The Black Archive: Love & Monsters

This piece originally appeared, in slightly altered form, in the Celestial Toyroom fanzine. 

~

I remember the first time I saw Love & Monsters. This was back in 2012, when I was still a brand new Whovian racing through the Davies years. Lying on my sofa, under my little blanket, I absorbed everything. I knew this show would never let me go.

Love & Monsters was fun. That’s what I remember most. It made me smile. LINDA didn’t know the first thing about the Doctor, and neither did I. They were a bunch of hopeless nerds, and hey, same. I felt like I was right there with them, chasing the Doctor, trying to get a grip on what this whole space adventure lark was all about. I remember saying “I just saw one of the best Doctor Who episodes of all time!” and “I’m gonna show this to everyone, it’s so good!”

The internet disagreed.

Strongly.

It turned out that the story was almost universally hated. Fans had felt themselves mocked by their own showrunner. And while I could see where they were coming from, I wanted to learn more.

So as my love for Doctor Who became a way of life, as I made my way through audios and books and comics and conventions, I kept looking back to Elton Pope’s adventure. I talked to a lot of fellow fans, to find out what made this episode such a big old jar of Marmite — why some people enjoy Love & Monsters, while others despise every moment of it.

Image (c) BBC
Image (c) BBC

For me, the episode was a game. Davies did everything he could to alienate the viewers. A story that wrong-footed us at every turn, a bit of cat-and-mouse between the showrunner and his fans — I thought it was marvellous! It reminded me of things like Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera and Threepenny Novel, and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I saw the narrative as Davies poking fun at himself as well, presenting himself as just another one of those silly old LINDA-like Who fans for a laugh.

But as I dived in deeper, I started to better understand the discomfort. The portrayal of fans as gullible, ineffective stalkers. Uncomfortable questions of agency around Ursula’s transformation. Elton’s mum dying so that his own feelings could be explored. The tribal-coded mohawk, loincloth and cannibalist themes in the Abzorbaloff’s design. And I also realised that Davies could poke fun at himself all he liked, but that he wasn’t really in LINDA anymore — he’d already left that part of fandom for good. Maybe he’d even become more of an Abzorbaloff than an Elton, a super-fan lording over the Doctor’s life. Was it right for him to play these games with us? Was he holding the show’s regular format hostage, in a way? Did we really need 45 minutes of nerds sitting on old chairs and shaking tambourines, of Elton’s dancing and Jackie’s miniskirts and fart jokes?

Obverse Books offers a wonderful space for exploring those kinds of questions. The novel-length Black Archive dissertations treat each story with a mix of criticism, investigative spirit and plain old love for Doctor Who. So when Black Archive submissions opened up in 2017, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about. I would become That Nerd Who Wrote A Book On Love & Monsters Of All Things.

I had a lot of fun doing the research, prodding at the episode’s Brechtian tropes: the alienation, the use of different perspectives, the contradictions in tone throughout the episode. I looked at the narrative structures of sci-fi, gross-out comedy and detective stories. I read up on the convergence culture of 21st century fandom: the way people flock together and bond by analysing what fascinates them. I dived into the social dynamics of it all, and the way fandom group efforts so often end up abused by those who want to be in charge of a franchise.

But I also saw the sheer power of fans reflected in the episode: from the most casual viewers, those who make Doctor Who part of their world just by watching it, to all the eager storytellers who became part of Who production with their own perspectives. And sitting in the middle of all that was William Grantham, the nine-year-old artist who made his own fan monster in a story for fans, about fans, created entirely by fans.

Compiling this book meant a journey into the world of, as Andrew Pixley once wrote, “dusty archives and wind-swept quarries pursuing that elusive piece in the jigsaw”. There’s so much depth to fan communities that we never really think about. I ended up exploring Marxist exchange value dynamics in fandom: the difference between production of fan works for our own in-group, and for some outsider in charge. I looked at media encoding and decoding: the intentions of the author, the perceptions of the audience, and everything that happens in between. The so-called ‘Death of the Author’ theory (the idea that the fans, not the creators, decide what every story is about) offered a beautiful way to explore LINDA’s own agency, as well as that of Love & Monsters’ viewer base.

I examined the moral economy of fandom: the ways in which fans use their passion, knowledge and experiences to become part of fan circles, and the reasons people like Elton end up sighing “it’s not his fault…” when their favourite obsessions disappoint them. I dug up Post-Formalist theories of narrative time dilation, in which the heroes get parked to make way for strange storytellers-du-jour. And I felt a surge of queer pride when Davies, in his Who’s Round interview with Toby Hadoke, called Ursula’s transformation a “gay metaphor”; a symbol of the way society often sees queer relationships as monstrous. Of course! Of course a woman stuck to a paving slab could stand in for being gay! It’s Doctor Who — anything goes!

Most of all, I found a wonderful community while writing this Black Archive. So many people came up to me to say how much they loved the episode. Sure, they could all see the awkwardness and camp, the disgusting rubber-suit monster, the fan characters becoming creepy stalkers, but they still adored the whole thing because it spoke to them. I made so many new friends who helped me with my investigation ‘n’ detection, and my book became a love letter to the comradery of Doctor Who fandom itself.

I hope my book will convince some people to look beyond Love & Monsters’ awkwardness. But even if they keep on hating the Marmite taste, I’m incredibly proud anyway to have contributed to the Black Archive range, and to be part of Obverse Books.

Because this is what we, the fans, do best. We get swept up by these stories, we scrape away the layers to see what’s hidden inside, and we write endlessly about everything we discover.

And, just like Elton, we don’t care what anyone thinks.

We love it.

~

The Black Archive on Love & Monsters is available from Obverse Books

Image (c) Obverse Books
Image (c) Obverse Books

 

 

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