Doctor Who - The New Series

2.07: "THE IDIOT'S LANTERN"

TX: 27 May 2006

Written by: Mark Gatiss

Directed by: Euros Lyn

Running time: 45' 08"

Location: London, England

Date: May/June 1-2, 1953

Monsters and villains: The Wire (a creature made of living information), Mr Magpie (The Wire's hapless slave).

Tardisode Synopsis: An old woman's seemingly faulty television set proves somewhat sinister when pink electrical tendrils reach out of it and grip onto her face...

Plot Synopsis: Another glitch in the TARDIS results in The Doctor and Rose making an unexpected stop-off in London just before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. But why are the police kidnapping people out of their own homes? And what is going wrong with the city's television sets?

Smug Warning: The Doctor and Rose's bullying of Eddie Connolly, although he's a tosser so he pretty much deserves it.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry": Mr Magpie, to Rose.

Torchwood spotting: When The Doctor is inspecting Rose, DI Bishop mentions that Torchwood will be "on their backs" soon. In a deleted scene on the DVD, he also mentions Torchwood in a telephone call.

Trivia: (1) Episode working titles were "Mr Sandman", "Sonic Doom" and "The One-Eyed Monster".

(2) The name of road that the family live on, 'Florizel Street', was the working title for the British soap opera Coronation Street. Originally the script would have ended with The Doctor taping over The Wire with an episode of that very show.

(3) The subplot about Tommy's difficult relationship with his father was beefed up at the request of Russell T. Davies.

(4) Originally there was a subplot about Rose visiting her aunt who worked on a game show at the BBC, but it was removed after Davies felt that nobody would take the story seriously if the Beeb were too involved in the story.

(5) The Wire was originally going to be a living song - hence the working title "Sonic Doom" - until it was agreed that the idea was not visual enough.

(6) The episode was originally to be set in Powell Street, which would eventually become the Powell Estate where Jackie Tyler lived. However, the estate was established as being in south London and therefore too far away from Alexandra Palace.

(7) Magpie Electricals is a reference to Pye Ltd, the Cambridge-based electronics company that made a small fortune building and telling television sets in the 1950s. to the best of my knowledge, it was not run by aliens.

(8) Cut or altered scenes include the street party being set in the daytime to differentiate it from the ending of 2.11, "Fear Her"; Tommy's grandfather being excised from the script; a cut scene in which Magpie's TV sets explode; a cut reference to the Fourth Doctor's regeneration-causing fall from a television mast in the original series adventure "Logopolis", and an extended scooter chase that passed through the London Underground.

(9) Some of Magpie's TV sets appear in The Hub in the spin-off TV series Torchwood.

(10) Contrary to what is seen in the episode, the real-life coronation day was rainy.

(11) The Wire's line, "are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin," was used regularly in the BBC radio series Listen With Mother, which began in the 1950s. It was also used in 2.03, "School Reunion". The Wire also quotes Derek McCulloch, presenter of Children's Hour, when she says "goodnight children everywhere".

(12) The episode was broadcast exactly ten years after the Doctor Who TV movie, which starred Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor.

(13) The episode's title was suggested to Gatiss by fellow Who writer Gareth Roberts (author of sp.03, "Attack of the Graske"), whose father used the term to refer to televisions.

(14) Rose is wrong when she scolds Mr Connolly - naval rules state that the British flag can be referred to both as the Union Jack and the Union Flag whether it is on land or not.

(15) Originally the episode was to be the sole episode in production block five, but it was subsequently shifted to block four with 2.11, "Fear Her", giving Gatiss less time to write it than he originally thought he would have.

Spoiler Synopsis: In a terraced house on Florizel Street, the Connolly family listen to their radio set. Son Tommy inquires about the possibility of getting a television set and his father, Eddie, says they may get one for the upcoming coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In nearby Magpie Electricals, the owner, Mr Magpie, grumbles that he's £200 overdrawn. Suddenly a bolt of pink lightning strikes the store's television aerial and courses out of the television screen to strike Magpie. And his face stretches off his skull and into the television, the continuity announcer begins to cackle evilly.

