Edwardian-social-issue-of-the-week: Xenophobic bigotry
“Supernatural” crime of the week: Alien abduction (‽ )
The Monsters of Nethermoor mixes some playful narrative tropes with serious social commentary on the evils of racial and cultural prejudice.
The scene is set in the countryside at night as two young lovers, Daniel and the pregnant Rosie, lie on a blanket whispering sweet nothings and watching the stars. Their rural idyll is violently disturbed by the nearby crash-landing of a large glowing object that falls from the sky, trailing a fiery tail. Investigating the crash scene, they are suddenly beset by a group of pale, thin, seemingly humanoid creatures!
The next morning, Daniel wakes up stripped of most of his clothes and confused as to what happened to him. There’s no sign of Rosie …
Houdini, Doyle and Stratton arrive by train in the small village of Nethermoor, determined to solve the mystery of Rosie’s disapperance. They discover that Daniel, who is of African ancestry, has been locked up in the local jail, at least partly for his own protection; Rosie’s belligerent uncle Jim is convinced that Daniel has harmed her and that he invented the story about monsters to cover his tracks. Houdini tries to make peace with Jim, but is harangued for being an American; clearly, some of the citizens of Nethermoor don’t take kindly to strangers of any stripe. Doyle is also suspicious of Daniel, reading his confusion and certain other symptoms as signs of alcoholism.
Houdini hypnotises the traumatised Daniel to help him recover his memory of the night’s strange events. Daniel recalls that one of the “creatures” wore a distinctive medallion, and also remembers the smell of a particular local flower. The team’s investigations then lead them to the crash site. In an odd reversal of their normal roles, Houdini is initially of the opinion that an alien space-craft may have landed there, but Doyle scoffs at the idea and is proven correct when they discover a large meteorite crater.
Returning to the village, the team interviews “Mad Martha”, an elderly local woman who also claims to have seen the creatures and who believes them to be harmless goblins. Martha, it transpires, is a refugee from the European pogroms (anti-Jewish purges) of the previous century.
Later, Houdini has an angry run-in with Jim, who challenges the magician to a fight. Houdini retorts by challenging the bigot to punch him in the stomach; after Jim sucker-punches him across the face instead, Houdini ruthlessly beats the man into submission. We learn that Houdini’s tough childhood as a member of a poor Jewish family in the American Midwest has especially sensitised him to racial intolerance.
Doyle, out for a night-time stroll, is accosted by one of the strange pale beings and wakes up the next morning, as Daniel did, with his outer clothing stripped away and with confused memories of the encounter.
Returning the next morning to the crash site, Houdini and Doyle discover a nearby cavern whose walls are decorated with unusual pictograms. They are suddenly attacked and bound by the pale beings, who, it turns out, are actually descended from Martha’s fellow pogrom refugees, who had worked in the area as miners until they were driven out of the village by xenophobic locals many years before. The cave-dwellers are now suffering badly from emaciation and lead poisoning.
They, too, are afraid of “outsiders”, but they are not actually violent, preferring to maintain their legendary status to frighten off intruders or, if necessary, to render them unconscious with a chemical compound. The cave-dwellers had actually rescued young Rosie, who had gone into labour the night she “disappeared”, and have been sheltering and helping her ever since.
Houdini, Doyle, Rosie and the cave-dwellers emerge just as a mob of angry villagers approach the cavern. An impassioned speech on tolerance from Rosie stills her neighbours’ rage, and Doyle plans to help the cave-dwellers get the medical assistance they desperately need.
- While it is, in a sense, refreshing to see Houdini take the role of the believer and Doyle play the skeptic, and while both of them a given at least semi-plausible, character-based motivations for the role-reversal, it still comes across as being a little trite.
It’s difficult to avoid the impression that this episode tries too hard regarding red herrings. The exercise of retro-fitting modern UFO tropes such as alien abduction, repressed memories revealed by hypnosis, etc. to the Edwardian English countryside is fun, but the coincidences of timing and circumstances become distractingly implausible. The use of the term “spaceship” was also jarringly anachronistic, despite Houdini’s references to H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, etc.It’s possible that the story would have been more successful without the overt science-fiction elements; if, for example, the writers had allowed the cave dwellers to be perceived as goblins or elves rather than as aliens, perhaps drawing from the case of the so-called Cottingley Fairies.
Other possible historical inspirations include the famous mystery of the Green Children of Woolpit, who may have been a pair of Flemish immigrant children who wandered off from their own settlement in the English countryside, the greenish hue of their skin being explained by disease and/or diet as they wandered through the unfamiliar forest.
Speaking of plausibility, it’s hard to reconcile the enfeebled, sympathetic pogrom survivors we meet at the end of the episode with the agile, frightening creatures they had appeared to be in earlier scenes.
- Houdini challenging Jim to punch him in the stomach refers to his purported real-life habit of making the same challenge to prove his strength and toughness, and especially to the infamous scenario in connection with his untimely death.
Constable Adelaine Stratton still doesn’t have a tremendous amount to do, with most of the emotional and narrative weight again being borne by Houdini and Doyle. However, the ongoing mystery of her past, and most especially her relationship with her husband, are clearly being developed as series-long plot arcs. We worry that becoming too much of a “woman of mystery” may rob this potentially exciting character of her agency, though.Rating:
‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ _ _ _Seven ibangs out of ten for this unusual and imaginative but not entirely successful story.