A Doctor Who Review: In Defence of “Fear Her”

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.

Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night

“Stars implode. Planets grow cold. Catastrophe is the metabolism of the universe.”

Doctor Who


It’s episode 10 of the Capaldi Administration (seriously, how did that happen?) and there’s a slightly surprising surprise in store: the wonderfully whimsically-titled In the Forest of the Night (after William Blake’s poem “The Tyger”, FYI) was written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, author of Millions and director of the Olympic Opening Ceremony.

How cool is that?

Clara and Danny (who? oh, him), accompanying a school sleepover at the Natural History Museum or some such, open the doors to find London covered with – well, trees. There are trees on Trafalgar Square and all along the Mall and, apparently, in the Thames as well. Meanwhile, the Doctor runs across a lost child, Maeve Arden (A Shakespearean Clue, obviously), dubbed “vulnerable” by the school authorities – “she hears voices,” says Clara hysterically – who appears to hold the key to the whole mysterious catastrophe.

I have a feeling that the Internet will hate this episode, mainly because the Internet never holds the same opinion as I do, and I…quite liked it. Some of it, anyway. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Cottrell Boyce’s Olympic credentials, In the Forest of the Night works very well on a symbolic level, at least. It’s composed of a host of images familiar from fairytale and myth: the deep dark wood full of lions and tigers and bears, the tree-choked city/palace, the lonely child, the voices of the lost and damned and sad, the nature-spirits, the human capacity to stand in the face of titanic and mysterious forces…it’s all powerful storytelling stuff, and if we watch In the Forest of the Night purely as fairytale, it works. It does. It’s atmospheric, allusive, well-paced and slightly surreal; Doctor Who visits Faerie.

That’s not to say the episode is flawless, however, because it plainly isn’t. Like all fairytales, it contains its own share of illogicalities and annoyances: in the face of what seems like certain death for all humanity, Clara refuses the protection of the TARDIS for her charges on the basis that they would miss their mums.

Um. Yes, but the human race would also survive. I’m sure they’d understand. Are we supposed to admire Clara for this bit of theatrics? Because I don’t. The TARDIS is, as Clara puts it earlier, a lifeboat. You can’t save everyone, but you could save some. Is that not the whole point of the Doctor’s existence? Not everybody has to die?

The visuals tend a bit too much towards the sparkly-magic style for my taste, too, although the solar flare at the end is spectacular. And it’s a little hard to believe that everyone will just forget the Invasion of the Trees, certainly in the age of smartphones and Internet – besides which, Nelson’s Column has fallen over. Good luck forgetting that.

I think what I’m driving at is simply the fact that In the Forest of the Night works as fairytale, but not as Doctor Who. Doctor Who demands a little too much cynicism from its viewers to overlook the inherent anti-realism of traditional fairytale, which is essentially what this is; a compromise between the old tales of Red Riding Hood and Briar Rose and the kind of modernised fairytale which works so well in The Girl Who Waited or The Last of the Time Lords. It’s a combination that doesn’t quite sit well with the show’s overall tone. Which is a shame, because there is much to love about In the Forest of the Night.

The Revolution Will Be Televised

“They will not force us/They will stop degrading us/They will not control us/We will be victorious.”


I was watching The Revolution Will Be Televised only because it was en route to Family Guy later in the evening. As with so many things, I didn’t actually set out to watch it.

But I’m quite glad I did.

As a show, it’s hard to describe. It’s sort of like The Real Hustle crossed with Have I Got News For You with a bit of that awful prank show with Aston Kutcher (Punked, maybe?) thrown in. A couple of guys go out – to real places, as far as I could tell: the Olympic Park, a Lib Dem party conference – and satirise. That is, they pretend to be real people in a way that throws light on our hypocrisy as a nation. So, for example, they turned up at Olympic Park wearing shirts with a political slogan, I forget exactly what it was. “You can’t wear that,” says the security guy. So they take off the shirt to reveal another one with another slogan, and then another one…and so on. My favourite was “Athletes don’t eat Macdonald’s.” “That one’s true,” says the guy wearing it.

OK, it was funnier when I was watching it.

The best thing is the bemused looks on people’s faces when they’re approached by the presenters. “Will you sign a petition to make Tony Blair a saint?” The look on their faces…priceless.

This is a good show that says some true things about life in Britain. It’s also very funny.

