|I’ve got your animated version of Shada right here, baby.|
It’s June 17th, 2006. Nelly Furtado is at number one with “Maneater,” with Pink, Infernal, Baddiel, Skinner, and the Lightning Seeds, and Tony Christie also charting, the latter two with World Cup-focused songs. Over at the World Cup we’re still in the group stage, but England, having won their second game, are through to the knockout stages, albeit with a game against Sweden to deal with first. Other news is slow – a steady dribble of horrors out of the Iraq War, which has its 2500th US casualty this week, and a video of a marine singing a song about murdering Iraqi civilians.
So. Love and Monsters. Perhaps it was just the wrong story for a kind of cynical week. Perhaps that’s the only reason this plummeted to a 76% AI rating – the joint lowest the series ever attained (it was tied with The End of the World) – it was the wrong story on the wrong week. And surely can’t have been helped by being the Doctor-light story. So there you go. If you want, any negative reception this story has ever attained can be explained away straightforwardly.
Still, it’s not the usual explanation. “Too silly” is the usual explanation, which is perhaps a bit harsh for a story in which just about everybody dies horribly. Certainly it’s misleading to just call this a silly story as though that explains everything about it. It’s a story with a tremendous amount of silliness in its early acts, but one where the point is the abandonment of the silliness. Or, more accurately, the point is that the silliness has teeth. One of the key things about Peter Kay’s rendition of the Abzorbaloff is that it remains an absolutely ludicrous monster. No effort is made to disguise the monster’s status as a Blue Peter contest winner, and Peter Kay just leans into it completely with a gratuitously over the top performance that would be a train wreck if it weren’t contrasted perfectly with his intensely mannered Victor Kennedy performance. The garishly inappropriate scene of the Abzorbaloff chasing Elton down the street is in many ways the point – the inappropriately broad comedy being used to the same effect as the pit last episode, as something that marks the monster as fundamentally alien and not of this world.
Another way of looking at it is that the Abzorbaloff is perfectly sized for Elton’s tiny little world, in which his only two passions in life are an irritatingly catchy ELO song and his friends at LINDA. I mean, sure, and probably some of the other stuff he mentions, but we know Elton. We know that he’s just an ordinary person with an ordinary life that isn’t worth forty-five minutes of television, or, at least, doesn’t seem to be. Wouldn’t be, in fact, if it weren’t for the fact that he exists in the orbit of the Doctor. Again, the episode is leaning into its narrative constraints. Recognizing that the absence of the Doctor is going to create a tangible lack within the story, Davies picks a main character who will feed into that lack, making us want the Doctor. It’s not that Elton is unpleasant to watch – though it’s worth noting that Marc Warren plays “punchable” astonishingly well, and does wonders to make Elton a perfectly pitched mixture of irritating and sympathetic.
We all know Elton. The ever so slightly annoying person in a given social circle – who we want to be happy because he’s a good bloke, but who we would, if we’re being perfectly honest, rather someone else actually be tasked with the business of making him happy. And that’s most of LINDA, done in deft miniature. The last to get chosen. The afterthoughts of our world. Whether through awkwardness or strangeness or damage, the people who, left to their own devices, would probably be alone. Except they’re not, because they found each other.
It is, of course, a story about Doctor Who fandom – the crowning irony of its somewhat rocky reputation among that fandom. It’s a story about the freaks and weirdos who found community and life in the absurd thing that is Doctor Who. It’s about gay workaholics who learned the pleasures of unrequited love from it. It’s about clever Scottish jokesters who learned not to be an asshole. It’s about men who are slightly socially uncomfortable when not in a Victorian ghost story, about self-deprecating playwrights who rely on their honesty about their anxiety being read as a joke, about awkward feminist Anglicans with a pagan streak.
