Does it deserve the criticism? A look back at Doctor Who’s Fear Her
The Tenth Doctor frequently tops ‘Best Doctor’ lists and is touted as one of the biggest contributing factors for Doctor Who’s mainstream success across the past fifteen years. Although David Tennant’s first series, the second post-revival, had now properly hit its stride, episodes ten and eleven are commonly perceived to be of inferior quality. Love and Monsters and Fear Her both attract condemnation, with the latter story ranking just below the former. But how fair is that criticism?
This is the second in a series of weekly articles revisiting some of the lowest-rated episodes of new Doctor Who, based on IMDb ratings. Part one looked at the Ninth Doctor two-part story Aliens of London/World War Three. This week, it’s Fear Her, which comes in at 5.9.
Criticism of Doctor Who is usually done by adults, but often the key demographic to consider is children. It follows that an episode aimed at children rather than adults should be assessed based on its reception by younger rather than older viewers; the guiding metric for ‘success’ should be an estimation of enjoyability for someone aged 7, not 44, for instance.
There is a key quote from writer Matthew Graham regarding the reception of this episode:
“It was only later I realised that the older fans had reacted badly to it. So, I went, ‘Well, it’s a shame that they have, but it wasn’t meant for them.’”
Fear Her knows what it intends to accomplish, and follows through on that promise. Graham set out to write an episode for children with a child at its centre; some scares, an entertaining Doctor-Rose dynamic, and a surprisingly emotional storyline.
The episode’s mystery is immediate and intimate. In terms of scares, there are some genuinely unsettling elements: children disappearing behind their parents’ backs, people trapped inside drawings, and of course the classic monster in the closet. Alongside these sci-fi horror elements, there is a dark undercurrent of real-life horror: the abusive father haunting his daughter and wife even after his death.
The intentionally low-budget episode has a quirky Tenth Doctor bringing it to life. Tennant shows off a gamut of Doctorisms here. When investigating the disappearances, he is a buzzing ball of energy, empathy and charm; when encountering the unknown, he shows a sheer delight; and opposite the entity inside Chloe, he exudes intensity.
When required, Tennant’s performance is also very funny; with the right amount of comical facial expressions and idiosyncrasies (such as eating marmalade with his fingers straight from the jar) balancing the serious themes. The rapport between the Doctor and Rose is also very endearing; their relationship is at their peak in latter half of series two, especially in this episode, where they are true equals and partners in crime.
Helping to lift things even higher is the energetic and atmospheric directing from Euros Lyn, who gives us enough epic camera sweeps around characters and over-the-shoulder hand-held shots to ratchet up the tension and claustrophobia, just like a proper horror film. The creepy writing, Tennant’s performance and the dynamic directing each work together to bring a tangible danger to an ordinary suburban English street.
At the episode’s core is the emotional story of a young girl, Chloe, and her mum, still traumatised by an abusive father after his death. That alone is enough to generate investment in the tale, but viewers are also invited to empathise with mum Trish and her conflicting feelings over knowing something is wrong with her daughter, but not knowing how to fix it. Her love for her daughter is clear, as is the reality of raising a daughter as a single mum without all the answers, and the happy ending is one to cherish.
It is peculiar re-watching this episode in 2020, eight years after it supposedly took place, and reflecting on how Doctor Who in 2006 projected itself forward. The various Olympic references do somewhat date the episode, but this is unproblematic for how eternally relevant the family-centric story proves. And let’s be honest, having the Doctor swoop in to light the Olympic cauldron is very Doctor Who.
I’m not sure why this episode gets so much hate. Any perceived drawbacks of a particular episode from a critical standpoint become moot when what really matters is what young people think. In this case, Matthew Graham has provided a solid script that was picked up admirably by production team and actors alike, creating an unsettling but ultimately heartwarming story that deserves greater appreciation than it is commonly afforded.