As we approach the 60th Anniversary of Doctor Who, revisit the story of Doctor Who, the occasional series written for the 50th Anniversary, explaining the origins of the programme.

Episode 31 - An Unearthly Series - The Origins of a TV Legend: First published 23 Nov 2013

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Sunday, 28 May 2006 - Reviewed by A.D. Morrison

Normally I prefer to view an episode twice before reviewing it but on this occasion I’m going by my gut instinct of a fairly concentrated initial viewing. My pre-broadcast observation was that this was an intrinsically intriguing scenario, lifted, I know, from the writer Mark Gatiss’s own previous Who novel, Nightshade – so fair enough for self-plagiarism; tapping into the pernicious superstitions of televisual technology is something very apt for a quirky series like Doctor Who, and its puzzling how this has taken so long to emerge in TV Who. The title, however, is a little unsubtle and rather tongue-in-cheek (though by no means as crass and unimaginative as the impending Fear Her – and to think I used to think Survival was bloody bizarre for a title!).

What I became aware of throughout this very oddball episode though was that it seemed to be a ‘story’ completely beholdent to its core motifs, those being the highly evocative and creepy ones of a specious Children’s Hour presenter, viewers having their facial features sucked off them by the TV screens (a nice twist to CGI grotesques) and then reappearing trapped inside them. All brilliant images but in many ways lifted – perhaps unconsciously – from the superb fourth adventure in the largely forgotten series Sapphire and Steel. In that episode, often referred to by S&S fans as ‘the Man Without a Face’, a Time entity uses old photographs as a means to manifesting itself (without a face) and bringing the dead subjects of the photos back to life, in a beautifully realised sepia form. By the end of the adventure a person is actually trapped in a photograph and burns to death when it is ignited by a match.

What Gatiss has done is transpose this plot to the medium of television, and this is an inevitable and welcome progression and in itself well-suited to Doctor Who. Gatiss’s intrinsic Dickensian sensibilities still surface even in the 1950s with the quaint Magpie Electricals shop. His incidental characterisations are also like Dickens’s rather unleavened caricatures, such as the preposterously inept ‘father’ character whose catchphrase ‘I am TALKING’ seems to have come straight out of Harry Enfield’s equally caricaturish catchphrases such as ‘I AM ‘AVIN’ A FAG’. A repressed Black-Shirt, this paternal tyrant is laughably portrayed by a familiar-looking actor, and serves as a fun-figure for Rose’s post-Girl Power teasing. Not sure what the point was here but I suppose it was nice to see the Doctor display Gallifreyan puzzlement at the way Fifties’ housewives seemed to be treated, drawing up the analogy of the Queen’s gender. Rose’s mocking the father at the evident sacrilege of putting up the Union Jack upside down – a really callow vestige of the pointlessly self-promoting ethos of the Brit Pop Nineties – was to say the least, excessively irritating, inappropriately patriotic and just plain parochial, smacking of the equally puerile national onanism of Empty Child/Doctor Dances (as if a Timelord from Gallifrey should find it instinctive to wax lyrical about how Great a piddling island on a distant primitive planet is in the face of tyranny. Laughable – and a far cry from the near-misanthropy of the Fourth and Seventh Doctors). We’re also supposed to seriously believe that a girl who struggles to pronounce the names of all and sundry aliens and planets, is privy to the not popularly known fact that the Union Jack is only the ‘Union Jack’ when flown at sea, but is otherwise the ‘Union Flag’. I’m sorry, but it’s a bit late in the day to start investing Rose with any real vestiges of intellect. The name Rose has been niggling at me for some time, mainly because it sounds slightly old-fashioned, and now I think I see what it is alluding to: the motif of the English Rose. Interestingly also, if you put the initials of Rose and The Doctor together, what do you get? Or indeed if you put those of Rose Tyler and Doctor together? Am I simply analysing things too much?

I’m also very disconcerted by a producer who claims to be an anti-Royalist atheist, and yet in the series so far we have had almost ubiquitous Union Jacks, mystical, supernatural explanations for plots, and now tedious footage of the 1953 coronation. I don’t get it. RTD’s idea of satire so far is the Doctor saying ‘Margaret Thatcher – urrr’ in Tooth and Claw, and his slightly sarcy recognition of the Queen in this episode’s footage.