And more than that. It’s about overweight bloggers who washed out of academia, and queer midwestern middle-aged mystics. About trans Google engineers who worship Freija and bisexual Big Brother bloggers who read Avengers comics and pretend they’re about other things. Polyamorous hypnofetishists and southern anarchist philosophy professors. Weirdo visionaries who write about My Little Pony, David Bowie, Star Trek, and the Beach Boys. The entire community, from the cadre of people faithfully reading every day so they can snigger like schoolboys on tiny forums about how much they hate the blog, to the large number of people who only ever read the book versions and whose names I’ll never know. It’s about all of us, and our strangeness, and our obsessions, and the holy and sacred mystery of getting out of bed every morning. And about weird lip-licking absorption monsters and sex with paving stones. Because that’s how it works.
The episode’s pleasures hinge entirely on the assumption that the audience is going to recognize this sort of love, and thus be moved when Victor Kennedy comes to destroy it all by giving everybody what they ostensibly want. Note how Kennedy’s surveillance tactics amount to what they all already know how to do without knowing that they know: make friends and meet people. And how Jackie, just by being herself, renders all of it irrelevant. Jackie is by this point the stand-in for complete normality in the show. And when LINDA has become an unhealthy, destructive, and, most importantly, not actually very fun organization it’s Jackie, and more to the point the fact that Elton hurts Jackie, and hurts her in a way his later good intentions cannot fix. (And note that the hurt is purely based on Elton’s disingenuity. “Cos it’s never me, is it?”) Enjoying the episode and deciding that it works requires that we invest ourselves in that mundane human interaction and its value – that we care about Jackie and Elton for their very ordinariness.
Contrasting this, both within and without the episode, is Doctor Who. And let’s be clear, the parallel fueling this contrast is consciously designed to be both within and without the episode. Jackie has always been a character the audience is meant to have complex opinions on, because she’s consciously designed both as an impediment to Doctor Who getting up to full speed and as a character who fundamentally rejects a swath of the values of Doctor Who. She doesn’t want a world of aliens and monsters and epic bombast; she wants the peace and quiet of the ordinary. As such, Doctor Who is fundamentally hostile to her. There’s no way to get over the central conflict she introduces to the series, which is that she wants Rose to stay home and neither Rose nor, more importantly, the viewing public agrees. Note how this series has kept her miles from the action as a result. Series One kept her out of things for a while – we didn’t actually see 2005-vintage Jackie at all between World War III and The Parting of the Ways. Here it’s actually starker – after The Christmas Invasion Jackie is reduced to one or two lines at the end of The Age of Steel. We haven’t actually seen her as Jackie Tyler living on the Powell Estates in the present day since then. Because Jackie is a problem for the series. Much like Elton is, as we noted – we know Elton is only on our screen to give Tennant and Piper a bit of a break.
But slowly, over time, the series has been trying to win us over with regards to Jackie. Even as far back as Aliens of London plots have hinged on the assumption that the audience is going to be sympathetic towards Jackie. To some extent this is just a case of faking it until you make it – you can get further than you’d expect by just taking a character and deciding to treat them as one that the audience is going to be sympathetic towards. So the series has mandated that the audience likes Jackie, and a reasonable portion of the audience followed suit. But this isn’t the whole story. An equally large part of it is that Doctor Who invested hard and vocally in EastPowellStreet and its values. This has been a show that has, at least in part, been about the sanctity and value of ordinary life just as much as it’s been about the epic sweep of its sci-fi premise. Jackie and Mickey kept getting fed good bits that established them in the eyes of a great number of viewers. And rightly so. “I’m the tin dog” or Jackie showing up with the truck are both marvelous scenes. And Elton is meant to fit quickly into this paradigm – to be a character we simultaneously recognize as extraneous to Doctor Who and as integral to real life.
