Doctor Who Re-watch: The Idiot’s Lantern

Ah, Mark Gatiss. What variable episodes you write. I always like his period piece Who episodes best, and back in the day I loathed The Idiot’s Lantern. Maybe it was just that the previous two-parter was so, so terrible, but this time around I didn’t actually find the episode that bad. More thoughts from Ben and I on Rose and The Doctor visiting the year of the Queen’s coronation below …

idiots lantern
Ok, ok, I ship this a little … ok … a lot.

Pre-Title Sequence

Ben: The pre-title sequence was rather long this week! There was a lot of scene setting, a man down on his luck and a family discussing getting a tv. And then bam! Mr Magpie is getting his face sucked into the tv by a strange woman with an evil laugh.

Maureen: I feel like people of my Mum’s generation would relate to this opening. After all, they would have been the kids watching with wide-eyed wonder as their disapproving parents watched on.

Grandma to grandson: TV pulls your brains outta your ears.

Re Mr Magpie, I was all OMG HOW GILLIAN ANDERSON IN AMERICAN GODS. Except this came first. Clearly, the producer was watching 😉 Also, there was another pre-title audience wink-wink, nudge-nudge moment from the villain of the week.

The Wire: Are you sitting comfortably? Now. We begin.

The Companion

Ben: Rose is looking quite lovely in the beginning of this episode. I can almost forgive her for calling the Doctor ‘daddio’. Even typing the word makes me shudder.

Maureen: Billie is always gorgeous anyway. But also, I liked the ‘daddio.’ Rose minus other companions just works so much better with The Doctor and you can tell Billie Piper is having the time of her acting life.

Ben: I must sound like a broken record by this point, but Rose gets to actually participate in things this episode! At least until she gets her face sucked off. I particularly liked the Union Jack/Flag bit, and not just because that was a piece of trivia I didn’t know. And! She gets to do some proper detective work of her own! Beginning with spotting the weird electricity coming from the TV, she traces it back to its source and finds out what’s happening before The Doctor! She was quite the interrogator, getting in Mr Magpie’s face like that. It’s a shame that that was the extent of Rose’s contribution until the end of the episode. But on the bright side, her fridging was only temporary?

Maureen: This episode reminded me quite a bit of one of Mark Gatiss’ contributions to Big Finish in the Eighth Doctor range, actually. The 1920s alien invasion story with Orson Welles one. We had detectives, we had interesting companion adventure, we had conspiracy, we had villains manipulating a major human point in history. Compared to previous episodes too, I agree Rose got to do so much more and use her intellect to get to the bottom of the mystery. I didn’t mind the Rose face-wipe as such, though I do think the denouement of the episode was rushed, and the story would have benefited from being a two-parter.

Ben: I wasn’t particularly happy with the advice Rose gave to Tommy at the end of the episode either. Years of abuse shouldn’t be that easy to forget. But I guess they had to have a happy ending for everyone involved.

Maureen: I get what you mean with this, Ben. It felt contrived after how horrible Tommy’s Dad was painted throughout the episode. Sexist AND violent. What a guy. If anything, the Tommy ending just raised more questions for me. Will Tommy grow up to be like his father, and will sustained contact encourage that negative growth, or is Tommy truly shaped by his adventure with Rose and The Doctor and will forgive his father even as he doesn’t endorse who he is?

Ben: Hmmm, from the get go the family dynamic was weird, and then you discover the Dad’s such a piece of work. Eddie is a slimy abusive son-of-a-bitch. Poor Rita is the down-trodden housewife, and their son Tommy rounds out the family. Tommy is trying to do the best he can, considering the circumstances. The actor who played Eddie was actually very good, from the look he gives when his wife starts opening up to The Doctor, to the overwhelming guilt on his face when Tommy is talking about how the police are showing up to take people away and no one knows how they know. This episode was much subtler than the cybermen episodes before it, where everything was big and loud. The line about beating the mummy’s boy out of Tommy was particularly horrific, though. Anyway, it comes as no surprise that Eddy has been ratting everyone out to maintain his reputation and position. Masculinity can be so fragile. It all happened rather quick with Rita kicking her out, perhaps it would have been better stretched across two episodes. Things get a bit more blunt towards the end with the family, with Rita talking about how the Coronation is just the thing to make you forget all your troubles.

Maureen: I actually think that the family drama was the most interesting part of The Idiot’s Lantern. What a disturbing portrait of misogyny and patriotism and cowardice! I agree with Ben that the guy playing Eddie was phenomenal. The alien story of the week wasn’t that interesting in comparison once The Wire’s real intent was revealed.

