A Special Look at: The Idiot’s Lantern

The Idiot’s Lantern (title being urban slang for a television), a pseudo-historical,  is certainly not a great episode. It’s not that I don’t like it, because I really do, but there is something off with the story. Of course, this story, has an ambition woman, in the Wire, as it’s main antagonist, to make note of. According to The A.V. Club review:

“Digging that New York vibe.” “Well, this could still be New York. I mean, this looks very New York to me. Sort of London-y New York, mind.”

During Russell T. Davies’ tenure as showrunner, every season of Doctor Who followed roughly the same structure. There would be three or four standalone episodes to kick off the season, then a two-parter that was built around an alien invasion of Earth—the Slitheen had their go last season, and this time it was the Cybermen’s turn, albeit in a parallel universe. Later in the season would come a more experimental two-parter, which consistently emerged as one of the best stories of the year. There would then be one or two episodes, often written by Davies, that would tie up any loose ends and attempt to save as much money as possible in anticipation of the big finale. The weak spot in the schedule tended to be found in the gap between the first and second two-parters. There would often be an episode or two around the season’s midpoint that felt undercooked, as though there hadn’t been enough time in the mad rush of the season to fully develop each story. Indeed, that’s literally what happened with “The Idiot’s Lantern.” Originally slated to be the season’s ninth episode, a combination of story reshuffling and delays on other scripts meant it had to be filmed earlier than expected, and writer Mark Gatiss had to finish the script on short notice.

As such, it’s understandable that this story is less than the sum of its parts, a common issue with stories from this part of the season. I don’t want to overstate this phenomenon; after all, “Dalek” and “Father’s Day,”both classics of the first season, were broadcast in between “Aliens Of London”/“World War Three”and “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances.”But consider “The Long Game,”which sit at the precise midpoint of season one, just as “The Idiot’s Lantern” does here in the second season. Despite their wildly different settings, they share many of the same structural problems. Neither story suffers from a shortage of good ideas, but each struggles to unify its disparate ideas into a coherent whole. Both stories bring in recognizable comedic actors and then do precious little with their guest stars’ talents. (Admittedly, Maureen Lipman can’t rival Simon Pegg’s fame in America, but she’s quite well-known in the United Kingdom.) I’m not sure there’s a great episode to be found lurking beneath either “The Long Game” or “The Idiot’s Lantern,” but it’s easy to see a version of each story that is significantly better than what ended up being broadcast. In his second effort for Doctor Who, writer Mark Gatiss can’t match his work on “The Unquiet Dead.”

And yet, I did like “The Idiot’s Lantern” far more this time around than I did back in 2006. The coronation backdrop provides another reminder of just how thoroughly British Doctor Who is, and Gatiss does find some nice moments for the Doctor, as his script has particular fun with the psychic paper. The King of Belgium gag is good, but the more telling moment comes earlier, when the Doctor sizes up Eddie Connolly and then presents the exact credentials needed to get him in the door. The brisk pace of new Doctor Who means these latter-day Doctors can’t spend nearly as much time being imprisoned and falsely accused as their classic-era predecessors did, but the story gets in an abbreviated version of that hallowed story beat when the Doctor finds himself being interrogated by Detective Inspector Bishop. The Doctor is at his best when he reveals just how he knew the man’s name and then appeals to Bishop’s fundamental urge to go detective inspecting. There are enough of these little moments to make for a decent enough episode. It’s just that “The Idiot’s Lantern” lacks that one entirely successful element that would elevate everything else that doesn’t quite work; for instance, Gatiss’ previous story benefitted immensely from Simon Callow’s wonderful, lived-in performance as Charles Dickens, which helped the audience invest in the potentially stuffy historical setting.

