I’m not gonna lie to you, ever since I started writing these Doctor Who reviews, I have been dreading “Love And Monsters”: because it’s one of the worst episodes of Series 2 and the RTD era in general. At the same time, I’m pretty glad to have this episode finally behind me, because while the RTD era still has its share of duds from here on out, I don’t think they bottom out as far as “Love And Monsters” does, and I did find a good amount of things to dissect in this episode. Notably, “Love And Monsters” is the first ‘Doctor-lite’ episode of NuWho.
The cast and crew of Doctor Who have never made it any secret that the filming blocks can be difficult and stressful to handle, especially for the lead actors, trying to get thirteen to fourteen episodes filmed per year and wrapped up on a tight schedule. To make things a little easier on everyone, the writers would come up with ‘Doctor-lite’ episodes, low budget stories where the Doctor would have a significantly reduced role than usual and someone else would step in as the protagonist. The idea for ‘Doctor-lite’ stories has actually led to some of the more creative episodes in the revival, and the formula has definitely improved over time since Series 2. It’s a lot to ask from the audience to get immersed in the story of some random person that we’ve never seen before and we’re never gonna see again, and “Love And Monsters” doesn’t really work in that department. “Blink” is a massive improvement over it, telling a nice standalone adventure with a much more likable protagonist in Sally Sparrow and some genuinely scary villains in the Weeping Angels, though I will admit I find it a bit overhyped.
Later Doctor-lite episodes only get even better from there by choosing to focus on the Doctor’s friends, people the audience already has a strong attachment to, and developing their characters. “Turn Left” is about poor Donna trying to survive in a world without the Doctor while doing some soul-searching, “The Girl Who Waited” is a love letter to Amy Pond’s character (all her best and worst personality traits) and her relationship with Rory, “The Crimson Horror” is about Vastra, Jenny and Strax trying to solve a case where the Doctor doesn’t even appear until the halfway mark, and “Flatline” is about Clara trying to fill in for the Doctor for a day, tying into her character arc for that season of getting some more insight into the Doctor’s lifestyle. Ever since the Capaldi era, Doctor Who seasons have regrettably gotten increasingly shorter, to the point where the cast and crew wouldn’t need ‘Doctor-lite’ stories anymore, so I imagine the tradition is dead now.
As the first experimental episode of its kind, one of the most jarring things about “Love And Monsters” is that it doesn’t really feel like an episode of Doctor Who. It’s certainly set in the Doctor Who universe, with cameos from the Doctor, Rose and Jackie, but the tone feels like one of the more surreal episodes of “Torchwood”, the kind of story where the character of the week would have chance encounters with Jack’s team, have some trouble accepting that aliens are real and eventually help them complete a case. Honestly, the first two-thirds of “Love And Monsters” tends to be pretty dull and kind of cringy but otherwise passable, and then the last fifteen minutes feel like Russell T. Davies lit up and went on one sweet acid trip.
Elton Pope (Marc Warren) serves as our protagonist and narrator this week, and like a lot of RTD era characters, he’s an unashamedly nerdy bloke, freely making pop-culture references to spice up his blog and bopping around to ELO music in some rather cringeworthy cutaway gags. Elton can also be a thoughtful and insightful person, and at times, rather reticent, since he’s haunted by some childhood memories that don’t make sense. Russell T. Davies indulges in a lot of callbacks to previous episodes with Elton’s character, which is kind of a staple of his tenure as showrunner.
The RTD era was very heavy on continuity, as the people in London became increasingly aware of the Doctor and alien lifeforms because of all the frequent, public alien invasions. “Love And Monsters” explores what it would be like to live in the Whoniverse as an average, unassuming Londoner and have an outside perspective on everything that’s happened. In that regard, “Love And Monsters” is almost a spiritual sequel to “Rose“, the very first episode of the show where the Doctor was still a mysterious figure wandering in and out of Rose’s life, talking in riddles, so she turned to Clive for answers. Series 1 and 2 have come a long way since then when it comes to fleshing out the Doctor’s character and humanizing him, but whenever we step outside of the Doctor and Rose’s perspective that we’ve become accustomed to, the Doctor still seems just as alien and unknowable, inspiring awe and reverence in some of the people he briefly encounters.
