I think it goes without saying that “Fear Her” has a pretty poor reputation in the Doctor Who fandom. In fact, there was a good long period when “Fear Her” was not only considered to be the worst episode of Series 2, but the worst episode of the entire revival. Whenever polls were done to single out the worst of the worst, “Fear Her” was usually the top pick. Which surprises me, because out of the three episodes from Series 2 that are considered to be infamous, “Fear Her” bothers me the least. Don’t get me wrong, the premise of this episode is hardly subtle, and Chloe Webber’s child actor is frequently wooden to the point of being unintentionally funny. But “Fear Her” doesn’t go out of its way to deliver a terrible aesop about domestic abuse like “The Idiot’s Lantern” did, and it doesn’t have a villain that will destroy your soul with cringe like “Love And Monsters” and “The Idiot’s Lantern” did.
In fact, upon rewatch, I think I’ve come to like ‘”Fear Her” more than I did previously. It was a last-minute script Russell T. Davies commissioned Matthew Graham to write, after a planned story from Stephen Fry fell through. He wanted it to be a breather episode before the two-part finale, aimed at the younger members of Doctor Who’s family audience. During this adventure, the Doctor and Rose discover a dark secret lying in the heart of an otherwise ordinary and unremarkable suburban neighborhood. People are disappearing from mysterious means that no one seems to want to talk about. The Doctor and Rose are convinced that talking to the neighbors is the key to solving the problem, giving them the opportunity to mend a rift in a broken family, but their efforts are sabotaged when one half of the TARDIS team is put out of commission before the climax. If that plot sounds familiar to you, then it should. It’s actually remarkable how much “Fear Her’s” plot feels like a redux of “The Idiot’s Lantern”, while still being a much better episode than that one.
The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) decides to take Rose a few years ahead to the year 2012 so they can check out the Olympics: but when they discover a bunch of kids in the area have gone mysteriously missing recently, they quickly get down to work investigating. The Tenth Doctor is on top form in this episode, bouncing around the proceedings as a cheeky, jovial sports fan initially, before we get some deeper insight into his personality. The fact that Ten has some pretty good people skills under his belt is emphasized a lot in “Fear Her”, when he shuts down a large and unhelpful case of the blame game from the neighbors to focus on the task at hand and uses some reverse psychology on Trish to get his foot in her door. And like in “School Reunion“, Ten lets a lot of his true age and experience level shine through his surface personality in this adventure, which I’m quite happy about, since Ten is usually at his most interesting when he’s divulging some time lord wisdom.
We’ve seen the Doctor be a self-appointed authority figure several times now, but in “Fear Her”, he serves as a mediator between the humans and the alien of the week. The Doctor tries to frequently be patient and sympathetic with Chloe and Trish, while also being firm and stern, refusing to let them avoid their problems and go into denial. The Doctor had a lonely, neglectful upbringing himself, allowing him to empathize with Chloe and the Isolus’ shared dilemma, and he was both a parent and a grandparent a long time ago, giving him a good idea of how to handle bratty kids. There’s a quick scene I appreciate where Ten unwittingly mentions his old family to Rose while they’re discussing the Isolus, catching her off guard, and then he just as quickly drops the subject before it can go any further. Rose has known the Doctor for at least two years at this point, and there is still so much she doesn’t know about the time lord, and a lot of things she’ll never know. And of course, you can’t forget the gloriously cheesy ending where the Doctor saves the Olympics.
After “The Satan Pit“, “Fear Her” proves to be another good episode for Rose Tyler’s (Billie Piper) characterization. Rose has always had a perceptive side to her, even if she struggles with complicated space-time concepts beyond her home era, and “Fear Her” puts a lot of focus on the detective skills she’s been honing for the last two years, showing she has a sharp eye for details. When Ten and Rose first start investigating, it’s Rose’s idea to start talking to the neighbors and the council workers for information, and it’s Rose who catches onto the fact that Trish is hiding something, something involving her daughter presumably. Throughout the episode, Ten and Rose’s personalities bounce off each other well, showing they make quite a good team: the Doctor provides the knowledge of alien cultures while Rose has the human intuition.