So the plus points of this episode were the suitably creepy distortions of a Children’s Hour TV presenter (particularly the random off-shot images of her face, slightly distorted), the faceless viewers, the trapped faces in television screens, the understated and moody character of Mr Magpie (whose initial scene toiling over his debt calculations was very amusing) and some – albeit rather drunken – lop-sided camera angles to add to the tension. Oh and the now fairly typical Season 28-ish shot of the darkly shadowed back of a figure in a dark room (i.e. the faceless grandmother), which was creepily directed. The finale was also fairly dramatic with a clamber up a TV aerial, though by this point I’d gone beyond even asking what the heck it was all about!

And this brings me to my main criticism: namely, what the heck was it all about? Who or what on Earth – or off it – is The Wire? Why did Maureen Lipman keep saying ‘I’m hungry’ in a way disturbingly reminiscent of the Great Architect in Paradise Towers? This could very well have been down to The Gelth from Gatiss’s superior debut, Unquiet Dead. But it wasn’t. Instead it seemed to be down to an escaped Sapphire and Steel entity straying accidentally into the Whoniverse. So we get no real explanations about the nature or motives of The Wire, only a disarming representation in an insidious Children’s Hour presenter. Gatiss effectively taps into what a modern viewer can easily empathise with as the initial TV superstitions of a Fifties’ audience (one’s worst paranoia, that a face on a TV screen can actually see you) which echo those similarly morbid preoccupations of those originally exposed (excuse pun) to photography: that it traps your souls. In The Idiot’s Lantern, TV’s do just that by stealing your features: those physiognomic aspects which makes you ‘you’. An interesting slant, but the fact remains this story seems to stretch facelessly around its core motifs and ingredients, and the insistence of a producer to include the 1953 coronation as a plot pre-requisite smacks instantly of JNT’s irrelevant brief of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee of 1977 in Davison’s Madwryn Undead. This needless appealing to the nation’s inimitable introspection is palpably played out in this odd episode. As is the excuse to have Rose in an outfit from Grease and the Doctor sporting a Teddy Boy ducktail haircut. Utterly bizarre. Could you have imagined the Seventh Doctor with a similar cut in Delta and the Bannermen? Seemingly David Tennant can get away with it due to youth and the sort of looks with women find a little more ingratiating than McCoy’s craggy own. My main confusion as to how to take the Tenth Doctor revolves largely around his haircut to be honest: I know Troughton, even more eccentrically considering his mature cragginess at the time, had a topical Beatles’ haircut, but somehow that sat far better on him than Tennant’s irritating Romanic forward-combed quiff. It just doesn’t look right at all.

But the biggest solecism regarding the Tenth Doctor’s characterisation is his tendency to frequently champion pop culture replete with puerile aphorisms snatched from some of the most dubious contemporary sources: in this episode we get ‘It’s Never Too Late – who said that? Kylie I think’. A far cry from the days of Tom Baker quoting from Shakespeare (Planet of Evil) and Kipling (Face of Evil). Mr Gatiss, what are you playing at? We thought the series was in safe hands with your scripts. No doubt a lot more than we thought rubbed off on the Doctor during his spell in the Big Brother household last season. We now have a Doctor, a tenth incarnation we are supposed to seriously believe is weary with timeless age and wisdom, frequently quoting third-rate modern pop lyrics as some philistine attempt to proffer sagacious aphorisms. This has to stop! As do such crass lines as ‘There is not higher authority than me’ and ‘This stops tonight!’ and, in this episode, ‘Nothing in this world can stop me!’ (or some such pulp). What’s going on with this incarnation? I haven’t a clue, and sadly neither do the writers seem to.

Sadly The Idiot’s Lantern, promising though especially its gripping opening was, does not live up to the plot strengths and characterisations of Gatiss’s debut, The Unquiet Dead. Lantern is steeped in curiosities and lingering images, but this time round the story seems to have been written around these, betraying a rather thin plot anaemically developed from a far more promising premise, and little in the way of substantial explanations regarding the true nature of the ‘token’ extra-terrestrial adversary. If ever a new Who story so far desperately needed a second episode to fulfil its potential, The Idiot’s Lantern does. In time the drawn-out comic strip of Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel will come to be seen as the Battlefield to Idiot’s Lantern’s Ghost Light. The opportunity for a truly intriguing story was lost here due to the restraints of a one episode format. Stylistically the episode can’t be faulted much, its direction, though often agonisingly lop-sided – making one feel rather drunk watching it – is impeccable, but sadly the plot and characterisations are lacking and the overall impression is of a series of intriguing glimpses swamped by unnecessary Coronation footage, caricaturish characters and directorial onanism.