One month later, Rose and the Doctor roar out of the TARDIS on a Vespa scooter, expecting to see Elvis Presley perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York, and are irritated to find themselves in London. In the nearby Connolly household, Eddie is trying to distract mother Rita and son Tommy from something by talking enthusiastically about their TV set. Rita says that she should check on her mother because of something that happened to her face, but Eddie cuts her off with a sharp look. From above, a mysterious tapping noise comes from the grandmother's room.

Outside, The Doctor and Rose notice that Florizel Street has an unusual amount of TV aerials, but Mr Magpie - who is delivering another television to a nearby house - says that it's because he's selling the TV sets for just £5 each. Suddenly, a shout alerts The Doctor and Rose to a pair of policemen seemingly kidnapping a man with a cloak draped over his face. The Doctor tries to intervene, but is brushed aside. After they leave, Tommy approaches and says that people from their area have been turning into monsters, but Eddie shouts at him to go back into the house. The Doctor and Rose try to follow the car on the scooter, but after it drives out of their view, it disappears into a warehouse through a fake wall behind a pretend fruit stall.

In his shop, Magpie brings out a small portable TV set and tells the continuity announcer that he's doing what she asks. He begs her to release him, but she refuses as her work is not yet done. In the Connolly house, Eddie threatens his family into staying away from their grandmother's room. Just then, The Doctor and Rose turn up at the front door posing as government agents. The Doctor accuses Eddie of not being patriotic enough and as Eddie busies himself putting up British flags, The Doctor tries to question Tommy and Rita. Eddie, angry, gets into a shouting match with The Doctor that is interrupted by more tapping from the grandmother's room.

Tommy says that people on the street are changing and that the police are taking them away. He takes The Doctor upstairs, where the grandmother is revealed to have no face, just a blank sheet of skin. The Doctor uses the Sonic Screwdriver to inspect her and notes that she has virtually no brain activity. Just then, the police bust into the house. The Doctor tries to talk them back out, but one of the officers punches him in the face, knocking him out. The grandmother is bustled away into the police car and driven off.

While The Doctor gives chase on the scooter, Rose inspects the family's TV set, which she notices is crackling with pink electricity. Eddie then kicks her out of the house. The Doctor, meanwhile, loses the police car again but, noting the same men working on the fruit stall, realises they've tricked him. He enters the warehouse from a side door, where he finds dozens of faceless people mindlessly shambling around in metal cages. He tries to examine them but the police walk in and interrupt him.

Rose arrives at Magpie's shop demanding to know why he is selling the sets for such little money. Magpie tries to convince her that it's just a show of patriotism for the coronation but she doesn't believe him. The continuity announcer appears on the television and begins talking to Rose. Rose asks who she is and the announcer calls herself The Wire and says that she is hungry. The pink electricity reaches out and begins to pull Rose's face into the screen.

In the warehouse, Detective Inspector Bishop is interrogating The Doctor, who soon turns the tables and gets the police officer on his side. Bishop says that the changes began about a month ago, largely in Florizel Street but also happening all over London. Just then, another police officer brings in the facewiped Rose. Angry at what has happened to her, The Doctor swears vengeance.

Coronation day arrives at the Connolly home, bringing with it The Doctor and DI Bishop. Tommy answers the door but Eddie barges through and says that he's trying to maintain his reputation. Tommy realises that Eddie told the police about his grandmother and Rita, horrified, tells Tommy to go with The Doctor and DI Bishop. Tommy says that his grandmother was watching TV when she was changed and The Doctor figures out that the TVs are connected to the mystery. The group break into Magpie's shop and find the portable TV he was carrying earlier, which The Doctor identifies as being of alien design. The Doctor uses his Sonic Screwdriver to look for alien power sources and the faces of all The Wire's victims appear on the shop's TV screens, including Rose.

