Actually, I’m not.
(If you’re still oblivious, this will reveal all. But I should warn you the earworm will burrow deeper than that Ceti eel did into Chekhov’s head.)
Actually, I’m not.
(If you’re still oblivious, this will reveal all. But I should warn you the earworm will burrow deeper than that Ceti eel did into Chekhov’s head.)
I’ve always been a champion for the underdog, and of all the Doctor Who episodes that had a generally unfavourable reception over the years, it was this story that struck me as being perhaps the least deserving of its unsavoury reputation. There’s a lot to unpack here: for one thing it’s billed as a kid’s episode, as if that were some unforgivable transgression, rather than a programme deliberately trying to cater for a large part of its target audience. But it is – if you look a little harder – as ruthless and poignant a deconstruction of contemporary fandom as you’re likely to find anywhere, with Elton and his friends excelling in their role of new, enthusiastic fans, worn down by the experts who know their stuff, but who’ve lost that sense of unbridled joy that drew them to the show in the first place. And Victor Kennedy? Well, we know who he’s supposed to be…
How I learned to enjoy Love & Monsters
Published: 29 June 2015
Two of my four sons have, in the last few years, learned to play the violin. If you have ever been in the same house as a small child who has just picked up a stringed instrument, you will know what excruciating torture this is, at least in the first couple of weeks. It is how I imagine a cat sounds when it is being strangled. But I never say anything. As a parent, you don’t. You smile and nod and offer supportive words of encouragement, and part your hair so that the earplugs don’t show.
The truth is that parenting makes you lower your standards. You find yourself watching films and TV programmes that, ordinarily, would be given the sort of wide berth that you usually reserve for charity collectors outside the supermarket. If you have ever sat through Horrid Henry: The Movie you will understand what I mean. Oh, I’ll bitch about these things afterwards. But at the time you join in with your children’s enthusiasm, because your engagement clearly means a lot to them. (I make an exception for stereotypical gender-based advertising, which I’ll routinely deconstruct, in the hopes that they’ll follow suit.)
Why am I telling you all this? Well, I have a very good friend who’s forgotten more about Doctor Who than I’m ever likely to know, and whose acidic quips and insightful observations turn up regularly on my blog. By and large his attitude towards nuWho ranges from general indifference to active dislike, and he’s annoyingly right about most things. But I occasionally wonder whether his worldview might be different if he had children.
Let me unpack this: one of the things you have to deal with as both a fan and a parent of fans is the tendency for children’s views to not only conflict with your own but actively influence them. For example, when prepping for this article I asked two of my children (age 5 and 9) to pick their favourite nuWho stories. Both chose In the Forest of the Night – an episode I disliked intensely, partly because Frank Cottrell Boyce threw in all sorts of amusing gags and Gaiaist philosophy, but forgot to add any sort of plot; and partly because for the third time in Series 8, “Do nothing” becomes the answer to the problem. At the same time, the kids (particularly Maebh) are brilliant, and it’s hard not to join in with my eldest’s riotous laughter when Ruby shouts “Oh my God! Maebh’s lost in the forest! MAEBH’S GONNA DIE!!!!”.
And the funny thing is, when you’re watching a bad story with young people who are clearly enjoying it, you occasionally find their enthusiasm infectious. I don’t think there are many out there who would rate Fear Her among their top ten episodes – unless you turn the list on its head so you can read it upside down – but even I can’t stop myself grinning from ear to ear when the Doctor mounts that podium in front of the cheering crowd to light the Olympic Torch. Would I be reacting this way if I didn’t have children? Perhaps. But sometimes I don’t think so.
I’m not saying being a parent makes you more appreciative of bad episodes of Who. I’m simply saying I’m inclined to be less fussy than perhaps I would have been otherwise. That’s a personal benchmark, not a yardstick with which to generalise. Sadly there’s no litmus test. Somewhere there’s a parallel universe (several, in all likelihood) in which my wife and I never sired any descendants, and it would have been interesting to see our reactions to everything since 2005 in that sort of circumstance. As it stands, the only thing I had to go on was the Eccleston series – which wrapped up shortly before my eldest child popped out of the womb, two weeks late – and even that’s atypical in many respects.
But the patterns I see on forums and Facebook pages – “I hated it, but my children liked it” – and so on do suggest that having children present for both the series itself and the media storm that surrounds it makes for an entirely different viewing experience. As parents, we’re the ones who complain when the Beeb goes too far (which I’ve never done, although I did have serious gripes about the 2014 Christmas Special that I’ll save for another day). As parents, we’ll often find we relate to the weirdest things (I hold A Good Man Goes To War, for example, in higher regard than perhaps I should, because it plays on my fears of losing a child). And as parents, we’re the target market (or a part of it) for the stuff in the show that’s Obviously Geared Towards Children.
