The Idiot’s Lantern

Men in black? Vanishing police cars? This is Churchill’s England, not Stalin’s Russia!

The Tenth Doctor

Synopsis

The Doctor and Rose arrive by accident in London in 1953 on the eve of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II where something is lurking in the televisions sold by Mr Magpie

Review

Series Two of Doctor Who really frustrates me because it varies so widely in terms of quality. So far on this blog, I have revisited the high points (School Reunion and The Girl in the Fireplace) and the lows (New Earth) and there are more of both to come in this series. Sadly, The Idiot’s Lantern falls at the lower end of the series and continues to contribute to an uneven debut series for David Tennant. Equally frustrating from my point of view is the fact that I know that Mark Gatiss is a better writer than this. For evidence of this, you need look no further than Gatiss’ first script for the revived show, The Unquiet Dead, or Big Finish stories like Invaders from Mars, and there are other stories in the future for this blog which are far better than this.

I will praise the work of the set dressers and others who worked so hard on making sure that this story really evoked the feel of the post-war period. There is fantastic attention to detail to ensure that the story looks right, whether this is costumes or the appearance of the street party at the conclusion of the episode. Gatiss has clearly set out to create a feeling of nostalgia for the post-war period and specifically the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II for a backdrop for his story and the production team deserve a huge amount of credit for bringing this to life. Of course, Gatiss goes on to show us that the perceived idyllism of the post-war period isn’t as rosy as it would first appear, and this has been subtly alluded to by the shape of the television aerials being similar to that of swastikas, setting up the eventual plot point that Eddie Connolly has been informing the authorities about the people whose faces have been taken by the Wire. I find the direction really strange here, though, as it feels as though Lyn (who is generally quite decent) is afraid to tone down some of the more over the top performances and the majority of shots are shot at an angle that it makes me feel as though the camera stands were all broken.

The drama of the Connolly family certainly forms the B part to this episode, with the patriarch, Eddie Connolly being abusive towards his wife’s mother, his wife and his son. I must admit that I haven’t seen Jamie Foreman in anything else but I’m sure he is a good actor. Sadly, the character of Eddie is such a one-dimensional Hitler-allegory that it does Foreman a disservice and really means that the story hits a bum note in the conclusion when Rose encourages his son to try and build bridges with his father, especially considering how he talks about beating Tommy for being homosexual or his emotional abuse of his wife Rita, telling her to put a smile when her mother has been taken away. The rest of the Connolly family are good and we certainly sympathise with their treatment at the hands of Eddie, and Debra Gillett is particularly good in the scene where she sends Tommy off with the Doctor and kicks Eddie out. Tommy is a good companion of the week, and Rory Jennings and David Tennant have some good chemistry together, and I particularly liked the moment where Tommy is reunited with his grandmother at the conclusion of the story.

I’m the Wire, and I’m hungry!

The Wire

Speaking of the one-dimensional fascistic Eddie Connolly, we have another one-dimensional villain in the shape of the Wire played by Maureen Lipman. The idea of televisions taking people’s faces feels as though it should be a classic Doctor Who idea – taking something so prevalent and usual in this modern culture and making it scary. However, the Wire is so one dimensional and irritating that it means that this doesn’t really work. Lipman’s performance at the beginning, but she starts to gain power, it becomes almost unbearable. It is a running joke between my wife and I that we will screech the line above at each other around meal times. Ron Cook’s Mr Magpie, who is manipulated by the Wire into selling the affected television sets, feels largely wasted in this story, but he does well with what he is given. The effect of the ‘stolen’ faces on the actual people looks really unpolished and cheap, whilst, conversely, the effect of the faces on the television screens in the shop is rather effective and unnerving.

I am talking!

And I’m not listening!

Eddie Connolly and the Tenth Doctor

Now to address the Doctor and Rose. It is clear through this series that the intention was to establish the fact that the newly regenerated Doctor and Rose are perhaps overconfident throughout this series, but sadly for me it largely across as them being smug. This is not a problem that is exclusive to this story, but in a story that is quite poor anyway it really stands out. It is interesting to see the Tenth Doctor and Rose separated as this hasn’t happened a lot since the start of the series and Tennant is good in the scenes where he can be a bit quieter, like the interrogation scene where he flips the scenario on Detective Inspector Bishop. In contrast, the louder scenes, like the one the quote above is taken from are so hideously overacted and cringe-worthy. Since The Christmas Invasion, the production team have been hinting at this rage bubbling under the seemingly amiable face of the Doctor, but here it just across as he is a bit of a bully, especially in the scenes with Magpie. There is also the fact that the Doctor doesn’t seem to be too interested in solving the mystery until it directly affects him when the Wire takes Rose’s face. As a character who is supposed to stand up against the wrongs of the universe regardless of how he is impacted personally, this is really glaring. Rose is pretty poor too for the most part, reduced to a shadow of how she was in Eccleston’s series as the Doctor to an obnoxious and lovelorn character. We do get a hint of what the character like last series when she investigates Magpie’s shop though.

Verdict: This story really does flounder with one-dimensional villains and the central cast aren’t good enough to raise this one. Kudos on the production design though. 3/10

Cast: David Tennant (The Doctor), Billie Piper (Rose Tyler), Maureen Lipman (The Wire), Ron Cook (Magpie), Jamie Foreman (Eddie Connolly), Debra Gillett (Rita Connolly), Rory Jennings (Tommy Connolly), Margaret John (Grandma Connolly), Sam Cox (Detective Inspector Bishop), Ieaun Rhys (Crabtree), Jean Challis (Aunty Betty), Christopher Driscoll (Security Guard) & Marie Lewis (Mrs Gallagher).

Writer: Mark Gatiss

Director: Euros Lyn

Behind the Scenes

  • The working titles of Mr Sandman, Sonic Doom and The One-Eyed Monster.
  • Mark Gatiss originally wrote this episode for Christopher Eccleston’s 9th Doctor, and it was originally intended to be broadcast as the ninth episode of Series 2. It also contained a sub-plot about Tommy having a crush on the Doctor, but Rose mistakenly believing that he had a crush on her.
  • Magpie Electricals is a brand that would reoccur throughout the revived series, including Martha’s television in The Sound of Drums, a microphone in Voyage of the Damned, some parts of the Eleventh Doctor’s first TARDIS and a shop is seen in The Lie of the Land. The brand has been retrospectively inserted as an Easter Egg in several animations of Patrick Troughton episodes, including The Power of the Daleks.
  • The street on which the Connolly family lives is Florizel Street which was the original name for long-running soap opera Coronation Street. Coincidentally, Doctor Who producer Phil Collinson went on to be producer of Coronation Street from 2010 to 2013, whilst Russell T Davies had previously briefly been a storyline editor in the 1990s.

Cast Notes

  • Margaret John holds the record for the longest gap between appearances at 38 years, having previously appeared in Fury from the Deep.
  • Rory Jennings played teenage Davros in I, Davros: Innocence.

Best Moment

It’s always hard to choose these with an episode that I don’t particularly like. Probably Rita finally kicking out her abusive husband.

Best Quote

Twenty years on the force, I don’t even know where to start. We haven’t got the faintest clue what’s going on.

Well. That could change.

How?

Start from the beginning. Tell me everything you know.

Detective Inspector Bishop and the Tenth Doctor

Previous Tenth Doctor Review: The Age of Steel

Reviews mentioned:

The Christmas Invasion

New Earth

School Reunion

The Girl in the Fireplace

Invaders from Mars

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