This review contains spoilers.
TW: child abuse.
The eleventh episode in the second series of New Who, Fear Her has a reputation in the fandom that can only be described as “dismal”. According to Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge, readers of Doctor Who Magazine ranked it the second worst episode of all time in 2014.
That’s including classic as well as New Who. I mean. Really? Worse than everything that got made in the 60s, when special effects were basically non-existent and nothing happened for entire half-hour segments? Worse than everything Stephen Moffat wrote before 2014? Even accounting for the conservative tastes of adult Doctor Who fans, really?
Confession time, here’s what I got: Fear Her made me ugly cry when I rewatched it a few weeks back. I’m reasonably sure it made me ugly cry the first time I watched it, too. But in a good way.
I wonder if this is something to do with different ideas of what Doctor Who is. My first Doctor was Ten, my first showrunner was Russell T Davies. My idea of Doctor Who is rooted in those things: it’s a sentimental, slightly rickety science fantasy show where maybe the special effects aren’t great and the monsters are a bit corny and the plot is mostly held together by reversed polarities and neutron flows and wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey nonsense, but, and this is important, it all has complex, wonderful, ordinary people at its centre, people with complex relationships and complex feelings. Like, I am not at all saying that Doctor Who was ever a showcase for world-class characterisation, but it always had that intention, that compassion, at its beating heart. The Doctor is great, but in the end he’s not really the point. We can admire him, we can love him, but his function is to introduce us to wonders, and to make them more wonderful. That’s what I always loved about the show, anyway.
And so, to Fear Her. The Doctor and Rose land in London, 2012, just before the Olympic Games are due to start. (2012 is still six years in the future for Rose, and for the episode’s original audience; even New Who is old.) The people of the recently renamed Dame Kelly Holmes Close, Stratford, are getting ready for the Olympic Flame to pass just feet from their doorsteps. There’s just one spanner in the works: children have been going missing from the street, there one minute, gone the next. Where have the kids gone? What’s the strange metallic smell in the air? And what’s 12-year-old Chloe Webber doing, standing ominously at her upstairs window…
At the heart of the episode are a lonely little girl and her mother, who have grown apart in ways small and subtle since the death of Chloe’s abusive father a year ago. Chloe has retreated to her room, where she draws obsessively. Her mother Trish is simply relieved to be free of her partner, and doesn’t understand her daughter’s retreat from reality.
Nina Sosanya’s performance as Trish is one of my favourite things about Fear Her. She plays a single mother who cares desperately about her daughter, and a single mother who’s afraid of her daughter, as the Doctor points out, but also, I think, for her daughter. She responds to the Doctor’s offer of help for Chloe with hope and fear in equal measure. Hope, because she’s worried about Chloe and doesn’t know how to get through to her. Fear, because in her eyes not being able to get through to Chloe means she’s a bad mother. And in the Doctor’s authority lies, for Trish, a real-life bogeyman: the threat of social services, the threat that her daughter might be literally disappeared from her by forces just as shadowy and unaccountable as that taking the other kids in the close.
Which is not to suggest that the entire episode is a metaphor for evil social services people swooping down and stealing children from their parents, because that would be ridiculous and insensitive. And because much of my reading of Trish is, I’m aware, subtext at best. Fear Her works, I think, because its handling of the issues it touches on – single motherhood, loneliness, the lingering trauma of abuse – is both metaphorical and literal. Which is to say: the SF elements in the episode represent and reinforce the realistic ones. Kids are disappearing because a lonely alien has given a lonely child the power to transport them to another dimension: that’s a way of talking about the degrading effects loneliness has on mental health, but it’s also a kind-of sad story about a lonely alien. Some things are universal, it seems. Similarly, when the Doctor inevitably restores everyone Chloe has drawn out of the world, the reappearance of her abusive father in a demonic drawing is a metaphor for how she’s still haunted by the trauma of him, but it’s far from the only time the episode mentions that she’s so haunted.
So: let’s talk about the Doctor and the Olympic Flame, a focus for popular ire and also one of my favourite parts of the episode. The Olympic Flame is not, I will grant you, very well incorporated into the main story; it would not be unreasonable to call it something of a deus ex machina. As for the Doctor’s carrying it into the Olympic Stadium after the torchbearer collapses, well, that’s pure theatre. (It’s awesome, though.) But the lonely alien’s use of it to escape Earth, borne on the tide of love, is both a way of combating the fear that runs through the episode – fear of unexplained, unresolved disappearance, of shadowy figures drawn on the back of wardrobes and standing in judgement on single mothers – and a beautiful image in its own right. It’s the public counterpart to the private scene a few moments earlier when Chloe and Trish sing together to defeat the rising ghost of Chloe’s father, when they heal their rift and defeat fear with love. It’s a way of symbolically healing society in preparation for the great celebration of global humanity that is (at least conceptually) the Olympic Games – just as the singing is a way of symbolically healing the relationship between a mother and a daughter.
And that kind of echo, that call and response between the literal and the metaphorical, the real and the fantastic, the public and the private, is what Doctor Who is all about. For me.