Closing Time

“If life seems jolly rotten, there’s something you’ve forgotten, and that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.”

Monty Python

Well, the Olympics are officially over for another four years. The formalities are done, the flag passed, the youth of the world called to Rio 2016.

All this, of course, was accomplished in the Closing Ceremony, which is like the Opening Ceremony except shorter and more depressing. Huw Edwards described it as “a symphony of British music from the last 50 years.” 50 years? What happened to all those hundreds of years before that? Purcell, Britten, Elgar? Surely, surely they deserve recognition more than Tinie Tempah or even Muse?

At least there was Shakespeare. Wasn’t it wonderful to see TO BE OR NOT TO BE blaring out from the floor of the Olympic stadium? Not just Shakespeare, either: we had Ozymandias and Dylan Thomas (“Rage, rage against the dying of the light” – particularly appropriate given the Extinguishing Ceremony) doing a star turn.

And the singers. What a mixed bag. We started with Madness singing “Our House” badly. The problem is that all the favourites, the golden oldies, are, well, old. They can’t sing anymore. That is the simple fact.

On to a dribble of boy bands. One Direction, who forgot they were supposed to be singing and made faces at the camera instead. Pet Shop Boys, who sang something unbelievably dreary and inaudible and who, for some reason, were wearing Darth Vader-type costumes. Roy Davies, with “Waterloo Sunset”, which I did like, although I don’t think I’d ever heard it before, but it was lovely.

I can’t remember the exact order of the singers, but I’ll do my best. I do know that the Kaiser Chiefs appeared at one point.

Spice Girls, apparently enjoying themselves immensely but not singing very well. Is it just me, or were the acoustics in the stadium quite bad? I couldn’t hear what was being sung at several points in the show, but that could just have been the singers. I was amused to notice that the BBC caption read “The Spice Girls” instead of just “Spice Girls”. It makes the BBC sound like your grandmother. “Who are the Spice Girls, then, my dear?”

John Lennon singing “Imagine”. A rather controversial choice, one would think, given that the first line goes “Imagine there’s no heaven,” which to some people would be blasphemy. Has anyone heard of any complaints about that?

Tinie Tempah. Another rapper whose name I forget. Actually, I love the chorus of “Written In The Stars” – “Written in the stars/ A million miles away”, etc. – but I’m really not a rap person. Jessie J, who, to be fair, is very famous and actually sang a song with a meaning. Emeli Sande, who is an excellent singer. Jonathon Ross, who I’m not convinced was actually singing, apart from that first Willie Wonka bit.

Fatboy Slim. I’m not entirely sure what he actually did, since we can pretty safely assume that all the music had been pre-checked and therefore already chosen, so he can’t have been doing that much mixing on stage.

Next, someone on a flying bicycle…some randomer in a flight suit climbs into a cannon…there’s no chance Health and Safety will let them shoot someone out of a cannon, is there? Apparently, there is. Oh, no, the cannon didn’t fire and the person has fallen out and sticks his head up…and it’s Eric Idle singing “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” from Monty Python!! And the entire Olympic stadium is joining in! People from countries you’ve never even heard of are singing along: “Always look on the bright side of life/Do do, do do, do do do do do do”! And it’s just wonderful and you have to join in at home. That, for me, was the defining moment of the Olympics, the whole world joining together to celebrate humanity.

Then Brian May walks on with his guitar. A video of Freddie Mercury warming up the audience, who faithfully follow. Half of Queen begin playing and Jessie J is walking up in a long yellow train thing and oh my god Jessie J is going to sing Freddie Mercury. That song that goes boom-boom cha, boom-boom cha. “We Will Rock You.” And, again, the whole stadium joins in. And you know: This is Britain. This is what makes Britain. Comic songs and rock music. It’s brilliant.

Well, I’ve been going on a bit, and I’ve run out of time. So, remember: “always look on the bright side of life!”

Olympics Legacy

“The past is a pebble in my shoe.”

Edgar Allan Poe

Well, today is the Last Day of the London Olympics 2012. And, I hate to say it, but secretly I’m a little glad. I want the Olympics to go away so I can watch some proper telly. 17 solid days of sport is just a little too much.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we had it. I’m glad that Mo Farah got double gold and that we won the rowing and that Usain Bolt broke 100 world records. Again.

And I’m tentatively optimistic about the Olympic Legacy that David Cameron, our Beloved Leader, was wittering about on BBC1 this morning. Making team sports compulsory in schools is a Good Thing. I think this for several reasons:

  1. Team sports encourage cooperation. (Unless you are the unsporty kid who never gets to touch the ball because your sporty teammates know you’ll just drop it.)
  2. It will stop schools running those weedy non-competitive sports programmes that have no bearing on real life, ever. Children need to know that occasionally they will lose, and that they just have to get on with it, whatever “it” may happen to be.
  3. Team sports tend to be more fun than just running around in a circle or jumping on the spot or whatever.
  4. Team sports are educational because you have to think about tactics.

Our Beloved Leader, however, did not seem to think it worrying that the Olympic Park has, as yet, no permanent tenant to use it after tomorrow. Apparently several football teams are “vying” to get it. Why is there no contract yet then? The Aquatic Centre has already gone. Music Friend, who is Polish, was telling me that the stadium in Warsaw that was used for the Euro 2012 football tournament isn’t being used because it’s too expensive to rent or something. I hope to God that doesn’t happen here.

The newsreader was, in the manner of newsreaders, trying to catch Beloved Leader out on the whole Inspire a Generation thing. “21 school playing fields have been sold in the last year,” she said. 21? You’re worrying about 21 playing fields? How many schools are there in the whole country? Thousands. 21 playing fields, in the great scheme of things, is not a significant statistic. Anyway, it doesn’t matter because Beloved Leader could account for them all. “14 were sold because the schools were closing, 4 because of mergers. So that’s only 3. And they were trying to raise money for more sports facilities.” What? What? Let me get this straight. 3 schools sold their playing fields to get money for sport? Where are they planning to play this sport, in the canteen?

Never mind.

A last nugget from Beloved Leader:

“We didn’t just make the Legacy up this week, you know.”

Olympic victory!

“Holding an Olympic Games means evoking history.”

Pierre de Coubertin

Yes, and last night Britain made history at our very own Olympic games.

I’m sorry to keep going on about the Olympics. But really, I feel they are quite important. In a spirit of international cooperation and harmony and accusing each other of cheating. And they are inspirational and patriotic and a wonderful thing for the countries concerned.

Like Britain when we won three golds last night! Hurrah! I take back my harsh words about Britain’s uselessness in sport. Jessica Ennis in the heptathlon, Mo Farah in the 10000 metres and Greg Rutherford in the long jump collectively managed to win all the events in which we had athletes last night.

It was, however, quite amusing to see that someone had been confident enough to make a Union flag that said “Jessica Ennis Olympic Champion”. Did they not think this a little premature? And, I notice, no one had made one for Mo or Greg. Which probably feels like a kick in the teeth for them.

Never mind. Olympic history has been made. Now everyone can go home happy. Well, nearly everyone. All the British people, anyway.

The other day, we were halfway down the medal table. Now we are third. That has to be a good thing. So for that we say thankya.

Keep going, Team GB! Only another week to go!

PS Apparently people have started saying that our athletes should be paid more than our footballers. Well…to be honest, being a professional sportsman (or woman) is a particularly useless profession. Are you helping anyone? No. Are you doing anything for the economy or government? Not really, seeing as most foreign visitors are not here to watch our athletes, but theirs. So no sportsperson should earn more than any fireman, for instance. But that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

Could Do Better

“I love the Olympics, because they enable people from all over the world to come together and – regardless of their political or cultural differences – accuse each other of cheating.”

Dave Barry

How true. Already in these Olympics – and it’s only day six, remember – we’ve had at least two serious accusations of cheating. The first was that Chinese swimmer whose name I forget, who was accused of taking drugs, a charge that she roundly denied.

And then we had that badminton business on Tuesday.

Eight players from China, South Korea and Indonesia (who are to badminton what Jamaicans are to running) were disqualified from the tournament for, essentially, not trying hard enough. None of them wanted to win their games because losing would allow them to play a weaker team in the finals, thus giving them an easier route to gold. So, as far as I can tell, in one game the players took turns serving into the net, which is frankly unbelievable given that even I can hit the shuttle eight out of ten times over the net, and in another game the teams simply kept hitting the shuttle off court. Again, for the same reason, unbelievable.

