Love & Monsters, by Niki Haringsma

For my Black Archive write-ups I like to give heavily documented notes of my previous comments on each story and novelisation. This works well for Old Who, but less so for New Who where there are fewer novelisations and I didn’t always write up the stories on first broadcast. So for Love & Monsters, I have only the following note from my Great Rewatch in 2013:

Love and Monsters [sic] is one of the most daring episodes of Who ever. Paul Cornell has written a spirited defence of the story as an episode about fandom, about the show Doctor Who rather than its central character, and he makes a good case. But the fact is that this had not been done before in New Who, and only really in passing in Old Who (most notably in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, though talk of fans of the Doctor goes back to The Savages). The episode is doubly daring in that it is the first of the Doctor-lite episodes that we now accept as a regular event in New Who. It is a bit bizarre, and it doesn’t fit with the previous run of the programme at all, but I think it’s OK for Who to be experimental occasionally and that it more or less works.

Watching it again, almost a decade later, we’ve had a lot more Who stories, both on TV and off, that were self-referential and reflexive; Paul Cornell’s The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who is a particular high point for me, but a lot of the Moffat era treated the Doctor as a figure of intergalactically mythic importance. And the Doctor-lite episodes also became the norm for the rest of the Davies era, including my favourite episode of the whole of New Who, Blink. So Love & Monsters now seems less disruptive and more trend-setting. But it’s still unusual.

It’s also striking in that it gets a tremendous performance from Camille Coduri as Jackie Tyler. At first the story mocks her obsession with Elton, but it rapidly shifts to heart-breaking as he betrays her. It is very good writing to take a character you have been laughing at, and turn them into an object of sympathy, without missing a beat. Davies actually tries to do this fairly often, but is not always as successful as he is here.

The world of Who is sometimes quite small. In 1988-89, I was the External Officer of what was then the Clare College Students Association in Cambridge. The Welfare Officer was a more arty chap, who moved in generally different circles to me. About five years later, I caught a very well-made short film on TV called That Sunday, starring Minnie Driver and Alan Cumming. I enjoyed the 16 minutes hugely – I’m a Minnie Driver fan anyway – and then my jaw dropped when the credits revealed that it had been both written and directed by my old comrade from the JCR Committee.

That was as nothing to my surprise when the credits rolled at the end of Love and Monsters, a dozen years after that, and I saw the director’s name. Dan Zeff has gone on to be a medium-to-big name in the UK film industry, but Love and Monsters is his only venture into the Whoniverse. (Incidentally the credits sequence on my DVD copy cuts off before the director’s name is displayed; I hope he’s getting compensated for that. I haven’t checked extensively but it seems to be the case for several other episodes from that season.)

So, let’s go forward another eight years, to one of the first Belgian conventions I attended, the 2014 Antwerp Convention, where guests included Colin Baker. As I made myself comfortable for his presentation, I got into conversation with the fan sitting beside me; we found that our tastes were aligned on a number of points regarding Doctor Who, and have stayed in touch ever since, though I think that is the only time we have actually met. I was delighted when he got the commission to write this book, drawing on his literary studies and fan-writing experience.

Here’s Niki’s own blogpost introduction to the book. He says up front that he loved the episode from the first time he saw it, but also recognises that this is not a universal view. Writing the book helped to work through the reasons for both love and hate, but especially love.

I found a wonderful community while writing this Black Archive. So many people came up to me to say how much they loved the episode. Sure, they could all see the awkwardness and camp, the disgusting rubber-suit monster, the fan characters becoming creepy stalkers, but they still adored the whole thing because it spoke to them. I made so many new friends who helped me with my investigation ‘n’ detection, and my book became a love letter to the comradery of Doctor Who fandom itself.

The first chapter, “I had to invent this rudimentary pulley system”, looks at the production reasons why the story was made in the first place, and why it had such a tight budget. It identifies “The Zeppo”, one of my favourite Buffy episodes, as partial inspiration.

The second chapter, “Spaceships and lasers and everything”, looks at how the viewer is estranged from the action by the way the story is told, invoking Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of oстраннение (often translated as “defamiliarisation”, but here as “estrangement”) and its implementation in the works of Bertold Brecht, especially The Threepenny Opera. I am not familiar with either, but I found this tremendously interesting. He also looks at the queerness of Elton’s relationship with Ursula after her transformation, and how the dynamics of fandom are portrayed in LINDA.

The third chapter’s title is “This isn’t, you know, my whole life”. Its second paragraph, and the quote it introduces, are:

It was decided that the comic pitch would make a good TV episode instead. The female protagonist became a male one. The reason for this change, according to Davies, was that there had already been too many female characters who fancied the Doctor. He explains:
‘Very soon after drawing this up, I looked at the amount of women in Series 2, especially those arguably in love with the 10th Doctor – Sarah Jane, Madame de Pompadour, not to mention Rose – and I decided that he’d broken too many female hearts! Time for a man! And so Elton was born.’3
3 Davies, ‘Second Sight’, p9.

The chapter looks briefly at Elton as a character, and the unreliability of his narration.

The fourth chapter, “Great big absorbing creature from Outer Space”, looks at the Absorbaloff, about the role of fans in creativity around Doctor Who (including the fact that Davies and Tennant were both long-term fans themselves), culminating in the idea for the monster coming from a nine-year-old fan, and finishes with more analysis of what the Absorbaloff really stands for.

The fifth chapter, “We’ve got the place to ourselves”, looks in depth at Jackie, but reminds us that there are two other mothers in the story as well – Elton’s own mother, whose death is linked with the Doctor, and Bridget, the LINDA member who is looking for her own daughter and is one of the first to be absorbed.

The sixth chapter, “Fetch a Spade!”, examines how the story hints at the darker side of the Doctor’s personality, and quotes Jon Arnold on Amy Pond, before going back to Shklovsky’s oстраннение and also Itō Gō’s concept of キャラ (kyara), instantly recognisable archetypes. as manifested in the characters of Love & Monsters and then meditating on the nature of fandom and the character of the Tenth Doctor.

The seventh chapter, “What he never won’t represent”, starts by asking the reader, “Am I a good fan?” But we are reassured. “If you’re reading this book, chances are you’re not satisfied with just taking Doctor Who at face value. You probably want to dive in a little, poke it, look at it from different angles and see what’s hidden inside. Luckily, there are endless ways to do so.” Haringsma invokes Barthes’ Death of the Author, and goes on to unpack Ursula as a paving slab and romantic partner, taking us in some surprising directions.

A brief conclusion invokes Brecht again, and leaves us with these thoughts:

Maybe as you’re reading this, a text-only Target Love & Monsters novelisation will have seen the light of day as well. And maybe Ursula’s transformation will be obviously queer this time around, or maybe the Abzorbaloff will remind us a bit more of some particularly obnoxious fan. Or maybe not. Because the world is changing and transforming too, making room for new lessons that can be taught, new fannish circles of new geeks hungry to seize the reins. Maybe this strange adventure that’s been absorbed into fandom’s consciousness can be re-imagined to tell another story altogether. But it will always have been this wonderful little side-step in the Doctor’s life. And as fans, we have the opportunity to look beyond the episode’s awkwardness and camp – and to celebrate Love & Monsters for all that it is. Because it’s so much darker…
…and so much madder…
…and, y’know, it’s got a blowjob joke and everything.

It’s always nice when someone I like writes a book I like about a subject I like. Niki is a friend, the book took me to some very interesting places that I had not really considered, and while I’m still not completely sure if I like Love & Monsters, I love Doctor Who. You can get the book here.