Normally I prefer to view an episode twice before reviewing it but on this occasion Im 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 Gatisss 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 Childrens 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. Gatisss intrinsic Dickensian sensibilities still surface even in the 1950s with the quaint Magpie Electricals shop. His incidental characterisations are also like Dickenss rather unleavened caricatures, such as the preposterously inept father character whose catchphrase I am TALKING seems to have come straight out of Harry Enfields 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 Roses 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 Queens gender. Roses 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). Were 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. Im sorry, but its 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?
Im 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 dont get it. RTDs 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 episodes footage.
So the plus points of this episode were the suitably creepy distortions of a Childrens 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 Id 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 Im hungry in a way disturbingly reminiscent of the Great Architect in Paradise Towers? This could very well have been down to The Gelth from Gatisss superior debut, Unquiet Dead. But it wasnt. 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 Childrens Hour presenter. Gatiss effectively taps into what a modern viewer can easily empathise with as the initial TV superstitions of a Fifties audience (ones 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 Idiots Lantern, TVs 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 JNTs irrelevant brief of the Queens Silver Jubilee of 1977 in Davisons Madwryn Undead. This needless appealing to the nations 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 McCoys 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 Tennants irritating Romanic forward-combed quiff. It just doesnt look right at all.
But the biggest solecism regarding the Tenth Doctors 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 Its 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). Whats going on with this incarnation? I havent a clue, and sadly neither do the writers seem to.
Sadly The Idiots Lantern, promising though especially its gripping opening was, does not live up to the plot strengths and characterisations of Gatisss 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 Idiots 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 Idiots Lanterns Ghost Light. The opportunity for a truly intriguing story was lost here due to the restraints of a one episode format. Stylistically the episode cant 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.