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October 9, 2015

Doctor Who: The Idiot's Lantern

by Martin Conaghan, posted May 30th 2006 5:52PM

The Idiot's Lantern(S02E07) Television, it's a curse on modern society, isn't it? Sure it is. It turns your brain to mush and makes you behave like a faceless robot.

Doesn't it?

Well, if you occupy an unassuming council street in London, circa 1953, it certainly does -- but thankfully, Doctor Who is on hand to unravel the mystery of the latest invention to sweep the land, just in time for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Warning: spoilers after the jump.

I've said it before here on TV Squad, but my favorite episodes of Doctor Who are always the ones set in the past. This particular episode, The Idiot's Lantern, was written by Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen), who also wrote the brilliantly scary season one episode The Unquiet Dead, and it too was set in the not-too-distant past.

If there's one complaint I have about this particular Doctor Who adventure, it's the repetitive nature of storylines ending with the Doctor saving the world for the umpteenth week in a row. The recent revival of the series under the guiding influence of Russell T. Davies has been largely down to the complex character development and the introduction of more engaging plotlines, but there seems to be an overwhelming desire on the part of the production team to repeatedly inject the show with happy-clappy endings, perhaps in order to give David Tennant's wide-eyed grin a regular airing.

Either way, it gets a bit tiring to watch the Doctor rescue the planet every week, and it would be nice to see a bit more edge to the show, in the same way the best American sci-fi shows like The X-Files have managed for the last 10 years.

Despite this minor complaint, The Idiot's Lantern was still an enjoyable romp, giving the producers the perfectly acceptable excuse of dressing the Doctor and Rose in garish 1950s clothing as they stop off to catch a performance of Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York. Of course, the TARDIS is a bit on the wonky side, and they land in London instead, right in the middle of the 1953 Coronation, and the presence of an alien creature (played fantastically by Maureen Lipman) called The Wire, who is possessing avid viewers of the latest invention, the television, and stealing their faces.

When Rose ends up falling victim to The Wire, the Doctor sets out on a mission to stop the malevolent creature before it steals the souls of 20million viewers across the country who will be glued to their new 'tele vision' sets, watching Princess Elizabeth earn her crown on Coronation Day.

As I mentioned earlier, the Doctor saves the day (as ever), with a little help from an improvised invention which he plugs in to the transmitters at Alexandra Palace in Muswell Hill; the Betamax video recorder. He then simply downloads The Wire from the outgoing signal and saves it on to the tape -- with the intention of recording over it at a later date.

Far more promising was the preview for next week's episode, The Impossible Planet, where Rose finds herself further away from home than ever before in the orbit of a Black Hole. Then something ancient begins to awake...

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Gosh, so that was the Doctor I met when I was a tiny kid. And to think I turned down the chance of seeing inside his Police Box!

May 31 2006 at 9:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm afriad the current incarnation of Doctor Who will never be as edgy as The X-Files or other shows were. The reason: Doctor Who is made for a family audience, targeted mainly at "the intelligent 12 year old." So, I doubt it will go too edgy like X-Files did since the series has to walk a fine line between being appropriate for the target age level but also appealing to the older fans. I think, for the most part, the series does a good job of this, though I will agree that the Doctor saving the world each week is a bit tedious. I think next week when we finally leave Earth has enormous potential.

May 31 2006 at 8:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Arwel Parry

Not a very "deep" episode, but this was an entertaining-enough piece of fluff for those of us who remember 1950s-style family living rooms (well, mine in the 1960s and 1970s looked similar enough!). Some interesting side jokes - "Florizel Street" was the original working title of the ITV soap opera "Coronation Street" which has been running since 1960, so that was appropriate for a story about the Coronation; I thought the tv aerials on the houses looked rather like swastikas than the "H" of the typical VHF aerials of the time. The "bats' wings" station ident logo which appears on the tvs in the shop gives a nice 50s air to events, but unfortunately the BBC didn't start using it until 5 months after the Coronation, which was a bit jarring to those of us "in the know"! Maureen Lipman gave a very good impression of a 1950s tv announcer, using all the contemporary catchphrases ("Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then I'll begin")... and I'd completely forgotten about the epilogue which used to end the days' broadcast until I heard David Tennants' line! :)

May 31 2006 at 5:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Akbar Fazil

I think part of the reason we keep seeing "the doctor save the day" is part of the greater arc of this season. It has been rumored that The Doctor and Rose will become complacent in their adventures (think back to Tooth and Claw to their first exchange after the wolf appeared) and they are going to be in for a serious shock later this season when the shit hits the fan and they can't solve the problem at hand.

May 30 2006 at 7:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Maureen Lipman as "The Wire" is the breakout in this episode -- she flawlessly recreated that 1950s television announcer with her elocution and classy delivery... and was brilliant in slowly adding more and more menace to that upper-class BBC dialect as the episode progressed.
One thing the new Dr Who has in common with the old is the flimsy sci-fi element: no explanation is given for The Wire, how it works, how it managed to make a black-and-white, 405-line television turn into color, how people's faces appeared on separate televisions after the were "eaten," how they were put back in people at the end, how... never mind. It's Dr Who, and it's fun.

May 30 2006 at 6:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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