The first half of Doctor Who’s second season was pretty solid, like I remembered it being, with a nice variety of episodes ranging from good (“Tooth And Claw“, “School Reunion“) to great (“The Girl In The Fireplace“, “The Age Of Steel“). The worst episodes of the run were “The Christmas Invasion” and “New Earth“, which landed firmly in the average camp. However, the second half of Series 2 is when things start to get rocky; really, really rocky. I’m gonna lay it all out now: I’ve never really liked “The Idiot’s Lantern”. I’ve always regarded it as the mediocre episode about 1950’s London sandwiched in-between the return of the Cybermen in “The Age Of Steel” and the creepy hauntings in “The Impossible Planet“, and I’ve only grown to dislike it more over time.
Mark Gatiss’ sophomore script turns out to be one of his worst contributions to the NuWho canon, which is ironic, since “The Unquiet Dead” last season was one of his best episodes. “The Idiot’s Lantern” is one of those rare cases where there’s very little that I actually like about an episode of Doctor Who: the A-plot with the Wire is laughably bad while it’s trying to be deathly serious, and the B-plot with the Connolly family spends forty minutes making the audience feel incredibly uncomfortable only to deliver a terrible, contradictory life lesson at the end. I’ve also touched on this before in my review of “The Christmas Invasion”, but a serious problem Series 2 has is a lack of variety when it comes to our heroes’ destinations this season. Despite the Doctor and Rose possessing a time machine, most of the episodes in Series 2 are either set in contemporary London or a tiny suburb near London, and during the final stretch of the season that starts to get really boring.
With slicked-back hair, his best pinstripe suit, and a trusty scooter on hand, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) is ready to take on the 1950’s in this adventure, when he and Rose (Billie Piper) discover a mystery in the suburbs and they set out to investigate it, hoping to charm some information out of the locals. “The Idiot’s Lantern” doesn’t reveal much about the Doctor and Rose that we don’t already know: like how the Doctor will never back down from injustice, or how Ten and Rose constantly trade quips and inside jokes for fun on their adventures. If there is one particularly interesting thing about the Doctor’s characterization in this episode, it’s that “The Idiot’s Lantern” further explores the two faces of the Tenth Doctor.
Underneath his cheery smiles and friendly demeanor, Ten is a bubbling cauldron of righteous anger just waiting to erupt, and he can get quite nasty when you provoke him far enough. During his first visit to the Connolly home, Ten quickly catches on to how badly the family is being treated and challenges Eddie on his sexism and emotional abuse, eventually knocking the slimy creep down to size and putting him in his place, and throughout the episode, he encourages Tommy and Rita to stand up for themselves. When the villain of the week nabs Rose, Ten is practically on the warpath for the rest of the episode, resembling a snarling pit bull, and he gets to fly solo for a bit, which makes for a nice change. “The Idiot’s Lantern” also continues to progress Ten and Rose’s character arc of becoming overconfident. When they get separated, Rose decides to confront the suspicious and presumably dangerous villain of the week by herself with no back-up, no leverage, and no means of defending herself at all, and demand that he give her some answers: she gets her face stolen as a result. I’m really not sure what Rose thought was going to happen in that scene, but in a darker show, Rose would have been shot and killed, and her body would have turned up in a ditch somewhere.
The plot of “The Idiot’s Lantern” (an episode of a long-running TV show) gets a bit tongue-in-cheek, since it’s centered all around the invention of the television, back when television was still a new and revolutionary concept. In the suburbs of London, people have had their faces stolen, ripped right off their skulls, by a creature called the Wire who feeds on electrical energy, and the local police department is trying to keep it under wraps – because Britain has an image to maintain, creating a thematic link between the A plot and the B plot. The Wire victims (including Rose) resemble wax mannequins (or autons with hair) and the CGI work that was done to remove their features is both incredibly obvious and unpolished, which makes several dramatic reveals that are meant to be serious really unintentionally funny.
But those scenes are nothing compared to the Wire herself. The Wire has to be one of the most non-threatening villains I’ve ever seen in my life. Even the Slitheen, as cringy as they were, had some frightening moments, but the writing for the Wire is just plain weird. She has a very stilted and wooden personality, which I think is supposed to make her seem more alien, she constantly repeats the same few phrases in over-dramatic fashion, and she moans orgasmically every time she gets to feed. Ever since she’s arrived in London, the Wire has haunted and tormented Mr. Magpie, an aging and rather weak-willed man who’s primarily out to save his own skin, driving him mad and cowing him into becoming her servant / accomplice. The Wire hopes to use the upcoming coronation of Queen Elizabeth to feast on thousands of Brits. Doctor Who scrutinizing British patriotism and implying that it’s not always a good thing is one of the main overarching themes of Series 2, so it’s appropriate that the villain of this episode tries to weaponize so many Brits’ pride in their country against them for it’s own self-gain.
While the A-plot of the episode is bad, it’s the B-plot that really makes “The Idiot’s Lantern” a dud, because it kind of pisses me off. With the Connolly family, Mark Gatiss wants to shine a light on the dark side of the idyllic, wholesome 1950’s and the picture perfect image of a nuclear family, which is not a bad idea in theory. Among the Connolly clan, you have the beloved, elderly Gran; the fearful, emotionally cowed Rita; the bright, rebellious, forward-thinking young Tommy; and the proud, blustering former war hero, Eddie. The B-plot dives into the mechanics of domestic abuse, exploring why it happens and how it persists, and it hits all the right beats with a disturbing amount of accuracy.
