23 May 2016

The Idiot's Lantern


The traditions of the 1950s and of Doctor Who itself meet in a well-played, visually impressive episode.

Sitting between a couple of ambitious two parters,  The Idiot’s Lantern has tended to be overlooked which is a pity because there is much to love in Mark Gatiss’ compact homage to both the dawn of television and classic Doctor Who. He takes the traditional elements of a great Who story- a memorable monster, a gaggle of interesting characters, a crazy mad villain, a companion in danger and a pseudo historic setting and brings them to life in fresh ways. The episode shows too how in that old Doctor Who tradition minimal resources can be stretched. The story was probably cheaper to make than either of the two epics that surround it yet this never shows. Director Euros Lynn’s love of askew camera angles ensures 2000’s Cardiff easily becomes 1950s London. If the static sometimes looks a little like it’s been rushed this actually fits in with the tone of the story. All together it turns out this is one of the season’s best episodes.

Gatiss draws us two monsters – one human, the other an alien antagonist. Former soldier Eddie Connolly is a simple man who actually tries to protect his family by locking their suddenly – and literally- faceless Gran upstairs. His wife  Rita (in a beautifully understated performance by Debra Gillett) meekly accepts this but representing the next generation teenage son Tommy wants to do more and the arrival of a positively chipper Doctor and Rose gives him the chance.
Tommy gets to do the companion arc in one episode; by the climax it is his actions that save the day. Most writers would wrap his story up there or have a token `come with us` `no I can’t` moment but Gatiss adds a delightful coda in which Rose encourages Tommy to make up with his father who has been thrown out by his now emboldened wife. Funny enough in my memory I thought there was a scene where we see the two talking but it isn’t there- instead we just witness them walking down the road and Tommy carries his father’s suitcase. So much better and a shining example of how the Doctor’s involvement can improve in small ways.  The imaginary scene I thought I recalled comes simply from feeling as if I knew the characters so well.  I’ve always thought they should have brought back Tommy as a much older adult scientist - he probably ended up working for either UNIT or Torchwood.  

Fans took against Jamie Foreman’s harsh father but it is necessarily unlikeable role and his violence seems to be all bluster. He hides his gran so the authorities don’t take her; he wants to sweep things under the carpet whereas Tommy wants to find out what is happening. The scenes between them are very well written and Rory Jennings, perhaps because he was in his mid 20s at the time- really captures the awkward mannerisms of the repressed teenager very well. Interesting too that the government are doing exactly the same as Eddie- the faceless people are simply locked like cattle in a warehouse, hidden way so as not to spoil the Coronation atmosphere.

Visually the story is packed with impact some of it a jolly evocation of a time when people were looking forward rather than back- another reason perhaps why the faceless ones are locked away. The Doctor and Rose on their scooter is certainly an arresting way to introduce them to the episode. The faceless people is an iconic sort of look and Euros Lynn makes the initial reveal of faceless Gran really count.  Love the way that Rose barely looks shocked by now which represents how acclimatised to the horrors she has become. Yet the real triumph is the Wire; using the soothing manner of a  50s children’s broadcaster dialled up to ten  –played with aplomb by Maureen Lipman- inside a black and white tv (that looks suitably sci-fi blue and white!) and all that static crates a very different sort of alien. I’m not sure why she’s called The Wire but I suppose it’s better than giving her an alien name.  Another impressive sequence is when we see the faces of all the victims calling out silently from the television screens in Magpie’s shop. There’s a sort of modern meets vintage look to proceedings personified by the Bakelite portable tv set that Magpie has built.  Played by the always impressive Ron Cook Magpie is another interesting element to the story; he seems ashamed of what he’s done but carries on anyway. Like the other characters he is given depth both by the actor but also by a script that deftly gives everyone their own space with rewarding results. 

With a climax set atop the television mast at Alexandra Palace mixed with footage of the actual coronation plus lashings of red static I like it that ultimately matters rely on straight forward things like the Doctor having to clamber up the mast and Tommy changing the fused element of the Doctor’s machine.  Gatiss lovingly includes televisual references to proceedings- the Connolly’s abode is in Florizal Street (one of the mooted titles for what became Coronation Street), we get a flash of colour on the old set and The Wire utilises some iconic children’s television phrases of the time.
Tardisode: We see Gran being attacked by the static from the television but interestingly the view is both from inside and outside the set. Mind you it is odd that the oldest member of the family seems to be the most interested in the new fangled thing!

1 comment:

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