It’s too simple, however, to suggest that Elton’s life is ruined when Doctor Who comes into it, since previously Elton’s life had been justified and made interesting by the presence of Doctor Who within it. Rather, it’s ruined when the epic – a concept always at least partially offset from Doctor Who itself – steps into it. This is the central divide of Love and Monsters. Death, monsters, and the epic exist in one realm. Love, humanity, and the personal exist in the other. Death is epic, and love is personal. This isn’t so much the central divide of Love and Monsters as it is the central divide of Doctor Who itself under Russell T Davies. But what’s key is that for the most part Doctor Who doesn’t fall on one side or the other. It’s simultaneously a vehicle for epic death monsters and the vehicle for the celebration of the small and intimate moments of life. Perhaps equally important, or even more important, this divide isn’t Davies’s invention. Davies established it as a central premise of Doctor Who forevermore by taking the idea to television and making a monster hit out of it, but the idea dates back to the Virgin era, and, really, to Andrew Cartmel. (If you really want you can date it back to Davison’s “well-prepared meal” speech in Earthshock, but Earthshock ultimately undercuts that by deciding that it really is about clanking robots killing people and not about flowers and well-prepared meals.)
In other words, it dates back to the same fandom Love and Monsters is about. And the central opposition between the ordinary friendships and meals and bad singing and the impersonal death offered by Victor Kennedy is the real divide within it. In essence, it’s the choice between the Doctor Who of Attack of the Cybermen and the Doctor Who of, well, this. It’s the choice between the absolute fixed monomyth of Whoniverse and Newton’s Sleep offered by Ian Levine and the possibility of both Doctor Who and the world as a weird and strange place. And ultimately, Davies is unsparingly vicious in this. Ian Levine is death. It’s that completely uncompromising. To embrace the world as Victor Kennedy sees it is not just to die, but to die in a way that destroys your entire identity and being. Love doesn’t exist on the epic scale.
Except for two stray details. Because Love and Monsters doesn’t reject the epic. It’s ultimately the desire for the epic that created LINDA in the first place. And the series is still predicated on the desire for the epic – the fact that we want to see, just to use a completely random example with no bearing on the future of the series, a big war between the Daleks and the Cybermen. Rather, Love and Monsters complicates the relationship between the two. First, note that its resolution consists of making the death of Elton’s mother personal and not epic. She may have died in one of the Doctor’s epic adventures, but the Doctor’s return to Elton’s life in this story means that he gets to grieve her personally and intimately. Doctor Who allows us to reclaim death from the realm of the epic.
Second there’s the saving of Ursula. This is, apparently, also controversial because of the throwaway line about Elton and Ursula having “a bit of a love life,” which is of course a joke about blowjobs. Let us pause for a moment to dispense with some of the more obvious things that could be said about this. First, it is not a joke about blowjobs that will even be noticed by anyone unaware of the basic concept of fellatio. “A bit of a love life,” to anyone unaware of the joke, just sounds like, OK, Elton has a relationship with a paving stone. That’s a bit weird. And anyway, in the unlikely event that some kid does learn about oral sex from Doctor Who, quite frankly, do you have a better place in mind? Everyone learns about it some day. Better Doctor Who than the schoolyard, surely. So the idea that it’s “inappropriate” for Doctor Who when it comes in the course of what is already one of the most adult episodes in terms of its basic concerns and interests is… strained.
Then there’s the idea that it’s somehow wrong. This troubles me more. There is perhaps arguably an issue to be had in that Ursula’s preservation as a paving stone is nonconsensual. This is, however, kind of missing the point. Certainly you could do a story about how horrible Ursula’s life is, but that’s not this one. This is a story where the Doctor is able to save one person, albeit through a terribly weird manner. Crucially, we see that Ursula is OK with this. She likes being alive. She’d probably like legs, but, you know, being alive is something. Having a lover is something. Having a life, even a weird one where terrible things have happened, is something. Actually, it’s everything, and that’s the entire point of the episode.
So death gets made personal, and love gets preserved through the intervention of the Doctor’s world of monsters and wonders. Because in the end that’s the thing. The Doctor represents the strange, whether it be the alienating strangeness of cosmic horror and death (represented in its fullest extent this season via the Beast) or the abiding strangeness of life. Doctor Who is the route through which the weird enters, within and without. To focus on life with no understanding of death is naive. To focus on death with no understanding of the gleeful hedonism of life is Ian Levine. Because in the end, death and the epic are the price we pay for a world where something as strange as the love between a man and his paving stone. A world that’s stranger, darker, madder.