The Idiot's Lantern
|Production Code||Series Two Episode Seven|
|Dates||May 27 2006|
With David Tennant, Billie Piper,
Written by Mark Gatiss Directed by Euros Lyn
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.
|Synopsis: "Welcome to television! Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then we'll begin."|
"Are you sitting comfortably. Then we'll begin..." by Joe Ford 29/5/06
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 du 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 it's 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 a screen and scream "HUNGRY!" and "FEEEEEEED MEEEEEE!" and during her tiny scenes taunting the Doctor and Rose she is superbly menacing but there aren'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 the 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 Dad's shadow and help his family. I loved it when he turned on his father and 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 spinoff 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 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.
We Are Not Amused by Thomas Cookson 4/6/06
Throughout the New Series so far, I'd perhaps come to accept that the Doctor isn't the man he used to be anymore. The Doctor was once a character for connoisseurs, a character who lived and breathed large and literate words and the finest in art and literature. Now he is pretty much down with the kids, using slang jargon and substituting scientific terms for words like 'thingy' and 'jiggery-pokery', and he's down with modern tastes: whether they be Muppets, Reality TV, Buddy Holly or Ian Dury (actually if they were punking up the Doctor, I would have loved him to be into a more obscure and radical punk band like New Model Army). I actually had plans to do a fan fiction story (don't know if I can find the time for it these days though) that would fill in the blanks somewhat and suggest that perhaps after the Time War the Doctor had consciously changed his vocabulary to 21st century slang jargon because scientific or connoisseur terms reminded him too much and too painfully of the prestigious Time Lords, and also incidentally of the scientific clinical vocabulary of the Daleks.
Unfortunately it can't help being crystal clear the real reason why the Doctor now talks like this: because they want the Doctor to be 'cool' and to pander to the simple folk, and try to win over those who would rubbish the old Doctor for his old-fashioned and 'dated' mannerisms. Now in some ways there's nothing too wrong with that: the Doctor can still be a role model for being a good and strong-willed person, who can be an individual; he can be trendy without being dumb or a thug. Mind you, I think being a bit of a thug is sometimes necessary in certain situations.
I know fans who say that the problem with the modern Doctor is that he no longer comes across as an alien, he just seems like a human who's a bit mad. For the most part, I've been able to put the blinders on this process of chavving up the Doctor, but something about tonight's episode broke the suspension of disbelief completely. To see the Doctor gelling his hair in that 50's quiff, donning sunglasses and doing that 'you goin' my way doll?' impersonations and then putting the final foot in the boot when he towed out that moped, things just got too silly; and more than that, things stopped being alien completely.
Anyone might think I was screaming blasphemy at the Doctor getting a change of image, but anyone who's read my recent articles knows that I don't really subscribe to the idea of set rules about what is and isn't Doctor Who. To me, if we're talking about Doctor Who proper, then only ten stories in the whole of old series Doctor Who reached a perfection of the ideal version of Doctor Who, and maybe about twenty-five more got as close; Doctor Who rarely took itself too seriously. But the old series did stick fairly close to the rules of the Doctor's image and attire and by doing so they made him seem alien and distinctive without even trying. Even Eccleston's leather jacket seemed like a nice extension of the character being hardened by cosmic war. This episode seems to uproot that element quite violently and the Doctor's character was left there to dribble and soak in too much ADD and popcorn.
The whole tone of the episode is far too cartoonish, and it's loud and bloated for a story that should be quiet, mysterious and eerie. What's more, beneath the style it is ultimately empty in a way that the nineties telemovie was, except much more so. The typical 1950's family at the centre of this house are far too caricaturish, and the comedy that comes out of that scene is pretty bad actually, with even Billie Piper gurning it up idiotically. It also doesn't quite ring true to me that the Doctor would come in and lay down the law of how the patriarchal husband is out of order bossing around his wife and child, let alone be so snide about it (but again this is the 'cool' Doctor and he couldn't be cool if he didn't get involved in the gender war now would he?). I'm not saying the Doctor would be happy to see domestic ugliness or patriarchal tyranny and women being kept in their place but then again he doesn't do domestics and in any case, if it was the 1950's he was in, he'd be wise to the fact that he can't really go around women's libbing in people's homes because there's a time and a place for that and he's 20 years too early; Britain isn't yet ready for it. (It also seems a tad hypocritical for a man who himself treated his female companions as coffee-makers and harboured nothing but respect for the Draconians despite their cultural misogyny. Though even hypocritical can be plausible, and if they keep up the cool-Doctor thing they could quite likely make him hypocritical again by next week making him an Eminem fan.)
