"Bit odd."

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How many times have we heard it? One of the great things about Doctor Who is that the format's flexible enough to allow infinite stories told in infinite ways. And we believe it, too. The Greatest Show In The Galaxy, The Mind Robber, Inside The Spaceship: some of the best stories have been the most unusual.

Love & Monsters isn't breaking new ground in SF - essentially, it's Lower Decks with a big blue box. But it certainly breaks new ground in Doctor Who. And while it gets some important things wrong, nevertheless as far as we're concerned it's overall a very successful experiment.

Just as School Reunion memorably addressed the question of what happens to companions once they leave the TARDIS, Love & Monsters asks: what's it like for an ordinary person to have the Doctor blow through your life? We think consideration of this question is long overdue. The Doctor doesn't exactly slink bashfully through the world trying not to attract attention, does he? Not only does he sweep in like a particularly untidy tornado and set about rearranging people's lives and heads, he frequently goes out of his way to leave his business card. Furthermore, he's fonder of Earth than we at Androzani are of the Godiva shop.

So there are tons of people out there who've been swept briefly up in his wake and dumped back down again, with strange bruises and material enough to get a phalanx of psychiatrists really nice summer houses. What's more, many of them know his name (sort of). Do they shrug and forget all about it? Well, would you? Let's face it, not only does he look the same for decades without the aid of Botox and appear out of thin air (and a police box), he's the Doctor. Not only are they never going to forget him, they're liable to be pretty keen to establish just what the hell happened to them.

It's not as if the Doctor's effect on the people left behind has never been considered, of course: after all, that's what The Ark and Face Of Evil are about. But it's never been considered on quite such a personal level. Russell T Davies touched on this issue in Rose, but here he dives in big time. Elton Pope collides with the Doctor in the tiniest of ways, but it's enough to change his life's whole trajectory. For the better? You know, on the whole we don't think so.

But hey, it'd be cool to meet the Doctor, wouldn't it? Fun, even? That's how we've always pictured it when we've thought about it, which of course we have (so have you, and you know it). Of course we think of the Doctor as being a positive force, because that's what he is, dark hints from Daleks and Queens notwithstanding. But just because the Doctor tidies up evil for a living, it doesn't mean that everyone involved is 100% happy with the results, especially once the Doctor leaves after the happy ending.

In fact, Elton's story is very much a tragic one. We were gobsmacked to see this episode repeatedly referred to as "a light-hearted romp", because when you clear away the distracting comedy trappings there's an exceedingly dark story underneath. Elton's mother's death, and the scene where she walks away from him, is one of the most heartbreaking things we've ever seen. And just when he's made a bunch of friends and fallen in love, all that's taken away from him too. Audiences were shocked at the bloodbath in Warriors Of The Deep, but this they thought was a comedy when in fact, just as in Warriors, there's hardly a single sympathetic character left standing. (Yes, we meant to do that.) It all makes sense: it's not the Doctor's fault, it's just what happens when he's around. Sure, he does good, but not always for everybody. To show us this from the point of view of a groundling is this episode's great triumph.

Of course, if you're going to base a Doctor Who episode around somebody who isn't either the Doctor or his companion, you'd better make sure that somebody's pretty engaging. Fortunately, with Elton Pope this is zero problem. We have to say that Marc Warren is so utterly, stunningly gorgeous that he doesn't need to be able to act: we'd happily watch him clipping his toenails for 45 minutes, enthralled and occasionally dribbling (us, that is. We're sure Marc never dribbles. Actually, he probably doesn't clip his toenails either. Angels probably remove them in his sleep). But as a bonus extra, Marc is in fact a very good actor indeed. As Elton, he's funny, touching, sad and completely real, and there's no doubt that a lot of the episode's success rests on his shoulders. Russell T Davies's writing for his character is great, but Marc takes that and runs with it. Considering how many scenes he has on his own to camera, that's a lot harder than it looks.

Elton's LINDA buddies are all excellent as well, with a standout performance from the always rivetingly watchable Shirley Henderson as Ursula. There's a great deal of charm in the group's progress from Doctor hunters to terrible ELO tribute group, and the relationships within the group are wonderfully natural. Yes, the parallels between LINDA and real-life Doctor Who fandom are all very pomo, but it strikes us as an enormously affectionate tribute, and the group's development is a pleasure to watch.

It's also a terrific story for Jackie, showing us from another angle what it's like to be the one left behind. Her loyalty to the Doctor despite the fact that he's taken Rose away shows how far she's come as a character. Like Elton, Jackie is understandably lonely, making her attempted seduction of him totally believable: this could have been horrifically embarrassing, but in fact it's no more embarrassing than it's meant to be and is touching as well. (And after years of Companion Cleavage whose only effect on us was to make us worry that if Peri didn't wrap up more warmly she'd get a nasty chill, we seriously appreciated the cheesecake shots of Marc. Oh, yeah.)