To the people of the neighborhood, Eddie is a fine and upstanding family man, and he’s worked hard to maintain that reputation, but behind closed doors, in the privacy of his home, he’s a completely different person entirely. As the sole provider for the family and the man of the household, Eddie is a control freak / manchild with an explosive temper, who lords his power and authority over his family like a tyrant and treats them like they’re his property. He isolates them from other people, makes them feel trapped in their own home, couldn’t care less about their emotional needs, forces them to keep his secrets and never ask questions, screams in their faces whenever they step a toe out of line, and threatens to beat them to get them to obey – with the disturbing implication that he’s already done it before, several times. Over time, his emotionally beaten down wife and son grow to resent him, thanks to the Doctor helping them find their inner strength.
The final straw breaks when it turns out Eddie sold out Gran, his wife’s elderly mother, to the police to be imprisoned because she was ‘filthy and disgusting’ and he didn’t want her staining his reputation or his way of life, and he’s already done the same to all the other houses on the block. Eddie is a disgusting husband, father and human being, and ironically more hateable than the actual murderous villain of this episode. Rita’s reaction is entirely apt: she kicks him out of her house and throws his ass out on the streets to fend for himself. The entire B-plot of “The Idiot’s Lantern” builds to an aseop about realizing when someone you used to love has become utterly toxic to you and knowing when it’s time to just let go, cut ties with them and kick them out of your life – take back control. It’s something that’s always hard and always painful to do when it comes to abusive relationships in real life – especially when it involves your parents – but considering everything we’ve seen in this episode, it’s definitely the right call for Tommy and his mother to make.
Except, right as this story is wrapping up, “The Idiot’s Lantern” backtracks on that aesop and shoots it in the foot, when Ten and Rose insist that Tommy should want to keep his abusive and borderline sociopathic father in his life, for literally no reason other than the man being his blood relative. Yeah, no, fuck that line of thought. Seriously, what kind of advice is that to give someone who just got out of an abusive relationship? I kind of understand Rose giving it, she was rejected by Pete in the last episode and she’s clearly projecting her desire to have a father figure onto Tommy, but I kind of expect better judgment from the Doctor. If Mark Gatiss wanted to include a hopeful ending about the chance of reconciliation, he probably shouldn’t have made Eddie a completely despicable person with no redeeming qualities at all for this entire episode.
“The Idiot’s Lantern” is helmed by Euros Lynn, and like James Hawes’ work in “The Christmas Invasion”, his direction is surprisingly weak and below his usual standards when compared to “The End Of The World”, “The Unquiet Dead”, “Tooth and Claw” and “The Girl In The Fireplace”; though it’s probably partially because “The Idiot’s Lantern” doesn’t give him much to work with. For some reason, “The Idiot’s Lantern” is full of off-kilter shots and Dutch angles, and I’m not really sure why. It doesn’t normally enhance the mood of the episode or make the setting more visually appealing, it’s usually just distracting. Still, Euros Lynn’s direction does manage to be distinctive and moody at times, like Ten’s motorcycle chases through the London streets, or the Doctor’s interrogation scene, the climax where the Doctor and Mr. Magpie to reach each other to the top of a television station transmitter.
The costume department is given a chance to recreate historical clothing again – trenchcoats, flamboyant dresses, pinstripe suits – and if nothing else, “The Idiot’s Lantern” passes the test as a period piece of the not-so distant past, with the aid of some charming, vintage 1950’s automobiles. “The Idiot’s Lantern” is another one of those episodes where the score is entirely unreleased on the series’ soundtrack, but Murray Gold’s music is pleasant and period-appropriate as always this week: I quite like the southern rockabilly music after the credits, when the Doctor and Rose are preparing to see Elvis, and the subtle, empty, dark reprise of “Rose’s Theme” (compared to the usual vibrant state of her melody) when Ten discovers Rose has been accosted is a nice touch.
Overall, “The Idiot’s Lantern” is a well-intentioned failure of an episode that never manages to do anything remarkable with either its A-plot or its B-plot. Funnily enough, “The Bells Of Saint John” from Series 7 has a very similar premise with a 21st century twist, killer wi-fi preying on people’s souls through the world-wide web, and it goes on to be a much more entertaining episode than “The Idiot’s Lantern”.
* Ten, never slick your hair back, 1950’s style, ever again.
* “You going my way, doll?””Is there any other way to go, daddy-o? Straight from the fridge, man!”
* “Men in black? Vanishing police cars? This is Churchill’s England, not Stalin’s Russia”.
* “Union Flag?” “Mum went out with a sailor” “Ohohoho, I bet she did”.
* “I AM TALKING!” “AND I’M NOT LISTENING!!!”
* “Hold on a minute. There are three important, brilliant, and complicated reasons why you should listen to me. One-” *Thawck*
* “Nice to meet you, Tommy, Mrs. Connolly. And as for you, Mr. Connolly, only an idiot hangs the Union Flag upside down. Shame on you!”
* “Oh, very good, very good!”
* The scene where the Wire victims menace Ten reminds me a lot of the Autons attacking Rose in the first episode.
* “Start from the beginning. Tell me everything you know” “Well, for starters, I know you can’t wrap your hand around your elbow and make your fingers meet” ” Don’t get clever with me” Heh, look at what’s going on in the background of this shot.
* “Eddie, is that true?” “I did it for us, Rita. She was filthy. A filthy, disgusting thing!” Again, he’s talking about his wife’s mother. What a creep.
* “What was all that, then?” “That was, that was the sound of something ending. And about time too”.
* “We don’t even know where to start looking, Doctor. It’s too late” “It’s never too late, as a wise person once said. Kylie, I think”.
* “FEEEEEEEDD MEEEEEEE!!!!” Wire, please shut up.
* “That thing, is it trapped for good on video?” “Hope so. Just to be on the safe side though, I’ll use my unrivaled knowledge of transtemporal extirpation methods to neutralize the residual electronic pattern” “You what?” “I’m going to tape over it” “Heh, just leave it to me. I’m always doing that.