But that's inherently the problem, the Doctor doesn't come across as at-all believable here. He is simply doing the Tenth Doctor by the numbers: do funny in this scene, do angry and shouty in the next scene; it lacks substance really, and it must be said that part of this is the fault of the scripting, but its also the kind of thing that I think Christopher Eccleston could have done something brilliant with. To be fair, David Tennant's best scenes tend to be his more serious, brooding and restrained moments i.e. his "I'm so old now, I used to be so full of mercy" moment in School Reunion and the one angry scene he did well was in The Christmas Invasion, where incidentally he managed to rise above some terrible dialogue. However, here and in New Earth his anger just seems false, hollow and done with indulgence, and seems to centre around the writer's conceit that because the audience loved the angry Doctor of the Dalek episode, they should make him an angry Doctor in every other episode; I think the character of his Doctor should be geared away from the comical, aggressive or hyperactive, because that feels too much like borrowing from Eccleston's Doctor.
(Perhaps one day I'll write a list of the Doctor's best angry moments: Evil of the Daleks, The Brain of Morbius, The Invasion of Time and The Caves of Androzani will certainly get a look in)
I would have held out hope that the threat of this story would be the centre of its gravity and seriousness, but that didn't happen either. The demon of the TV ends up losing the ambient ethereal quality and being the most hammy and pantomime villain I've seen in a long time, even getting one over on the Master at his worst. Again failing to convince us of having any alien credentials just as much as the Doctor does here.
The trouble, is I'm majorly disappointed. The week before had been superb; in fact all of the season so far had been superb apart from New Earth. The trailer made this look superb, but that's nothing new for me having been lured into bad films that looked promising in the trailers. Plus it was written by Mark Gatiss, and after being impressed by his League of Gentlemen work and by The Unquiet Dead, I was expecting anything from him to be as sharp as ever. Unfortunately this one ended up being far from sharp: quite the opposite in-fact. There were lovely suggestions of horror about the story: the opening scene is brilliant, and just the look of the pink electricity leaping out of the TV like Videodrome awaits you for an evil that has far reaching hands. The prospect of people being turned into abominations and Granny's talk about how TV rots your brains into soup did indeed suggest something terrifying, as does one of the later scenes where they come across a room of televisions with disembodied faces, but from the moment when Rose suffered to the television beam, you knew that by the end of the story someone would end up pressing a reset button of some kind, making everything all right again and rendering the horrors so far meaningless. And the moment where the Doctor reacts to Rose's transformation with a melodramatic, vengeful promise that 'nothing in the world will stop me now' is just awful on every level; I don't object to drawing on a more vengeful type of Doctor, but only if it's done right. This however was hollywoodised, cliched, artificial, painfully predictable and ultimately has never made the Doctor's bond with his companion seem more false than it does here (and that's saying something because there's plenty of times the Doctor/Rose relationship has suffered from sledgehammer scripting).
The 'men in black' type secret police in this episode are also rather wasted. They looked like something that could have had interesting potential (interestingly enough, there's not a Torchwood reference in sight here) but by the latter half of the episode they have become utterly superfluous and a wasted opportunity. The final struggle with the enemy completely failed to engage my sense of suspense; despite a certain Logopolis homaging, I just knew it would be over soon and that the Doctor was going to win unharmed. Yes, I know it's like that every week, smartarse, but there honestly was no jeopardy at all this time, just a loud and over the top, and ultimately self-overreaching attempt at jeopardy. Between the Doctor underfooting the gravity with his Jim Carrey impression and showing superhuman resilience at absorbing electricity whilst staying on his feet, the final action sequence couldn't ever have been believable.
Something tells me that this is meant to be The Long Game of season two. It's got all the elements: it's number seven in the episode run (woo-hoo! The 'episode three syndrome' of the old series has been replaced by 'episode seven syndrome'), it's got flat characters, cartoonish events, bad comedy without any gravity, some of the worst moments of female emancipation ever televised (even managing to top Adam's fainting), a vaguely-described alien menace whose origins might be followed up properly at a later date, a message about the power of the media, a wash-out rush-through of an episode that's doing too much at once and ends without any impact at all, the Doctor and Rose acting at their most trendy, arrogant and obnoxious, the Doctor particularly behaving like a common thug and Rose being a bunny boiler. The most depressing aspect of this is that instead of making the Doctor and companion the light in a selfish and uncooperative world, it actually makes them the centre of that selfishness and standoffishness with their belligerence that guarantees that they get no help from anyone. Mind you, at least this time we were spared a line like "You and your boyfriend!" At the moment it ranks right at the bottom of my personal poll of the episodes of Season Two so far. New Earth was a lot more funny; I never saw that coming. Mark Gatiss' story actually ranking below both of Russell T. Davis' stories of this season so far; last year it was the other way round.