This episode may not look like it has much Doctor in it, but his fingerprints are all over it nevertheless. The way Elton gives up and prepares to die when menaced by the Abzorbaloff, for example, reminds us forcibly that the Doctor wouldn't give in to despair like that. When he appears, his supposed indifference (we're not buying that that was real), instead of just bailing Elton out, forces him to act to save himself. Give a man a fish... Rose, too, with her bravery with the buckets and her fury with Elton which changes to compassion, is herself distilled to her essence. It doesn't take the Doctor in every frame to make a genu-wine Doctor Who episode.

So there's the unusual perspective and the great characters. But what we like more than anything else is the sheer shape of the thing. The complexity and sophistication of the episode's structure are just fantastic. From the filmic teaser (with swooningly beautiful direction by Dan Zeff), to the flashbacks to the foreshadowing to the video diary, it makes the usual linear storytelling look about as interesting as a wet Sunday in Milton Keynes. If there's one element from this episode we'd like to see more of in Doctor Who, this is very definitely it.


Like we said, it gets some important things wrong. And the most important of these is the tone. We've complained before about Russell T Davies's difficulty in balancing serious and comic, and here we go again: no wonder so many of the audience think of it as a romp despite the tragedy, because these two elements are way out of whack. Not all the way through: the Benny Hill teaser, while too repetitive of the same gag in World War Three, we think actually works very nicely to send up the ever-so-solemn beginning, and the bopping about to ELO and the ELO tribute group stuff is also a well-judged way in to the characters.

So for quite a long way through the ep things are just fine. What kicks off the problem? The man in the rubber suit.

Before we get into that, let us say first that Peter Kay is blameless. He's nothing short of brilliant as Victor Kennedy: the comic touch is there, but it's just seasoning on an otherwise chilling and utterly convincing villain. And the Abzorbaloff isn't his fault, either; it's a horrible error of judgment, but not his horrible error of judgment.

Yes, we know the production team was stuck with a monster designed by a nine-year-old. (Although considering that it was supposed to be the size of a double decker bus, he wuz robbed.) Being charitable is more painful to us than dancing all night in three-inch stilettos, but leaning as far in that direction as we can, we could say that the rubberiness and the comedy, complete with lots-of-planets-have-a-Bolton accent, are in fact meant to add up to a metamonster, commenting wittily on the programme's somewhat chequered monster history. Ow, that hurt, so what we'll really say is that since it looks like crap they probably thought there was no way out but to play it for laughs. Didn't Russell T Davies learn anything from Auton Mickey? Comedy's a great thing, but use it badly and it's like a wrecking ball on everything around it. The bittersweet and genuinely touching scenario that's been so carefully built up is, with the arrival of the Elephant Man in a wetsuit, crushed to smithereens. People are dead - not just red-shirt extras, but people we like and people we already feel compassion for. We're not ready to snigger at the sight of Ursula's glasses emerging from the Abzorbaloff's stomach or Elton fleeing in a silly slomo chase. Nor are we sure what we're supposed to be feeling when Elton's on the verge of carking it. Then the Doctor appears, and to make things worse, things get even darker.

Even all of that would probably have worked out okay in the end had the digestees all been spat out: the black comedy would have come into a nice balance. But that's not what happens. They're dead, or even worse, they're a paving slab with a really crass sex life. And in the middle of all of that is the completely heartwrenching scene with Elton's mother. Huh? That's not light and shade: it's storytelling so unbalanced it's spinning off into oblivion.

So that's, by far, the worst aspect of the episode. What else is wrong with it? Well, the Greatest Hits are probably meant to show us what the Doctor's Earthly adventures look like to a mere mortal, but instead come across as as dull and lazy as a clip show. (Which is sadly ironic considering that they actually had to restage them.) Victor finds it ridiculously easy to take over LINDA. The twin planet thing is skin-creepingly fanwanky (is Russell T Davies ever going to get over his smug self-satisfaction at having invented Raxacoricofallapatorius? It wasn't even funny the first time).

And the Abzorbaloff's death is just plain dumb. How does the Doctor find Elton? Has there ever been a lazier plot device than the cane-snapping? Yes, actually: the sonic screwdriver with a resurrection setting. And why in God's name is the Doctor able to resurrect the last victim and only the last victim, and just the face at that?

Snip, snip, snip. Okay. Over here, we've got the Abzorbaloff and all its works. And over here, a beautifully structured, beautifully acted, beautifully written, funny, tragic and memorably touching episode about an aspect of the Doctor we've never seen explored in depth before. Let's stuff the first bit deep in the bottom of a filing cabinet, shall we? Can't see it? Great. What's left is really very good indeed.

MORAL: ELO. It can only lead to tragedy.



"Doctor what?" Thank you, Russell T.


How come as the LINDAites head away from the library building, they can't hear the screaming?


We love the theory that the Doctor is a collection of archetypes: freezeframe reveals these as King, Stranger, Fool and Thief. Which ain't wide of the mark at all.


Simon Greenall's drumming is hopelessly out of time with the soundtrack.


Rose's hairstyle is hideous. Which confers on her the Mark of the True Companion.

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