The one where we talk about the reception of Who stories and the flawed genius of series 2 …
Maybe it’s a statement of purpose to start the hopefully long and lasting process of writing on that site by tackling one of the most, if not the most, maligned episode of the revival. Trying to ape the Doctor by defending the oppressed? I don’t know. Still – it’s an interesting topic to bring up, be it only because it’s not one that’s discussed often. If you go around the internet or your entourage, asking what episodes of Who people really hate, you will probably see “Kill the Moon”, or “Love & Monsters”, or “In the Forest of the Night” pop just as often as “Fear Her”, if not more – but the thing is, those episodes at least provoked a reaction: they sparked debates, controversy. They made people slap the door with grand proclamations. They proved rant-inducing, propping internet weirdos and YouTube analysts to deconstruct their many failings with an impressive amount of exclamation marks and swear words. And their memory, be it only as traumatic experiences, thus lives on – they’ve become part of the wide tapestry of images that erupts in one’s brain when Who is mentioned, part of the irregularities and unpredictable storytelling wrong turns and cul-de-sacs that make the show such a strange, unique, compelling experience. Whereas “Fear Her” proved similar to its central character: a lonely, forgotten child nobody cares much about. The consensus is that it’s a mediocre episode – more than this, really, the epitome of Who mediocrity: a crime that’s in a way much worse than simply being a bad piece of storytelling. The French title for the episode translates to “London, 2012” – it’s a pretty telling choice, even if it wasn’t motivated by any sort of deep understanding of the episode and its problems: at first glance, the only thing the episode has is a setting. It occupies a spot, it occupies a position in space and time and in the series, and that’s about it. Who, after all, thrives on craziness and change and unpredictability – what could be more antithetic to that than the dull stillness of a suburban street in a future that looks like past?
The problem with stories like that, the forgotten little footnotes, is that their lack of exposure as far as the mainstream conversation goes (outside of, you know, “god, it’s shit, next!”) also means that they go unexamined, without much analysis or debate. Which is a shame, in a way, because the reality of an episode can be a lot more complex than the version the general narratives assimilates. So, “Fear Her” might be worth a look just for the intellectual exercise of probing unknown areas (sensual sentence, ain’t it?). But it’s not the only reason – another is a much later Who episode, called “In the Forest of the Night”. Both of them have enjoyed very different responses: I believe it’s fair to say that Frank Cottrel-Boyce’s first contribution to Who has slowly increased in reputation with time (thus following the prophecy of Steven Moffat, one of his most ardent defenders), and it benefited from a relatively positive, if still a bit colder than usual, critical reception anyway, at the time it aired. It does have a fair share of very vocal defenders, at the very least. But what’s the fundamental difference between those two stories? Both read as a radical tone reversal, changing the paradigm of the show for one single week, into something completely different, where the already pretty loose laws that structure the Who plotting completely disappear, leaving instead a dimension of pure childlike allegory. And if you disregard most of the criticisms made against “In the Forest of the Night” as being the product of a too common conflation of childish and childlike, or simply the gut reaction of a strangely, aggressively conservative fringe of the community that is ready to admit that Who can and should be anything and tackle any genre as a result of its fundamental nature, but that sees the simple allegory and the fairytale as “pandering for children”, or a “dumbing down of the show” – which I very much do … Well, you’ve got to ask yourself whether or not “Fear Her” is a fundamentally flawed piece of fiction or just one that provoked more-or-less warranted dislike – a dislike that then became, through the sometimes incomprehensible process through which the facts of the canon are established, “objective” truth.
