The 1950s was a time when television was new to the world and, like most new things, some people viewed the new technology with a certain degree of trepidation. It is this fear that The Idiot’s Lantern exploits. The episode raises the theme of television as a potential force for evil and then takes that thought to its logical extreme, delightfully ironic for a series that has utilised the medium for over forty years. There is also that heavy sense of impending doom that can be found in the contemporary Quatermass serials, an obvious source of inspiration for Gatiss, who took part in a reworking of The Quatermass Experiment himself the year before this episode was broadcast.
The themes explored are slightly half-baked, but there is some exploration of the consequences of arrogance. Showing she has not yet learnt her lesson from Tooth and Claw, Rose comes across as over-confident in this episode, bordering on smug. In a perfect example of ‘pride comes before a fall’, she tries to solve things without the Doctor’s help and gets her face sucked off for her trouble. In one scene the Doctor clearly thinks he is going to be able to talk his way out of trouble and gets a knock-out punch, which is a clever subversion of what we normally expect to happen, so over-confidence doesn’t work here.
The Doctor is at his best when he is at odds with authority, rather than being an authority figure himself, and this brings up the problem of the psychic paper. Magnificent an idea as it is, Gatiss has to completely ignore it at one point, when the Doctor could easily have used it to stop the police taking the grandmother away. Combine the psychic paper with the
magic wand sonic screwdriver and the Doctor has the means to solve most problems without engaging the brain, and that leads to unfortunate moments like this where he is frustratedly railing against misguided authority figures when he has the means to take charge of them, to avoid nullifying the plot. The decreasing use of the psychic paper in subsequent years has been a wise move.
Maureen Lipman plays the Wire, the villain of the episode. She is an ideal choice for the role, perfectly capturing the propriety of female broadcasters of the era and twisting it into something frightening. But she isn’t the real villain – she’s just the fun fantasy one. The one that will hit home with most viewers is the real life monster in the episode: Eddie Connelly.
And he really is a monster of a man. He uses his military history as an excuse to behave in any way he pleases, as if it has made a saint of him and given him a free pass to behave as he wishes. People like this existed when I was younger – he’s not a fantasy. It all plays brilliantly into the arrogance theme I mentioned above. Because he fought fascism he sees no problem with behaving in a fascist manner himself, and his son calls him out on this. He thinks people who are different are “filthy” and places his own reputation above any notions of human kindness. I think Tommy’s speech sums things up beautifully:
You don’t get it, do you? You fought against fascism, remember? People telling you how to live. Who you could be friends with. Who you could fall in love with. Who could live and who had to die. Don’t you get it? You were fighting so that little twerps like me could do what we want, say what we want. Now you’ve become just like them. You’ve been informing on everyone, haven’t you? Even Gran. All to protect your precious reputation.
On top of all this he is verbally abusive towards his family and probably physically abusive as well, unless he is in the habit of engaging in idle threats framed as a joke. Either way, the verbal abuse alone is enough to render the Doctor’s advice to Tommy to reconcile with him problematical to say the least. In fact, the whole way the Doctor deals with Eddie is not ideal. Just look at the shouting match between them. It might press all the right buttons for the viewers, but on a basic level this is the Doctor dealing with a bully by trying to out-bully him. He tries to play him at his own game and throughout the episode belittles the man in the same way that he belittles others. I will leave it to those who are more experienced in these things to decide whether this is a sensible solution to the problem of bullying, but somehow I doubt it. The Doctor is better than this.
…and then he goes and invents home video “30 years early” but forgets to ask somebody to record The Evil of the Daleks.
There should have been another way. RP
The view from across the pond:
“Start from the beginning. Tell me everything you know.”
The Idiot’s Lantern does not cast a lot of light, but is still quite watchable even though the villain is weak. Not weak as in strength but weak as in: would we ever want to see this enemy return to our screens? Considering this is written by the same author as last seasons superb The Unquiet Dead, I am a little disappointed. The Geth may not need to make a resurgence, but if they did I would not be upset. By contrast, the Wire can be forgotten.
That said, the set designers do some truly stellar work. Somehow, they capture the look and feel of the 1950’s perfectly. In fact, they went so far to make sure the televisions actually produced that high pitch whistle common among televisions of the time. David Tennant’s hair and Billie Piper’s costume are perfect for the era. Even Aunt Bettie’s attitude of beating an attitude out of a child seems the mentality of a bygone age (thankfully). Then there are the expressions, like “smart as paint” – what does that mean anyway?! And the idea of color television being truly a feat for the ages (for which Detective Inspector Bishop seems to be more impressed with than by the woman in the TV!!)
Tennant and Piper work so incredibly well together. They truly carry this episode. They really are an amazing team and that shines through in so many moments throughout this episode. But there are issues with this one. Mostly questions that never get answered like:
- Why do the faceless people have plastic-sounding hands?
- And why do they clench their fists over and over again?
- Why are the faces visible on the televisions?
- How and why does each face have a dedicated TV?
- How does everyone get their faces back when not everyone was in front of a TV at the time of restoration? (This would be a particularly nasty thing to think about!)
- Why is The Wire concerned that the Doctor is “armed” – she was about to basically make him a vegetable! Perhaps the withdrawal would knock the Doctor out while the absorption of his face would have left him enough time to damage the Wire?
- If The Wire can direct energy as she does, why is it that only Magpie gets hit and atomized, while even the Doctor does not? Is it more than electricity, as getting electrocuted doesn’t generally atomize a person. Even so, why get Magpie before getting her real enemy?
These complaints don’t impact the episode that badly though. The creepiness factor of faceless people was enough to spike the episode a little bit even though some of the faces looked more blurred out than actively missing. Not to mention the wonderful acting of Maureen Lipman has to be recognized; her way of saying “hungry” became quite distressing. Jamie Foreman’s Eddie was one of those guys you love to hate. His “Filthy…” dialog about his mother-in-law was both horrifying and hilarious.
As endings go, this was a happy one because even though Eddie gets kicked out, Rose convinces Tommy to go after him and you can’t help but think the message is one of “forgiveness”; a worthy message from our favorite show. With the music and the final parting scenes, and Tommy running after his dad and taking his dad’s case… it’s certainly a nice image to end on.
Before I quit: again the Doctor uses his sense of taste almost as well as Mr. Spock uses a tricorder – he licks things to identify them way too often. It’s damned weird and I find it a little distasteful. I’d hate to see my kid think it was alright to mimic!
And at least now we all know that you can’t wrap your hand around your elbow to make your fingers meet! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Impossible Planet