Having penned The Unquiet Dead for series one, Mark Gatiss returns with more of the same for series two in the shape of The Idiots Lantern. What is striking about the episode is that, in the classic series, it would have been unremarkable, whereas in the new series, so resolutely traditional is it in so many ways, it stands out as an oddity. So traditional is it in fact, that in many respects it feels almost wholly unoriginal.
Doctor Who has always worn its influences on its sleeve, but The Unquiet Dead draws so heavily on both the series past and other sources that it that it feels less like homage and more like plagiarism. Wittingly or unwittingly, Gatiss draws upon various Doctor Who stories here; the disembodied megalomaniac executed for crimes committed who demands bodies and cries out Hungry! is hugely reminiscent of Paradise Towers, whilst the Doctors struggle atop and aerial to prevent his enemy interfering with a broadcast recalls Logopolis. The Doctor rigging up a MacGuffin to defeat the monster invokes large chunks of the Pertwee era, specifically Spearhead from Space as the machine malfunctions at the last minute and the Doctors assistant has to hurriedly effect repairs. And it isnt just Doctor Who that The Idiots Lantern draws inspiration from: nasty things coming out of televisions have been explored in various films from Poltergeist to The Ring, and the ending, in which the Doctor traps the villain on a betamax tape and then promises to record over it is straight out of The Mighty Boosh episode The Priest and the Beast.
The Idiots Lantern also suffers from lapses in logic. The faceless victims of the Wire are all very creepy, but why exactly does a creature that feeds on the electrical activity of the brain even manage to steal faces? The Doctors explanation is gibberish, and there is also the question of why the victims dont immediately die of suffocation. The restoration of the victims at the end once the Wire has been trapped on the tape is equally nonsensical: does the creature, as the script claims, actually feed on the activity of the brains, which would devour it, or merely sequester it, which makes no sense in the context of Gatiss script? If the former is the case, then why do they get their faces and personalities back once it is trapped? Its a bit like imprisoning a cat in a box and expecting to magically resurrect any mice its eaten. Gatiss script also features one of the most cringe worthy overwrought lines of the entire season, as the Doctor discovers that Rose has become another faceless victim, and bellows, Now, detective inspector Bishop, there is no power on Earth that can stop me! It isnt a plot hole, but it is another example of the Russell T. Davies school of tell, dont show writing.
And yet, despite all of this, The Idiots Lantern actually works. Largely this is because Gatiss has such a great love for the old series that he distills the ingredients listed above to actually make something guaranteed to please rather than something experimental, rather like cooking somebodys favorite meal. The episode perfectly fits its running time, with a beginning, middle and end, with no unexpected padding in the last ten minutes, and is perfectly paced so that it builds nicely from an intriguing mystery to a dramatic climax. The Wire, a ranting megalomaniac, is the sort of villain that people think Doctor Who always used to do, and works very well, partly because Gatiss gives it odd but striking speech patterns (Hes armed and clever! Withdraw, withdraw and The Wire is feasting!) and partly because Maureen Lipman is superb in the role, simultaneously portraying a nineteen-fifties television presenter to perfection, whilst delivering dialogue such as Hungry! and Feed me! surprisingly effectively, making the Wire rather creepy.
Setting The Idiots Lantern in 1953 also pay off well. This is an era rarely visited in Doctor Who (Delta and the Bannermen is the most obvious example, but that story set out to capture the rock n roll spirit of the time and is a very different beast), and exploiting the coronation is a stroke of genius; in the twenty-first century, with multiple television channels and with the Royal family virtually just another set of tabloid celebrities, it must be fascinating for any kids watching to realize just how big an event both the coronation and the ability to watch it on television actually was. Gatiss captures the spirit of the times perfectly, with families gathered round the television, and the street party at the end, but he also looks at it from a contemporary point of view whilst questioning nineteen fifties stereotypes. Thus, Eddie Connolly is portrayed as a bully, and described as a monster for reporting the faceless people to the police, but hes visibly afraid, motivated by fear of losing everything he holds dear. Which of course he ends up doing because of, not in spite of, his efforts, as his wife throws him out. Bristling with pride and patriotism, and desperate to maintain a stiff upper lip and appearances for the neighbours, hes recognizable character type, but Gatiss never lets the viewer forget that this a man who obviously cares for his wife and son, even if he isnt very good at showing it. So whilst he challenges the oppressive views of nineteen-fifties Britain, with ??? angrily telling his father, You fought against fascism! You were fighting so that little twerps like me could do what we want, say what we want!, Gatiss also adds a coda in which the Doctor pointedly asks the boy, New monarch, new age, new world? No room for a man like Eddie Connolly? and he and Rose send him after his father.
The Idiots Lattern has several other characters who work just as well, including Detective Inspector Bishop, who amusingly switches from being a typical hard-nosed copper to suddenly deflating and bemoaning, Twenty years on the force, I dont even know where to start when the Doctor asks him if he wants to be doing more to find out what is stealing peoples faces. The unfortunate Magpie, a man down his luck even before the Wire enslaves him and subsequently doomed, is not unsympathetic, frightened and wracked with guilt. But most important perhaps is Gatiss use of the regulars. Rose is well-utilized here, immediately questioning the fact that everyone has a TV aerial, and demonstrating the intelligence to follow the Magpie lead, albeit not the common sense to at least try and leave a message for the Doctor. She also, amusingly, gets to take Eddie down a peg or two, icily informing him, Thats the Union flag. Its only the Union Jack when its flying at sea and later, Only an idiot hangs the Union flag upside down. Best of all, whereas in The Unquiet Dead, Gatiss gave us a Doctor who let the monsters in through gullibility and then had to rely on the sacrifice of a supporting character to save the day, here he is a man of action, dealing with the Wire as he hangs perilously off the transmitter aerial, effortlessly taking command of the police, and putting Mr. Connolly in his place, furiously responding to Eddies, I am talking! with an angry cry of And Im not listening! Gatiss also has fun with the increasingly annoyingly over-convenient psychic paper, deliberately taking things over the top, as the security guard at Alexandra Palace believes that the Doctor is King of Belgium.
The Idiots Lantern also looks great, the location filming showing nice attention to detail, and meshing seamlessly with the sets. Director Euros Lyn once more demonstrates his abilities as a Doctor Who director, but perhaps what is most astonishing about the episode is that even Murray Gold does a half-decent job, providing a dramatic incidental score that manages to build tension with resorting to the same tired riffs that have repeated throughout previous episodes.
Overall, The Idiots Lantern manages, despite being somewhat unoriginal in many aspects, to be hugely entertaining, and an enjoyably traditional nod to the past. Which isnt at all unwelcome every now and then.