“The Idiot’s Lantern” is the halfway point of the second season of Doctor Who, and as such there’s a transitional feel to the proceedings. With Mickey out of the picture, the Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose (Billie Piper) are left traveling on their own once again, and they seem to have moved past some of their earlier-in-the-season push and pull antics. Appearing more connected due to recent events, team spirit has returned to the TARDIS and Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show is their target destination. Of course it goes without saying the Doctor’s unable to get them to New York and instead they end up in 1953 London, the day before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. (Just once I’d like to see him miss and end up in Mozambique—anywhere but the British Isles.)
Meanwhile, something sinister brews at Magpie’s Electricals—the woman on Mr. Magpie’s (Ron Cook) TV is talking to him. How is his shop’s overnight success connected to the missing faces of the many who’ve spent just a tad too much time in front of their new tellys? And how do the Connolly’s, the family down the street, tie into everything? And why is nobody allowed to visit dear old Gran, who’s been locked away upstairs?
Eddie Connolly: “I am talking!”
The Doctor: “And I’m not listening! Now you, Mr. Connolly, you are staring into a deep dark pit of trouble if you don’t let me help. So I’m ordering you, Sir! Tell me what’s going on!”
Doctor Who has a long-standing tradition of dropping its protagonists into the midst of some major historical event and putting a spin on the occasion. Here the Coronation is made doubly noteworthy by the induction of televisions to the average home. Both events are seen through the lens of the Connolly family: father Eddie (Jamie Foreman), mum Rita (Debra Gillett), and son Tommy (Rory Jennings). The Connolly’s represent the antithesis of a ’50s-era TV family; Eddie is a bullying, shouting ass of a man and Rita and Tommy live in fear of his wrath, which constantly verges on physical violence. Although we never actually see him strike anyone, it’s not a stretch to assume that he’s hit one or both of them at some point. For Eddie, everything is about appearances and his need to keep them up leads to his eventual shame and ruin; he’s really a very sad, laughable man. If there’s one aspect of “The Idiot’s Lantern” that works in its entirety, it’s the Connolly family.
Unfortunately, they are only the B-Plot. The A-Plot concerns an alien presence—known only as “The Wire” (ahem…not to be confused with the HBO series)—that takes the form of a severe-looking woman (Maureen Lipman) on the television set. This camp villainess’ dialogue consists of atrociously bad one-liners and a smirkish, insufferable grin that made me want to bash my TV screen in. (Had Magpie done just that, would the episode have been over?) She frankly seems like something from the Sylvester McCoy era (the most notoriously divisive of the classic series), and she really has no business existing in this Davies renaissance. Of course we’re reasonably certain the Doctor is always going to win the battle, but the villain here is so painfully weak—existing as only a two-dimensional black and white TV image—that there never seems to be any real threat. Why exactly would the Wire want human faces anyway? And what does it plan to do with them? I’m reminded of the old joke about plot holes big enough to drive a Mack Truck through. “The Idiot’s Lantern” feels as if it’s not even trying to tell a ripping Who yarn.
Aside from the Connolly’s, the episode does have a few other strengths. It looks friggin’ beautiful, with its colors echoing that pastel pop schematic we’re used to seeing in all the old ’50s magazine adverts. Euros Lyn (who directed “The Girl in the Fireplace”) must surely be the go-to director when the production team has a script in need of a “look”. Props must be given to the scene in which the Doctor is in the warehouse surrounded by about 20 or so faceless people—that’s a legitimately unsettling moment which further underscores the episode’s failings by showing in just a few seconds how to get it so perfect.
Lastly, David Tennant turns in a riveting performance; the cold rage he feels upon realizing Rose’s face has been taken is another defining moment for the actor as the Time Lord. He does such convincing work here, it’s as if he senses the whole thing is pear-shaped, but that if he really does his job he might just make tart lemonade out of bitter lemons. The episode does indeed feel as if it might be headed somewhere glorious for about the first 30 minutes or so, but everything falls apart so quickly in the final act, it’s difficult to hold onto its strengths as the credits roll.
The Doctor: “They left her in the street. They took her face, and just chucked her out and left her in the street. And as a result, that makes things…simple. Very, very simple. Do you know why?”
The Doctor: “Because now, Detective Inspector Bishop, there is no power on this earth that can stop me!”
It isn’t hard to guess why “The Idiot’s Lantern” is the tale that it is. After no less than three (maybe even four?) straight episodes of emotionally draining and/or dark subject matter, and a very dark two-parter right around the corner, it probably seemed like a good idea to lighten things up. And yet given the season’s flow, the entire affair still feels like a calculated misstep (unlike last season’s “The Long Game”, which was better placed, paced and plotted). It’s written by Mark Gatiss who provided last season’s far superior “The Unquiet Dead” and knows Who as well as anybody writing for this series. It’s difficult to believe what’s onscreen was a proper execution of his vision—something went awry here between script and screen and it’s a huge shame because the basic framework of the goings-on has great potential for a one-off historical-social commentary.
Mr. Magpie: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
The above quote is worth mentioning, because if you’ve been paying close attention you’ve already heard it this season. The Doctor first said it to the new humans in “New Earth”, and it’s since been resurrected by both Mickey and the President of Great Britain in “Rise of the Cybermen” and by the Doctor again in “The Age of Steel”. I bring it up only because in this season where the buzzword “Torchwood” crops up with a near irritating frequency, this far more subtle recurring theme is easily missed, despite its resonance packing a deeper punch. Keep an ear open for it in the coming weeks as well.
NEXT WEEK: The TARDIS finally gets far, far away from Earth, the Beast and His Armies will awaken, and the very odd Ood in: “The Impossible Planet”. (This is one not to miss, folks!)
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “The Robots of Death” starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson.
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based critic and columnist, a contributor to The House Next Door, and publisher of The Rued Morgue. For more writing about the series, see “Dr. Who” in the sidebar at right.