Isn’t It About Time You Gave Doctor Who’s “Fear Her” Another Chance?
An embarrassing cheesefest set during the 2012 Olympics or an under-appreciated creepy, urban horror story?
Case for the Prosecution: Before we commence, may I first congratulate the wisdom of the Defence for not wasting this court’s time and patience by trying to defend the execrable, smutty, intelligence-insulting trash that was “Love & Monsters”.
Case for the Defence: But… er… we didn’t bring “Love & Monsters” to court because it’s a brave, experimental, highly emotional, extremely witty, innovative piece of television.
Judge: Order! Order! Order! This is a court of law not an Outpost Gallifrey forum.
Prosecution: Ahem. Apologies your honour. To the case in point. “Fear Her” was cheap. Very cheap. And it showed. Produced at the arse end of Tenant’s first series of Doctor Who, it looked like they’d always intended it to a cheap filler, then discovered they didn’t even have enough money left to produce that, and so had to downgrade it even further to “cashstrapped filler”. Set in a nondescript housing estate, with a monster we never see and a frankly risible climax with the Doctor carrying the Olympic Torch, it was all a bit embarrassing to watch.
Defence: The Defence strongly disagrees with the use of the word “all” in that last sentence. The Defence’s case is that “Fear Her” suffers from having a few minor faults that its detractors have amplified at the expense of its many very good points.
Defence: There’s a great gag with the TARDIS at the beginning, when it materialises somewhere where the Doctor can’t open the doors, so he has to repark it.
Prosecution: Well, yes, that is highly amusing, but it’s hardly a case winner.
Defence: We’re just warming up. The early parts of the episode are highly effective, as a weird things happen in a “nondescript” (to use my learned colleague’s phrase) housing estate. There’s nothing wrong with “nondescript”. Placing the weird in recognisable urban settings has always been a strong theme in the show: the “Yeti on a toilet in Tooting Bec” scenario as Jon Pertwee used to say. The episode has a methodical, slow, spooky build up, reminiscent of Sapphire And Steel, or Hammer House Of Horror: the disappearing children; the cars mysteriously breaking down; the smell of ions in the air; drawings that come to life.
Into this walk the Doctor and Rose, at the height of their charismatic partnership, quipping about edible ball bearings and Russian shot putters. Rose, by this point, has been well-trained by the Doctor, and it’s great to see her make intelligent leaps of logic, helping with the investigation like, as the script playfully suggests, a Lewis to the Doctor’s Morse. Rose here is resourceful and quick thinking, especially when the Doctor vanished at the end of the episode and she has to go it alone.
Prosecution: It might be more like Sapphire And Steel if some of the guest stars didn’t appear to think they were in a sit-com. The irritating guy from the council who seems to be making love to his asphalt and the old dear from EastEnders who wails on like a comedy soothsayer in Blackadder are just terrible.
Defence: Granted some of the minor roles are played, erm, rather broadly but the two main stars, Nina Sosanya as Trish and Abisola Agbaje as her daughter Chloe Webber are extremely good. Agbaje especially gives a very powerful, and freaky, performance as the little girl possessed by the baby alien Isolus. She has a stare any Medusa would be proud of.
Prosecution: You have to admit, though, that the lack of a decent monster is a severe disappointment.
Defence: Hardly. The way the monster is portrayed – a drawing on the wall, a few shadows, a scary voice – harkens back to classic horror movies like The Haunting or The Innocents where horror was suggested rather than shown explicitly. It’s often said that the creepiest image you can show on screen is a half-open door. “Fear Her” is full of “half-open door” effects, evocatively crafted by director Euros Lyn, who clearly knows a thing or two about creating a spooky atmosphere. Interestingly he manages to achieve this without recourse to that usual staple of horror movies – nighttime shadows. “Fear Her” is set primarily in bright daylight, but Lyn uses some striking lighting effects, edgy camera angles and cunning editing to create a deeply unsettling atmosphere. Watch again the scene where the Doctor communicates with the Isolus within Chloe; it’s pure exposition, and yet mesmerisingly watchable.
Besides which, there was another monster that we did see – the scribble monster.
Prosecution: Yes, that was quite fun – a creature created from a graphite scribble, which the Doctor erases at one point. Shame there wasn’t a lot more of it. But it does bring us to another point – the script was a rip-off of the film Paperhouse.
Defence: And how many horror films did the classic series use for inspiration? Especially in the early Tom Baker years. Doctor Who has a fine tradition of adapting existing ideas for its own purposes. Anyway, “Fear Her” only resembles Paperhouse on a superficial level – a child’s drawings coming to life. The heart of the story is, in fact, a quite clever little SF conceit. The Isolus is an alien life-form used to travelling through space with a family of billions. Isolus take millennia to mature, and in the meantime they create psychic playgrounds to have fun and games in. But the Isolus in “Fear Her” has become isolated from its family. Alone, and scared, and unloved it bonds with a lonely Earth girl and transfers its power to create psychic projections to her. It’s more like Chocky than Paperhouse.
Prosecution: The Defence’s argument that “Fear Her” is good science fiction might hold more sway if the whole enterprise didn’t disintegrate into a cheesy “love conquers all” finale.
Defence: Well, the story does lose its way somewhat, we’ll admit, but it’s not that bad…
Prosecution: Oh yes it patently is. On various levels. The Olympic procession through the estate looks like a school’s sports day; the idea that the Olympic flame – as a symbol of love and hope – brings the Isolus spaceship back to life is pure Californian new wave hippie nonsense; and the Doctor picking up the torch and running into the Olympic stadium is simply cringeworthy. It’s a bad enough idea in concept, made even worse by the cash-strapped production, so that it has to rely on stock footage, under-manned crowd scenes and sparse effects. Not to mention a slightly-embarrassed-sounding newsreader Huw Edwards who completely fails to convince that he’s seriously reporting world shattering events.
Defence: You exaggerate somewhat. Yes, there is a jarring and misjudged change of tone, but it was harmless fun and the kids loved it.
Prosecution: We beg to differ. It was painful to watch. If this was always meant to be a “cheap” episode, you have to question the wisdom of trying to portray the Olympic opening ceremony in the first place.
Defence: The old series would attempt the end of the universe on considerably less.
Prosecution: But we’ve moved on from those quaint old days. We will say one thing in favour of setting the episode in 2012 though.
Defence: What’s that?
Prosecution: We prefer the Olympic logo the production team designed to the real one.