Since there have been several episodes in Series 2 devoted to how annoying and self-involved Ten and Rose can be at their worst, like “Tooth And Claw” and “Rise Of The Cybermen“, it’s good to see them both at their best in “Fear Her”. “Fear Her” also presents Rose with a challenge to overcome. As a former father, the Doctor is quite good with kids; he’s also had several sidekicks who are good with kids, like Martha the time-traveling medical student, or Clara the time-traveling nanny / school teacher. Rose is not one of those sidekicks. Rose makes it no secret that she frequently feels awkward around Chloe, and she definitely disagrees with the Doctor about the proper way to handle the Isolus, but she decides to take his word for it that he knows what he’s doing. When the Doctor is taken out of commission halfway through, mirroring what happened to Rose in “The Idiot’s Lantern”, Rose is forced to fly solo and step outside of her element with time running out rapidly. She wrangles Chloe herself and pieces together the rest of the mystery’s clues to save the day and save the Webbers from one of Chloe’s murderous creations.
The title ‘Fear Her’ refers to Chloe Webber, the main antagonist of this episode. Despite being a seemingly ordinary and reserved middle-schooler, Chloe Webber is disturbingly cold, indifferent and detached towards everyone, whether she’s addressing her mom (Trish), the neighbors, or strangers like the Doctor and Rose. She’s so aloof and emotionless that she almost seems dead inside and inhuman, except for when she’s not so subtly threatening people. Trish is well aware that there’s something wrong with her daughter, and it’s probably connected to the missing people in the neighborhood, but she’s been covering it up and turning a blind eye to it, partly because she doesn’t want to believe the worst of Chloe, and partly because she’s grown afraid of her. To everyone’s surprise, Chloe is currently sharing a body with an alien.
Chloe and her mom were abused and mistreated a lot by the girl’s late father before he died a year ago, and while he’s gone now, years of parental abuse always leaves a nasty scar, especially on one so young. Chloe is still traumatized and haunted by her memories of her dad, but she couldn’t turn to her mom and talk to her about it for comfort. The woman could barely cope herself, and it’s apparently part of her nature to avoid talking about difficult subjects whenever she can. So Chloe bottled it all up inside and quietly kept her pain to herself, feeling very alone. Like what normally happens when a parent isn’t emotionally available, the kid found what she needed somewhere else, somewhere more dangerous. Chloe turned to the Isolus because the strange alien child knew what it was like to be all alone and in pain, and they found solace in each other. Sharing a body, they isolated themselves from the rest of the flesh and blood world, but they collected friends for themselves like dolls, stealing them away from their loved ones to tend to their own emotional needs.
Needless to say, even if this arrangement is what Chloe and the Isolus want, it’s really not good for her or healthy for anyone, and it has to stop. A child’s cry for help and her most thoughtlessly selfish desires, twisted into something dangerous and obscene because of unforeseeable circumstances with an alien power. It strikes me that “Fear Her’s” premise is exactly the sort of story you would expect to see in a Moffat era episode like “The Snowmen”, but with the domestic setting and trappings of a RTD era episode, which makes “Fear Her” a rather unique installment in the canon. Chloe and the Isolus refuse to part ways with each other, at one point sabotaging the Doctor’s plans to stop them, and eventually things progress to the point where they try to make the whole population of the Earth disappear so the Isolus can have four billion new playmates.
I find it hilariously ironic how the Isolus repeatedly, defensively claims that it loves Chloe, and that that’s actually the last thing it tells her before it leaves to rejoin its herd, and then it swans off and leaves her to be killed by her evil, zombie crayon daddy that they brought to life. Clearly, they were such good friends. Elsewhere, Trish is quite rightly horrified when she realizes how badly her emotional negligence has hurt Chloe and what it’s led to, and she vows to be a better mother if she can get her daughter back. She makes good on that promise, as signified when the Webbers banish the last remaining memory of Mr. Webber together during the climax to save themselves. Chloe’s child actor, Abisola Agbaje, tries to bring the role to life, but she struggles to do so and it’s pretty clear that the role of possessed Chloe is well-above her current acting level; she mainly delivers her lines in a raspy, hissing voice that gets increasingly funny throughout the episode. Despite that, I still found Chloe and Trish’s subplot to be rather moving, and the pay-off at the end, where they rekindle their bond, feels earned by everything that built up to it.
“Fear Her” is once again helmed by Euros Lynn, one of the standout directors of the RTD era, and after having a slump in his last contribution to the series, this installment proves to be a return to form for him. There are a wide variety of dynamic and creative shots scattered throughout the episode which help to liven up a low-budget episode: like pan-in shots of the neighborhood street, the sinister close-ups of Chloe spying on our heroes from her window, the rather unnerving animation that was done of Chloe’s drawings moving by themselves, the POV shot of the monster in Chloe’s closet that’s almost always kept offscreen, the two-hander shots set in Chloe’s room with purposely heightened, darkened shadows, and the occasional dutch angle that’s thankfully used sparingly.
Despite being set during the summer Olympics, “Fear Her” was filmed in Cardiff during the winter months, so a line was written into the script (about the Isolus feeding on all the heat in the street) to justify the chilly weather and the visible breath on the actors’ lips. Since “Fear Her” was an episode purposely designed to be filmed on the cheap, like “The Idiot’s Lantern” and “Love And Monsters”, the use of CGI from the Mill is kept to a minimum in this episode, save for a quick shots of the Islous and the Isolus’s creations. Murray Gold’s score for “Fear Her” curiously feels more like a throwback to the previous series than usual. Murray utilizes a lot of queasy, uneasy synthesizers to invoke tension in the background score of the episode, which he did in basically every episode of Series 1, compared to most of his work on his Series 2, where he’s switched to utilizing a full, traditional orchestra. Despite that, a standout track in the score is a heartwarming (and regrettably unreleased) piece of choral music that’s used when all the kids are returned to the neighborhood and Ten and Rose are finally reunited during the coda.
At the end of the day, I quite like “Fear Her”: it serves its purpose well as a breather episode, one last hurrah for Ten and Rose before the storm of “Army Of Ghosts / Doomsday“. And it uses all the traditional trappings of a sci-fi story to tell a sweet, shamelessly sappy human story about a mother and daughter reconciling, handling the topic of domestic abuse in a much more satisfying way than “The Idiot’s Lantern” did earlier this season.
* You’ve gotta love how melodramatic the title is for this episode. Forget the Daleks or the Cybermen or the Master. Clearly, the most terrifying antagonist in Doctor Who is Chloe Webber.
* “What’s your game?” “My, er… Snakes and Ladders? Quite good at squash. Reasonable. I’m being facetious, aren’t I? There’s no call for it”.
* “You’re tired, Chloe. I heard you calling out again, last night” “It’s fine” “Nightmares?” “I’m drawing!” “Whatever they are, they’re just dreams, you do know that? They can’t hurt you.” “I’m busy. Unless you want me to draw you, mum“.
* “I’m not really a cat person. Once you’ve been threatened by one in a nun’s wimple, it kind of takes the joy out of it”.
* “The girl!” “Of course! Wait, what girl?”
* “You’ve seen it, out of the corner of your eye. And you dismissed it, because what choice do you have when you see something you can’t possibly explain? You dismiss it, right? And if anyone mentions it, you get angry, so it’s never spoken of, ever again. You’re terrified of her, your own daughter. But there’s nowhere to turn to, because who’s going to believe the things you see out of the corner of your eye? No one. Except me”.
* “I told you, he’s dead” “Well, he’s got a very loud voice for a dead bloke” “If living things can become drawings, then maybe drawings can become living things”.
* “Well, that’s easy for you to say. You don’t have kids” “I was a dad once” “What did you say?”
* “Fear, loneliness. They’re the big ones, Rose. Some of the most terrible acts ever committed have been inspired by them. We’re not dealing with something that wants to conquer or destroy. 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”.
* “Bring him back, now” “No!” “Don’t you realize what you’ve done? He was the only one who could help you. Now bring him back!” “Leave me alone! I love Chloe Webber!” This girl’s performance is so wooden. I love it.
* “No, stop! You just took a council axe from a council van and now you’re digging up a council road! I’m reporting you to the council!”
* “What is it?!” “It’s a spaceship. Not a council spaceship, I’m afraid”.
* “Hang on, I told you not to leave her! Why aren’t you watching her?” Dammit it, Trish, you had one job!
* “There’s still no sign of the Doctor” “Maybe he’s gone somewhere?” “Who’s going to hold his hand now?”.
* Like the next time trailer at the end of “Boom Town” (the penultimate episode of the previous series), the next time trailer for “Army Of Ghosts” makes it no secret who the season finale villains are: because someone, somewhere, still gives zero fucks about spoilers.
“the domestic setting and trappings of a RTD era episode” – thank you for this! It’s brought one of the reasons I love RTD’s work on the show so much into focus for me; I hadn’t thought of this era as specifically domestic before, but it’s exactly right.
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