Maybe it will improve on re-watching. A tentative 7/10; possibly 6. Interesting, but disappointing.

FILTER: - Television - Series 2/28 - Tenth Doctor

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Sunday, 28 May 2006 - Reviewed by James McLean

With Mark “The Unquiet Dead” Gatiss at the helm, we are whisked off into England’s past to see the Queen’s Coronation, Squiffy haircuts, archaic BBC footage and most importantly, the year 1953.

“The Idiot’s Lantern” is a stand-alone episode that takes Doctor Who away from the action epic of the Cyber Saga and back to its more New Series orientated character drama. Period drama is what the BBC has always excelled at and The Idiot’s Lantern is a lavish slice of fifties Britain. While I’ve never had the chance to dip my twinkly toes into the 1950’s, I’m assured by several elder sources this was a pretty authentic take on the time and captured the atmosphere of the Queen’s Coronation.

The tale is a fairly simple: The Doctor and Rose unintentionally land in London, 1953 just before the Queen’s Coronation. In usual style, they find themselves slap bang in the middle of a rum mystery involving missing faces, cutting edge TV sets and a new callous villain called “The Wire”.

To a certain degree, the fantasy element of The Idiot’s Lantern plays a relatively minor role for the majority of the story allowing Gatiss to immerse the viewer into the characters and social dynamics of the period. The whole episode is focused around the Queen’s Coronation and that not only plays an important story role, it also successfully roots the audience in the 1950s via a major event.

In the forefront of the story is Mr. Magpie, a debt riddled television salesman under the control of villainous The Wire. Magpie is a beautifully tragic character lucklessly doomed from the show’s teaser. We also have the Connelly family - an atypical 50s household with a dominating husband, a submissive mother and son who is gradually rebelling against his father’s authority. As much as they are an example of the post war family unit, the challenge between the father and son convey the transition between the rigidity of the 1950s to the liberalism of the following decade. Eddie the father is a portrayal as to how historically rigid many family sets were in post war England, trapped in their need to retain a sense of order after a decade filled with uncertainty. The irony as to how so many who fought against the unrelenting power of German forces would assert a similar dictatorship in their own home – particularly against the shift in a younger more liberal generation - is not lost in this story. As with Tommy Connelly, the youth of the 1950s began experiencing a life beyond the constraints of fear, death and rationing as times became wealthier and more stable. As the stability grew, the young began to balk at the controlling older generation and we see Tommy do with his father. These historical movements are neatly encapsulated in this episode - quite a feat for a little teatime sci-fi drama.

This intense and rich focus on the 1950s characters works in more ways than one. Not only does it bring the period to life, it actually supports the story’s weaker arc -the fairly uninteresting alien threat.

The interstellar invasion of the week - The Wire - is consuming the faces of the local populace by absorbing their energy. The Wire’s intention is to escape its non-corporeal form via the communities TV sets. It is all very quirky science fiction, replete with that unique Who flavour. The Wire’s visual identity of a televised 50’s BBC announcer (played by Maureen Lipman) fulfils that Doctor Who requirement of being both eccentric and British all at once.

Unfortunately, people being left as faceless zombies was a key threat of “The Empty Child” last season and this concept doesn’t really evolve beyond Moffat’s gas masked creations. The Wire’s demands of being “Hungry!” is overused and Lipman’s abrasive cries become rapidly irritating. Furthermore, when Rose has her own face absorbed, the story automatically loses the threat value because we know the process will be resolved in order to save the heroine.

That said, Rose’s dilemma does benefit the story as much as it dissipates the danger. The Doctor’s reaction to the faceless remnant of Rose does add some extra energy to the story; by making the attack personal, it brings the Doctor even further into the mix. Tennant plays his more edgy Doctor persona perfectly.

