I guess I should get this out there up front: I’m not a real Doctor Who fan.
Now, I don’t mean to prompt a gatekeeping debate about what constitutes a “real Doctor Who fan,” and I’m not trying to downplay my feelings out of some sort of embarrassment. (“Me? A Doctor Who fan? Don’t be ridiculous; Doctor Who fans are nerds.”) But the honest truth is, I really just like the Fourth Doctor episodes they used to play on PBS and that were available on VHS at the local Hollywood Video, and that’s about the limit of my engagement. It’s a show I nibble from without feeling a need to dive into the wider franchise, and it’s not something I particularly feel constitutes a significant part of my identity. Doctor Who 1974-1981 (a.k.a, The Charming Adventures of the Eccentric Mr. Tom Baker) is “a show I like to watch, sometimes.”
I have watched some of the modern series, though, out of curiosity—maybe six or seven episodes. I’m not sure it’s really for me. I don’t mean to claim that the original series was somehow objectively better; it’s just an entirely different show from the old show (or, at least, the relatively small subset of the old show that I know about) with very different storytelling goals. I don’t think it necessarily follows that liking the original Star Trek means you will or should like Deep Space Nine (or vice versa), either.
Now that I have so thoroughly detailed my benign disinterest in the new series, why did I eagerly purchase “Love & Monsters” (S02E10, 2006) sight-unseen on iTunes about 12 years ago, and why am I writing about it today?
I got into the Electric Light Orchestra in high school. I mean, lots of people got into ELO in high school, but generally speaking, they did so in the mid-to-late ’70s. I started really diving into their catalog around the year 2000, and here’s what you have to understand about ELO around the turn of the century: they were uncool as hell, and not just among teenagers my own age. Serious rock critics generally did not appreciate melodramatic, meticulously arranged pop music at that specific point in history. ELO wasn’t raw and it wasn’t “real.” Sometimes there were disco elements! Frontman Jeff Lynne was not a tortured rock star with the soul of a poet and a fascinating drug addiction; he was and is a big dork with a goofy hairdo and enormous sunglasses and an ear for good hooks. (This is, in fact, part of what we ELO fans love about him.)
And so, when I found out circa 2008 there was an episode of Doctor Who in which the music of ELO plays a prominent role, I naturally wanted to check it out.
What I didn’t expect is that it would be an atypical episode of Doctor Who, one that broke the format, something that was immediately obvious to even the sporadic viewer. “Love & Monsters” was designed to feature series leads David Tennant and Billie Piper as little as possible to free them up to work on other episodes, so writer Russell T. Davies created a story around a new character, one who existed on the outside of the world of the show, looking in. Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “The Zeppo” and Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Lower Decks” were influences on this episode that I was familiar with going into it.
I also didn’t expect that I would be watching what is apparently one of the most controversial episodes of the new show. Format-breaking episodes on other shows are often popular with fans because they inject a fresh perspective and by their very nature stand apart from their surrounding episodes; “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is not only the best episode of The X-Files, but I would argue it is the best possible episode of The X-Files. But “Love & Monsters”? There are, I gather, Doctor Who fans who hate “Love & Monsters” with a fiery passion.
There are lots of things I think don’t quite work about “Love & Monsters” just as a piece of television. I actually think the episode doesn’t commit enough to its premise and should have featured even less of the Doctor. (In fact, wouldn’t it have been more satisfying if its ordinary-folks protagonists were shown to be so inspired by the Doctor that they were able to save the day themselves, without even needing him to show up at all?) The tone is all over the place, and not always in a way that creates an interesting tension; most of the main characters die in a callously humorous way that seems at odds with the episode’s attempts to make you connect to them as people. It’s kind of a comedy episode, but a lot of the comedy is a little cutsey and forced (although I don’t mind the Scooby Doo hallway gag, personally). I realize that the episode’s much-maligned monster was based on a kid’s contest-winning design, but that design probably did not include a caption that said, “Play him like Fat Bastard in Austin Powers.”
But, of course, the real reason that “Love & Monsters” gets Doctor Who fans so riled up is that it is inescapably and very plainly a story about Doctor Who fans. Which, again: I am supposedly not a Doctor Who fan, so this should be no skin off my nose. Yet there is something I find grating about the way it seems to portray what Doctor Who means to fans. Even when the portrayal isn’t actively unflattering—even when it means to be celebratory—it often feels condescending.
Let’s get into it.
Elton (Marc Warren) is a chirpy everyman, dopey but affable. I find every word he says utterly mortifying, whether it’s a strained justification for a stupid acronym, a misquotation of Stephen King, or the phrase “proper mates.” He’s clearly a nerd–you can tell this because it’s 2006 and, like me, he tells everybody about how much he loves ELO.
Elton name-checks being present at alien invasions and events from previous episodes (which I have not seen, but it’s general enough that I get the basic idea) and is interested in this mysterious guy who looks like David Tennant that always seems to be present at these things. Via the internet, he learns of and connects with a small group of other people who are similarly interested in this guy they call “the Doctor.” This group is eventually called LINDA for reasons I cannot even bring myself to get into.
Gradually, their meetings become less focused on the mysteries of the Doctor. They provide emotional support for a woman whose teenage daughter has run away. They encourage an artist in their midst, as well as a budding novelist. They form a band and play ELO songs. The mom and the novelist look like they’re starting a romantic relationship. So do Elton and a woman named Ursula.
So, obviously—and it’s obvious by design and not something Russell T. Davies is trying to sneak past you or anything—this is an allegory for what Doctor Who fandom can do. Elton is, only semi-metaphorically, a Doctor Who fan. He meets other Doctor Who fans online and discusses Doctor Who with them. Eventually the group expands their horizons and enriches each other’s lives.