Mind you, next week's episode looks really good: very scary and eye-opening with some compelling special effects and hopefully some hard science for a change and as a title "The Impossible Planet" sounds intriguing (though I think they should give this 'nothing's impossible' theme a rest now - I get it already!) I pray the previews won't let me down with regards to the finished product this time.
I'm going to gobble you up pretty boy! by Steve Cassidy 16/9/06
I have mixed feelings about The Idiots Lantern.
On one hand it is an exceptionally original story and shows the rock-hard competency that the production team are becoming renowned for. On the other hand the same original story is almost smothered in a social commentary with all the subtley of a television van falling on you. I thoroughly enjoy a little social pastiche in Who. I love the quiet sendup of feminism while at the same time endorsing its aims in The Time Warrior or the satire of the British tax system in The Sunmakers which is still as relevant now as it was in 1977. But this one didn't work for me. I found myself grinding my teeth at the caricatures there on the screen. I felt a modern PC mindset was projecting its own ideas into the past. It felt like an episode of the 1900 house where modern people try to be like those in at the turn of the century. I felt it was trying too hard to make a point.
But the premise was good. The fifties are a time we never seem to visit. One of my favourite PDA's Amorality Tale takes the Third Doctor and Sarah back to 1952 Shoreditch with all its rationing, narrow streets, turf warfare and the infamous smog. It's a period in our history that isn't really covered. The fifties in America are seen as a golden time, a time where car ownership went stratospheric and prosperity and happiness were for all. In Britain, however, they now have the reputation as the last Victorian decade. The time of netcurtain twitching and austerity before the multicolour sixties burst upon us. A time where we were still recovering from the second world war and coming to terms with our place in the world. To boost national morale a lot was set in store for the Coronation - an event which reached almost mythic proportions. And it's against this national event that the story unfolds. It is woven into the story: 'The Wire' can now feed on every soul watching the event, a number reaching into millions. It's an enjoyable idea, giving the story a bit of oomph in its last twenty minutes.
Also, Gattiss has done his research and linked it with the arrival of the television set in our living rooms. Well behind the Americans yet again, TV was around in the thirties but only the rich could afford them. There was a rush to buy in 1953 to be in time for the Coronation. The programme and Gattiss attach themselves shamelessly to nostalgia. But since Who has always had a technological edge it seems natural and works very well within the parameters of the programme. Mr Magpie (Ron Cook) is a perfect Who character: slightly shifty, weak-willed man selling TVs in a backstreet shop and slowly slipping into debt. Gattiss gives him motivation and a slightly Dickensian feel. The SFX of his pocession by 'The Wire' is top notch. In fact all the SFX and production design are superb here. The climax on the Alexandra Palace television transmitter looks very cinematic. And it was a definite shame that Gattiss' favourite line was cut out. When viewing the high TV mast with Tommy the Doctor comments that he once had a bad experience on a TV antennae. Gloriously fanwanky I know, but a nice tip to Logopolis.
Maureen Lipman does her best Joyce Grenfell as 'The Wire'. To be honest I don't think anyone else could have played it. And it was such an enjoyable performance that any concerns about the background of 'The Wire' go out of the window. All the supporting cast were very good - which brings me to the principals. Yep, they are still acting like twats as they gallivant around the universe. Rose, in particular, seems to be on a downward spiral; she won't get back to being the likeable, caring Rose until Fear Her and that was another two adventures away. One of the reasons was when she was showing up Mr Connelly about the Union Flag. It doesn't matter if he did or didn't deserve it. It's not about the person being embarassed. It's about the person taking enjoyment in embarassing someone. It's nasty, and I don't like it. But, I'll give the character props for sending Tommy after his father. It was the right thing to do (for Tommy). And Tennant wasn't bad, I suppose. His shouting down of Mr Connelly "AND I'M NOT LISTENING!!" didn't work but his scenes when he realises his companion has become a victim of 'The Wire' were rather moving. And can we let up on the contemporary references? Previous Doctors quoted Shakespeare or 'The Ballard of Flannen Isle'. This Doctor seems to spend his time watching crap earth TV.