Russell T. Davies really liked to build the Doctor’s character up as being a living mythological figure in-universe, a habit Steven Moffat would continue in his own tenure before deconstructing it during the Matt Smith years, and like all myths, there’s usually a price to pay for mere mortals dabbling in things that are way beyond their knowledge. The Doctor’s lifestyle is not a game: people who get too close to it without knowing what they’re doing usually wind up getting burned, which is exactly what happens to Elton and his chums. Elton is certain that the Doctor somehow has a connection to his past and the demons of his childhood, so he meets up with some other likeminded individuals who are interested in the urban myth of the Doctor to investigate.
With this aspect of the episode, Russell T. Davies gets more than a bit meta, commenting on the nature of fandoms. Elton has a fun time initially: he gets to bond with lots of other people from different backgrounds about their shared interest and swap ridiculous theories, he makes some new friends, and he finds love with a beautiful, quiet-natured yet deeply passionate woman named
Moaning Myrtle Ursula. Until Victor Kennedy arrives and changes things drastically. At a certain point, fandoms have a habit of turning sour. Elton and the other members have their curiosity taken advantage of by a predator, and by the end of the episode, Elton is a pretty different man, a more traumatized man. He’s lost all of his friends, seen a lot of things he’ll never be able to unsee, and re-awoken some repressed memories, so Russell T. Davies purposely leaves open the possibility that the end of this episode might have taken it’s toll on poor Elton’s sanity (at least, until “Journey’s End” confirms that pavement slab Ursula is indeed real).
Victor Kennedy (Peter Kay), an oily, campy, secretive sort of man, serves as the main antagonist of “Love And Monsters”, and he is very obviously evil. In fact, this episode makes no attempt to hide the fact that he’s evil and up to no good, which actually makes him feel more unsettling at times, since the audience catches on where LINDA doesn’t. If the Doctor and Rose were in this episode for more than five minutes, they would spot him as an impostor from a mile off, but since they’re not, Victor is able to safely take advantage of LINDA’s naivety and inexperience to integrate himself. He appoints himself leader of their little gang and treats them all terribly when he sends them out to find the Doctor, on top of killing them off periodically to feed himself. Russell indulges in quite a lot of dramatic irony that these people have no idea how much danger they’re in, and it becomes increasingly tragic watching their numbers dwindle, since they all had lives and dreams and relationships waiting for them.
So Victor is a pretty fine, if average antagonist until the last fifteen minutes, when the Abzorbaloff reveals his true form. The design for the Abzorbaloff came from a kid who won a contest to get his monster on the show, and it did not translate well onscreen unfortunately, dialing the cringe levels up to the max. In fact, the last fifteen minutes can cause a lot of tonal whiplash. I really can’t take a man in a green fat suit with a thong and a mane who absorbs people seriously, especially when he starts chasing Elton across town. But Elton loses all of his friends, and he discovers his mom died when he was just a kid, which is a genuinely sad turn of events. But then Elton’s girlfriend is revived as a talking, immortal face on a pavement slab, and Elton reassures us that they still have a love life somehow, and this is somehow a better fate for Ursula than if she had just died, and I have so many mixed feelings about this weird, nonsensical ending. And the sad thing about it all is that the Abzorbaloff was still a more credible threat than the Wire.
After being absent for most of Series 2 so far, Rose’s mom (Camille Camdouri) is given a fair amount of focus and a sympathetic portrayal in “Love And Monsters” when Elton and LINDA rather creepily decide to use her to gain info about Rose, giving us an opportunity to see what Jackie Tyler is like without the Doctor and Rose present and a chance to see how much her character has grown in two seasons. Jackie is once again characterized as a rather forward and flirtatious person, with a taste for younger men. The scene where she tries to seduce Elton into sleeping with her can get pretty uncomfortable, though still not as cringy as the Elo cutaway gags or the Abzorbaloff climax.
Beyond that though, “Love And Monsters” confirms something that the viewers have probably suspected for a while: Jackie is very lonely and fairly stressed living home alone nowadays. Nearly every parent has to deal with their adult kids moving out and leaving the nest at some point. However, most parents don’t have to worry about their kids getting killed on an alien planet a billion light years away (or worse, in a completely different time period), which they would never even know about if the Doctor couldn’t get back with the news. Jackie has been trying to fill the void in a lot of different ways, and for a moment it seems like her friendship with Elton might help, before she discovers the disturbing real reason why he contacted her and reacts accordingly. It’s always been obvious that Rose got her ability to verbally rip people to shreds from her mom, and it’s very satisfying to see Jackie let her mama bear claws come out and threaten Elton to stay away from her, stay away from Rose, and stay away from the Doctor, because after two seasons she’s become protective of both of them. Amusingly, Jackie’s outraged feelings are fully reciprocated at the end, when the Doctor and Rose appear just so Rose can scold Elton when she gets the news.