Let’s take the Slitheen. To a great many of us, the Slitheen were ridiculous; about as irritating as the Ewoks, and as popular. Let me tell you something: if you’re ten or under (and perhaps even older than that) the Slitheen are hysterical. More to the point, if you’re the parent of someone who’s ten or under, and if you squint, the Slitheen are hysterical. They’re comically bulbous aliens who fart a lot. They make jokes about nakedness. They spend entire stories acting like children, and Davies deliberately writes them that way. The idea that the grotesque, clinically obese teacher you despise might secretly be an alien is one that finds its way into most playground games, and beyond. (I have almost forgiven my now six-year-old for the time we visited the Cardiff exhibition a few years back, and he looked up from his buggy at the enormous Slitheen mounted on the podium, pointed, smiled in recognition and shouted “Daddy!”.)
And while we’re at it, let’s deal with a very large, Peter Kay-shaped elephant, because there’s a moment in Doctor Who Series 2 that seems tailor-made (although it frays at the edges) for the younger members of the audience, and I think it’s unfairly maligned as a result. Here’s the truth: whatever anyone says, Love & Monsters really is an episode for kids. You can say that it isn’t – you can talk about the darkness of a man losing both his mother and the memory of the occasion, or the in-jokes about fandom, or the fact that the death toll almost reaches Eric Saward proportions, but it’s clearly designed for that post-Sarah Jane Adventures audience.
Love & Monsters opens with a chase from Scooby Doo, for pity’s sake. Marc Warren monologues to camera in the manner of a Saturday morning children’s TV host (for fairly obvious reasons, he reminds me more than a little of Boogie Pete). And the Abzorbaloff is the token fat monster in the short story homework assignment of every kid under twelve – and designed by a nine-year-old to boot. This may be the reason why the love scenes feel off (although the lack of chemistry, which I suppose is part of the point, between Coduri and Warren doesn’t help). It’s light and relatable and it’s a great shame when Davies undoes much of his good work in the closing scene with a completely unnecessary oral sex gag.
But I just mentioned The Sarah Jane Adventures, and I do wonder how much of this is about expectation. Because my other half and I blanche at dreadful plot holes and ridiculous dialogue when they occur in Who, whereas when silly things happen in Sarah Jane we’re far more inclined to let it go (and you didn’t read that, you sang it). The fact that Doctor Who is billed as a family show – therefore, much like the BBC itself, both feted and cursed to be all things to all people – is the very thing that sometimes undermines its success. It has to be funny and scary and often succeeds in doing neither: it is lukewarm television, of the kind that I am inclined to spit out of my mouth. So perhaps that’s why the episodes that are clearly geared towards children work better, because they can be appreciated on a different (not better) level. It’s just a level that – irrespective of empathy – you may not be able to relate to fully unless you’re watching it in a house where you can’t hide behind the sofa, because the kids are already there.
There is a Doctor Who Facebook group I frequent where certain patterns of behaviour may be observed. There is person X, who publishes regular links to YouTube videos that are basically him rambling incoherently for twenty minutes at a time with a static image in the background about various missing episode rumours and speculation, and who bristles at all the negative feedback he gets. There is that tendency you get for the same tabloid headline to be posted in several different threads with the same conversations going on in each. There are the regular birthday listings – from people who had substantial roles to people who had a single line of dialogue. And there’s me – usually posting memes or videos or blog articles, some of which go down quite well, while others are completely ignored, but them’s the breaks, kid.
Then there’s Steve.
Steve isn’t his real name – although it may be, given that the name he uses is a Who-related moniker (which is something I’ve never liked on Facebook; it’s a personal preference but I find it difficult to engage with someone who calls themselves Melody Oswald, or Gillian LogansMummy Bear). Steve occasionally posts on different topics but his favourite activity is the Sad Quote. You know the sort of thing I mean. It’s a picture of Matt Smith on a swing. It’s Capaldi, alone in the TARDIS. Or it’s Tennant standing in the rain. These images are accompanied by the ‘sad’ moments from the show – the Doctor’s farewell after he wipes Donna’s memory, the moment he admits to Rose that death is inevitable, the bit where Amy Pond says “And this is how it ends.” I’m not even going to include them here; you can have this one instead.
(I’m amused by the fact that when I posted this, more than a few people didn’t get the joke.)