Yes, yes - I know, that's the producer. I can spot an RTD edit a mile off. I also think he was responsible for the Connelly family dramas. Gattiss has let slip that RTD has sent his work back for previous rewrites and one wonders if this was the part he wanted expanded. There is nothing wrong with having an "emotional edge" in Who but this one had the subtley of a TV mast crashing down. I enjoy a bit of drama but I don't want my arm twisted into agreeing with what the writers want us to think. I just think the whole thing was too heavy-handed.
However, Gattiss is a supremo of characterisation and dialogue and his Eddie Connelly was well played by Jamie Foreman (a very in-demand actor). You got the character straight away which is the mark of good writing. His weakness is his pride; this is shown in the first scene (the medals, the way he holds his head when he walks etc). What is telling is his reaction at the end of the episode, he meekly accepts when his wife throws him out and is also silent after Tommy's fascist accusation speech. He doesn't stop Tommy going with the Doctor and when his wife subsequently slams the door in his face, he doesn't try to get back into the house. Deep down he knows he is in the wrong, but is too proud to admit it. It seemed to me that he tried to take contol of things in the manner that he knew best; that of a soldier. He tried to take command of the family unit. I think in panic and ignorance he made a hash of it. I think Eddie genuinely believed that he outranked everyone else in the house. I also found that he represented the last throes of colonialisim in that he had became the ruler in another person's house/country and was eventually made to pack up move out of there as the family/country finally found the strength to find their independence.
The two sides of this story, alien invasion and social drama, sit uneasily together. The glue of the Coronation celebrations does something to alleviate this. The problem with The Idiot's Lantern is that it sits too near Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel. The week before we were charging around London again. By this time we were desperate to get away from the British capital and see the Doctor and Rose exploring the galaxy. But The Idiot's Lantern is a nice little filler. It's atmospheric, its plot holds up, the SFX were good and it builds to a climax. It may not be classic Who, but it somehow works.
A Review by Ron Mallett 14/11/06
A very silly story and a poor follow up to Mark Gatiss's first season effort. There is a really strong element of silly science to this story that makes it very difficult to suspend one's disbelief. Why would faces be removed in the process of... whatever the hell was going on? How could they be suspended on individual screens and how were they instantaneously returned?
Does anyone get the feeling that somebody out there really hated the last war generation? I think someone involved has some serious father/son issues. This story presented a very generalised, unsympathetic view of post-war patriarchal society and the mainstream conservatism that ensued.
Could anyone actually look at the screen when Piper and Tennant were putting on 50's accents? Difficult to believe that a person Tennant's age would be taken seriously during that time making some scenes like the police interrogation one more than a little far-fetched. This highlights a problem that was endemic with Davison's Doctor as well" the lack of an aura of authority which accompanies youth. At least with Tennant there has been an attempt to counteract that with a rather outgoing and demonstrative personality that was missing in Davison's interpretation.
Quite nice to see some footage from the coronation. Seems the BBC didn't incinerate everything after all. Pays if one's work is of something "important" it seems. Sorry, I'm a republican...
A Review by Finn Clark 25/12/06
There's nothing wrong with The Idiot's Lantern. It's not a bad story. It has some nice jokes and the dramatic climax actually feels like a dramatic climax instead of just button-pressing.
My only real objection is what the story doesn't do. As in The Unquiet Dead, I can't hear Mark Gatiss's voice. There are most certainly bits where the story's trying to say things about the 1950s, but, as with everything else, Gatiss has inserted those bits because he thinks he should and because he's dutifully assembling all the approved parts. They don't feel organic. It's hollow. Thus the Gay Pride speech comes across as the scriptwriter putting words in his characters' mouths instead of letting them speak for themselves. Similarly the "TV rots your brain" line has an extraordinary lack of self-awareness, instead of that edge of sly wit that that similar lines had in a Robert Holmes script or even The Three Doctors.
