Monday, 21 January 2013

Review: Doctor Who 2.7: The Idiot's Lantern

Jamie Foreman has "angry cockney" down pat.
Doctor Who - Season 28, Episode Seven - The Idiot's Lantern
Written 4/1/13

From the pen of the great Gattiss himself, this mid-season story is strangely disliked by the fandom. In my experience it's always been one of those ones that are not as bad as everyone thinks they are, mainly due to its outstanding sense of tone. Gattiss has always had a grasp for getting the feel of the past right even when the script itself isn't top notch - his most out-of-touch and weird script was the one he tried to set in the present, Night Terrors. The Idiot's Lantern is otherwise rather mediocre, but don't let that fool you - there's some good potatoes here.
     Aiming for the height of New York Americana, the Doctor and Rose instead land in 1950s London, where they find a mysterious conspiracy by which people are being abducted from their homes by the police. The disappearances seem to be coinciding with the sales of local Magpie Electronics, who is selling cheap televisions in the run-up to the Coronation of Elizabeth II, the most watched television event in history. As Rose investigates Magpie's, The Doctor discovers that the police are in fact hiding people whose faces have been absorbed, leaving them mindless husks. Rose discovers that Magpie is being controlled by an entity who communicates via a face in a television screen known as the Wire, who steals her face. When The Doctor discovers this, he goes after the Wire and manages to stop her from transmitting herself across the country by recording her onto a betamax tape.
     I love Gattiss' appeal to the domestic, which arrives in the form of the Connolly family. Their brash father figure Eddie Connolly is played by character actor Jamie Foreman (known to modern viewers as Derek Branning) who is channelling his role from the previous year, Bill Sykes, to create a loathsome secondary villain. In an odd way, Eddie Connolly feels more villainous than The Wire herself - the latter just attempting to survive while Connolly sells out his neighbours and abuses his family. That was one of the episode's biggest disconnects, because you've got this magnificent human figure and then a main villain that's basically a ranty TV screen.
     That's probably my only beef with it, really. The tone is absolutely spot on, and the extension of the metaphor of the "TV that sucks your brains out" is rather cleverly executed. I could have done without Maureen Lipman screaming "FEEEED ME!" and I suppose the Doctor's weird rants are a bit off, but everything's here that should be here for a really good story. Any problems regarding people's appreciation of that comes soley down to the way it was executed, which wasn't necessarily wrong - rather more with the wrong focus. Gattiss took it back to the family in Night Terrors and for all of its faults that worked a lot better than this for what it was trying to do.
     The Idiot's Lantern works as a period piece, an examination of the stereotypical family dynamic and the attitude towards a fast-evolving media presence. It takes fears and urban legends of the time and puts them into a monster which is actually quite scary - people being turned into empty shells. It fails in one simple regard - as an adventure, it's 90% buildup. There's no real flow of narrative, it's exposition until a rush at the end. But, despite it's flaws, it's still an entertaining hour and it contains some of my favourite guest characters in this season.


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