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Monday, 26 June 2006 - Reviewed by A.D. Morrison

Matthew ‘Life on Mars’ Graham has – while surely attaining the accolade of most unimaginative and flat title in the series’ 28 year history – delivered a refreshingly subtle episode, empowered considerably by the directorial restraint of Euros Lyn. Fear Her benefits considerably from following the appallingly silly Love and Monsters, and comes off better all round than the overly crammed and ill-developed Idiot’s Lantern, the episode with which conceptually it shares most in common.

Both Graham’s and Gatiss’s episodes heavily borrow from the creepy oddities of PJ Hammond’s Sapphire and Steel, and significantly from one particular story of said series, the fourth assignment canonized as ‘The Man Without a Face’ in S&S fan circles, in which a faceless entity traps people inside photographs: Lantern used televisions for this purpose and Fear Her uses a child’s drawings. Simply due to the fact that Graham gives a satisfactory explanation as to the ontology of its extra-terrestrial picture perpetrators – an intriguingly ‘sensitive’ and ‘empathic’ fairy-like race, nicely realized as tiny celestial jellyfish with equally miniature space-pod to match – and their unusually innocent motives, and that Lyn directs unpretentiously (a world away from his slanted-angle pretensions in Lantern – a style only ever successfully managed in the noir-ish Happiness Patrol – and with an element of suspense, Fear Her is the more successful of the two S&S-inspired episodes. Graham also borrows from the first S&S adventure and its themes of nursery rhymes as incantatory catalysts for supernatural/alien manifestations; a theme also prominent in the fourth S&S storyline. The creepy suggestion of a phantom father appearing – in this case also a dead one – via his shadow hovering on a wall is also strongly reminiscent of the – more sinisterly shot – apparition in said S&S story one, but it again works well here in Fear Her, tapping into the worst of children’s fears: the impostor parent. As in S&S story four, the main protagonist(s), The Doctor, is eventually trapped in a picture, manipulating his own entrapment to suggest a solution to his human companion (as do Sapphire and Steel when trapped in a photo). But Fear Her still succeeds by the skin of its teeth as being something worthwhile and interesting in its own right via its inspired play on the sometimes sinister innocence of children’s pictures, and the opening animation is a striking image which sadly wasn’t used enough throughout the episode – in fact, the only similar moment was when Rose noticed the face on a drawing had changed into an angry expression on a second glance. I felt these strikingly distorted pictures weren’t featured enough which was disappointing, but the bizarre attack of the giant scribble was a nice diversion halfway through and the Doctor seemingly rubbing out a tangible object was a clever touch.

But Fear Her also borrows heavily from the ingenious plot of The Tomorrow People’s early classic, The Blue and the Green, in which an alien disguised as a schoolboy paints bizarre pictures of his home world whose colours change periodically, manipulating the emotional behaviour of the onlookers from passivity to aggression. Roger Price, creator of said series, possessed a prolific and highly original imagination which was sadly frequently let down by poor acting and production standards (in some cases, ‘poor’ being an understatement: superb and inspired though most of the Tomorrow People plots were, their realisations were mostly home-made production-wise and sometimes the show, with its predominantly juvenile cast, resembled a ludicrous medley of Doctor Who and Why Don’t You?). But The Blue and the Green is widely regarded as his best storyline and its potent influence is tangibly echoed in Graham’s episode. The weird ontology of the entities in Fear Her is also uncannily reminiscent of the Denjali in TB&TG: while the former channel their gestalt-like empathetic synergy through human innocents and their drawings, the latter travel and migrate on human brainwaves, culminating in their swarming away from Earth on the power supplied by the human race falling asleep and dreaming. Yes, quite bizarre indeed, but thoroughly original. Graham’s – unconscious? – plagiarism manages to justify itself through the highly affecting use of children’s distorted drawings, as opposed to Price’s use of garish planetary abstracts. If Who stories are going to be derivative then they may as well be derivative of inspired sources, and so far this season the choices have been well made, producing in Tooth and Claw, The Girl in the Fireplace, (to some extent) Idiot’s Lantern and Fear Her, some of the most imaginative concepts to come out of the series in a long time. Season 28 reminds me, with its jarring but oddly complementary mixture of conceptual innovation and peripheral nostalgia (Sarah Jane, K-9, Cybermen) of the massively under-rated and misinterpreted Season 20 (wherein reunions with Omega, the Brigadier, the Timelords, the Guardians and legion companions and enemies – i.e. Five Doctors – intermingled with highly imaginative concepts such as Manussan archaeology, sailing ships in space, and the uniquely dissected character of Visla Turlough).

With its blatantly contemporary suburban setting and vanishing children/youths, Fear Her most closely resembles Survival, last story of the original series; but these similarities are only ostensive, its plot and concepts being very different to Rona Monro’s script. It’s also really refreshing to have an episode focused on a different family to the Tylers for a change. The young girl’s performance is well-balanced and to be honest in some scenes she comes across as less of a kid than the Doctor himself. The Doctor’s effortlessly childish and fun-loving persona is still rather irritating in places, however, Tenant gets enough ‘serious’ moments to carry the story along to its fairly satisfying conclusion. Even his torch-carrying at the Olympics is ultimately justified by his using the flame to catapult the aliens’ pod back out into space.

Criticisms aside – and there are a fair few more that I don’t think it’s really worth going into, as they are quite minor ones on the whole – Fear Her is a pretty strong episode, nothing spectacular, but certainly more enjoyable and satisfactory than its conceptual cousin, Lantern. One does tend to feel often with the new series that some episodes only just miss the mark due to lack of subtlety in direction and atmosphere, and Fear Her eschews its full potential mainly due to speeding through its strengths (i.e. the animations, the shadows on walls etc.) rather than exploiting them fully; but then it’s difficult to create and sustain a truly chilling atmosphere when up against the clock (so far only Empty Child and Impossible Planet have managed this, both significantly two-parters – Unquiet Dead (screaming lady) and Tooth and Claw (pre-transformation scenes of the black-pupiled lycanthrope) were forced by similar time restraints to go more for the shock tactic, though both expertly done). Fear Her gives it a good try and succeeds on its own levels, delivering a plot which fits its 45 minutes pretty well and doesn’t promise what it can’t deliver. Having said that, while I watched fairly engaged throughout, I kept thinking to myself ‘yes, that bit’s straight out of Sapphire and Steel, but atmospherically it’s still not a patch on it’. But it was a good effort.