Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: The Idiot’s Lantern

By Eddie Robson on 27 May 2006

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Mark Gatiss’ previous ‘Doctor Who’ episode, ‘The Unquiet Dead’, attracted some criticisms of playing to the gallery. A megamix of the 19th-century sensation fiction that ‘Who’ had mined extensively in the mid-1970s, it was seemingly strategically placed early in the 2005 season to provide something reassuringly familiar for the benefit of older viewers who might be unsure about this new-fangled ‘Who’.

If this was the intention it undoubtedly worked: there was no shortage of thirtysomething critics waxing lyrical about the episode. However, as it concentrated so keenly on the aesthetic, there were a few stumbles in the plotting and some awkward messages in the subtext. And those of us who don’t consider that mid-1970s era to be the ultimate ‘Who’ don’t want to see its style reprised too often – ‘Doctor Who’ is bigger and better than that.

In that sense, ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’ is refreshing as it constructs a new aesthetic: the 1950s style is clipped and director Euros Lyn has contrived a nice noirish look, all shadows and oblique camera angles. However, the strengths and weaknesses of the episode are almost exactly those of ‘The Unquiet Dead’. The central concept of television sucking off people’s faces and stealing their identities is great and works perfectly in the setting, playing off the fear of, and fascination with, this new piece of technology. The episode also boasts one of the most striking and unsettling images that ‘Doctor Who’ has produced since it returned, in the form of the rows of televisions in the shop, each containing a captured face.

Yet this image is not particularly well connected to the plot. The villain of the piece, The Wire (not to be confused with the journal of avant-garde music), has consumed these people: it cries ‘Hungry!’ just before it sucks a face off. This does beg the question of why they are still there, intact, to be restored to their bodies later: if they’ve been consumed, shouldn’t they be gone? The notion of The Wire waiting for the vast audience of the Coronation to ‘manifest’ itself works well, but what ‘manifest’ means exactly is not made clear.

Also, the story comes down curiously harshly on the father of the central family: he’s not very nice, but his main crime is that of ’shopping’ his neighbours to a police which appears to be working to resolve the problem (the Doctor’s discovery of the herded victims is an odd sideways leap in the plot). The family drama overall feels stilted at times: more successful is the portrayal of the Doctor and Rose, her getting into trouble by way of sharp inquisition and him displaying more of the righteous anger we saw in ‘New Earth’. His solution to the situation, too, is a good example of a resolution that works with the plot logic whilst avoiding technobabble.

Like ‘The Unquiet Dead’, ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’ functions very well as a television event – it impresses itself firmly on the memory, has a thematic resonance and several good jokes – but dramatically it doesn’t completely work. In that sense, maybe it is quite like mid-1970s ‘Doctor Who’ after all…

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By Eddie Robson

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