I’m not opposed by the fact that people want to wallow in misery over some of Doctor Who’s supposedly melancholy moments. This is watched by angst-ridden teenagers – some of whom, I’m convinced, genuinely believe that the Doctor is really out there somewhere, and that he’ll come and pick them up one day. It’s easy to scoff at this, but I’m not going to. When you’re young and the world overwhelms you, you need some semblance of escapist hope, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But really. It saturates certain portions of the internet. “This is why,” someone said when I brought it up, “I don’t use Tumblr.” And truth be told, I don’t use Tumblr either – I just periodically post stuff there to generate web traffic, as it’s a decent market. But when Tumblr bleeds across into Facebook, we have a problem, in that the epidemic of Doctor / Clara / Rose posts sets my teeth on edge. “Such an upsetting scene,” says someone who from their profile pic is old enough to know better. The ‘sad’ emoticon features in abundance. Cut to Matt Smith, crying on a sofa. Oh, the feels.
Anyway: I propose a solution. Because it struck me – having made a particular random association one morning when I was more bored than you can imagine – that one way to counteract the Sad Meme thing is to decontextualise them. In other words, miserable quotes presented in different scenarios.
And that’s what I’ve done. Enjoy.
The other morning, I spotted this story in The Independent, and for reasons that ought to be obvious it reminded me of David Tennant.
I mean, you can see why, can’t you? “Don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…”
Anyway: I posted this in several Facebook groups with the words ‘Americans and Doctor Who fans. They’re not so different’, where it received a generally favourable response, and sparked a couple of interesting conversations about Theresa May. Except in one group (which I will not name), where one user (whom I will also leave anonymous) got quite hot under the collar about the fact that he wanted to talk about Doctor Who, and that we shouldn’t be mentioning politics. When I checked back later, the post was gone: given that I’ve posted other stuff in a similar vein there before, I am assuming that it’s because he complained.
I do try and avoid talking about butthurt in this blog, but this bothered me immensely. It bothers me for the same reason that people complain about religious leaders holding political views (or, for that matter, political leaders holding religious ones) or celebrities espousing particular values. J.K. Rowling is currently mocking supposed fans on Twitter who have seen fit to hold her to account for her views on Trump, suggesting that they might have missed the point of the books. Both holding and expressing political views is a cornerstone of democracy, and you do not forfeit the right to express those views because of a position of privilege. There is a right and a wrong way to do it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s off the agenda. Nor does it mean that political conversation is irrelevant or unwanted. It’s entirely possible to enjoy Doctor Who without having any idea of the allegories therein (my children do it all the time) but this does not in itself mean that a political reading is invalid. Or, as an acquaintance pointed out on Twitter the other day, “subtext clearly goes over people’s heads, but in the case of Harry Potter and Doctor Who, it’s text. It’s explicit!”.
Anyway: here’s my open letter to the group, which explains things a little further.
I’m scratching my head a bit this afternoon.
Earlier I posted a photo of Barack Obama – making what I felt was a salient point about Americans who wanted the impossible, and comparing them to Doctor Who fans who also want the impossible. Eventually it was removed.
I am assuming this was because of political discourse: I had one person say “we don’t want this political crap”. That’s the sort of thing I hear quite a lot when I post things that touch on politics, mainstream or otherwise. The idea, supposedly, is that politics are off the agenda, although I can’t find anything within the guidelines to support this.
But here’s the thing: Doctor Who is a political show. It has been since the first Dalek raised its sink plunger back in 1964. It’s not a show that can be interpreted in that way if you want – it is a show that has been overtly political for a long time. It has a long line of left-leaning writers who held strong political views. It is a show that asks awkward questions and we love it precisely because of this. If you want to censor political discussion because it makes you uncomfortable, that’s fine. But you can’t stop there. You also need to ban discussion about The Daleks, The Mutants, The Curse of Peladon, The Green Death, The Silurians, The Sun Makers, The Happiness Patrol, World War Three, The Zygon Invasion / Inversion, Turn Left, The Christmas Invasion, and Kinda. Among others.
I don’t want to start an argument about Trump or Brexit or the alt right, and would dissuade any outright attempts to do so. I post these things without comment: they are there only to make people think, and I am hopeful that the bulk of group members would have the good sense to stop at the thinking part if they can feel an argument brewing. The role of art is to challenge and commentate as well as entertain – it’s been that way since ancient Greece – and this is occasionally done through the use of political satire. Doctor Who is no different in this respect from Yes Minister, or even Harry Potter. It’s not about possible interpretation, it’s about the actual subject matter.
