I gave this episode an average three stars when it first went out – that isn't bad (and I certainly pretty standard for series two), but I had no real desire to watch the episode again. I watched a few of the others multiple times, but this one just slipped off the radar after broadcast. Now, rewatching it for the first time since it first aired, I think I can put my finger on why. Fear Her contains many good ideas, but it also represents a lot of what's wrong with series two.
The opening scene is certainly pretty corny, making liberal use of the basic stock character of the wise old woman who sees what others can't. The premise behind what she's saying is chilling enough; the silhouette at the window is spooky and the child's drawing suddenly coming to life points to a potentially astounding story, but very quickly it becomes clear that there's a gap a mile wide between the episode's basic concept and what actually makes it to the screen. Things don't improve much when the regulars arrive, but in this episode I'm laying the finger of blame squarely at the door of Matthew Graham and any script editor who had a hand in the writing: the Doctor ignoring Rose (“little cakes”, etc.) as she tries to speak to him is a crude and unfunny attempt at comedy writing and Kel the workman is a two-dimensional cipher whose only role in the story is to turn up unasked for and spontaneously start explaining the plot. The tone and quality of the episode is best represented in the early scene where various cartoonish“ordinary suburbanites” appear seemingly out of nowhere, surround the Doctor and Rose and deliver a massive amount of plot – it's poor writing, even if the plot itself is interesting.
Now, Fear Her was never originally meant to be broadcast, as apparently it was an emergency replacement for Stephen Fry's non-starter of a writing commission. Perhaps I should be a bit more forgiving to its glaring clumsiness then, taking into account its rush-job status. The trouble is, it feels like a rush job, and no care has been taken to sand down the script's bumps. The characters are just tools for the plot to advance, as if the Graham had written them in that way first but then sent the script off for production before he could flesh them out further. Maybe this is no fault of anyone specific, but the fact is that I can only judge an episode by what's on screen and what's on screen is amateurish stuff.
That said there is material to enjoy here, and I feel myself getting into the episode more once the Doctor and Rose begin exploring the street properly and discovering funny energy readings, patches of low temperature, et al. Graham has clearly put more effort into the characterisation of Trish and Chloe and this doesn't go unregistered (Abisola Agbaje is a bit wooden, but child actors very often are). Tennant is still giving us his annoying Wacaday-channelling performance and his numerous London-copper impressions get old very quickly, but it has to be said that the character is written much less smug than in earlier episodes. This, really, is Fear Her's major ace card: the Doctor and Rose seem to have grown out of their back-slapping routine that made me want to kick my screen in throughout much of The Idiot's Lantern and The Impossible Planet. It culminates in the excellent moment where the Doctor unselfconsciously scoops a fingerful of jam out of Trish's pot; this is exactly the kind of innocent, naturalistic faux pas that best characterises the Doctor as a true alien presence, and it's a pity that it represents an exception rather than a norm for the programme.
For a few brief moments the episode is quite fun – the scribble monster is one of Doctor Who's most inventive and original ideas (come on, what other show on at the moment would do anything that eccentric?), and the Doctor questioning Chloe about her father brings up some very disturbing subtexts about child abuse (“I dream about him...staring at me”). Normally the new series ties its subtext to the end of a battering ram, but this is clever, subtle and surgically precise. Admittedly the nature of the discussion forbids anything more graphic than this in a family show like Doctor Who so in a sense all the episode is doing is working within its limitations, but I appreciate good writing when I see it. Graham also has the right idea about keeping the drawing of Chloe's father unseen.
Unfortunately good writing only surfaces occasionally in Fear Her, and the Doctor invoking another massive burst of exposition by performing a superpowered mind-meld on Chloe is a hugely lazy plot device (and I don't care if it has a precedent in The Girl In The Fireplace; it was lazy there too). The Isolus is an interesting alien with a well-defined idea behind it, although in practice things are slightly different: in many ways the presentation of an emotional-journey monster is symbolic of the simplistic, blinkered lack of ambition that held so many of series two's episodes from ever reaching higher than average. I mean, the show had already used a thematically-similar ploy to defeat the Cybermen five episodes previously. And how exactly does turning people into drawings bring them closer to the Isolus, anyway? You'd think that with so many character just standing around explaining things there'd be room for an answer to that; there's some fuzzy logic here.
I suppose I should reserve a space in this review for the Doctor's admission of fatherhood, but in reality there isn't much to say about it. It's a throwaway line that has very little impact on subsequent episodes; it isn't even new information since it's been long known that the Doctor is a grandfather, notwithstanding various fannish logic-bending arguments about why Susan isn't actually his relation, which I won't go into. All I can say is that it's a good scene: like the jam moment, it's unpretentious and natural.
Oh right, here we go with the Olympic beacon. From its first appearance we have Huw Edward's humiliating commentary about it being a “beacon of hope and fortitude and love”, uneasily foreshadowing a truly awful finale. The relentlessly saccharine tone that the episode adopts in its last moments is really too much to take, especially considering that the rest of the episode hasn't been better than almost-okay right from the beginning. Maybe a better episode could have pulled off such brain-melting schmaltz, but not this one. Singing to the father is a spooky high point in the midst of all this: I ask you, how effective is it to only see a moving shadow? It means that you see a walking cartoon in your mind's eye, and it looks better there than it would actually on the screen. Alas it's a fleeting moment, as now the Doctor has picked up the torch, and it's more than a flame, it's heat, and light, and love...it's unbearable, isn't it? Every episode of series two, without exception, has at least one moment that makes me cringe but this takes the biscuit, particularly since I watched the episode in company the first time round. It's just a terribly misconceived Disney finale, and naturally Murray Gold has to come along synthesising every string player in the world and make the problem several thousand times worse. His music is sugary and patronising at the best of times; here, it's hard to go on listening. To close the episode we get the roughshod, fourth-wall breaking foreshadowing of the previous episode which at least isn't any less sophisticated than what's come before.
Nice ideas abound in Fear Her, and perhaps I should be a bit more sympathetic for its last-minute status, but nevertheless this is a clumsy, shabby episode of Doctor Who. It's a lot less smug than other episodes of the series though, and that helps, but there's a certain point where I can't go on finding reasons to overlook its flaws. There are plenty of worse episodes out there, and Fear Her was always destined to have it hard, but on its own terms it's a real hack job.