On that score, the business with the Connolly family comes the closest to succeeding, if only because it’s the element that Gatiss’ script devotes the most attention to. Rory Jennings does well portraying Tommy Connolly’s nascent rebellious streak, even if his big speech to his father is more on-the-nose than it needs to be. For his part, Jamie Foreman is rather one-note as the family’s odious, bullying patriarch, but the script doesn’t offer many opportunities for nuance amid all the shouting. Foreman’s best moment comes right at the end of the episode, as Eddie silently walks away from his former home; there’s a quiet dignity to his gait that suggests the well-meaning soldier he might once have been before fear and rage consumed him. Rita’s decision to kick Eddie out of the house might feel a tad anachronistic, but let’s not forget what show we’re watching. The real-life Eddies likely weren’t dispensed with so easily, but such optimism is at Doctor Who’s core. After all, Rita and Tommy would never have gained the courage to stand up to Eddie if not for the Doctor and Rose’s example. As far as the show is concerned, such departures from what “really” happened is a feature, not a bug.

The story’s villains also show some potential. Ron Cook is suitably tortured as Mr. Magpie, his every gesture and intonation indicating that this is an unremarkable man so desperate to be released from the Wire’s clutches that he will help her steal the brainpower of millions. Magpie’s conflicted position should add complexity to the story, but it doesn’t lead anywhere in particular. He doesn’t get a redemptive if futile sacrifice, nor does the Doctor offer to help Magpie defeat the Wire only for a defeated Magpie to refuse. He does have a moment’s attack of conscience while clinging to the transmitter, but Magpie remains a pawn throughout; his pointless death does sap just enough of the Wire’s power to give the Doctor a chance to defeat her, but even that is a minor part of the resolution. The Wire herself is a potentially intriguing creation, particularly in how her weakened state makes her alternate between oily villainy and feral hunger. That’s a fantastic idea for a villain, but it requires rather more development than Maureen Lipman shouting “Hungry!” over and over.

Rose is rendered faceless for a good chunk of this episode, but Gatiss and Piper do a good job furthering Rose’s development in the time they do have. This season has taken its time in figuring out just what precisely is the relationship between Rose and the 10th Doctor, and “The Idiot’s Lantern” suggests they are now equal partners, at least as much as a 900-year-old Time Lord and a twentysomething human can ever hope to be equals. Rose takes obvious delight in talking down to supposedly respectable members of the ‘50s establishment like Magpie and Mr. Connolly. This is the same domineering Rose that we saw in “Tooth And Claw,” but here her arrogance makes more sense, particularly since Magpie and Connolly deserve a browbeating or two. There are episodes this season where the Doctor and Rose can be a bit much, but Gatiss’ script does a good job positioning them in opposition to people who are in need of some disrespect. The Doctor taught her well, as she handles her investigation into Magpie’s business just as he would, refusing to stand on ceremony and demanding he reveal his connection to the unearthly happenings on Florizel Street. Rose enters Magpie’s store with no real idea what is going on, at least in the particulars, but she knows innocent people are being hurt, which is enough to prompt her to decisive, rash action. It costs Rose her face, because, even if she acts as the Doctor would, she doesn’t have his knowledge or his alien intelligence—or, more relevant to this particular discussion, his sonic screwdriver.

One area that may well have been adversely affected by the mad rush to finish the script is the inter-episode continuity, although this isn’t the first non-Davies episode that feels disconnected from the rest of the season. I don’t have any particular issue with the lack of mention of Mickey, especially assuming some time has elapsed since “The Age Of Steel.” But the bigger missed opportunity comes at the end, when Rose convinces Tommy to catch up with his departing father. Considering Rose’s own failed reunion with the parallel Pete Tyler in the preceding story, her words to Tommy should carry massive emotional weight, as though she is urging Tommy to do something that she desperately yearns to do but is forever unable to. Billie Piper’s performance sort of suggests all that, but it’s rather too subtle for an episode that is so often more obvious than it needs to be; these are connections Doctor Who could stand to make just a touch more explicit. The episode ends on a nice character moment for Tommy and Eddie, but the whole thing feels adjacent to a partially realized moment for Rose. There’s potential for something special here, but the ideas aren’t developed in sufficient detail. That’s true of the episode in general, really, but “The Idiot’s Lantern” comes far closer to working than I once gave it credit for.

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One thought on “A Special Look at: The Idiot’s Lantern

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Doctor Who: Series 9 | The Progressive Democrat

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