Dan Zeff does a decent and serviceable (if unremarkable) job of directing “Love And Monsters”, considering he’s given very little to work with besides a slice-of-life story. I like how he manages to emulate the tone and style of a 90’s British sitcom, considering the tone of the episode is purposely written to be as cheesy and absurd as possible. The framing device of Elton blogging his adventures on his webcam, mixed with found footage, gives Doctor Who a chance to try out several different filming styles in one episode, depending on the sketch.
Compared to a lot of their previous work in the series (like the Clockwork droids, the Cybermen and the Ood), I want to say the costume department and the CGI team for the series really dropped the ball when it comes to the Abzorbaloff in the last fifteen minutes, who is a super narmful and super unconvincing villain. But the Abzorbaloff is a pretty faithful depiction of William Grantham’s contest-winning monster, scaled down to human size, so the costume department at least continued to turn in some good work for this episode (and for anyone who’s curious, the adult William has gone on the record sharing his feelings about “Love And Monsters” and the whole experience in retrospect). Murray Gold’s score is pretty understated in “Love And Monsters”, befitting a smaller-scale, comical episode, while also expanding on some previous melodies. “Seeking The Doctor”, another ethereal vocal line from Melanie Pappenheim, was previously used in “Rose” and “School Reunion” to signify the enigma of the Doctor’s TARDIS as a living legend, while the lightweight, bouncy fun of “Monster Bossa” is reprised from “Boom Town”.
Much like “The Idiot’s Lantern“, “Love And Monsters” is an incredibly weak episode of Doctor Who that tried to do something different and failed at it rather badly, though I had more fun dissecting this episode than I thought I would. “Love And Monsters” is mostly notable for the fun trend of Doctor-lite episodes it would set down the line and the truly bizarre final act it has.
* “Wrong one, you made it worse!” “You said blue!” “I said not blue!”
* I’m not gonna lie though, that Scooby-Doo chase scene with Ten, Rose and the alien in the hallway made me laugh, because anyone who enjoyed that show as a kid will spot that reference from a mile off.
* “Mr. Kennedy, we were wondering. No sign of Bliss. Do you know where she is?” “Yes, didn’t she tell you? She’s getting married. She left a message. It’ll never last, stupid girl”.
* “Use that cane on him and you’ll get one hell of a smack off me! And then a good kick. Is that completely understood, Mr. Kennedy?” “Duly noted. Ursula Blake, most likely to fight back”.
* “So we hit the streets. We get out there, we take the photographs. Someone’s got to know who she is somewhere” “Yes, but London’s a big place. I mean, I should know. My own daughter’s out there-” “Bridget, don’t make this personal”.
* “Now, Mr. Skinner, I don’t mean to pry, but did you give Bridget a little kiss back then?” “I think I did” “And if you get your way, might there be more little kisses between the two of you?” “I think there might’ “I knew it!”
* “Ursula, get your stuff! Mr. Skinner, are you coming? Not to the Chinese, if you don’t mind. Just sort of walking out”.
* “What about Bliss? Where is she?!” “You really don’t want to know” Stay classy, Doctor Who.
* “Don’t touch me. Oh, Elton, I’m so sorry. You can’t touch me”.
* “Wait a minute. Now I’ve been absorbed, I can read his thoughts. Oh, my God. Elton, you’re next. Get out of here. Now you’ve seen him, he can’t let you go. Just run. Go on. Never mind me, get out!” “Isn’t she the clever one?”.
* “You see, I’ve read about you, Doctor. I’ve studied you. So passionate, so sweet. You wouldn’t let an innocent man die. And I’ll absorb him, unless you give yourself to me!” “Hmm, sweet, maybe. Passionate, I suppose. But don’t ever mistake that for nice. Do what you want”.
* “I had this nice little gang, and they were destroyed. It’s not his fault, but maybe that’s what happens if you touch the Doctor. Even for a second. I keep thinking of Rose and Jackie, and how much longer before they pay the price” About two more episodes, Elton.
* “You know, 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”.