Personally, I had a second benefit to this plot turn - we loose Rose for half the story. From being pleasantly surprised with Rose’s character in Series One, I’ve grown to find her presence detrimental to my viewing pleasure. For this story she is – as always – perfectly performed by Billie Piper and realistically written by Mark Gatiss. In The Idiot’s Lantern, dear Miss Piper is really pushing her all into the role, clearly looking for ways to give the audience a fresh take on Rose Tyler. Piper pulls off all her lines with ease and Rose never feels contrived, nevertheless Miss Tyler is simply frustrating to watch. Throughout Series One, many viewers have struggled to see what the Doctor saw in Rose; just what for him put this companion beyond all his others. We are now half way through Series Two and it feels as if we’re still no closer to understanding what makes her so special. Yes, she does occasionally see things which one wouldn’t expect a 19 year old to notice, for instance, the mass of aerials on the houses they pass in this story was unusual for 1953 – it is indeed Rose who spots this. However, she seems to retain far more negative attributes compared to the Doctor’s past associates and certainly far from the perfection he seems to see. She is demanding, cocky, selfish and when it suits, quite manipulative. These characteristics are indeed a perfect portrayal of a teenager, but unlike Mickey or the Doctor, Rose doesn’t feel like she’s evolving through the Doctor’s travel. Maybe this is realistic - she is a fairly arrogant and confident character, and such are the types who rarely change, but as we watch the Doctor’s presence affect so many (and in this episode we see how several characters break their shackles in his company) we see no advancement with Rose and this is frustrating. There is no progression from irritating selfish love struck teen, to anything further.

Perhaps, the reason why Rose can’t evolve is that she’s locked in a deep relationship with the Doctor and akin to Whedon’s Angel and Buffy characters they are trapped within the limits of their relationship. With no signs of any catalyst to change this dynamic and with Rose’s background fully explored, the chemistry stagnates.

In fact, I’m not even sure whether it’s Rose who is so frustrating – maybe the Doctor, for whom Rose’s importance overrides all else. We see in “Rise Of The Cybermen” how he follows Rose on one of her impulsive whims leaving Mickey alone, clearly doubting his worth to Rose or the Doctor. He and Rose seem blissfully unaware or uncaring when their travels ice others out and this has long term damage to the audience’s relationship with the lead characters.

Thankfully, both Tennant and Piper do their very best to keep The Idiot’s Lantern fresh and visually exciting. Nevertheless, if there is a weakness to Doctor Who at the moment, it is Rose. In fairness, Rose was actually fairly fun this week, so any audience animosity – in this reviewer’s opinion – comes down to an overspill of her more negative presence in previous episodes.

Regardless, having her absent for half the episode didn’t do the show any harm at all and with Rose, I’m wondering if less is more; if having a reduced role actually makes her more likeable.

While the characters really captures the British values of the 50s, the resolution has a little too much contemporary social value. I would be surprised if Eddie Connelly would have been so easily kicked out of the house in 1953 - even if the house were in his mother-in-law’s name. In the 1950s, courts did not favour divorces filed by the wife unless there was evidence of extramarital affairs. While there is no explicit reference to divorce, it is fairly clear the family is heading towards break up. One wonders whether Eddie is suffering a resolution at the whims of 21st century expectations and this does jar with my understanding of the period. The outcome is not an impossible solution for 1953, but one that feels contrived to appease the audience than to be true to the era. Perhaps one could argue this is just evidence of the Doctor’s presence - once again affecting those who meet him.

I was also a little uncomfortable with the advice Rose gave to Tommy about not cutting off his father. This maybe a realistic piece of advice to come from Rose bearing in mind her own personal feelings towards her dad, but the implication is that Eddie is not just mentally abusive, but physically. I’m not sure having the narrative imply that such relationships should be continued simply because of blood relations is healthy. I would go so far to suggest there would be few in the medical field that would generally advise someone like Tommy to retain ties with Eddie. Mental abuse alone can wreck a child’s ability to function in the world and any such ties should be broken until the kid is at an age to deal with parent on an even footing. It is certainly a questionable moral to end the show on.

While the show’s pacing is fairly fluid, the finale gets a little confused. I certainly wasn’t sure if DI Bishop would become such a believer in The Wire affair so quickly as he seems to accept the situation all too fast. Furthermore, the time differences between Magpie and the Doctor’s race to Alexandra Palace appear a little garbled. The Magpie rushes to Alexandra in a van and races up the transmitter, yet the Doctor manages to find time to grab some gadgets from Magpie’s shop, go to the TARDIS, grab some more gadgets, run to Alexandra Palace, set up said gadgets and then make it up the transmitter in what seems like relatively the same space of time. Be there a missing scene with a car or TARDIS, whether there was some serious stalling by a drained Mr. Magpie on his climb up the tower, the final cut just doesn’t flow evenly to the story’s climax.