Spoiler alert: after a rewatch, “Fear Her” proves itself to be a surprisingly solid piece of television. It does have flaws, that’s unquestionable. Big ones, too. The acting is a considerable downside: much has been said about Abisola Agbaje’s portrayal of Chloe Webber, and that “much” has been very uncharitable. Not without basis, in all honesty – it is a quite a tricky part, that demands that the actress showcases both sympathy-gathering vulnerability and chilling, awesome power, and the performer is not really up to the task. Tennant’s performance seems to go uncriticized, though, and that’s surprising, because a strong case could be made for it being the worst of his era. I’ve always found the quirky, swashbuckling adventurer that Ten is in his first series much more compelling than the later iterations of the character, but the quirks are literally eating the character alive here – they’re too broad, and Tennant doesn’t ground them as he usually does, he does not link them with the emotional core of his character, which does give us some pretty cringe-inducing moments of comedy. The whole Olympics plotline doesn’t bring much to the table – considering the strengths of the episode lie in the intimate, the subtle relationships that tie a family together, linking the resolution of the piece to a broad celebration of abstractly-defined ideals seems like a poor move, that feel less “simple and effective”, and more “broad and unsatisfying”; it also ignores a lot of the less pleasant aspects of that kind of sport events, which admittedly were a much more marginal part of the mainstream discourse in 2006. And yes, the episode as a whole has had a troubled history, supposed to be penned by Stephen Fry before becoming this sort of modest budget-saver that feels inconsequential and unimportant in all the wrong ways.
But I’m not sure of what issue should be taken with the scribble monsters and the children drawings and the alien flowers. Let’s hear it from the man himself, Matthew Graham (quoted from a 2011 interview with Den of Geek):
“What we had set out to do right from the start with “Fear Her” was tell a story that was aimed very much at children. For children, not really for adults, not really for the older Doctor Who fans. It was aimed at the kids, because “Army of Ghosts” and “Doomsday” were coming up, and they were going to be very big, very dark and very traumatic. And Russell wanted a playground adventure. He said, “How old is your son?” At the time he was seven. So, he said, “Write this one for your son.” That’s what I did. I did something that was in primary colors, that had a scary voice in the cupboard. I always say that other people got Cybermen, I got two blokes with a red lamp rattling a wardrobe!
But, to be honest with you, I didn’t go online particularly and read the responses. From my side of it, the response was brilliant. I had loads of kids write to me and say how much they enjoyed it. And it was only later I realized that the older fans had reacted badly to it. So, I went, “Well, it’s a shame that they have, but it wasn’t meant for them.”
That quote, I think, does create an even stronger link between “Fear Her” and “In the Forest of the Night” – they’re episodes that are disliked because of the belief that all Who stories can be judged according to the same set of criteria: not because they’re badly told, but because they “shouldn’t” be told in the first place, according to the doxa. Now, the idea that the show “should” be this or that is not inherently wrong or toxic. After all, Who, in all its vastness, is a show that is impossible to narrow down, and you’re going to need at some point to craft your own vision of it, your own subjective take on the medium, if you’re ever going to apprehend it and make it yours – and the stories that don’t fit this vision will necessarily be met more coldly than other. Subjectivity isn’t wrong, and I don’t think “Fear Her” is the sort of episode anyone would want as the basis of the show anyway. But the reception of stories like “Fear Her” or “In the Forest of the Night” does tend to prove two things – one, that these subjective visions unfortunately tend to coalesce in a blind whole, or an opaque wall – and two, that a change of perspective is sometimes required, that you should allow yourself to be thrown off balance by quirky, off-key, wonky stories and sometimes just try to judge a them on this principle: does it actually does what it wants to do, regardless of my enjoyment of it? Does it succeed in its goals?
“Fear Her”, I would argue, largely succeeds.