The Wire appears and says that her people tried to execute her, but she escaped in signal form. Her plan is to feed on the minds and faces of everyone watching the Coronation, thus soaking up enough energy to manifest physically. The Doctor realises that the portable TV set is designed to turn a large transmitter into a receiver, allowing her to siphon energy from every television viewer in North London. Suddenly, she attacks Bishop, The Doctor and Tommy. The Doctor reaches for his screwdriver and The Wire withdraws in fear, leaving him and Tommy unconscious but unharmed, and Bishop faceless. The Wire transports herself into the portable TV and Magpie takes off with it in his van.

The Doctor and Tommy awake and The Doctor correctly deduces that Magpie will head to the Alexandra Palace transmitter, the largest in North London. The Doctor gathers various pieces from Magpie's shop and a special item from the TARDIS and he and Tommy set off to the tower, constructing a device on the way. At the tower, Magpie is slowly climbing the transmitter tower. The Doctor and Tommy catch up and, while Tommy works The Doctor's device in the Alexandra Palace control room, The Doctor grabs a long copper wire and runs to the tower.

Magpie manages to activate the portable TV, allowing The Wire to feed from everyone watching the coronation in London. It tries to use its electricity to kill The Doctor, but his rubber soles save him. The Wire demands that Magpie kill The Doctor but he refuses, so she vaporises him with electricity. The Doctor uses the distraction to connect the copper wire to the portable TV, but nothing happens. The reason for this is that one of the tubes in The Doctor's device has exploded. Tommy replaces it and the device powers up, sucking The Wire down the cable.

Back at the control room, The Doctor notes that The Wire is now trapped on a Betamax cassette. They return to the warehouse and free the now-restored people, including Tommy's grandmother and Rose. Back on Florizel Street, Rita kicks out Eddie, much to the shock of her neighbours, who had gathered in the house to watch the coronation. Later, as a street party roars on, The Doctor gives the scooter to Tommy while Rose advises the boy to go help his father. Tommy goes to help his father carry his luggage while The Doctor and Rose join the celebrations.

Review: After the highly entertaining first season episode "The Unquiet Dead", League of Gentlemen writer and actor Mark Gatiss returns with another period piece. Now before I go on, I should point out that scheduling changes left Gatiss with less writing time than he originally planned for, so I can understand why this is a bit flatter than expected. Still, what we have here is as close as you're going to get to a 'standard' episode of such a varied series. Doctor and Rose turn up, investigate a bit and sort it out.

Granted, the monster is unusual and extremely well realised and the fact that Rose is taken out by the baddie is unusual, but very little else about this episode that really stands out as being anything but a basic 'monster of the week' story. That's not to say it's bad - the jokes are fine, the supporting cast are largely good (not sure about the slightly cartoony portrayal of Eddie, but it's hardly crippling) and the effects are great. But it never manages to seem anything more than competent.

It doesn't help that it's just a monster episode and not much more. Most of the one-shot episodes so far this season have had a little more substance, be it The Doctor's relationship with Sarah Jane Smith in "School Reunion", the time window concept in "The Girl in the Fireplace" or the body swapping comedy in "New Earth". The only one that had a standard Doc v monster plot was "Tooth and Claw", and that one made up for it by mostly being balls-to-the-wall chase scenes and screaming. This episode tries to take a quieter tack by largely relying on atmosphere and those creepy faceless people, but that means the viewer has more time to take in the plot, which is actually fairly standard stuff.

Presumably this is why Davies asked Gatiss for the Connolly family's relationships to be played up a little more - to give the episode a little more substance - but if that was the case then it's a bit of a misfire. Tommy's good enough as a temporary companion but his relationship with Eddie, and Eddie's relationship with Rita, are so tangential to the plot and so thoroughly uninvolving that they just feel like wasted screen time. Granted, that screen time probably adds up to all of five minutes, but still - it's not enough to distract from the very uneventful plot.