So this is not a rant against the moderators, whose right to run the group the way they see fit I fully respect. But to those of you who complain (regularly) that “This is a Doctor Who group, can’t we leave politics out of it?”, I’d suggest that you’re not watching the show properly.
(Note: today’s video is at the bottom. It just made more sense that way.)
I’ve loved The Straight Story for years.
I love its warmth and simplicity. I love the message of family that overcomes the odds and the bitter swallowing of pride in the face of disaster. I love the ambiguities in the narrative: unresolved conversations and a backstory that’s never quite explained properly. I love the performance of Richard Farnsworth, who pours understated emotion into every line of dialogue. I love the way it’s shot – the rolling flatness of the Iowa cornfields giving way to the lush, hilly greenery of Mount Zion as Alvin Straight concludes his journey. I love the occasional flashes of ridiculous humour – the deer in the field, Dorothy asking “What’s the number for 911?” as she and Bud try and lift Alvin off the floor. Most of all I love the quietness of the whole thing – the slow crawl around the side of the house after the opening credits, the silence broken by a solitary thump, and the wordless final tableau as the two brothers sit in tearful contemplation on Lyle’s porch, and we’re treated to one final shot of that brilliant star-swept sky.
But…well, it’s not very Lynch, is it?
Look, there are no dwarves. There are no mysterious figures dressed in black. There are no scenes where the protagonist encounters a confused amnesiac at the side of the road, covered in someone else’s blood. There’s not even any jazz, for crying out loud. Instead you get two hours of soft focus shots of rural America. I’m actually OK with that. Our church house group watched it for a film study recently (my suggestion) and we had an animated discussion the following week about forgiveness, family and the nature of redemption. That scene where Alvin pulls up into the conveniently placed (and perfectly sized) barn at the side of the road just in time to avoid getting soaked? That’s one of the strongest examples I’ve seen of the work of God in the world as witnessed in a supposedly secular film.
Actually, The Straight Story is layered. There are theories that Alvin is dead, for example, by the time the film concludes: that the entire trip is a hallucinatory manifestation of a dying man’s penance, the priest he meets near the film’s conclusion granting him the last rites before his heart stops (symbolised by the John Deere’s motor failure a hundred yards from Lyle’s house). The tractor driver he encounters is the ferryman of the underworld, ushering him into a tranquil afterlife where he is reunited with his brother (who, of course, is also dead).
I’m not sure whether that’s really what Lynch meant to do, but he’s called The Straight Story “my most experimental movie”, so who knows? On the other hand everything Lynch does plays with the formula – allegory, unreliable narrators, questionable performances from David Bowie – and just about the only thing you can predict about him is that he’ll never do anything predictable. So maybe the experimental aspect is that it isn’t experimental at all. Theories about the fate of Rose’s children aside (“someone” was looking after them the night of the fire…could that someone have been Alvin himself?) perhaps this really is just a film about an old man who drives 240 miles on his lawnmower and meets some lovely people along the way.
Still. If you’ve seen Wild At Heart, it’s a bit jarring. There’s no death, no violence, nothing to upset anyone but the most stringent fundamentalists (The CAP Movie Ministry, the internet’s self-serving source of ‘Christian’ film reviews, docks it points for “terror of runaway lawn mower down a hill with the rider”). Even Twin Peaks, accessible by design, had its moments of darkness. The worst we have to contend with here is Alvin losing his hat, in just about the closest the movie gets to an action sequence.
There are exceptions. The Olsen twins feel like watered down versions of Lynch standards, the sort of scam artists you’d expect to see in a hick version of Lost Highway. The woman who can’t avoid the deer is downright anomalous – a scene that simply doesn’t fit the narrative, although there is a glimmer of recognition in Alvin’s wistful stare as she drives into the distance – almost as if he recognises a part of himself in that angry commuter. It’s the most Lynch-like scene in a film that is distinctly non-Lynch. There is nothing like this.
(I really wouldn’t worry. Nobody gets this scene. Nobody.)
Anyway: I’d been thinking for a while that The Straight Story really would benefit from a bit of a revamp. Because what better choice for a psychological thriller than a film that doesn’t contain a single sinister undertone? So I downloaded a few stings from horror trailers and mixed them in with a re-pitched Johnny Cash song and the Silent Hill soundtrack (that’s the original PlayStation version, not that godawful film they did a few years back). Nothing says ‘uncomfortable dissonance’ like a bit of Akira Yamaoka, particularly when it’s accompanied by images of Richard Farnsworth apparently losing his mind.
And I confess I’m quite pleased with the end result. There are no dwarves, but you can’t have everything.