At its core, it’s a story of closed spaces. It already takes place in a microcosm, a single, isolated street – whose integrity appears threatened by a mysterious force coming from the outside. For the viewer, a new monster of the week, a new alien threat; for the frightened inhabitants, the Doctor, or maybe the council workers, who knows, just some dark undefined stranger. But the problem comes from within, and the whole episode is about reducing the scope of the issue: it’s nested dolls plotting. A closed space within a closed space – a street that contains a house that contains a bedroom that contains a cupboard where the actual “monster” figuratively dwells. It’s a nice subversion of what your ordinary humdrum alien invasion plot would be – and I do think subversion there is, if only because of the title “Fear Her”. It feels like a cheeky homage to the science-fiction of the fifties, movies that, beyond their camp allure, were often pretty ideology-heavy pieces intended to combine entertainment and a message about the dangers of the world – be it the atom or simply the things that come from” beyond”, especially if that beyond is Russian-connoted –; all these movies that, in their titles, besides using the language of dread and horror, often seemed to create a target, a fundamentally alien force whose complicated appeal, and often irrevocable defeat, constituted in a way almost a marketing argument: “It, the Terror from Beyond Space”, “It Conquered the World”, “It Came From Outer Space”, “Them!”, “From Hell It Came”. The “it”, the undetermined, is an object – of fear, of disgust –; a strawman made of bits of ideology and of a distilled zeitgeist. What Graham does here is promising us an episode call “Fear It”, to, at the end of the day, write “Fear Her”. Even when the menace is identified as coming from within the street, from this lonely little girl, there’s still a suspicion: maybe she’s possessed by some alien? And that hypothesis is given weight by the way the plot juggles different inspirations, drawing strength from the viewer’s previous experiences with fantastic and science-fiction: mostly, there’s definitely more than a bit of “The Exorcist” at play here, with a little girl possessed, a single mother having to cope, and the center of the evil being a room in the upper floors of the house; hell, one could even make a thematic deep-dive and go as far as saying that the Doctor throwing the Vulcan salute at Chloe Webber is a subtle way to reference the 1250 episodes of Star Trek that focus on the possession of crewmember X. But, at the end of the day, it’s not a story of possession, but of symbiosis – two lonely children trying to cope in a way that, unbeknownst to them, proves destructive. There’s quite a bit of potency in the core metaphor of the episode: the Isolus is depicted as a fundamentally child-like creature that needs fun and company and joy during a long dark voyage in the void (insert interpretation about teenage angst here), that ends up trapped far and away from his siblings; just like Chloe is isolated from the rest of the world, stuck into this dark bedroom while the other children are out, playing in the sun. Euros Lyn, in the director’s chair, does some pretty solid work on the atmosphere, and emphasizes that dichotomy especially well in the pre-credits scene, contrasting the outside world with the self-inflicted prison of solitude Chloe is trapped into.
The use of the drawings is a pretty neat touch, as well – not because they’re well-done or visually interesting (actually, they’re really ugly, and I wish the prop department had made them a bit more compelling), but because it does show a pretty acute look on the coping mechanisms we use when faced with dire circumstances. It reminds me a lot of the analysis made by French psychiatrist Serge Tisseron, in his works on video games and video games addiction – compulsive behavioral patterns, especially in a child or a teenager, can’t really be classified as an addiction (which would generally require the consummation of a substance, or at least exhibit a very specific set of symptoms), but are generally a way of cutting themselves from an hostile, frightening world, allowing them to take shelter into a universe of their own making, a universe which they control. In a video game, the world reacts to your input, changes around your choices – and here, the drawings serve the exact same function. But at the same time, this is not a good solution – it’s a palliative, it doesn’t solve any problems, and indeed, the horror and unpleasantness, embodied by the absent father, are still here, waiting to be unleashed, a thin wooden door away from the child’s bed.
The crisis is finally resolved when the barriers, the boundaries are broken, when mother and daughter reunite and work together – when the story starts going outwards, not inwards. One might argue, and one wouldn’t be wrong, that keeping it to a strictly familial setting would have been a good plan – while extending the scope to the wide, national event that are the Olympic Games makes sense in the rhythm and move of the script, it’s a bit … A bit silly, really – I’m not against the idea of showcasing an entire country as a big happy family all gathered in a collective event (although, one could see some pretty unpleasant nationalist undertones in that), but it somewhat dilutes the potency of the core plot.
The Doctor and Rose’s part in this plot is specifically to stop being the Doctor and Rose – they start as investigators, “deducing” away, inquiring, but when they actually get to the house, they must stop assuming this part and simply becoming helpers, facilitators in a wider, more complicated transaction. Which is interesting, because that is textbook Sarah Jane Adventures right here. I’ve always been of the opinion that series 2, as a whole, was a bit of a giant backdoor pilot for that show – it reintroduces Sarah Jane in the third episode, of course, but, more generally, there is a strong connection between the two in terms of tone and feel, a sort of careless, happy-go-lucky energy that may be messy in places, but certainly makes it more pleasant to watch that the rest of the oh so very flawed Tennant era. But really, this episode does what SJA does at its best: a relatively nuanced and positive look on alien life, and a team of heroes acting as intermediaries in a larger conflict. It has a lot of common ground with something like “The Mad Woman in the Attic” – although, in my not so humble opinion, it’s not nearly as good, because Joseph Lidster is a Who god. That might be the best criticism to make of “Fear Her”, really: that it rather belongs to CBBC, or SJA – and not the flagship show; maybe simply because it does not justify its format and tone the way the more experimental “In the Forest of the Night” does. But at the same time, if they needed to test the “Who-for-children” waters first and experiment with that kind of tone and storytelling format, I would say one episode slot is an acceptable sacrifice for five series of SJA. That was a really good show.
