The Idiot's LanternBookmark and Share

Sunday, 28 May 2006 - Reviewed by Frank Collins

Well...are we sitting comfortably? Good...I'll begin.

The Idiot's Lantern isn't really about aliens invading via our television sets. It's about human monsters, as Rita in the story observes, 'living under our very own roofs'. The episode is very much concerned with Britain of the '50s. Gatiss really does encapsulate the approaching floodtide of the bold, new Britain that would be ushered in with Wilson's Labour government in the early 60s and its focus on the 'white heat of technology'. He also cleverly lines up the paranoia of the 50s with the moral panics of the present day. Many of the debates are similar.

This is post-war, austerity Britain. You have to remember that many families were torn asunder by the Second World War and then forced back together again after VE day. This is Eddie Connelly's dilemma. He fights for the 'British' way of life and then returns home to find that Empire supposedly being infiltrated by Communist and Fascist and other 'alien' elements. The very enemy he defended the country against seems to him to have sunk its claws into his community. This is ' Churchill's England - not Stalin's Russia'. Or is it...in the mind of Eddie Connelly? Eddie's actions arise because he thought he was doing the 'right thing' through a very distorted view of his own patriotism. A final thread is also visually represented by the Doctor and Rose in their ' rock and roll' personas. Don't forget that rock and roll was perceived as yet another bad influence on the teenagers of the 50s and this is regularly iterated throughout the episode.

These themes are as relevant today as they have ever been when we see the BNP taking council seats because the Eddie Connellys of this world see a threat in anything that is 'other'. Hence, two very resonant scenes - the family all gathered round the TV and the Aunt of the family observes that Tommy is a 'Mummy's boy' and hopes that Eddie 'can beat it out of him' and the later scenes where Tommy turns on Eddie - where Gatiss cleverly uses the ' we fought for you' argument to allow Tommy to state his case against a rather brutal father. Having had a similar relationship to my own father, I really recognise the in-fighting in this family. These are the archetypical arguments of a 50s parent trying to stem the tide of 60s liberalism in the name of patriotism. Nothing much has changed, I'll warrant.

The meat of the episode for me is the relationship between Tommy, Rita and Eddie. It is as much about a young boy finding his own voice despite the threat of violence, possibly discovering his own sexuality, as well as an adult woman realising that the man who came home from the war is still fighting that war and still believes a woman's place is in the home as a subordinate. For me the episode triumphs with Rita's emancipation from Eddie. Yet, in an echo of 'Father's Day' (how we keep coming back to this episode!) Rose advises Tommy not to abandon his father. Eddie is not painted so black - there is hope for that relationship. It is a fitting resolution.

Thematically, Gatiss weaves in observations on fascism and communism and a direct link to classic 50s SF movies and television - 'Invasion Of The Body Snatchers' and 'Quatermass' are particular examples. as well as links to Who's own history with 'The Faceless Ones'. Indeed, there is also a visual link to 'Sapphire And Steel' with the faceless victims of the Wire and it captures some of the mood of that series. Other visual clues include the swastika style TV antennas to really underpin the message as well as Euros Lyn's slightly over used film noir composition and strange angles.

Symbolically, the disembodied faces are a representation of the Wire's appearance or projections into our outside world. The Wire represents the mistake of trying to deal with problems and anxieties in the outside world without coming to grips with them in the subconscious, interior world first. This relates to Tommy's relationship with Rita and Eddie. However hard Tommy tries to deal with a problem in the outside world (his father's contempt, his budding adulthood, his desire to be himself) it is made to recur in the threat of the Wire's subjugation. Tommy's diffculty in relating to his father is transfered to the Wire's manifestation on the TV screen. It is the Doctor who takes on the role of surrogate father that allows Tommy to become himself and help defeat the Wire. Rose then transfers her knowledge (from 'Father's Day') to Tommy in an effort to get him to connect to his own parent because she knows all about disconnection in the outside world..

The multi faces on the many TV screens in Mr. Magpie's shop are representative of the fragmenting of a fragile society. Individuals without voice, without the strength to argue with those that demand conformity ( Eddie and The Wire). I loved all the links to early television as this translates to a general fear of all that is new. People did really think that television would 'rot the brain into soup till it comes pouring out of your ears'. There is a fear of the unknown potential of the medium ably articulated here. The antennas become lightning rods for transmissions of a different kind. Bright serpents that come to steal the minds and bodies of the innocent. Lovely nods to early television shows such as Muffin The Mule and What's My Line as well as the landmark coverage of the Coronation.And to balance out the references to the past, Gatiss even throws in a nod to Kylie.

Ron Cook's marvellous Mr. Magpie is also another highlight. A wonderfully rich performance that details a man's journey, bird-like, from the earth to the sky above (the transmitter at Ally Pally). It is about his transcendence from misbegotten businessman to a sacrifical lamb who paves the way for the Doctor to defeat the Wire. Maureen Lipman's playing of the Wire was sublime. She got that Sylvia Peters BBC intonation just right and then added in the malevolence of the alien entity to the mix. Her 'feed me now...I'm hungry' will no doubt be echoed by many chldren up and down the land. It is also a playful acknowledgement of the alien plant from 'Little Shoppe Of Horrors' as well as a symbol of the oncoming explosion of the consumer society that would replace the austerity of 50s Britain.

Euros Lyn is now one of the top directors working on the show. His noirish sensibility and evocation of the period through pulp fiction and comic strips really comes across on the screen. It is a tad over-laboured but it makes the episode very distinctive.

Finally, we literally do see God Save The Queen...as the Doctor resigns the Wire to a Betamax video tape. The white heat of technology still-born with an obsolete recording format.Let us not forget that the current monarch became a constant in the life of 50s and 60s Britain. A figure that stands in the midst of continual upheaval. Her coronation was an act that reassured the populace that in the midst of turmoil there still would be one standard bearer. It is also symbolic of women achieving power in a very patriarchal society and Rita's dismissal of Eddie is yet another, domestic echo of this. It is all about renewal after a period of vulnerable uncertainty.