Personally I don't even think it's even as good as The Unquiet Dead. That story respected its characters. It revered Dickens and even gave Gwyneth that wonderful "you think I'm stupid" line. However The Idiot's Lantern patronises its 1950s setting, for instance with people being astonished that televisions could be in colour or portable. It's the same problem I have with many Doctor Who novels in Victorian England: that sense of smugness. "Look, weren't they stupid and aren't I morally superior?" Theoretically, the script offers some nice acting opportunities, for instance with Ron Cook being oddly sweet as Magpie, but these people aren't real. They're a species of freak called "Fifties People", with all that flag-waving parochialism and awe at the simplest things.
There are things I like about this story, although they tend to be production details. The Doctor looks so good with 1950s hair that it's odd to think that we didn't used to get more of that kind of thing. Tom Baker got his Scottish and Victorian variant outfits, I suppose. Maureen Lipman is lots of fun too, although I'd have liked to see her go even further with that authentic cut-glass Alexandra Palace accent.
As always, it's nice to have a period story. As I said when reviewing Carnival of Monsters, there's a category of Doctor Who story that isn't Historical or Pseudo-Historical but merely Period. Such stories aren't using their setting for much more than dressing up and a little flavour, but that doesn't mean they can't be lovely. The Curse of Fenric thus isn't period, but Black Orchid is. As with a surprising number of details (e.g. putting lots of children in the stories), this is a feature of the new series that in fact became fashionable in the Cartmel era. On a production level, this story's 1950s-ness is unshakeable. It looks really nice.
I like the "wow cool" ideas. A monster that sucks faces off just feels right for Doctor Who, by virtue of being something that Star Trek or Stargate wouldn't quite have the playfulness to do. It's not an intricate hard-SF concept but instead more like something from a fairy tale. Similarly, I love the idea of an evil 1950s TV presenter. Now I want to see an evil Japanese game show host, and I don't just mean the cute chirpy one in Battle Royale.
The regulars are lovely too. We've seen many comparisons of Tennant with Eccleston, but last year couldn't do the simple charm of this Doctor and Rose obviously having so much fun together. The 9th Doctor never really learned to relax. This is also ironically quite a good Rose story, in which she uncovers clues, investigates and confronts the bad guy. It's not heavy angst as in Father's Day, but solid bread-and-butter stuff. As an amusing aside, Rose seems quite the expert on flags and royalty. She recognised the Koh-i-noor in Tooth and Claw and here can split hairs about the Union Jack and the Union Flag. Mark Gatiss explains it away, but I'd have almost preferred it as a character point. (There's also a little irony here if you bear in mind that Britain's a republic on the parallel Earth of Rise of the Cybermen.)
I quite enjoyed this story, but there's not much to say about it. There's certainly nowhere near the richness and intelligence you'll get in even a second-rate Russell T. Davies script. In a problem that only started cropping up this year, there's perhaps not enough connection between the A and B plots. They seem to have been flown in from different scripts. However, for me more frustratingly, Mark Gatiss's only improvement on The Unquiet Dead is that he's got better at erasing his own personality from his writing. I like the fact that he chose to write about the Connolly family in the first place, but the execution is leaden. Shouty Dad is just Shouty Dad. Tommy's big speech is unconvincing (even if a better actor could have probably made it work), although in fairness I like its mirror image at the end. "Tolerance even for the intolerant." That's a worthwhile message.
Fundamentally, this is a perfectly good story. It's a solid seven out of ten. It has period flavour, a fun villain (although I preferred her when she wasn't impersonating Kroagnon from Paradise Towers), decent action and it makes a genuine attempt at writing something with a heart. This might sound odd, but I'm inclined to think that Mark Gatiss is trying too hard. He loves Doctor Who as much as any of us and he's busting his little socks off to do everything he thinks should be done. The results don't feel natural. He's not relaxing. He's not having fun. Doctor Who should be the biggest toy box in the world, but The Idiot's Lantern feels like a slightly uncomprehending exercise in join-the-dots.
A be-quiffed David Tennant on a moped is cool, though.
A Review by Terrence Keenan 16/4/07
This was actually the first Tennant Who episode I saw (through good old YouTube). On first viewing, I wasn't very impressed. The TARDIS duo seemed bullying and obnoxious, and the Wire wasn't much of a villain.
So, does it improve on a second viewing?
No, and the fault is shoehorned mix of the main plot (the bits with the Wire) and the agenda plot (the whole Connolly plot). It's obvious that the agenda plot was rewritten extensively to give it more emphasis. It's as subtle as a kick in the head with an iron boot, and throws the whole story out of whack.
Why, you might ask?
