The latest installment of the new Doctor Who, entitled The Idiot’s Lantern, is an example of an unambitious episode achieving most of what it set out to do. The story is well put together, has few flaws, but doesn’t really amount to much in the grand scheme of things.
Diverted on their way to see Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show in 1959, the Doctor and Rose find themselves in London in 1953 on the day of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. An estimated 20 million are due to tune in to see the festivities via this newfangled invention called a television, and an alien force is about to take advantage of having so many eyeballs glued to the screens. Can the Doctor figure out what’s leaving so many Londoners faceless and stop the attack before it’s too late? Well, of course he can, but the fun is in the journey.
The Idiot’s Lantern is written by Mark Gatiss, who last year gave us the Dickensian period piece, The Unquiet Dead. Again, Gatiss has crafted a story that recreates a period for the audience to view. This is an important feat, because too often Doctor Who’s writers forget that not only can the TARDIS take us forward in time to any planet in the universe, it can also take us back to see history as it happens. And while most producers seem inordinately fond of stories set on present day Earth (it’s less of a strain on the budget), history pieces aren’t that costly to film, either, since costumes are easier to put together than sets of alien environments, so long as you are attentive to the details.
Unfortunately, it has been some time since Doctor Who showed us a purely historical story, where the Doctor and company simply get mixed up in events (like the Massacre of St. Bartholemew’s Eve) and have to struggle to get out alive, without any science fiction complications to distract us from the plot. That would require more research than simply making sure that the setting’s details are right. The Idiot’s Lantern falls into the category of a science fiction story set in history. Other than the hook of Elizabeth’s coronation providing the alien force with the biggest audience yet seen on the television era (in today’s world, it’s “take” would be much lower, thanks to the 500 channel universe; it would probably have to diversify and occupy a plethora of shows and genres — maybe it could take out the people behind the show Survivor, though; that wouldn’t be so bad, :-)), there is no reason why this story couldn’t be set on present day Earth, except for the fact that we’d be robbed of some nice set pieces, and funny comments on how things were in the early 1950s.
Mark Gatiss’ storytelling is solid, and the best subplot surrounds the troubled Connolly family, whose grandmother has had her face sucked off by the alien in the wire. The father, an ex-army chap and a mini-dictator, both struggles to hold the family together, and relishes his new role as leader now that granny isn’t around to hold him back — that is, until the Doctor and Rose come in with their investigation, immediately realize that the father is nothing more than a blustering bully, and decide to have some fun at his expense. The wife and son break free of his tyrannical influence and help the Doctor defeat the alien in the wire. The story of the son and mother standing up to an abusive father has been done before, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable to watch.
Director Euros Lynn also has a lot of creepy images to work with, not the least of which being the faceless, twitching bodies the alien in the wire leaves behind — an image reminiscent of the classic Sapphire and Steel episode, The Man Without a Face (Old Photographs). All of the actors take to their roles, including Maureen Lipman as the alien in the wire, and Ron Cook as the poor television salesman Mr. Magpie, whom the alien conscripts to get television sets into as many homes as possible in time for the coronation.
Things hold together until the very end, when the climax gets a little too overblown, and the dialogue between the Doctor, the alien and Mr. Magpie too cliche. I also have a problem with David Tennant’s acting, and the script he has to deliver. He has a number of good moments in the episode — his infectious joy at seeing history in action, and his turning of the tables on Detective Inspector Bishop (a classic Doctor Who moment where the Doctor goes from prime suspect to person-in-charge in the span of a minute), but he loses it when Rose Tyler succumbs to the alien in the wire. Not only does Tennant chew the scenery, but it’s a character moment that I find uncharacteristic in the Doctor. Dozens of people in London are having their faces ripped off by some alien in the wire, but when it takes Rose, then it becomes personal? I’m with Rebecca on this one: I’m not buying this.
Fortunately, the episode is saved by Tommy Connolly, the son, who has the presence of mind to repair the Doctor’s machine and save the day. It’s always nice to see the minor characters making major contributions to the Doctor’s fight, just like young Kenny in School Reunion, and Tommy is the single best thing about The Idiot’s Lantern.
It would be unfair to call The Idiot’s Lantern the weakest episode of this season because it did not exactly fail — it achieved what it set out to do, in stark contrast to the missed opportunity that was the Cyberman two-parter. The episode feels like filler, however and, worse than that, it’s flawed filler (the Doctor goes out of character, the alien’s dialogue gets annoying after a while). It fills the timeslot, but it’s easily forgotten, and we move on to the episode next week, in the hopes that we’ll have something better.
And we will…