(I sometimes joke that The Avocado is a secret society like the Stonecutters from The Simpsons, but it’s probably more apt to say that we are a LINDA that has evolved beyond our initial shared interest in a mysterious wanderer that some call “Sean O’Neal.”)
But because this is an allegory, and even simple allegory asks you to analyze it to tease the meaning out, it’s hard to stop asking yourself what this is supposed to mean once you’ve started. Doctor Who fans can build communities that are about more than just Doctor Who. But is this episode saying they should be doing this?
Maybe it is, because the sinister Victor Kennedy joins LINDA and takes over their meetings, insisting they focus exclusively on the Doctor and belittling their other interests. Under our razor-thin layer of metaphor, Kennedy has joined this Doctor Who fan club and petulantly stamps his feet when people want to talk about anything other than Doctor Who. He ruins everyone’s good time.
So is Russell T. Davies saying you are supposed to outgrow Doctor Who eventually? It’s cool to start a Doctor Who fan club, but the actual purpose of fan clubs is to find a basis for a community and then graduate from talking about a science fiction show to making your own art and starting families? Is Victor Kennedy a “bad” Doctor Who fan because all he ever wants to do is pedantically talk about Doctor Who?
But then you can’t really see Victor Kennedy as just symbolizing the regressive fan because it turns out he’s not really a fan at all; he is an alien monster who wants to kill the Doctor. So bad fans are actually…outsiders who just co-opt the fandom…to…destroy it?
I mean, on the one hand, you can say this is overthinking it, but that’s the danger of working in allegory, particularly in very broad allegory. Where does the allegory end? Because as soon as Victor Kennedy transforms into the Abzorbaloff, it seems like maybe Davies means to flip a switch and suddenly this is “just a ‘regular’ Doctor Who episode” and nothing means anything beyond what is on the screen. Meanwhile, I am still making furious notes like, “Paving stones: SYMBOLIC???”
Really, the episode is so complicated because it’s so simple. It opens a huge can of worms about what it means to be a fan of something and what the relationship between the thing and the fan is, and that is such a volatile and, increasingly, politicized thing. Russell T. Davies himself, I understand, is a lifelong fan of Doctor Who, but having become a creator of Doctor Who, he is also invested with authority, which makes it somewhat uncomfortable for him to define the fandom he now “outranks.”
It’s hard to even write it off as “an affectionate tribute to the fans” because look at what the episode seems to suggest it means to be a Doctor Who fan: the members of LINDA are fundamentally sad, lonely, untalented people. At the same time, they are keepers of secret knowledge; because they know about the Doctor, they are more aware of their world, which, we are told, is “stranger” and “madder” and “better.” But this knowledge also quite literally destroys them. The message, whether it’s intentional or not, is, “As a Doctor Who fan, your life has little meaning without the show, and yet this show is also a destructive influence on you.”
Is “Love & Monsters” supposed to be a commercial for why I should be glad I’m not a Doctor Who fan?
Then again, maybe I’m imagining offense that is not there. Maybe it’s me being on the outside that makes me so hyper-aware of everything this show may or may not be trying to say, me trying to understand intellectually what the episode is trying to communicate emotionally.
So let me tell you what I do understand, what I do connect with emotionally in this episode.
There’s a throughline in this episode that the Doctor and Elton have some connection going back to his childhood, one that Elton doesn’t seem to understand or remember. By the episode’s end, the Doctor recalls where he recognizes Elton from and tells him what he was doing in Elton’s house as a child: trying, and failing, to save his mother from a shadow monster of some sort. Elton suddenly remembers that the night he met the Doctor was the night his mother died.
This triggers a flood of memories of his mother, and these memories are not connected with Doctor Who at all. Instead, they are connected with something I really care about. Playing over the montage is the end of Side 3 of ELO’s Out of the Blue album, technically the end of “Mr. Blue Sky” but really a coda to a suite of thematically connected songs called “Concerto for a Rainy Day.”
I had heard this bit of music—some swelling strings, some burbling piano, a vocoder saying “please…turn…me…o…ver“—countless times by 2008. I have always appreciated this coda musically, but it never really made me feel anything.
The montage might not have made me feel anything on its own, either. But pairing it with that music, making that connection? It’s haunting. I am legitimately moved to tears every time. I am blinking very heavily sitting here typing this out, just thinking about it. Maybe I should call my mom tonight?
So whatever I feel about the rest of the episode, this is what I personally take away from it. I don’t have a strong emotional connection to Doctor Who, but I do to ELO. We are all fans of something, and whatever that thing is, it creates emotional resonances and connections to our real life, and our real life forms emotional resonance and connections to art.
For the rest of my life, I will probably never hear that bit of Out of the Blue again without thinking, “This is the sound of remembering your mother after she’s gone.”
It really didn’t connect up with anything else I wanted to say in this essay, but the scene where Elton tries to “infiltrate” Rose’s mother’s life is actually very well done. The funny twist of her going out of her way to meet him, his initial callousness, genuinely bonding with her and wanting to be friends, and then her feeling of betrayal. It’s a wonderful journey, and both actors are good and believable. I just wish he didn’t say “proper mates” in a way that makes me wish to expire.
Conversely, the way David Tennant says “Fetch a spade!” makes me laugh and I’m not sure why.
I am completely unfamiliar with Peter Kay and so have no frame of reference for him outside of “not a bad human villain, gets a little campy when he turns into a monster.”
The “love life” joke is bad and Russell T. Davies should feel bad.