Because the main plot is a lightweight nostalgia romp through the 50's and nods to old school Who, something Mark Gatiss is quite good at, The Last of the Gadarene being a great example. The main plot could have worked better if left alone. If Eddie Connolly was less of an ass, then the agenda storyline might have blended in better with the main plot and might have elevated the whole episode.
Performances are off. Tennant and Piper grated on me. Except for Ron Cook as Mr. Magpie and Maureen Lipman as the Wire, no one stood out. The direction is all over the place, with Euros Lyn copping a bunch of different styles that do not gel. Lyn seems to be showing off like a student director on his thesis film.
The Idiot's Lantern is one of the weakest stories in season 2. It can be easily skipped over without missing much. A shame, because any story with face sucking aliens should be memorable. Alas, it's not.
Hungry For More Than What We Were Given by Scott Williams 28/6/10
I find it incredibly hard to pin-point why The Idiot's Lantern was such a massive disappointment and letdown for me, especially after the writer's previous triumph, The Unquiet Dead (one of my personal favourite Doctor Who episodes of all time and surely the best pre-credits sequence of the revived series). Anyway, I digress.
The Idiot's Lantern certainly has its fair share of great moments, ideas and images. Even a story as unloved as Timelash has it's redeeming features such as the Borad and the blue service androids (yes, I love those androids, squeaky voices and all!) The problem with The Idiot's Lantern is that despite all the great things contained within its 45 minutes (Maureen Lipmann as The Wire, the image of the faceless Grandma in her room, the overall concept) it's instantly forgettable. But why?
I think the main problem for me was the family at the centre of the story, the Connelly family. All four of them failed to grab my imagination. In fact, the only one to have any impact on me at all was Grandma Connolly, who for the most part was unseen, silent and faceless. What does that say about the others eh? Despite the conviction in his performance, Eddie Connelly was purely a stereotypical, overly patriotic, misguided, dominant alpha male figure from the period. Likewise, the mother was simply a typical wife-under-the-thumb sort who was scared and submissive to her overbearing spouse. Not that that is necessarily a bad setup if done correctly, but sadly this was not the case here. I, for one, had no sympathy or empathy with either of them. There was just not enough characterisation there for me to care. Especially considering what Mrs Connelly was allowing her husband to do to her own mother. And the boy? Well, if he'd ended up travelling in the TARDIS I think he'd now be referred to as the modern day Adric or the sequel to Adam Mitchell! Let's be grateful such a dire scenario never materialised!
Even Tennant wasn't on top form for me. His best moment in the episode came during the interrogation scene, but even that felt very tired and cliched! You're asking me questions. But, oh look, now I've spun the situation around and I'm now asking YOU questions! Claptrap! Of course this can be attributed to the writer and not the actor. And why was I so indifferent towards the character of Magpie? The performance was fine. No, more than fine. For me it's like the rest of the main characters, a little bit more backstory, a little more concentration on character development and a clear reason to give two hoots about him wouldn't have gone astray. He owns the TV shop. So what? What else do we ever know or learn about his personal life or history? What was offered wasn't enough for me.
To end on a positive note, Maureen Lipmann was clearly the highlight of the entire episode. Her performance was both alien and enticing. I'd go so far as to say her portrayal of the Wire was flawless. Though I must also add that an actress of Lipmann's pedigree should have been given, and deserved, more from the script! But at least she took what little she had and turned it into something mesmerising.
This story wasn't the worst of this season of stories (that honour falls to the catastrophe that is the soul-devouring Fear Her). The Wire may have been hungry but I, as a viewer, was left salivating at what could have, potentially, been a great episode.
I'd also like to let future makers of Doctor Who know one important thing that should be learnt from this episode. And that lesson is that Doctor Who should never, ever do Grease. The scene where Tennant and Piper exit the TARDIS was just cringe-worthy; clothes, hairstyles and moped alike. Please learn from this!
Because now, there is no power on this Earth that can stop me! by Evan Weston 12/6/14
The Idiot's Lantern is pretty clearly the ugly duckling of Series 2, the mediocre episode plopped right in the middle of an awesome run just because the season had to be x amount of episodes (for Series 1 it's probably The Long Game, but that's a better story than this). Mark Gatiss is one of my least favorite Doctor Who writers, and it's a shame that his buddy-buddy routine with Steven Moffat is landing him more scripts in Series 7, because there's really nothing special about any of his four episodes. However, the other three are fairly easy to characterize. The Unquiet Dead is probably his best episode, but I ranked it eighth out of ten Series 1 stories. Victory of the Daleks is trash, and Night Terrors is a transparent attempt at horror that pales against anything Moffat has ever written, even the bad stuff.
