David Tennant, Billie Piper, Ron Cook, Debra Gillet, Rory Jennings, Marie Lewis, Sam Cox, Jean Challis, Jamie Foreman
Judging by the buzz on internet forums, then “The Idiot’s Lantern” is the least popular episode of this season so far. Bizarre. Didn’t you lot watch “New Earth”?
There are, undeniably, reasons to criticise Mark Gatiss’s second Who script. The obvious one is that the A-plot is fairly insubstantial. An alien entity is sucking the life out of people via their TV sets; the Doctor lashes up some equipment and defeats it. That’s pretty much your lot. But didn’t Doctor Who always tell stories that straightforward in the Good Old Days? The only difference was that you used to have two episodes of running up and down corridors jammed in the middle! And aren’t people always carping that they try and fit too much into the 45 minute format, and that the end result is something too rushed and busy?
The episode also infuriates people who like everything to be neatly explained. Why, when The Wire “feasts” on people’s energy, does that result in the disappearance of their faces? Why do those disembodied faces turn up in a bank of TV sets? Here’s the answer: because it looks spooky . It scared the living crap out of kids when they did it in adventure four of Sapphire and Steel, and it still works now. It makes perfect sense in a poetic way. A scientific rationale is as pointless and unnecessary as it would be in a fairy tale. If, by now, you haven’t got used to the fact that modern day Who is science fantasy and not hard SF, then you really haven’t been paying attention.
Slight that A-plot may be, but nevertheless this episode is as enjoyable as a cruise on the back of the Doctor’s scooter. Euros Lyn – without doubt the most talented director on the show – does wonders with spooky noir lighting and a barrage of disorientating Dutch-angled shots (so many, indeed, that it times it’s like watching an episode of the ‘60s Batman!) Maureen Lipman’s performance is superb, and the script sparkles with the kind of self-conscious wit that was (understandly) conspicously absent from the Cyberman two-parter – Gatiss’s winking use of phrases like “Goodnight children, everywhere” was both cheeky and oddly eerie.
What really makes “The Idiot’s Lantern” a good Doctor Who story is the subplot. Just as Life on Mars reminded us that the days before political correctness were a time of rampant sexism, racism and corruption, not some Golden Age of personal freedom, so “The Idiot’s Lantern” reminds us that the Fifties wasn’t one long episode of Hi-De-Hi. The very different family values of the era provided a soil in which poisonous weeds like Eddie Connolly could often thrive. It’s deeply satisfying to see the Doctor standing up to this domestic dictator – and even more satisfying to see modern-day everygirl Rose taking this male chauvinist dinosaur down a few pegs. Sadly, Jamie Foreman’s performance as Eddie was often awkwardly mannered, but excellent work by the supporting cast (particularly the young Rory Jennings as Tommy) meant that this was still a touching strand of the storyline, and one that must have struck a resonant chord in many households. We sincerely hope the Doctor’s example has inspired a few bullied and cowed sons out to stand up straight and look their tormentors in the eye.