The Doctor

Ben: Once again, the Doctor demonstrates he never passed his driving test (you will note he ignores the question when Rose asks him that after their little car chase). Landing in London instead of New York is quite a remarkable miss.

Maureen: I’d forgotten how much The Doctor being a bad driver was an on-going New Who joke. I thought the River comments came from Eleven, but now I can really see how that quip was set-up over time. Ten might be a new version of The Doctor, but some things just never change.

Ben: I did like the Doctor’s immediate assessment and subsequent take down of Eddie. In previous episodes, writers have been quite happy to partake in some bullying, fat shaming, and other general nastiness. It’s nice to see they’ve drawn the line somewhere. It’s a shame the Doctor’s bamboozling doesn’t last for long, as Eddie is back to his old ways as soon as he sees the power dynamic inside the house shift away from him and retaliates by knocking The Doctor out.

Maureen: I enjoyed that Rose and Ten bounce off each other in their Eddie put-down. They really lull him into a false sense of calm and then let the insults fly!

Eddie: Don’t mind the wife. She rattles a bit.
Ten: Maybe she should rattle more.

Ten: Do you suggest The Queen does the housework?

Eddie: I am talking.
Ten: And I’m not listening.

Ben: At least The Doctor gets a peek at old Gran before he gets knocked out. And then, after a slightly more successful car chase, he finds out there’s plenty more where Gran came from! The atmosphere in these scenes was spooky, with the faceless people looming ominously around the Doctor. It reminded me a lot of the mannequins from the first episode of New Who.

Maureen: I found it hilarious that The Doctor told Rose to hurry up and follow him, before promptly jumping on his motorbike and leaving her in the dust. My favourite part of the episode was actually Rose telling Eddie, ‘only an idiot hangs a Union Jack upside down,’ before dashing away with a manic grin to have her own adventure. The way The Doctor made zero sense to both Ben and I which did pull the episode’s score quite a way down from what it could have been. A real shame and brings us to …

The Alien of the Week

Ben: An electric alien that can live in tvs and eat peoples faces is a weird concept, that’s for sure! And The Wire gives a good villain speech too! The name ‘the wire’ is a bit dumb, though.

Maureen: I found The Wire to be the weakest part of this episode by far. She transitioned from scary to cheesy quite a few times throughout the episode. For example, the constant ‘feed me’s’ felt OTT, but some of her lines like, ‘goodnight children. Everywhere,’ were genuinely frightening. Then, her back story felt tacked on. I get she was an exile and was trying to win a safe place for herself, but her plan was so villainous I just didn’t sympathize with her at all. The Wire is another reason I think a two-parter would have worked better for this story.

Ben: The reveal of Gran was quite terrifying at least, with faceless Gran bumping around in the attic. I guess this is supposed to be a literal interpretation of the ‘tv makes you brainless’ speech Gran gave in the pre-title sequence.

Maureen: Yes, I found the faceless people sub-plot quite touching and sad. Rose mouthing in the TV, helpless, was brutal. It was The Wire herself who didn’t work for me.

Ben: I didn’t understand how she was defeated at all. If she feeds on the electrical power of the brain, why steal human faces? Or is that just an unfortunate side effect of the feeding process? Also, are millions and millions of people just going to forget the whole faces being sucked into their tv sets during the coronation? People seemed to brush it off remarkably quickly. I have to say, being taped over as your mode of demise was a pretty fitting end to what was at best, a very one note villain.

Maureen: The last ten minutes were really where the episode came unstuck for me. I can cope with one-note villains when there’s so much character drama to admire, but The Doctor’s solution simply confused me. Mr Magpie and Ten climbing the transmission tower was a rather mad-cap and dangerous solution from The Doctor and I’m not sure how The Wire generated the electricity to kill Magpie. As for the VCR hand-wave … my only comment was, ‘wait. what?’

Final Thoughts

Ben: This episode wasn’t amazing, brilliant Doctor Who, but it was better than the Cybermen double feature at least. The episode starts of incredibly strong, and then loses steam as it goes. There were a few wasted scenes, or scenes that went on longer than strictly necessary. But the music was a lot better than last week, and on the whole it was a more enjoyable episode. I just wish Gatiss had had time to flesh everyone out a bit more and then this could have been a good horror themed two-parter. I’m going to give The Idiot’s Lantern 5/10.

Maureen: I feel kind of bad for our scores always matching up, but we really do view New Who in a similar way most of the time. I second everything you say. A two-parter would have turned this episode from ordinary to extraordinary. A second script look-in re The Wire would have helped too. Still, I enjoyed the character drama a lot. 5/10 inky stars.

About InkAshlings

Maureen, Australian, young aspiring writer.
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