The Idiot’s Lantern

Cybernetic high-jinks became a thing of the past this week as body horror took a more macabre turn. Sleepless nights abound once more as a Mark Gatiss script is presented to Britain’s children, replete with talking television sets, swastika aerials and Rose dressed as a teddy girl.

Parents – if you didn’t see the scares coming when you saw Gatiss’ name on the opening credits then you only have yourselves to blame. Last year Doctor Who had settled into being a nice show about a man, a girl, a curiously-proportioned time machine and visits to meet funny aliens when The Unquiet Dead made the tills at Tesco ring until midnight with anxious parents stocking up on nappies. Dead people just don’t get out of their coffins and scream like that unless there’s something very spooky going on.

Similarly, faces just don’t go missing.

There has to be a serious case for Gatiss being a permanent writer on Doctor Who – at best the man in charge – when in successive seasons he is the only one to return and produce a script of the same high standard as his original effort. Both Stephen Moffatt and Russell T Davies have produced good works (Tooth and Claw, The Girl in the Fireplace) but neither are quite as god as their first series pieces. Mark Gatiss meanwhile is the one slipping into a modern day Robert Holmes role. You knew you were getting a good tale as soon as Holmes’ name appeared on screen, and the same can definitely be said for Gatiss.

Landing in 1953, the Doctor and Rose soon discover that people are being taken away by the police in big black cars. The only similarity in each case is a brand new television, and the trail leads to a Mr Magpie…

Gatiss’ pre-credits sequence this time wasn’t quite as urine-inducing as the late grandmother wailing in The Unquiet Dead. Instead, it concerned televisions coming to life, addressing the viewer and then sucking off the viewer’s face. Totally innocent…

An attempt by the Doctor and Rose to see pre-draft Elvis on the “Ed Sullivan Show” sees them land instead in Muswell Hill, London, 1953. Along with some faultless props (cars, street decoration, furniture), there’s some excellent design work, most tellingly with the television sets themselves. The magic of these old TV sets is further enhanced by the visual effect of looking from inside the television to observe who the alien intelligence is talking to.

The alien intelligence – “The Wire” – has manifested itself in Magpies televisions, which he sells for £5. That was quite cheap even in 1953. Faultlessly played by Maureen Lipman, The Wire has taken the visual form of a well-known television presenter, and is hungry. Feeding off personalities and brain-prints, The Wire plans to take advantage of Muswell Hill’s proximity to the Alexandra Palace transmitter and the mass audience planning to watch the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

As alien plans go, The Wire’s becomes obvious quite soon. What is more interesting however is the relationship between the Doctor and Rose and the young boy Tommy Connolly, who lives with his mother under the jackboot of an oppressive father. A perfect excuse for David Tennant to further stamp his authority on the Doctor, in fact, as he embarrasses and shouts down the pig-like Mr Connolly.

Magpie’s story too is quite a sad one, becoming nothing more than a tool for The Wire to propagate itself across London. He’s well represented by Ron Cook, and continues to be a tortured, tragic figure until he meets his expected end.

The Idiot’s Lantern is also another strike against the concept of “Rose Who” – the companion gets cruelly sidelined leaving the Doctor to defeat The Wire with the help of a policeman and Tommy Connolly. Billie Piper is much better this week, however, but we’re getting very close to the time where Rose Tyler becomes tired…

Punchy direction by Euros Lynn, a dramatic resolution to the story and a strong villain in a somewhat restricted role make The Idiot’s Lantern one to remember. The time has come for Gatiss to be given a key story however, either a series opener or returning villain for next series. His stories have so far been responsible for furthering the adventures of the Doctor and meeting new, chilling villains. Time to let Gatiss play with the older toys…


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