The Idiot’s Lantern

By Mark Gatiss

Review and Commetary by Andrew Panero

The Doctor and Rose arrive in London in 1953, thinking at first they have landed in New York in 1957 to watch an Elvis concert; instead they have landed on the eve of the Coronation (of Queen Elizabeth II). This is a repeat of a similar device used in episode two (‘Tooth and Claw’) where the Doctor thinks he is landing in 1979 for an Ian Dury concert only to find he is in 1879 in the Victorian era.

The whole purpose of this conceit is apparently so that we can see the Doctor sporting a quiff and D.A. (duck’s arse if you must know) whilst Billie Piper swans around in a pink dress. In a way this sums up the entire episode, amazingly stylish, full of wonderful characters but ultimately lacking in substance.

There are some good performances here, particularly from Maureen Lipman and Jamie Foreman who were this week’s guest stars. Jamie has made a career out of playing thuggish characters and in this episode he plays a bullying fifties Dad, Eddie Connolly. It is into Eddie’s house that the Doctor and Rose insert themselves via the now well-worn psychic paper. (Which has been used almost as often as the sonic screwdriver this season). There the Doctor and Rose take great delight in bewildering the domestic tyrant by pretending to be agents of the state. I was never exactly sure what kind of agent of the state they were supposed to be or how they would be permitted access to someone’s home in the way that they are. I guess what we are supposed to infer is that Mr. Connolly would automatically take Rose and the Doctor to be authority figures, although how even the psychic paper could convince him of that when Rose is wearing a pink dress is beyond me. Nevertheless this scene does have some of the most interesting dialogue in the episode, particularly when Rose starts playing the same game as the Doctor and points out to Mr. Connolly that the Queen is a woman. This neatly brings into perspective the position of Mrs. Connolly, the brow beaten and bullied wife, who has been forced to endure the horror of her own mother being locked upstairs by her husband. Grandma Connolly (surely some mistake in the listings as she is Rita’s mother not Eddie’s) has had her face stolen by the Wire (Maureen Lipman).

The Wire is an electrical entity, which has adopted the form of a 1950’s continuity announcer; these were typically middle-aged women in sumptuous evening dresses and plumy voices that filled the gaps between programmes. They form part of an era of British television history where there was one channel, the BBC that spoke to the nation from Alexandra House in an upper middle-class accent. This particular era is one of Mark Gatiss’ hobbyhorses as is also indicated by his appearance in the live remake of ‘The Quatermass Experiment’ last year. The original Quatermass was transmitted about this time and was of course a predecessor to Doctor Who, with a somewhat intelligent B-movie approach to science fiction.

That said it’s sad that there is always something contrived and rose-tinted in portraying such an era, like any hankering after a lost age usually is. This I think is the main difference between this story and ‘The Empty Child’ last year, which could just as easily have slipped into the same mawkish sentimentality as this episode does at times. I think this was the case because in ‘The Empty Child’ Steve Moffat challenged our ideas about what the war was like, by portraying aspects of it that are not well known; for example street kids coming out during an air raid to pilfer food from people’s houses. There were times when this episode came close to that, but at the end of the day it was still a very contrived affair. I think what ultimately let it down was any sense of purpose beyond giving us some great shots of what the fifties could have been like and self-indulgently feeding of the BBC’s own mythology. There was no particular reason for this story to be set in this era, beyond the obvious fact that this was the birth of mass TV audiences in the UK. Even then they had to introduce the device of Mr. Magpie selling off TVs cheap so that everyone can have one, so that the Wire can rip their faces off! (Why she did that is not made clear either).

One of the few high-lights in this pretty disappointing episode is the new direction that Rose seems to be taking; it is interesting to see her adopting some of the Doctor’s mannerisms as she travels with him more in time and space. This reflects her growing confidence and feeds into the character arc for both the Doctor and Rose that was flagged up by RTD at the start of the new series. The pay off will presumably come at the end of the season when both of them will be challenged in a very big way. In the meantime we seem to be in the mid-season lull that we had last year around about the time of ‘The Long Game’ and ‘Father’s Day’.