, if “Love And Monsters” has a point, it’s that we reveal the best and the worst of ourselves when the Doctor isn’t there to show us the way. “Love And Monsters” has too many misfiring elements for me to really be able to recommend it—“Boom Town” remains the better example of how to do messy, barely coherent Doctor Who—but at least it is never boring, and there are enough isolated moments of insight to make the story worth checking out.