‘Does this mean that the Olympic dream is dead?’ Another Series Two episode with a pretty pungent reputation. There are obvious comparisons to be made with The Idiot’s Lantern as both feature abusive fathers and supernatural abductions in Union Flag-draped suburbia, with one of the leads got at halfway through. But the most cringe thing about the episode has to be Huw Edwards’ running commentary on the Olympic opening ceremony, which sounds like a man having a breakdown live on air. Still, one of my most sensible friends once rated this as the best-ever episode so it’s worth looking past the things that don’t work to the things that do.
Broadly, the concept is strong: a family-friendly version of The Exorcist with a monster that needs to be loved rather than fought (although ‘Isolus’ is the wrong name given its need for company – surely ‘Groupolus’ would be a better Terry Nation designation). The scene of the Doctor becoming Father Merrin to commune directly with the Isolus and negotiate for Chloe’s soul is a strong reveal, and Nina Sosanya’s performance as Chloe’s mum gives it exactly the right impact. It was a good call to give her and Piper the major emotional beats rather than entrust them to a child actor, and it means Abisola Agbaje just needs to play surly and disconnected. Piper also makes the most of one of her strongest parts in this series; her playful flirting with the Doctor (and her shock when he offhandedly reveals he was once a father) is less annoying than in earlier episodes, and her momentary loss of control as she yells at the Isolus/Chloe is brilliantly played.
Unlike The Idiot’s Lantern or The Impossible Planet, if you accept the premise that the Isolus can transform real things into pictures and vice versa, everything broadly hangs together without random weirdness. The scribble monster is a fun concept well realised; the near-future 2012 setting is clever; the animated drawings are more intriguing than faces stuck in a TV. None of them is exactly original (Escape Into Night and The Twilight Zone, particularly The Monsters are Due on Maple Street and It’s a Good Life are clear inspirations), but this feels less like a nostalgic homage and more like an attempt to do a different kind of Doctor Who story (or Matthew Graham defaulting to Life on Mars) with the Doctor and Rose explicitly posing as investigators.
For me, the problem is that the key scene happens 25 minutes into the episode, at which point the Doctor basically info-dumps everything we need to know about the Isolus, and the remaining 20 minutes is just waiting for the solution to play out. It’s not a drag, as such, as the Doctor is converted into a drawing, but the upping of the stakes to put the entire planet at risk feels to me very artificial. The story was at its best small scale, one street torn apart by something living among them. I’m not sure there’s an easy fix to this, short of having Rose play the exorcist, but for me it’s the biggest problem with the episode.
There are smaller problems: the 10th Doctor is still being written as “wacky” in a way I feel was toned down in subsequent series (all the ‘fingers on lips’ stuff, eating out of a jar, and the funny voices), although I do like his facetiousness crumbling in the face of a scared parent. The monster dad makes sense, but after a series where we’ve already had Rose’s parallel father reject her, Tommy’s father a fascist bully, and Ida Scott running from her own dad, it’s not a great year for positive father figures. And why no one is willing to walk past a scary door to save the entire population of Earth defies belief.
Overall, there’s nothing disastrously bad about this; I think it’s better than The Idiot’s Lantern, and it’s a pity that Doctor Who will soon stop trying stories like this, hiving them off into The Sarah Jane Adventures instead. A bit more time to reshape and refocus could have resulted in an exceptional episode rather than an interesting failure. And it’s almost a shame that the final moments don’t cap off this story, but set up the next, as Rose declares, ‘They keep on trying to split us up but they never ever will’ just before an iconic trailer (and our first glimpse of Freema Agyeman) promises, ‘This is the last story I’ll ever tell.’
An enthusiastically Welsh host of a TV show called Crime Crackers appeals to the public for help finding the missing children of Dame Kelly Holmes Close before a brief glimpse of the monster daddy. Nice idea, but the execution adds to the sense that by 2012 all TV presenters were having a collective breakdown.
Next Time: Army of Ghosts