This one is a bit harder to figure out. The overall idea behind the plot is probably the most creative Gatiss has ever gotten in Who - an alien trapped in television eating people's faces in 1950s London is a cool concept, to say the least. For the most part, it's executed effectively. Sure, the CGI face-grabbing is a little hokey, but the people look very creepy without faces and Rose's capture works nicely as a showstopper. Really, the main plot as a whole works well. The Wire is an efficient if not particularly memorable villain, played with relish by Maureen Lipman. The action finale is a fun bit of spectacle, blending British patriotism and high-flying stunts nicely, and the whole thing is structured fairly clearly.
The problem is that not nearly enough time is spent developing the plot. We meet the Wire but learn almost nothing about its origins or nature other than that it's an outcast that somehow crash landed here in... television form? Okay. No themes are developed because the story is totally peripheral to what's actually going on - and more on that in a bit - and there's no real reason to care until Rose's face gets snatched halfway through. Furthermore, losing Rose hurts the rest of the narrative, as Tommy Connolly isn't nearly interesting enough to hold up as Angry Vengeful Tennant's companion. The Idiot's Lantern is far more concerned with lampooning 1950s British culture than with telling a good story, and that would be fine if the satire were sharp and pointed. Instead, we have more Davies claptrap, served fresh with Gatiss' idiotic twist. The Eddie Connolly character is supposed to represent the darker side of the 50s, the alpha male who is desperate to hold onto his reputation at any cost. This shines through at times, but the character as written is a blustering moron, hurt further by a three-miles-over-the-top performance from EastEnders star Jaime Foreman. When the central character of serious criticism is a caricature, it becomes very difficult to take the commentary seriously. Though I did enjoy Tennant's "I'M NOT LISTENING" shout.
Speaking of, David is maddeningly inconsistent in this one. His best scene, and by extension the best scene in the episode, is his interrogation in the police hideout, during which he not only talks his way out of trouble but turns the tables on the detective inspector. It's a sharp and very funny moment, and it's proof that Gatiss is at least capable of writing good dialogue. His rage when Rose is taken is palpable but not always there: he'll be furious one moment, and then marveling at some alien contraption the next. It's an annoying habit of Tennant's to change tone completely when the dialogue goes even the slightest bit away from the main emotional focus, but he mostly reverses course by the time we reach Series 3. The other actors don't deserve to much mention; Billie Piper is great as usual and has a couple really fun scenes, but she gets taken out of the proceedings halfway through.
The most interesting aspect to The Idiot's Lantern is its direction and cinematography. This is the second episode after Tooth and Claw that's really stylized, both at the hands of usual director Euros Lyn. In Tooth and Claw, Lyn chose to direct the episode with fast cuts, quick motions and removed angles that reinforced how bizarre the set-up was. However, he took his foot off the gas near the end, and at times the direction pulled me out of the episode. Here, Lyn goes for a bunch of disorienting slanted angles and very tight mise-en-scene (even the finale on the tower feels very enclosed despite the setting) and, though this is obviously done to help the attempt at social commentary, it mainly distracts.
However, Lyn is saved by cinematographer Rory Taylor, who turns in his third consecutive strong performance after Tooth and Claw and The Girl in the Fireplace. I didn't mention him in my glowing review of the latter, but he really does a great job drenching Versailles in warm colors and bright close-ups while forcing a dark coldness upon the interior of the 51st-century ship. The warmth is even more vivid in The Idiot's Lantern, and Taylor captures the 50s feel beautifully, his shots dripping with bittersweet nostalgia for a bygone age. The only negative is that the Elvis-frocked Tennant tends to look a bit orange when he's inside, but the rest of the cast looks great, and the bland sets are given life by Taylor's camera. And who knows, maybe David was hitting the tanning bed at the time.
The Idiot's Lantern is the weird, forgotten item on Mark Gatiss' resume, and really in all of Series 2. It's not a particularly exciting episode, and everything it tries to say falls flat, but it looks great and has something of a plot structure going for it. I can't imagine ever watching this story again, and that's probably what I'll say at the end of every Gatiss review, to be honest. He's a fine actor and a smart guy, but he and Doctor Who just don't meld very well.