Monday, 9 March 2015

Fear Her written by Matthew Graham and directed by Euros Lyn

This story in a nutshell: A series of missed opportunities? Or nowhere near as bad as its reputation?

Mockney Dude: The complete opposite of the character of Rose, the tenth Doctor truly comes into his own in his second season but still shows moments of greatness in his debut year mixed in with lots of moments of both the production team and Tennant trying a little too hard to make the character likeable and failing. Whilst the levels of smugness between the tenth Doctor and Rose rocket to a record high in episodes such as Tooth and Claw, Rise of the Cybermen and The Idiot's Lantern, the second half of the series sees them falling into a much more enjoyable partnership. His conversation with Rose about settling down in The Impossible Planet, their hilarious and touching cameos in Love & Monsters and the sprinkling of sweet moments throughout Fear Her show that it was possible for this pairing to succeed without you wanting to claw their eyeballs out. Although the Doctor's fingers on lips technique is exactly the sort of egomania that led to him being almost dragged out of an airlock in Midnight. That feeling that he is the only person that can control a situation. Hanging out in the TARDIS, investigating a mystery, sharing personal information; the Doctor and Rose act like characters rather than avatars championing the delights of a show in its sophomore year. Who's going to believe the things you see in the corner of eye except the Doctor?

Chavvy Chick: I do recognise that something shifted fundamentally in series two for Rose and the baying cries of her turning into a smug, jealous wench especially compared to the sultry, adventurous babe of series one are certainly not without merit. However Fear Her is an exception, a bizarre aberration where the old independent Rose blasts back into existence. With nobody to try and tear the Doctor from her she puts her claws away and simply gets on with displaying the right amount of sympathy and gumption in the bizarre situation that unfolds before them. Billie Piper rises to the challenge superbly, almost as if she knows she has been handed a dud and raises her game considerably to compensate. Rose popping upstairs into Chloe's room without permission from her mother is a step too far and I am pleased she is chastised appropriately. I like the fact that the Doctor vanishes two thirds of the way through the story because it allows Rose to stand on her own two feet and prove what she is made of in a year where she has been defined almost entirely through her relationship with the Doctor. Her anger at having the Doctor snatched away feels very real and the way she smashes down the door and through Kal's tarmac with the pickaxe with casual abandon puts a huge smile on my face every time I watch this. For five minutes she's a complete psychopath and Piper is clearly relishing the opportunity.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I was a dad, once...' - that's the first time we've heard the Doctor admit that. That's pretty big talk, perhaps disproving the looms from the New Adventure Lungbarrow for something far more conventional.
'I'm coming to hurt you...' - that is how a child would view an abusive parent, like a slavering monster coming out of the cupboard.

Dreadful Dialogue: 'Not you too Bob!' - A line that will go down in history and one that captures the relative lack of imagination and cheapness that runs through this episode like words through a stick of rock.
'Goodbye, Chloe Webber. I love you!' - infamous in this household because it was followed up by a curt and remorseless 'oh fuck off!' from Simon, one of only a few times that Doctor Who has riled him up enough to swear (the climax of In the Forest of the Night is another).
'I don't know who you are or what you did but thank you darling!' Crazy old grandma Bo Jangles wanders back on set for the climax and doesn't quite have a clue what is going on.

