People get Love and Monsters wrong. They always have, right from the start.
Yes, granted, it had a villain invented by a nine year-old (William Grantham), who won a Blue Peter competition. Yes it had high slapstick which to some extent mocked the ‘running down corridors’ reputation of the show. And yes, the Abzorbaloff looks dreadfully silly and is under-written. But if that’s all you remember about Love and Monsters, it’s time to take another look.
First of all, this was the first of the Doctor-lite stories, and while it never achieved the same punch-in-the-face impact or gravitas as later stories like Blink, Turn Left, or The Girl Who Waited, it did set a standard in terms of what you could do with a story in which the Doctor barely appeared for more than a couple of scenes. It paved the way for Doctor-lite stories to define the impact of the Doctor’s merry ramblings through time and space, to look at some of the people whose lives are affected by his habit of dropping out of the sky, turning the world on its head and then swanning off again. The logic runs that if you stand right next to the Doctor, he’ll move Heaven and Earth to keep you safe. Those who stand close but not close enough can be a lot less lucky.
The episode roots us firmly in the world of someone outside the normal Tardis crew, in this case Doctor-spotter Elton Pope, (played with a kind of hopeless likeability and self-belief by Marc Warren), who’s had tangential brushes with the Doctor’s more recent adventures, but also has a half-story of his own relating to their first encounter when he was just a boy. Love and Monsters takes its time showing us Elton’s likeability, his geeky charm, his ELO fetish, but also his ingenuity. It gives us a quintessential ‘nice, but hopeless guy’ long before Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor ever went to stay with Craig Owens. The ordinariness of Elton is essential to making Love and Monsters work, because underneath all the slapstick, it’s a much darker story than people give it credit for. Love and Monsters is the Doctor Faustus of New Who – an experiment in temptation beyond the boundaries of one’s own moral code, and the price that both we and the people we love pay when we go beyond those limits.
In Elton’s case, the Doctor has had an impact on his life from early on, but hasn’t stuck around to give that impact any context, leaving instead a huge traumatising question-mark over an important moment of his young life. The question of what really happened the night he first met the Doctor, and why he can’t remember it, drives him to seek out others. And there are others – arguably proof that the Doctor has been following his crazy-paving pathway through other people’s lives for a long while, carelessly changing the world and leaving nothing behind him but those interminable questions. Those questions are what drive the members of LINDA to come together, and they’re also what drive the Abzorbaloff to use them to get close to the Doctor. Everybody wants more of the Doctor than they have or know, and that curiosity proves fatal to LINDA.
The other LINDA members have had similar experiences to Elton, or are curious about things they can’t explain, a man who keeps appearing at times of catastrophe or crisis, or where catastrophe seemed imminent but then didn’t happen. We get glimpses into what makes them all Doctor-spotters, but what becomes quickly clear is that it’s not just knowledge of the Doctor that’s missing from their lives. Bridget comes down south every week to look for her daughter, who got into drugs and ran away to London. Mr Skinner, the would-be writer, seems too timid ever to make anything of his efforts, but finds a way to begin to build a healing life with Bridget. Bliss is missing understanding of many things, but has the sweetest heart you could wish to meet, and Ursula, by far the brains of the operation, and, as is noted, most likely to fight back, is the female Elton – nice, but a bit hopeless in terms of Real Life. LINDA comes together through its members’ interest in the Doctor, but it becomes about much more than that initial spur. It becomes a way for people with something missing in their lives to find it, even if that missing element is just friendship with a group of different but like-minded people. LINDA is what puts the ‘love’ in Love and Monsters’ – the monsters, be they the Hoix, the shade, the Abzorbaloff, or even the Doctor himself are mostly there to provide turning points in the stories of life and love that we see.
What LINDA represents is a love and a happiness found and flourishing – a modern Eden, into which the serpent that is Victor Kennedy forces himself, like a Mephistopheles who promises to fulfil all their dreams, while actually stealing the informal fun and healing they’ve been experiencing. Victor Kennedy is a ‘human’ monster who robs them of their love, and has only the bauble of answers about the Doctor to recommend him. His nature is predatory and his methods efficient, and when he begins to absorb the members of LINDA, these good but mostly awkward people have done nothing to earn their deaths, making the Abzorbaloff one of the more cold-blooded killers in New Who. But he’s not content to steal their fun and their healing, destroy their bodies and kill their ‘love.’ He turns them into agents of evil, agents of harm to others who have done nothing wrong. Victor Kennedy/the Abzorbaloff is a cancer, turning everything he touches to destruction. In which spirit, he sends Elton – sweet, kind, ELO-mad, hopeless Elton – to infiltrate Jackie Tyler’s life, to find Rose and so get his absorption-happy hands on the Doctor. When that works, Elton becomes the Faustus of the piece, a good man corrupted by a charismatic leader to do things he wouldn’t otherwise do. Elton’s salvation in our eyes as viewers is that he decides he can’t go through with it, and wants to normalise his relationship with Jackie. She’s found him out though, and calls him on the callousness of his approach. In a way, her discovery of the means he was prepared to use to get to the Doctor is a tragedy, and Elton becomes a fallen man, Faustus damned, a man blinded and tempted beyond his own moral boundaries, a man who had made his mind up to sleep with Jackie if that’s what it took to get information for Kennedy, despite his own affection for Ursula. Kennedy’s corruption almost drives Elton to become someone we can’t like. And despite his redemption through his own moral conscience, the truth comes too late for Jackie Tyler.
In other ways though, this fall from grace is his salvation – relating the experience to Kennedy and LINDA is what makes Ursula roar her defiance of Kennedy and his methods, and makes Elton get out of his own way, inviting Ursula out on a date. With LINDA threatening to leave him forever, it forces Kennedy to absorb Mr Skinner, and a simple forgotten phone seals Ursula’s fate too.
With the knowledge of Jackie Tyler’s location, the Abzorbaloff can even dispense with Elton – and he would do, but the Doctor and Rose interrupt him, which they wouldn’t have done had Jackie not reported Elton’s behaviour to them. And crucially, it’s not the Doctor who defeats the Abzorbaloff – it’s LINDA united, with Elton playing the part that none of the others can play and snapping the cane that keeps the creature coherent.
You can argue about the appropriateness of the paving-slab oral sex line all you like, the point is that when people die in a Russell T Davies episode, for the most part they stay dead, and Ursula’s partial reconstruction is in itself a gift. It wouldn’t be right if Elton got to walk away with all his heart’s desire having fallen from the grace of his own moral code, but in terms of wanting to do the right thing, he’s earned a little happiness, and in having Ursula’s mind, and voice, and the face he finds so beautiful restored to him, he gets that much redemption.
Love and Monsters is never going to be a classic Who episode, but in terms of an experiment with storytelling form, and in telling the story of how curiosity about the Doctor can lead us to behave like monsters, of how the Doctor impacts people’s lives and how (no matter how sorry he professes himself to be) the Tenth Doctor has no intention of changing his ways, and ultimately of how love can defeat all the monsters – even the kind ones with sharp suits and spiky haircuts– Love and Monsters is much, much better than you remember.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk