The Worst Episode of a Show I Love
A few months back, when I was catching up on the modern era Doctor Who, I wrote a blog post at my Blogspot account, The Other Worlds, about the episode “Love and Monsters” and how sometimes things can go horribly wrong when making entertainment. At the same time, I had recently started watching the Nostalgia Critic, and many of his videos contained clips from movies featuring things meant to be cute or funny, but, due to poor special effects and the uncanny valley, turned out horrific. “Love and Monsters” has a similar image, but not only was the image unintentionally horrifying, it was coupled with a thematic message that was extremely at odds with my world view. I felt I needed to put down my thoughts into words, and below is an excerpt of what came out:
Like much of good science fiction, Doctor Who knows how to add a bit of bittersweet poignancy at the right times. Sometimes it’s a little overwrought (to me, Rose’s utter devotion to a father she never knew toes the line between sad-in-a-good-way and unbelievable), but usually, it’s amazing. Just look at the last two episodes of the first series, or the end of “The Satan Pit,” when we see just how devoted Rose is to The Doctor. But things went horribly wrong in the very next episode, “Love and Monsters.” From what I’ve read and heard, this episode isn’t exactly a fan favorite, but the ending affected me so much that I felt the need to write this post. So let’s get into it.
The episode was not going to be a favorite of mine even before I got to the ending, as it did not follow The Doctor and Rose, but rather a quintet of socially challenged misfits brought together by their belief in the existence of The Doctor (after the episode ended, I learned that each subsequent series has featured a “Doctor lite” episode; I did not find this to be good news). [Note: since writing this post, I have come to see the Doctor- and companion-light episodes as some of the show’s best.] I started warming up to it once I accepted that I wouldn’t be seeing much of The Doctor and Rose and enjoyed the way they eventually started opening up to each other and learning how to interact with other people. But then a strange newcomer showed up and promised to help them find The Doctor. From his first scene, it was obvious that he was the antagonist of the episode, and I don’t mean that in a way that was obvious only to the audience, who have the luxury of genre savviness and knowledge of formula. No, his evil purpose should have been obvious to the characters (the first thing he does is shut off the lights to make his entrance, then turn them back on with a command of his voice), but for some reason, they just couldn’t figure it out. There were other hints as well, but the characters remained blissfully unaware until the end of the episode when his plan was revealed.
The stranger was an alien who ate by absorbing into his skin anyone who touched him. He wanted to absorb The Doctor in order to acquire all of his knowledge of time and the cosmos, but along the way, he absorbs four of the five characters. The only one who was spared had just declared his intention to begin dating one of the others (in maybe the angriest date proposition I’ve ever seen), to which she acquiesced. Unfortunately, she was absorbed, and at the end, we see the last remaining character, alone, monologuing to a video camera (the entire episode was framed by him making a video diary of his experiences). To me, it was a good, sad ending to a just-all right episode.
And then it happened.
As it turns out, The Doctor was able to salvage the consciousness of the remaining character’s love interest when the alien died. (It was defeated when the character, Elton, destroyed a device that limited the alien’s ability to absorb to people it touched. When Elton destroyed the device, the alien, and the four other characters, were absorbed into the world around it.) Using his advanced technology, The Doctor was able to bring Elton’s love interest’s face and memory back through the absorbed ground and keep it in a cement tile. Observe:
Oh, but it just gets worse from there. Elton talks about how they have a relationship and they love each other, which I know is supposed to be bittersweet, but to me, it just raised some very disturbing questions . First and foremost was, if they have a relationship, then does she… Before I could even finish that thought, I got my answer when Elton says “We even have a bit of a love life.”
Ok, so that disturbing image aside, here is why this supposedly bittersweet ending unnerved me to no end.
1. The Sex Thing
Just, augh! That is a mental image I do not need. But I have intellectual reasons for not liking this. The girlfriend, Ursula, is just a face, so any love life that they may have certainly isn’t shared, unless the girl derives pleasure simply from giving… head (sorry for the pun). But even if she did, she has almost no pleasure centers to experience such sensation. She has lips, which are sensitive, but will kissing and giving oral sex be enough? Relationships are about more than just sex, but sex is an important part, and mutual pleasure is essential.
It’s not like either of the characters were social butterflies to begin with, but they will now probably never leave the house again. Elton didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would be comfortable shrugging off the stares from people who can’t understand something outside the norm (and this is nearly as outside the norm as you can get), so he and Ursula likely would never be able to do “normal couple stuff” aside from talking to each other and… no, not going to think about that anymore. I think we’re supposed to find this acceptable, because, as I said, they were not social. But the entire point of the first third of the episode was that when these people can find others like them, they can finally branch out, be social, and do great things. Also, it was clear that, despite being socially inept, Ursula liked being out places (she talked about going to Trafalgar Square with others after an attempted alien invasion).
3. The Uncertain Future
Ok, so these two love each other, but they were never able to go on a date before Ursula was absorbed. They knew each other for a few months, but there were probably many things about each other they still had to learn. What happens if they realize they aren’t right for each other? Elton has all the power, because he can always go out and (attempt to) find someone new, while Ursula had enough trouble finding someone when she had a body. Now that she can’t go anywhere without Elton’s help, she would probably never have the option of attempting to find a new suitor (only to cause a fit of screaming when said person sees a talking cement tile with a face). Even if they didn’t break up, what if they had a fight? Would he just “put her away”? It’s not like she can do anything about it. What if he does something like that after she… no, not thinking about that.
4. The Certain Future
One of the things Ursula says after she has been blocked is that she will never age. To me, that implies that she will never die. Maybe I’m wrong. But my reaction when I heard that was “Holy shit, The Doctor brought her back from the dead to live forever as a slab of concrete, while her ‘true love’ will eventually die.” One sec.
What the hell is wrong with The Doctor? He is usually so wise in the ways of life, death, time, etc., but this seems like a horribly out-of-character terrible decision. [Note: As we would learn, The Doctor isn’t exactly as wise and benevolent as he initially seemed, but even with all of his failings, this still seems beyond the pale.] The lesson should have been “life goes on,” not “you can hold on to anyone and anything if you try hard enough, regardless of the consequences.” It is very possible that my opinion of this particular aspect is colored by another recent revelation I’ve had from watching all those Nostalgia Critic/Nostalgia Chick videos, which relates to cheap, unearned, and out-of-nowhere resurrection plots in children’s entertainment. (Seriously, just go watch a bunch of those videos, and you’ll be amazed. If I ever go to film school to get a Master’s degree, I’m going to base my thesis on this.)
I was discussing this with a friend, and he approached this from the point of view that saving Ursula is not a worse alternative to letting her die. He found the ending creepy (but not nearly to the same degree as I did; I’ve written a pretty sizable online essay to exorcise the demons of that ending after all), but no alternative inherently worse than the other, and that, in the actual ending, allowed the two characters to have some bittersweet happiness. As this post was meant to show, I had to respectfully disagree.
I can’t remember the last time I had such a visceral negative reaction to media that I enjoyed. I’m sure they exist, but much more often, I feel this powerfully in a negative way about things I don’t like (obviously). I find myself enjoying Doctor Who despite its flaws, but this episode, this ending, just got everything gloriously wrong for me.