Russell T Davies
Marc Warren, Peter Kay, Camille Coduri, Shirley Henderson, Simon Greenall, Moya Brady, Kathryn Drysdale... oh, and David Tennant and Billie Piper.
We all know the big cliché of Doctor Who punditry – it’s a show that can be anything. Strangely, though, it rarely is. While series like The X-Files merrily mucked about in a postmodern sandpit and regularly dished up episodes like “X-Cops” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” – tales that truly played with ideas of narrative and genre, creating something genuinely new and surprising – Doctor Who tends to make tonal shifts, hopping from high camp to gothic terror to action adventure and space opera (and that’s just in the space of this season). It’s never turned itself inside out, bent itself sideways, delivered something so deeply unusual that you’d find yourself wondering if you were watching Doctor Who if you’d missed the opening titles.
Until now. "Love & Monsters" is the episode that, after 43 years, finally gives Doctor Who a whole new vocabulary as a television programme. For once our heroes are almost incidental characters, cameoing in their own show. We’re told this tale from the perspective of sweet-natured geek Elton Pope (engagingly played by Hustle’s Mark Warren), a move that liberates us from Who’s traditional dramatic style. Elton talks to us directly, his camcorder asides making the adventure feel fittingly intimate and personal. Elsewhere, the episode gets playful with narrative structure, hitting us with flashbacks and flashforwards and even a random clip of Elton John (“You don’t meet many Eltons, do you?”).
This may be Russell T Davies’s smartest, funniest script. It’s certainly the warmest, and somehow it feels like the most personal. There’s something genuinely big of heart about his portrayal of the Doctor-obssessed members of LINDA. It’d be so easy to serve up sneering fanboy caricatures (and in 1988 Who, to its shame, did just that – remember “The Greatest Show In The Galaxy”’s uber-nerd Whizz Kid?) but with their cakes, tank tops and singalongs, these guys seem Songs of Praise-sweet, united in their uncool. ELO’s "Mr Blue Sky" is a fitting anthem for them, a song that makes you want to engage in hand-to-hand combat with hipper-than-thou musical fascism and dance around the room to Bev Bevan’s mighty ‘70s drum breaks, just like Elton.
With the words “Jeff Lynne” suddenly sounding impossibly funny, you realise that this is Davies writing with the same sharp, populist voice he used in stuff like Mine All Mine, a show that was filled with pithy one-liners about Martin Jarvis and Bonnie Tyler. There’s something just right about Jackie seducing Elton to the Asda charms of Il Divo. But it’s not all cultural quips – there’s something genuinely moving about Jackie’s desperation – well played by Camille Coduri - and the notion of having your soul burned by contact with the Doctor echoes the themes of "School Reunion" and "The Girl In The Fireplace". Only with the revelation of Danny’s tragic backstory do we get an uncomfortable gear-shift; the Doctor’s account of the Sapphire & Steel-ish shadow creature seems to belong to a darker, more chilling episode altogether, and it’s uneasily blended with the broad strokes comedy surrounding it. Still, lovely scene with young Elton waving goodbye to his mum as "Mr Blue Sky" fades out. Quite Life on Mars.
There’ll be people who’ll hate this episode, and the Marmite at the heart of "Love & Monsters" is Peter Kay. Personally I’ve never been tickled by Kay’s schtick, but he cracked me up in this, both as the dapper, ec-zee-ma afflicted Victor Kennedy and as the Blue Peter compo-winning Absorbaloff. There’s something brilliantly daft about a Doctor Who monster with a Corrie accent – clearly the Ninth Doctor wasn’t lying when he told us that lots of planets have a North – and the sight of Mark Warren being chased by a green-skinned, tongue-lolling Kay in a micro-loincloth makes you appreciate the untapped comic potential of broad daylight.
The trad fan hardcore may cry that this is a smirky betrayal of the core values of Doctor Who, but it’s not. It’s as brave and cheeky and odd and audacious and sweet and funny as the Doctor himself. And it gives the ancient Time Lord a new gift – the ability to truly be anything he wants to be.