2.7 – “The Idiot’s Lantern”
The TARDIS misses its intended destination (an Elvis appearance in New York) and instead lands in London in 1953. A local shopkeeper, Mr Magpie, is selling televisions remarkably cheap and, as a result, most of the families in the area have a set in readiness for the Queen’s Coronation. But why are the televisions so cheap? And what’s happening to the local people, being dragged from their homes with their heads covered by sheets? Time for The Doctor and Rose to investigate…
You know when two things you love accidentally merge into one? Well, I’m a huge fan of the Manic Street Preachers. Having an alien called “The Wire” makes this episode unintentionally hilarious. Although the character is played by Maureen Lipman (relatively well, although with little real menace, it must be said) it’s literally impossible for me not to picture Nicky Wire, face full of make-up and glitter, a dress covering his skinny frame and a bass guitar round his neck, stomping up and down an empty stage, yelling to an unseen James Dean Bradfield “I’m soooo huuungry!” So apologies if I lose track, mid-review, it’s just that I’d happily give this episode 10/10 for that mental image alone.
Another of my great loves is the fashion and music of the 1950’s, so Rose’s appearance in this episode is pretty much “dress-porn” for me. But I suppose I ought to get on with talking about the actual episode…
“The Idiot’s Lantern” is one of those episodes that gets a fair bit of flack for a variety of reasons, but it’s one that I’m quite fond of. Mark Gatiss is a writer whose work I admire a lot and I have to give him credit here, because I love the idea of TV being evil. I mean, switch on The X(tremely contrived and over-hyped) Factor and you’ll find that, well, maybe TV is evil. But the idea of people having their faces sucked into the screen and removed altogether fits in beautifully with age-old sayings about your eyes going square and more modern opinions that reality TV sucks out your soul. It’s clever and, of course, the TV is something we can all relate to. Without TV there’d be no Doctor Who, after all.
What I also like about this episode is how very human it is (I mean, despite the presence of
a bassist an alien that has turned itself into an electrical form and can appear in your telly at will). The family The Doctor and Rose first encounter – the Connolly’s – are very much of the age, with the stern man of the house, Eddie, ruling the roost. He’s forbidden anyone from going upstairs to see his wife’s mother, after she had her face removed by The Wire. Straight away, we get a very human glimpse as to how this rather fantastical problem would affect a family of the era. Eddie is depicted as a nasty piece of work, lording his authority over his timid wife Rita and son Tommy. When Rita finds the nerve to kick him out at the end of the episode, the audience at home can’t help but be glad for her. That being said, I find that part of the episode oddly moving. Jamie Foreman plays Eddie so well, that in spite of his temper, I struggle to see him as an inherently bad man; just someone mentally stuck in an age that’s already out of date. He’s a man in a world in which attitudes are changing and he’s being left behind, too stuck in his ways to catch up. It’s extremely touching to see Rose persuade Jamie Connolly to go after his father, implying that Jamie shouldn’t stop at saving the world, but can try saving his father from his outdated views and behaviour, too (or at least salvage their relationship). When Jamie simply takes his father’s case from him and walks alongside him, no words are needed to convey the emotion of the scene. We don’t even see the character’s faces, yet the moment is hugely poignant. That storyline actually makes the episode for me. Maybe I’m overly soppy.
It’s my view that some thought has gone into the alien and its plans in this episode, too. The Wire has evaded capture and execution by its people, through manifesting itself in electrical form. I like the idea of television becoming an alien’s hiding place and the use of the Queen’s Coronation as the perfect opportunity to gain enough human minds/faces to build a new body is a clever plan. The scene in which The Doctor sees rows of televisions, featuring the panicked faces of those who’ve already been taken by The Wire is a really good one. So good, in fact, that Steven Moffat seemed to steal it for “The Bells Of Saint John”, in which we see a row of screens with people trapped inside the WiFi (am I alone in seeing a huge similarity?!).
However, one let-down of this episode for me, is that when we actually see the faceless people who’ve been taken by The Wire, they look…well, a bit funny rather than creepy. But that might just be my view. A faceless Rose Tyler might be terrifying to other viewers, so I’ll let that one slide.
The climactic scenes in which The Wire transports herself into a portable television and demands that Magpie takes her to Alexandra Palace for the final part of her plan are good. There’s a decent amount of tension, as by this point, The Wire has already fed from The Doctor and knocked him out cold. When The Doctor regains consciousness, he and Tommy are in a race against time to stop The Wire before she can take the minds and faces of everyone watching the Coronation at home. There’s a nice, pacey atmosphere as the viewer realises what’s at stake. We also realise just how much pain – emotionally and physically – Magpie is in as a result of being controlled by The Wire. He begs her for peace and receives it eternally, when The Wire responds by incinerating him with a bolt of electricity.
The Wire taunts The Doctor that she can electrify him too, but of course Tennant is wearing his trusty “sand shoes” which have rubber soles. The Tenth Doctor clearly has more luck climbing pylons than the Fourth Doctor…
Of course, in spite of The Wire’s wicked plot and a sudden blown fuse putting The Doctor’s plans to rescue the situation briefly in danger, he saves the day by trapping The Wire in a Betamax video cassette. Some think that’s twee, but I like it. And I chuckled at the end of the episode when The Doctor tells Rose that The Wire should be trapped forever, because he’s going to tape over it.
So, the world has yet again been saved and the Doctor and Rose get to attend a street party for the Coronation. Yay!
Okay, so there are problems with this episode, as several before me have pointed out. Maureen Lipman’s cut-glass announcer voice might be perfect for the 50’s, but it’s not exactly scary and neither are the faceless people. Perhaps you could argue that the resolution was a bit too easy, as well. But the fashion and the feel of the episode captures the age rather well and I always enjoy a Who story in which human emotion can be felt. And I felt it in the story of the Connolly family. Because of that and because it’s set in my favourite era and features an alien that I like to imagine writing political lyrics and cross-dressing, it’s getting a 7/10. So there.
Written and edited by Emma Tofi