Fear Her ★

Clunker in which a child's drawings become reality – "a cornucopia of cringe"

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Story 176

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Series 2 – Episode 11

“If living things can become drawings, then maybe drawings can become living things” – the Doctor

Storyline
The Tardis arrives in London shortly before the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Games. The travellers discover that children have gone missing from a modern estate close to the Olympic Stadium. The Doctor soon finds the source of the mystery: 12-year-old Chloe Webber, whose drawings of local residents cause them to vanish. Chloe is inhabited by an Isolus, which is using ionic energy to kidnap children so its alien companions can take over their bodies. When the Doctor and thousands of Olympic spectators also disappear, it’s left to Rose to prevent the Isolus from extending its plans…

First UK transmission
Saturday 24 June 2006

Production
January–February 2006. Main location: Page Drive, Tremorfa, Cardiff. Studio: Unit Q2, Newport.

Cast
The Doctor – David Tennant
Rose Tyler – Billie Piper
Trish Webber – Nina Sosanya
Chloe Webber – Abisola Agbaje
Maeve – Edna Doré
Tom’s dad – Tim Faraday
Kel – Abdul Salis
Driver – Richard Nichols
Neighbour – Erica Eirian
Police officer – Stephen Marzella
Commentator – Huw Edwards

Crew
Writer – Matthew Graham
Director – Euros Lyn
Designer – Edward Thomas
Incidental music – Murray Gold
Producer – Phil Collinson
Executive producers – Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner

RT review by Mark Braxton
(filed 24 June 2016)
Between the darting and detailed extravagances of early Series 2 and the big-finish clash of returning foes, something needed to give in budgetary terms. Fear Her was that scapegoat (present-day, no big names, not many props or monsters…), and it was clear that scripted ingenuity would be required to smooth over the joins.

The story has a very specific agenda, and it may be the proscriptive nature of the commission that has led to its infamy – voted 192nd out of 200 stories in a 2009 poll, it was the lowest-placed New Who, 27 places behind The Long Game!

Originally the slot was to have been filled by a Stephen Fry story called The 1920s, until its ideas were deemed too costly. But is Fear Her’s reputation entirely fair, given the straitjacket that writer Matthew Graham was strapped into?

First let’s set the scene. In a 2011 interview Graham said that with a traumatic two-part finale looming, Russell T Davies wanted the 11th story of the series to be “a playground adventure”. Graham added, “What we had set out to do right from the start with Fear Her was tell a story that was aimed very much at children. For children, not really for adults, not really for the older Doctor Who fans.”

Maybe this explains the bright-and-shiny prologue set on a redbrick estate, like something from The Lego Movie. But soon the primary-coloured world is plunged into shadow. Arrestingly, a housebound schoolgirl picks up her sketchpad and draws a young boy with superhuman speed. The drawing comes to 2D life and the boy screams as he runs towards the camera. So far, so familiar…

I wanted so much to like Fear Her, with its heavy homage to the Catherine Storr novel Marianne Dreams and its adaptation for both TV (1972’s Escape into Night, terrifying) and film (1988’s Paperhouse, flawed but still terrifying). The heroine of the novel, ill and bored, takes solace in pencil and paper, and her unconscious dreamscapes are furnished with the people and places of her feverish artwork. Interestingly, the father is a minimal presence in the book but a furious one (albeit imagined) in the film, suggesting that Graham was perhaps more influenced by the latter.

In the original story, Marianne’s heavy, anger-fuelled strokes of the pencil end up as bars over a bedroom window; here, Chloe’s scribble becomes animated as an irate hoverfly. One that the Doctor dispenses with by means of an eraser!

Despite being targeted at children, Fear Her’s backdrop of missing children and an abusive father is very dark territory, and it’s this mixture of bleak premise and knockabout humour that produces such a queasy watch. This kookaburra doesn’t so much sit in a gum tree as lead us up one.

Abisola Agbaje as the body-snatched Chloe and Nina Sosanya as Chloe’s fretful mother Trish are both excellent. It’s what goes on around them that we have the devil’s own job believing. And the problems really solidify when the story becomes a PR exercise for (the then-forthcoming) London 2012…

As we’ve seen before, newsreaders are not actors. So getting them to sell lines like “The crowd has vanished” will always be an uphill struggle. Huw Edwards is one of our finest news anchormen, and live occasions often bring out the best in him. But the following, supposedly live, TV commentary is properly awful, a cornucopia of cringe: “Er, um… they’re gone. Everyone has gone. Thousands of people have just gone. Er… um… right in front of my eyes. Um… it’s impossible!”

I still have to blink when I see Tennant with the Olympic torch and an egg-spaceship flying through the air, as if it’s all been a terrible dream. The Doctor is our hero, of course, but he’s not Steve Redgrave.

It’s certainly not all bad news. Fear Her has good intentions, and there’s a sweetness to the idea that these empathic, jellyfish-like beings latch on to the lonely. The parental theme even prompts the Doctor to reveal, “I was a dad once,” suddenly making sense of series one way back in 1963, when he travelled with his granddaughter. But it’s a narrative cul-de-sac, not pursued by Rose or developed by Graham.

In 2016, we’re still waiting for further developments on that score…

But it seems unfair to have a pop at a story that was never intended for me or for my contemporaries. As Matthew Graham said: “From my side of it, the response was brilliant. I had loads of kids write to me and say how much they enjoyed it.”

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RT Archive

In 2006, writer Matthew Graham introduced the episode for RT’s Doctor Who Watch.

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David Tennant and Billie Piper – rare RT photos from 2006

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