Now, I think there are two sides to the debate. Of course, such playing is against the Olympic spirit and disgraceful and just awful, as previous Olympic badminton champion Gail Emms keeps popping up on BBC1 to tell us. And this is what Yu Yang, one of the disqualified Chinese players, has to say about it:

“This is my last competition. Goodbye Badminton World Federation (BWF), goodbye my beloved badminton. We … only chose to use the rules to abandon the match. This was only so as to be able to compete better in the second round of the knockout (stage). This is the first time the Olympics has changed the (event’s format). Don’t they understand the harm this has caused the athletes?

You have heartlessly shattered our dreams. It’s that simple, not complicated at all. But this is unforgiveable.”

Surely this is a little melodramatic? There are hundreds of badminton players, good ones, who never make it to the Olympics or get knocked out of the early stages. Their dreams are shattered, but they keep going to the next Olympics. And there are plenty of athletes who get disqualified for as little as a false start – just look at Usain Bolt. But he is still running this year. He hasn’t left the sport.

And even if your dreams have been shattered – what about the dreams of all those spectators who crammed into Wembley Arena to watch what they thought would be good badminton? They spent money, good money, to come to the Olympics, to watch what they thought would be the event of a lifetime, and instead they got top-level players playing like six-year-olds. I mean, they could have lost with a little more subtlety. It can’t be that hard, surely, occasionally to drop an easy shot rather than hitting the shuttle obviously in the wrong direction.

On the other hand, however – doesn’t it seem a bit sinister, a bit Big Brother-esque, to disqualify someone for not trying hard enough? Yes, this case is a shameful one, and an obvious one for sanctions. But I think it sets a dangerous precedent. How long before an extreme government somewhere begins prosecuting its athletes for having a bad day? “You didn’t try hard enough.” How long before a host country disqualifies other countries’ athletes for not achieving their personal best? “Well, you won gold last Olympics. This time you only won silver. Obviously you weren’t trying hard enough. Disqualified. Oh look, that means our athlete gets silver instead.”

I think the point of this post is to say that, well, cheating is bad for the sport. It disappoints spectators, and it corrupts sportspeople. By all means, stamp out cheaters – but don’t let it go too far.

You think it’s all over? Yes, it is.

“The thing about football is that it is not just about football.”

Terry Pratchett

As you all probably know, the Olympics are well under way in the great city of London.

So, I decided I would watch some over my breakfast (tea and toast and Marmite, obviously – the superfood trio). So I went to BBC1, where they were twittering. It transpired that nothing was on, or, at least, nothing was being filmed, so the presenters had apparently decided to talk about swimming and rowing rather than showing any sports.

Since I was not interested in watching  reruns of Famous (and probably Not-to-be-Repeated) Victories, I switched to BBC3 instead, where they were showing badminton, which is a good deal more interesting. The British Mixed Doubles team, consisting of Chris Adcock and Imogen Bankier, were playing the Germans: Birgit Michel and the unfortunately named Michael Fuchs.

There I was, watching the second set. And as the Germans won point after point, I sat there thinking: we British are really not very good at sport, are we?

Think about it. We’ve just lost the badminton. The last time we won the football World Cup was in 1966, and we’re still going on about it. This year, in the Euro 2012, we at least got to the quarter-finals.

And then we lost. Despite the efforts of the lovely Joe Hart in goal, we did not score once. But then, neither did Italy.

And you know what? For about ninety minutes, I really did think we could win. I dismissed the negativity of Hiking Friend and Hiking Friend’s parents as cynicism, I cheered every saved goal and sat in happy confidence, waiting for one of our people to score. (I should make it clear that I am not a football fan. But the combined efforts of Hiking Friend and Joe Hart appear to have made me one. At least for England games.)

But we did not score. Not one single measly goal. And we lost on penalties. Hiking Friend, sadly, turned out to be right.

So why do we call ourselves the Home of Football when we can’t even score against Italy, who were all over the place and fouling like crazy?

And then there is Tim Henman, who has been trying for years to win Wimbledon and has never managed it.

And Andy Murray, who, my mother assures me, is very inconsistent in his play, and who recently lost badly to Federer.

This is why I do not watch sport. Because we are rubbish at it. So it is just as well that we are so brilliant at pageantry. Because the Opening Ceremony is the only thing we can excel at in these Olympics.