Still, we do get a mostly good cast, of which the standout is undoubtedly Maureen Lipman as The Wire, all received pronunciation and evil cackles. She's always value for money and it's a delight to see her in something other than the kitchen sink comedy-dramas that she always seems to turn up in these days. Also grand is Ron Cook as Magpie, who is believable as a man who does terrible things to save his own skin. I'd have liked to see more of the character, to be honest, perhaps instead of the Connolly family scenes.

Weirdly, the biggest letdown in terms of acting is David Tennant. The man's been putting in a sterling performance through most of this season, but one scene here just falls flat, and that's his speech about him being unstoppable. To be honest, this is more about the writing not catering for the actor than anything else; not only is the speech a little bit clumsy and wordy, but Tennant doesn't have the intensity to pull it off.

Or, rather, he does but it's a different kind of intensity the one that the scene calls for. It's easy to imagine Christopher Eccleston, the former Doctor, pulling it off but Tennant is better at doing quiet anger and smouldering danger than shouty rage than Eccleston (see "School Reunion" for example) and the scene really ought to have been rewritten with that in mind. Still, he's grand through the rest of it, as usual.

Still, the special effects are sound - particularly the scenes on the transmitter tower, which made me feel awful (don't have a head for heights, which is troublesome since I'm six foot two). Despite that, much of Euros Lyn's direction for the episode left me feeling fairly flat. It's odd, really, because Lyn has always seemed like the most talented and exciting of new Who's directors, but very little stands out in this episode as being particularly unusual or eye-catching. The one thing that does seem interesting is the use of Dutch angles (shots in which the camera is held at an angle to the horizon), but with everything else being fairly bland they don't really have the desired effect of creating an eerie atmosphere, instead feeling slightly... out of place.

So. A good episode but not spectacular. Still, I look forward to future Who efforts from Gatiss.

7/10

Previous Episode | Next Episode Return to the episode index

Sources:

http://www.gallifreyone.com - Outpost Gallifrey http://www.physics.mun.ca/~sps/9doc.html - A Brief History of (Time) Travel

One of the great divides amongst viewers of Doctor Who (in both its classic and current incarnations) is between those who view it as an avant-garde, cult science-fiction show, and those who view it as a slightly goofy show whose main appeal is that it is a family program. And a large part of this divide is between American fans of the television show, where viewers have probably found out and become devoted to the show through geek circles, and British viewers, where the show is usually one of the most watched shows on Saturday evenings.

All of this brings us to "The Idiot's Lantern", the seventh episode of the second series of Doctor Who, starring David Tennant as The 10th Doctor.

The synopsis of the plot is that The Doctor and his companion, Rose Tyler, end up in London during the coronation of Elizabeth II. This being a Doctor Who episode, this historic occasion is being marred by a grotesque alien invasion plot, where televisions (a new invention, but being bought up so that people can view the coronation) are being possessed by an electronic entity of some sort, who erases people's faces. The whole thing is being hushed up by the police, and there is an entire subplot about a domineering father who tries to hide his mother-in-law's infliction with facial erasion. All of which is, of course, solved by The Doctor, who climbs up a radio tower and reverses polarity, and then everyone enjoys the coronation and gets their faces returned.

And this is where the dichotomization of the show's audience becomes a key influence. As an American science-fiction fan, I wonder why a television show that conceptually has so much more ground to explore than any other show, ever, should so frequently end up in suburban London. This is especially the case since much of the basic plot of the episode (Doctor shows up in London for an important national event during a string of disappearances) is used again in "Fear Her". But for the family viewer, the episode's construction makes more sense. The average family sitting on the couch on Saturday evening isn't going to be up on Gallifrey and the Time War and paradoxes and timey-wimey balls. Instead, they are given a familiar setting, a familiar event, some earthly domestic drama, and The Doctor being just a visiting figure, who manages to solve the problems in the episode's forty-odd minute span.

So whether this episode succeeds or fails depends on which audience you are part of. As an American who is watching the entire series on DVD, it seems like filler that fails to use the possibility of the Doctor Who concept as it could. If I was a member of the British general audience who was looking for an entertaining fantasy that had an easy to understand setting, I would say that it succeeded.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.