Nevertheless, The Idiot's Lantern is a good story. It does suffer from a couple of minor glitches in pacing and a diminished threat value but in the overall scheme, it doesn’t damage the production. It has to be said that the acting is excellent throughout and the incidental music complements the drama. However the highlight of the story is Gatiss’ script - there are so many intelligent and witty touches to the dialogue it truly is a delightful experience.

The Idiot’s Lantern is another great episode from a generally excellent second series. The fifties are very much brought to life and Elvis would be proudly rocking in his grave at such a decent rendition of the era – that is if he was actually dead of course.

FILTER: - Television - Series 2/28 - Tenth Doctor

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Sunday, 28 May 2006 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

Having penned ‘The Unquiet Dead’ for series one, Mark Gatiss returns with more of the same for series two in the shape of ‘The Idiot’s 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 Doctor’s 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 Doctor’s assistant has to hurriedly effect repairs. And it isn’t just Doctor Who that ‘The Idiot’s 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 Idiot’s 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 Doctor’s explanation is gibberish, and there is also the question of why the victims don’t 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? It’s a bit like imprisoning a cat in a box and expecting to magically resurrect any mice it’s 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 isn’t a plot hole, but it is another example of the Russell T. Davies school of “tell, don’t show” writing.

And yet, despite all of this, ‘The Idiot’s 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 somebody’s 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 (“He’s 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 Idiot’s 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 he’s 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, he’s 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 isn’t 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 Idiot’s 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 don’t even know where to start” when the Doctor asks him if he wants to be doing more to find out what is stealing people’s 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, “That’s the Union flag. It’s only the Union Jack when it’s 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 Eddie’s, “I am talking!” with an angry cry of “And I’m 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 Idiot’s 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 Idiot’s Lantern’ manages, despite being somewhat unoriginal in many aspects, to be hugely entertaining, and an enjoyably traditional nod to the past. Which isn’t at all unwelcome every now and then.

FILTER: - Television - Series 2/28 - Tenth Doctor

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Sunday, 28 May 2006 - Reviewed by Joe Ford

That was…unexpected. That was the lightest episode of the new series yet, lighter even than Boom Town and far more irrelevant because at least that episode had some things to say about the Doctor’s adventures. Mark Gatiss has always been famous for providing us with typical Doctor Who adventures your gran would love to watch with you on a Saturday evening (Phantasmagoria, Last of the Gadrene and The Unquiet Dead all fall under that category) and now he has proven that that is his forte. Unfortunately on this occasion, I was left wanting and for once it wasn’t because I wanted more from the story we got but because I want more from the series.

This is the third historical episode of the year (yes I know setting a story in 1950’s is hardly what you would traditionally coin a historical, what with your gran sitting watching with you actually remembering that glowing period) which has chickened out of exploring the past over some alien threat. I read in DWM that there was a complaint last year that the historicals lacked jazz and the result has been that this year you have a story set around disposing Queen Victoria (with warewolves), a story about the lovely Madame de Pompadour (with clockwork soldiers) and now a story set in the marvellous Hovis (I kept hearing that music in my head as this episode played on) street with an energy being that zaps you from your TV set. Tooth and Claw is by far the most successful of three because it devoted equal time to its surroundings and its plot, The Girl in the Fireplace was cleverly written but much of the atmosphere was lost on a SF driven plot and now The Idiot’s Latern fails to capture the toastiness of the era because it is far interested in some obscure and (frankly) boring alien threat. Why can’t we have a pure historical story? One which allows us to soak in the richness of history. I watched The Aztecs the other day and it was as gripping as any of the new series episodes and featured a culture as alien as Daleks or Cybermen. I wanted to see more of the jazziness of the era, more of the domesticity…but instead we end up on a transmitter with a monster screaming out “HUNGRRRRRRRYY!” Yaaaaaaawn.

Whilst I’m having a moan I would like to point out that Euros Lyn’s direction of this story was extremely jarring. The first scene out of the TARDIS is pure Grease, with jazzy music and sickly costumes and sharp cuts. Then there is the soap opera scenes inside the Connelly household, filmed at the most bizarre angles, so distracting I kept trying to angle my head so I could see the shots straight. Then we are into horror territory with the old woman silhouetted by the window and the Doctor trapped admist the shadowy domain of faceless beings. Finally its action set pieces, with rapid scenes cutting between Magpie and the Doctor on the tower as the story reaches its hectic conclusion. Now Lyn is a fantastic director and none of these scenes are bad, in fact seen isolation they are beautifully lit and stylishly shot. But there is an inconsistency of tone, which is very disturbing; I was never quite sure which genre I was watching. The director even finds a spot for a piece of film noir, with high angles shot through the ceiling fan and a long shot through a smashed window of the Doctor and the detective talking. Lyn interprets the schizophrenic script with as much flair as we have come to expect but I felt as if I was being pulled in a ten different directions at once.

