Doctor Who #732: The Idiot's Lantern

"I heard they rot your brains. Rot them into soup, and your brain comes pouring out of your ears. That's what television does."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired May 27 2006.

IN THIS ONE... On the day of Elizabeth II's coronation, an alien entity inside television feeds on people's faces.

REVIEW: I had no real control about which episode would fall on 23rd November 2013, but it seems fitting enough that The Idiot's Lantern is about a celebration (Elizabeth II's coronation) as a live TV event. Unfortunately, it would be even more fitting if The Idiot's Lantern was a favorite episode of mine. It is not. Oh, the 50s are well rendered with fun looks for our regulars and the ugly side retro family values providing the drama. There's something twisted with the monster taking the image and vocabulary of a children's presenter, and I did like the Doctor's solution to trap the Wire on a video tape, with every intention of taping over it (this sounds like an execution, so let's hope it just imprisons it further down the quantum scale or something). He's already used that tape lots of times if we go by the number of crossed out Gallifreyan numbers written on the side, a neat detail.

Where the Wire becomes problematic is when the otherwise effective Maureen Lipman starts getting "Hungrrrryyyyyyyyyyyyyy", which as far as monstrous catch phrases go, is truly annoying. And while I can just about buy her ability to download people's minds into television sets (Magpie's, so she's added something to them), that they also steal their faces is pure image-making, and makes not a jot of sense. It seems designed just so the Doctor can come face to face with a faceless Rose, and give Billie Piper a bit of a break (Tennant gets a similar treatment in Fear Her, shot on the same street at the same time by the same director). It's one of the most memorable things about the episode, but it's hard to justify. Frankly, it's a bit of a relief to see Rose side-lined at this point, because she's as bratty as she gets. She thinks she's so clever and "Doctorish" when she starts bullying Mr. Connolly about his Union flags, but the Doctor had already done the job, so it's just a bit of cruelty, even though, yeah, we get it, Connolly isn't a nice man. She ends with one last scolding, the flash of a smile, and then races off, which tells me her performance is either based on the Joker or Woody Woodpecker, which is all I need to know. When things calm down, Rose sends Tommy to see his dad off, because she knows what it's like to have no father in her life, even a rather rubbish one. That's the stuff Rose is good at, and that's the stuff she should keep to and leave the eccentric fast talk to the Doctor.

Now, it's entirely possible a lot of my problems with the episode are actually clever references to the 1950s, programs of that era, or movies and shows about the era. That's how writer Mark Gatiss assembles his scripts (his novel Nightshade makes a much better use of this era), so I wouldn't be surprised. Sorry to say, I don't (and due to my Canadian background can't) get the references, and the episode has to stand on its own. To my North American eyes, there's an echo of McCarthyism in there, for example. Others might see Tommy's line about fascism controlling who one can love as a manifestation of RTD's so-called Gay Agenda (even though this is a common concern for teenagers being warned off potential mates from the "wrong" backgrounds). The family drama seems to signal the end of an era, with the over-bearing father getting thrown out of the house (though linking this to television is odd). Is it even about television as a "boob tube", replacing thought and discourse with trivia and passivity? Not sure. It's not focused enough for me to tell, and it's propbably just about itself. Yet another genre story with a climax set on some vertiginous spot to trump up the danger.

VERSIONS: A deleted scene on the DVD mentions Torchwood's first duty (that day) is to protect the Royal Family.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: The TARDISode shows Tommy's gran getting zapped by the Wire.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - This series has had more dull patches than bright spots, and The Idiot's Lantern is duller than it is bright. Had they shot it in black and white, as I think was once contemplated, it might have given it the extra bit of local color (ironically) it needed.


snell said...

" I did like the Doctor's solution to trap the Wire on a video tape, with every intention of taping over it..."

Surely that's a sly reference to the BBC's treatment of early Doctor Who episodes. as well...

Siskoid said...

I hadn't thought of that, but you're probably right!

Stergios Botzakis said...

Apart from the tech effects and lack of a cruel dentist, this episode seemed pretty much a note for note take on Little Shop of Horrors to me.

Pedro Cabezuelo said...

I hated this episode. One of the few NewWho stories I have no desire to revisit. Worst offender for me (as you mentioned) is the sub plot with Tommy's father that just seems random and shoe-horned in. Ok, I get it, times are a-changing. But it's written in such broad strokes, Tommy's dad comes across as a cartoon character. No shades of grey here, we're meant to hate him - and the performance is just horrible. And the rest of the story A disappointing follow-up for Gatiss to last year's Unquiet Dead.


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