Since we’re talking about series 2, we might as well ask ourselves some questions about the spot “Fear Her” occupies within it. Surprisingly interesting topic, that is.
Russell T. Davies has earned a reputation as a pretty messy writer. Well, maybe that’s excessive – but certainly one that uses a sort of kitchen-sink approach to writing: he throws a lot of varied, disparate elements in a script and somehow, through a weird alchemical process no one quite really understands (seriously, imitating RTD’s writing is nearly-impossible), it ends up forming, most of the time, a very coherent whole. I wouldn’t say that he doesn’t deserve that label, but he certainly showcased, during his first two series as showrunner, some absolutely astonishing talent for plot construction – not just the building of an overall arc (let’s be honest, I wouldn’t call that his greatest strength), but rather the way a series is formed, and evolves, and becomes a complex piece of fiction where the episodes carry character and thematic dynamics forwards and interact in compelling ways. While series 1 is definitely recognized as an extremely well-structured piece of fiction, that’s not so much the case with the sophomore one – and that lack of recognition is quite a shame, because series 2 is actually, on the whole, a very well-crafted run of episodes; the product of a mostly successful experiment to combine the rigid storytelling of the 2005 run with a more fun, adventurous and dynamic tone, with some experimental flourishes here and there. At the same time – it’s not really hard to understand why it’s not held in high regard. The culprit is called “Army of Ghosts/Doomsday”. Oh, I’ll be getting to that one. I have thoughts. Suffice to say, that episode marks a turning point of sorts in Davies’ writing, where he started to shift from relatively small-scale stories to an ever-increasing narrative expansion that didn’t exactly benefit the overall structure of his era. The 2006 series does an impressive amount of set-up, but the finale doesn’t do that much pay-off. “Fear Her”, in that context, does an interesting job in setting Rose as much more an equal to the Doctor than ever before – it’s a perfect segue into Jackie Tyler’s wonderful line about Rose destined to become this alien traveler, which is still the best thing Davies wrote –; and even if it rings a bit hollow in the end, because the circumstances that separate Ten and Rose are due almost entirely to chance, it’s still solid scriptwriting. Of particular note is the way the episode almost feels like a sequel/remake of “The Idiot’s Lantern”, which came earlier in the series – a common criticism is that the two episodes are two, way too similar takes on the same plot, but it’s not entirely fair. First thing first, while the canvas is roughly the same – a family must cope with an abusive father and an alien threat on the wake of a national event –, there’s a lovely, low-key sense of evolution from the earlier story. The scipt is political, in a sense, in the way it portrays the changes between 1952 and 2012 (note that it’s set specifically 60 years after): the avatar of toxic masculinity is not an active patriarch that exerts his dominance over the family, but a dead man, a shadow that weights on one’s life, a creature of abstract words that communicate through pictures – while it’s hard to give the episode credit for anticipating the rise of the new brands of alt-right masculinism, there’s certainly a good, incisive take here, on the way misogyny and abuse have slipped out of their position of mainstream, widely accepted strength to seek retreat in those enclosed spaces that constitute “Fear Her”’s narrative heart, to become an invisible at first, but incredibly weighty and powerful net that invades everyday life and everyday places. The world in 2012 is a world where women have a bigger part (no son, but a daughter instead), where persons of color have a bigger part, and where the people of England are not gathered around a self-centered, nationalistic coronation, but international games – sure, it’s naïve, and it’s a very 2006 idea of 2012, but still, it has more than a little charm, and it plays into Who’s idealism nicely, especially when you take into account that this series opened with “New Earth”: in a way, “Fear Her” indicates that the future utopias are already on the way, and that the human/alien contacts that will pave the way to that future have already started. There’s beauty in that, in the promise of a radiant future – one that is fragile and constantly threatened by the flaws of human nature, but that keeps on shining anyway; it’s a shame the last two series of Tennant’s era, alongside Torchwood, will adopt a darker, much more cynical, and much less interesting perspective.