Performances are generally strong but two of the most important ones are slightly off kilter, which contribute to the uneasiness of the episode. Mr Connelly was a bit OTT for my liking, okay so this is a guy who holds his household together with strong discipline but his constant cries of “I AM TALKING!” were more hilarious than they were dramatic. He keeps upping the eye boggling shouting throughout, although despite this I did feel for him when he was kicked out of his own home. I was really looking forward to Maureen Lipman’s performance in this episode, as she is an actress I have always admired, but she was never given material of her calibre. Anyone can stare at screen and scream “HUNGRY!” and “FEEEEEEED MEEEEEE!” and during her tiny scenes taunting the Doctor and Rose she is superbly menacing but there isn’t enough of these moments. It feels like a big name guest star wasted and that is never a nice feeling.

Billie Piper surprised me because she was able to give the loosest performance of the years thus far and it is astonishing how much fun Rose can be when she is not ignoring Mickey, emoting over her Dad or mooning over the Doctor. Rose is really spunky in this episode, from her clothes to her dialogue and I found this to be Piper’s most appealing performance since The Doctor Dances. I adored her “Shame on you!” and then that cheeky grin. I hope she keeps up this sense of fun. David Tennant continues to add layers to his already textured performance as the Doctor. Isn’t he dangerous? You just want to hug him all over when he springs from the TARDIS on that motorbike but when he discovers Rose without a face he turns nastier than we have ever seen him before, with eyes that could sour fruit and a vicious line of biting dialogue. When the 10th Doctor gets like this he is far, far scarier than any monster we have ever seen. His protective nature towards Rose is terrifying and I fear we may be seeing some nasty consequences of this darker side to his character soon. Tennant is still a manic ball of energy, impossible to take your eyes off and giving a mesmerisingly considered performance, choosing him to play the Doctor is still the best decision this production team have ever made.

Didn’t this episode have a touch of Matt Jones’ Bad Therapy about it…I mention it only because Jones is writing the very next episode. In Jones’ excellent New Adventure Bad Therapy (which is set in the fifties) there are black cabs roaming the London streets abducting people and blank faced monsters! The character of Tommy even reminded me of gay boy Jack who assists the Doctor in saving the day! Well only steal from the best I say! The blank faced victims were the scariest thing about this episode and something I have always found absolutely terrifying (anyone remember that horrific episode of Sapphire and Steel?). The make up (or CGI, I couldn’t decide which!) was horribly convincing and the scene where the Doctor is surrounded by them gave me the shivers. The black cab-stealing people from their homes was less interesting but it did lead to that marvellous sequence where the Doctor and the detective interrogate each other, with the Doctor slowly getting the upper hand throughout the scene. Oh and I must mention the scene where Rose realises the Wire is talking to her directly from the TV screen, that moment invoked a feeling of wrongness that really creeped me.

By far the most impressive thing about this entire episode was the performance from Rory Jennings as Tommy which was so on the mark for a child actor I felt like applauding. Doctor Who has a terrible track record when it comes to kid actors (let us all remember the Conrad twins and Matthew Waterhouse) but Jennings gave a warm, realistic and sensitive portrayal of a young man trying to break from his Dads shadow and help his family. I loved it when he turned on his father reminded him why he fought the war and frankly the only reason I was so wrapped up in the finale was because he was still involved. I would have loved to have seen him leap into the TARDIS at the end, it would be fantastic to see the universe from the point of view of a child, I should imagine those horrors would be all the more terrifying. Sod Adam, forget Jack (he’s got his own spin off show) and now Mickey is out of the way (saving the universe with his new boyfriend) we need a new fella in the show…and it would have been a smart (and interesting) move to see Tommy join the crew. Alas it was not to be but the acting on display still deserves recognition.

In fact it was the domestic scenes that I enjoyed most about this episode, a story that Mark Gatiss clearly relished writing but did not put enough through into. He’s all for atmospheric settings and crafted characters (both present here) but the alien threat is really poor here and the explanation and exploration behind it is handled in a insultingly cack handed manner.