The Good: What people tend to forget when thinking about Fear Her is that their general apathy towards the episode and it's more twee aspects shield the fact that there are a lot of cute touches throughout that help to sweeten the pill. To my mind thanks to the reasons I am about to state this isn't the nadir of the new series or even the weakest episode of season two. It's not a top quality episode of Doctor Who in any respects but it certainly has it's strong moments. Kel is a delightful character who lights up the story whenever he appears. The most cockney character to ever appear on screen in the history of television, his brief moments of levity are perhaps the few points where Fear Her scores its biggest wins. A scribble that attacks and can be caught is exactly the sort of creativity this episode needs more of. Speaking as somebody who had an abusive father himself, I can empathise with Chloe's need to express her feelings about him in her artwork and appreciate the lengths that the episode goes to to show how parents can traumatise a child. It's an unusually mature touch in a fairly childish episode, a splash of real life domestic violence amongst all the sugary sportsmanship. It's the most inventive use of the shows high concept, Chloe's dead a heartbeat away from being resurrected through her artwork.  I also like the idea of the backstory being told through a child's drawings but in realisation it isn't the most exciting of scenes because it is explained to us by Chloe at the same time. It shows little trust in the audience to work things out for themselves. Strangely enough I hate the way that this episode attempts to use the emotion that is brewed up by the Olympics coming to London as a plot device and yet I really enjoy the imaginative and unusual threat that faces the Earth as Chloe starts to draw the planet on the wall. This a show that has put the Earth in danger many times to a point where it is something of a joke. To stumble across a truly original way of giving the globe a terminal knuckle sandwich is quite unique nowadays and Graham to his credit does achieve that. The inversion of the usual Doctor Who climax that sees everything return to normal and the Doctor and Rose jog off into the sunset is pleasing with a danger revealed to be hiding away inside the solution. Chloe's abusive father bursting free of the closet to attack her and her mother is genuinely terrorizing material and it quite took me aback when nestled in so much sugar. In comparison with the Isolus, the shadow that is thrown against the wall is utterly insubstantial (merely a figment of Chloe's imagination) and yet it is so much more dangerous because of it.

The Bad: You can't help but wonder what Matthew Graham was hoping to strike lucky for by including so many tired and tested horror clich├ęs in his first Doctor Who script. The unearthly girl pawing at the window and watching the world go by reminded me of Poltergeist and the strange old grandma that has an eerie second sight is supposed to help to ramp up the tension. Instead old woman Eastenders turns out to be the most irritatingly unexplained aspect of an ill thought through script. Bumbling along in her trolley, scaring the local kids half to death and squawking at anybody who will listen, this batty old know-it-all is both irritating and surplus to requirements...not to mention badly acted. It was billed as a guest star performance by Edna Dore at the time and I strongly think the production team should have asked for their money back. The idea of children being turned into cartoons is a brilliantly fun and creepy one and Fear Her shoves this right under the noses of its audience and fails to do anything exciting with it. I can think of a million exquisite ways (well about four to be precise but I couldn't resist the chance to quote the Master) that this could have been explored in a more imaginative and fun way (Flatline from series eight takes a similar approach and winds up being one of the most innovative episodes of NuWho ever produced). Is this the cheapest episode of NuWho ever produced? At times it feels as though the production team took a camera into a council estate minus a director and made up a story as they went along. Euros Lyn is probably the most imaginative and stylish director that the show sported in the first couple of years after it returned to our screens but he was pulling a bit of a Chris Clough with this tale. Letting the actors get on with telling the story whilst he heads off down the pub for a pint. There are none of the flourishes that made The End of the World, The Unquiet Dead, The Girl in the Fireplace and Tooth and Claw such a success. I've seen Nina Sosanya impress in all manner of British television productions but she seems to have given up the ghost in her one stab at a Doctor Who story. Mind you it is hardly as if she has been handed a golden role like that of Jessica Hynes, Pauline Collins or Dean Lennox Kelly. 'Worried mother' is hardly the sort of character that is going to set the world on fire but Sosanya's relaxed performance is enough to make you wonder if she just walk on set one day and improvised the performance. There is an emphasis on the community spirit and international pride of the Olympics in Fear Her that completely fails to capture the awesome atmosphere of the event that actually took place a few years later. The former (community spirit) was captured much more vividly in The Idiot's Lantern (also directed by Lyn at a point where he was trying perhaps a bit too hard, here we have the opposite problem) and the latter feels so self contained to a tiny street rather than a city wide spectacle that it is more a fault of the script than the production. There is an emphasis on economy and that is the last word I would use to describe the Olympics when they came to London. The cat disappearing into a box and invisible iron residue reek of a season that has overspent and is overcompensating with a distinct lack of imagination. I can't decide whether Abisola Agbaje is giving an underwhelming performance or if she is let down by the episode around her. I applaud the attempt to do something a little different with the alien of the week because all these decades after the show first aired it is hard to think up anything that we haven't seen before. The Isolus is a unique creation, a benevolent being that is attacking people because it has empathy for a lost and lonely little girl but because it is snatching them away in as painless a way as possible and proves to be rather airy fairy in reality it fails to capture the imagination or generate any tension. It might just be the most vanilla Doctor Who alien of all time, lacking personality or excitement. The less said about the beacon of hope and love that is travelling the streets of London to set the world aflame at the commencement of the Olympic ceremony the better. Doctor Who would revel in tweeness after this episode (strangely enough it is during the mechanical and characterless Moffat era that this affliction strikes the most) but there are few times when I want to actively hurl something at my precious television just to make the injection of pure syrup stop. The Doctor lighting the Olympic flame might just be the worst moment of the Russell T Davies era and one that is masquerading as one of the best. Oh the irony.

