One of the earliest things we learned about the Doctor upon his 21st century return was that he “doesn’t do domestic.” But oddly enough, by the time he got to his second series, he was breaking his own rule fairly regularly. In both The Idiot’s Lantern and Fear Her, we find him and Rose (David Tennant and Billie Piper, at their most smug and loved up) making home visits and confronting the results of family violence.
When talking about The Idiot’s Lantern, I was concerned that this is too raw subject matter for the show to deal with. Fear Her goes there again, but this time uses it as the thematic base of the story. By which I mean, The Idiot’s Lantern featured a family fractured by an abusive father, but that plot element was not connected to its main plot about a monster sucking people into TVs.
Fear Her features a similarly fractured family and a child dealing with the aftermath of abuse from her father. But here, the plot about the alien Isolus, isolated from its own kind, scared of being alone, recovering from a traumatic event and needing love to heal itself, mirrors the situation of its host, Chloe (Abisola Agbaje).
Tales of spooky children abound in 21st century Who and in sci-fi and horror more generally. But this story is clearly riffing off Chocky, the terrifically unsettling novella by John Wyndham, turned into an equally unsettling TV series by 70s Doctor Who script editor Anthony Read. In both of those, a young boy, Matthew, has his mind infiltrated by an alien intelligence, wanting to form an emotional link. (Interestingly, in the TV version, the boy’s artistic abilities massively improve, and drawing becomes his means of self expression). As in Fear Her, the boy’s parents are worried and bewildered.
In Chocky, the threat to Matthew is external; government forces want to capture and harness the alien within him. The threat to Chloe is created from within her – a simulacrum of her vengeful Dad, hiding in the closet within her bedroom. Much of Fear Her is set in that bedroom, and that’s significant because bedrooms are places of sanctuary and safety, where imagined worlds are created. That’s the Isolus’s power too. It creates worlds to retreat into and play, but Chloe’s world is full of fear and guilt and that’s what creates her monster, which starts off as purely internalised but threatens to emerge into the real world.
As twee as it may seem, the ending where mother and daughter sing Kookaburra sits in the Old Gum Tree to neutralise the emerging father demon works within the theme of families recovering from trauma. The solution to Chloe’s problem is for Mum Trish (Nina Sosanya) to acknowledge and engage with her daughter’s pain. As with the Isolus, Chloe’s reunited with her family. Doctor Who fans don’t always like it when the series wades into the waters of family drama. But at least in Fear Her, plot, theme, genre and character sync satisfyingly together.
Just how, though, do the Olympics fit into this? I fear the answer is, not well. This is a story which could easily have been set in 2006 rather than 2012 and if there’s a thematic link between the Olympics and Chloe’s story, it’s pretty thin. There’s a half-hearted attempt in Trish’s dialogue to link it the theme of togetherness, when she says to Chloe, “tonight they’ll light the Olympic Flame in the stadium, and the whole world will be looking at our city. I mean, doesn’t that make you feel part of something?” But other than that, it seems an arbitrary creative choice.
The Olympics bring two unwelcome elements to proceedings; sentimentality and a lack of believability. The lack of believability is inherent. Setting any story in the near future means the audience is immediately doubting its accuracy because we know that everything about the setting is guessed at. But setting it during a future Olympics is even riskier, because they are events with which viewers are familiar.
We know these are enormous, carefully stage managed, yet disruptive events. We know they command massive crowds, not modest gaggles of streetside onlookers. We know the day of the opening ceremony isn’t spent fixing potholes in suburban cul de sacs. We know random strangers aren’t allowed to pick up the Olympic torch, let alone light the Olympic cauldron. All these missteps make Fear Her’s best future guesses look a little naive.
Then there’s the sentimentality, an element the show indulges in only occasionally, usually for anniversaries, regenerations and Christmas specials. The lighting of the Olympic torch is one of those big, showcase moments that Russell T Davies’s version of the show majored in. But it’s also cloyingly saccharine. The aforementioned Kookaburra song moment might work in terms of the plot, but that too is a little more schmaltzy than the series normally goes for. And everyone lives, again.
But I suspect that for a mainstream , non production code memorising section of the audience, this isn’t so much of a problem. On the commentary, for instance, Exec Producer Julie Gardner talks about how moving she found this episode. And as a parent, I find it difficult not to empathise with a story about wanting to help a troubled child, but being afraid and powerless to do so.
But some stories’ reputations are hard to ignore and Fear Her is, as polls go, this century’s The Twin Dilemma. Why it’s so disliked, I’m not sure, but having just come from The Web of Fear, which placed robot yeti in the London Underground in a strange mix of action adventure and mythic mysticism, I’m reminded that although juxtaposition is what Doctor Who does, it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Fear Her is just as unlikely combination of elements as those that make up Web, and is in many ways a more sophisticated story. But perhaps they don’t coalesce quite as well to tell a story that compels and thrills in the way we expect the series to.
The other thing is, of course, its concentration on a story sticking close to home, with parents and children and bedrooms and living rooms and so on. There’s been plenty of these stories since 2005, but none of them bother the top levels of the “best of” polls much. Seems like we’re with the Doctor on this one; we don’t like it when he does domestic.
LINK TO The Web of Fear: Juxtaposition. Possession. Plus they both have “fear” in their titles!
NEXT TIME: Reptilian. Biped. A completely alien species! Report forthwith to a date with Doctor Who and The Silurians.