The Idiot’s Lantern is not the weakest episode of the series to date (The Long Game, Father’s Day and New Earth were all less interesting) but it is something of a misfire for the series, some tasty ingredients but overall leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.

FILTER: - Television - Series 2/28 - Tenth Doctor

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Sunday, 28 May 2006 - Reviewed by Gareth Thomas

Oh dear... Doctor Who has often tried to mix social commentary and moral purpose with good stories, but here we saw the combination buckle under the pressure of being asked to do too much too quickly.

Think how discretely and poignantly Remembrance of the Daleks drew parallels between the inter-racial Dalek conflict and the latent racism/fascism of elements of post-war Britain. Then think how clumsy and bombastic The Idiot's Lantern was by comparison.

Eddie Connolly's character is not properly introduced or developed - except that he enjoys Muffin the Mule. We are just asked to accept at face value that, because he represents post-war British, working class, patriotic masculinity, he must be a crypto fascist/Stalinist bully. I'm sorry, but this is very lazy writing and deeply off-putting. The episode seems to have been a vehicle for the programme makers' prejudices about the ills of pre-1960s society - ills which the camp contemporary combination of the Doctor and Rose are able to cure through sheer force of smug, self-righteous personality.

As for the story - yeah, great. A good idea and well realised through a wonderful performance by Maureen Lipman. I'm not quite sure why draining electricity from the brain should leave people without their faces, but I guess it was a clever metaphor for robbing people of their personalities, which brings us back to the unimaginative critique of conservative 1950s society.

Rose had a good week, being more proactive and independent than of late - particularly in the scenes with Magpie - but it didn't really get her anywhere. She didn't contribute to the resolution of the problem, which was another too-easy techno-babble resolution. And the 10th Doctor seems to going through some of the insecure emotions of his predecessor - loss turns to anger turns to petulant self-importance and self-righteousness.

The pseudo-historical used to be a good means of exploring alternative situations, but in this episode it was just a vehicle for sloppy political correctness. Doing a critique of post-war Britain is one thing - and perfectly fair. But making it so simplistic and heavy-handed is an insult to the social conscience and historical traditions of the series.

In The Aztecs, when Barbara challenges the barbarity of the human sacrifice, we are certainly inclined to agree with her. But that point of view is at least balanced by the Doctor's insistence that you can't change history and that (by implication) you have to take cultures as you find them. Doctor Who today has traded this element of moral questioning for a less sophisticated cultural imperialism.

Next week's episode looks great, but haven't we been here before?!

FILTER: - Television - Series 2/28 - Tenth Doctor

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Sunday, 28 May 2006 - Reviewed by Geoff Wessel

So I was pretty interested in this from the preview last week, looked like it coulda been a little somethin' different. And then I saw who wrote it: Mark Gatiss.

Awwwww CRAP!

Sorry, kids, this is kinda gonna be the opposite question I asked of Steven Moffat earlier this season: will Gatiss repeat the suckage from "The Unquiet Dead"?

Well, thankfully, no, he didn't. But only just. Things started out right good, alien menaces travelling via TV transmissions and stealing faces, juxtaposed against the story of a family held hostage by an abusive father figure, the day before the coronation of Elizabeth II. OK, seems about right for this new breed of Doctor Who tale.

And I liked the Wire...when she/it was mimicing the personality of the TV presenter whose image it/she appropriated. When we got into "HUNGRYYYYY HUNNNNGRYYYYYYY" I wanted to stick spikes into my ear canals.

No, I was a lot more interested in how much of a cowardly bullying sell-out PRICK Mr. Connelley (sp) was. Thinks he's lord of his domain and did everything in his power to make sure everyone knew it. Until, well, someone who had no fear of him came along...

And the Doctor. Wow. That was actually quite an... angry performance from Tennant. I liked it. Quite a bit. For once the 4th Doctor comparisons really came to fruition.

Rose, of course, didn't really figure into the action past a certain point. In a way that's relieving sicne she's been annoying me the past couple episodes. But of course here she comes at the end because she still has unresolved Daddy issues so of course she puts them onto Tommy... blurgh.

And what's with the bad character continuity this season? Or do they really just not care about the kinda shitty way they parted terms with Mickey?

Oh, and "idiot's lantern," featuring TVs that suck off your face and suck out your soul? Real subtle there guys....for 1970.


FILTER: - Television - Series 2/28 - Tenth Doctor