But it’s not just the world that has evolved over the course of the series – Ten and Rose, our sort-of-heroes, did too. Alasdair Wilkins, in his review of the episode for the A.V. Club, talked at length about this story being “Rose’s graduation from the companion school”; and goes as far as saying that, if this whole narrative was taking place during the Classic era, it would probably have marked her departure. It’s spot-on, really – one can go at length about how the very last scene is hamfisted, forced foreshadowing, but it misses the point: Rose was, at the time, a genuinely unique character in Who history, one that was given an amount of agency and narrative power then unparalleled. And in “Fear Her”, she mostly completes her transformation into a complete equal of the Doctor – well, she does and she doesn’t, really, but the topic of the problems at the heart of her relationship with Ten are best left for another time. Teasing a reaction to that never-seen-before state of affairs is a pretty sound writing move, all things considered – once again, it’s mostly the finale that is to blame here, for the way it awkwardly resolves Rose’s arc. Nevertheless, the way she is empowered throughout the episode is a highlight, and the fact the process relies, once again, on an extensive use of in-series continuity and echoes is the cherry on top of the cake. In “New Earth”, she was held at Cassandra’s mercy, possessed and deprived of her autonomy and agency; now, at the end of the series, she saves the day, specifically by saving another woman from “possession”. The episode also plays like an almost beat-for-beat reversal of “The Idiot’s Lantern”, as far as the lead couple is concerned: this time, it’s the Doctor who falls prey to the supernatural phenomenon, and it’s Rose who manages to resolve the issues. Both those episodes are also fascinating in the way they indirectly put Rose in confrontation with her familial past: she tries to reconstruct and preserve familial units whose integrity is put at risk by a problematic father, just like hers was. Of course Pete’s biggest sin is mostly to have died, whereas the other father figures here are pretty big assholes – maybe you could argue that those bad fathers are sort of a psychological representation of a missing parent that can only be seen as an angel (cf. “Father’s Day”) or a demon. Really, the string of absent or bad parents is not limited to these two episodes, as far as series 2 is concerned: one could talk about the dead captain of the “Impossible Planet/Satan Pit” crew, Elton’s departed mother in “Love & Monsters”, or the lunatic Lumic, “father” of the Cybermen, in the Tom MacRae two-parter. But those episodes are the ones that actually present Rose’s efforts as a sort of exorcism of her own past demons. And while her efforts in “The Idiot’s Lantern” were questionable – I don’t think the episode goes quite as far as framing parental abuse as something that must be pardoned, but it’s still a bit shady, even if it’s very much in-character for Rose –, the process mostly works here. Chloe and her mother find peace, just like Rose’s family will in the very next episodes – she doesn’t just get the chance to save the day (with an axe, and an absolutely hilarious and wonderful facial expression that doesn’t get nearly enough love), and prove herself worthy of a Doctor-like rank, but she also mostly solves, if only in a symbolical fashion, the central conflict that “grounded” her, and made her so human. Which is good, because it’s an opportunity for growth, but also problematic, because it removes her even further from humanity. “Fear Her” show that closed spaces can open, and that limits and barriers can be overcome and destroyed – the series at large doesn’t quite answer the more fundamental question: should you? How wide can you open yourself to the world? How far can you go?
The thing is, “Fear Her”’s reputation as a hallmark of mediocrity might just come from the fact it’s too good an episode for series 2. Which is not intended as a criticism against the rest of said series, really: most of the series 2 episodes are too good for series 2. They carry so many themes, and so many questions, and at the end of the day, you don’t get that many answers – it’s a frustrating run. But still, its frustrating sides, and its many, many flaws imperfections doesn’t negate its genuine cleverness. I’ll take “optimistic, rigorous and flawed” Davies, over “nihilistic poseur” Davies any day.
A bit of a sanctimonious conclusion, that was. Sorry ‘bout that. Let’s rather end on some Tom Waits. I like Tom Waits.
“Hey lil’ girl, fly away home, your house is on fire, your children are alone …”
Thanks to David Nirved, the world’s biggest fan of that episode, for forcing me to write this at gunpoint (also, for feedback and for the Kel GIF).