Result: A bizarre mishmash of good and bad, Fear Her is nowhere near as bad as its reputation would have you believe. Like The Twin Dilemma and Underworld it is one of those stories that has become popular to knock and where people go out of their way to ignore its strengths. There is much to point at and ask 'what were they thinking?' in Fear Her but when keeping an open mind there is also a lot of potential in the ideas that are presented, in the characterisation on display and the threat to the Earth that is invented. Even if those ideas aren't always realised in the best possible way (there is something of Paradise Towers to Fear Her in that respect), I can see what Matthew Graham was getting at even if it was going to take a few more drafts to get it right. I think my favourite viewing of Fear Her was when I watched it with Simon and he slaughtered it like a starving man being presented with a steak. Not only were his observations quite inimitable (and I learnt a few new colourful phrases) but they were so vitriolic I was immediately put on the defensive (like we Doctor Who fans are when our favourite show is under attack - we can tear it to pieces as much as we like but when outsiders dare to look in and criticise it you can forget it) and forced myself to find the positives. And to my astonishment there were enough there to transform this from a desperately weak episode to an average one, hardly massive praise but quite a shift from my initial rigid opinion. Kal and his Caaaancil tarmac. Rose and her axe. The menacing shadow that looms in the double climax. The relaxed chemistry between Doctor and companion. The warm glow of the fireworks before the shit hits the fan. Fear Her presents some of the most saccharine material I have ever witnessed (I think several of my teeth rotted on first transmission) and it shouldn't be forgiven for that but for once I will be taking a loathed story and putting a positive spin on it because I think that is the more interesting path to take. So Fear Her, outwardly so worthless but containing some nuggets of gold within: 5/10


Tango said...

The only decent episode of Rose in Series 2 where she was a real person instead of a parody.

Robert Crooks said...

The main problem with Fear Her is that it's The Idiot's Lantern. Featuring kidnappings on an ordinary London street (in two parts in Lantern-face then body), the atmosphere of anticipation of a major national event, a family unit with an abusive bully of a father and a traumatised wife and child who knows more about the plot than anyone else, the possession of a troubled character by an alien force, the big threat is the mass occurrence of the alien's doings on said ordinary London street, through major event currently taking place, the incapacitation by said alien of one of the regulars being the catalyst for the resolution, even the imagery of the kidnapped's faces in emotive expressions through medium of kidnap, and bits of dialogue like '(they) are coming through the Mall'. Maybe if it had been in the next series, it would be less obvious. But separated by a few episodes, it's beyond obvious.

Anonymous said...

For me, this is the worst nu-Who episode bar none. I thought it was bad the first time, however a repeat watch really started to expose the flaws that run throughout this episode.

The bit where the Doctor has the Olympic torch and lights the flame beggars belief. I can't believe that no one challenged Davies/Graham over this. The Doctor essentially hi-jacks an occasion meant to celebrate the ideal of the Olympic spirit into being a self-aggrandizement of the himself. It's an ugly betrayal of the character of the moment that the flame-lighting is meant to represent.

David Pirtle said...

I had the opposite (but hardly less negative) reaction from the above commenter. I felt like the Olympics was hijacking Doctor Who. The show has revisited famous events in Britain's past before, most recently before this in The Idiot Lantern, but have they ever used a full episode as a commercial for an upcoming event? Perhaps I just lack the Olympic spirit.

As for the rest of it, it's The Twilight Zone's It's A Good Life, a story that has been redone a dozen times, even by The Twilight Zone. Fear Her tries to put more depth into it than some others by inserting the parental abuse angle (for the second time this season), but it isn't well done and certainly not well enough to justify being trotted out once again. I agree it's not all bad. The Doctor and Rose are good in this. But overall this is my least favorite NuWho episode up to this point in the show.