Thursday, 31 January 2013

Telly Addicts

Doctor Who
The Idiot's Lantern
Series Two, Episode Seven

Mark Gatiss is no stranger to nostalgia.  The Unquiet Dead, an episode I enjoyed, had a sense of horror and excitement distinctly like Doctor Who's golden years.  In The Idiot's Lantern, Gatiss once again uses nostalgia to get his creep on, reminding us uncomfortably of a time when TV programmes had titles like Watch With Mother.  Thanks for that.

Actually, never mind; I can't come up with
anything creepier than Watch With Mother.
Alas, a general sense of creepiness isn't enough to fill an episode, and unfortunately, The Idiot's Lantern hasn't got much else going for it.

Okay, so it's set in the 1950s, one of those historical eras that's close enough to vaguely recall, far enough away to be exotic.  Much like the '80s in Father's Day, it has plenty of novelty even if it's fairly easy to recreate.  The Idiot's Lantern certainly takes the easy route, opting for a street that generally looks like the '50s and setting most of the action indoors where everything's cramped and a bit brown.  (As for the extremely tilted camera angles unique to this episode, one must assume they're something to do with the '50s as well.)  It's set during the Queen's coronation, and all the bunting and street parties tie things pretty well to the present – it was 2006, and Great Britain had just secured the Olympics.  It's a neat parallel.  But, pretty soon nostalgia turns to criticism, as the '50s is presented as a repressed, backward time that is wrong and must be fixed, hence the Doctor encouraging a man to do the housework and ultimately, a woman to leave her overbearing husband.

This is all rather wince-inducing.  It's just too easy to say the patriarchal Connolly family is wrong because it's not very 2006 (and more importantly, not to Rose's liking), and it's ludicrous to fix it by chucking the dad out on his ear.  That might work now, but it wouldn't work then, as the Doctor of all people should understand.  In any case, this is promptly followed by Rose encouraging young Tommy to forgive his monstrous dad after all.  Huh?  By alternately condemning and then instantly forgiving all this, the episode's stance on the '50s is an empty one, little better than Rose thinking Gwyneth was an idiot for living in 1869 and not 2005.

But all that's just the subplot.  In the main, Maureen Lipman is The Wire, an alien masquerading as the continuity announcer from hell.  It scarcely takes any effort to make 1950s telly look creepy remember Andy Pandy, whose existential weirdness is only outcreeped by his permanent rictus leer? but she's marvellously sinister all the same.

When the Wire is prim and proper and just a little bit unsettling, it goes a long way.  It's just a shame they won't let her stay that way.  As things progress and The Wire gets hungrier, she starts bellowing "HUNGRY!", "FEED ME!" and, for those in the cheap seats, "FEED ME-EEEEEEE!"  It's not only disappointingly obvious for a monster to behave like, er, a monster, but it also makes it much harder to forget how obviously this was based on Little Shop Of Horrors.  (By all means pinch ideas from other stories so long as you're going to take them somewhere interesting, but don't then remind everyone what they could be watching instead.)

So, The Wire feeds on viewers' brain energy, and is so greedy that she consumes their faces as well.  (Although they get them back at the end, somehow.)  This is done presumably because it's less harrowing than showing lots of normal-looking people in a catatonic state; also because the Mill want to show off their CGI faceless effect; and more importantly, because you can sell more toys this way.  (Because who wouldn't want the Granny Connolly With No Face action figure?)  Unfortunately, as well as making absolutely no sense, this leaves the production team in a quandary.  Are the faceless people scary, or not?  The no-face thing is scary to look at, but they're presented as victims.  However, in a scene highly reminiscent of Rose first meeting the killer shop dummies, complete with mystifying plasticky sound-effects, they're a generic zombie menace as well.  It's never really clear what they're going for.

Bet you thought I was kidding.
The story doesn't seem to know what to do with them, either.  The police are whisking the faceless ones off to a warehouse, keeping them out of the way during the coronation.  The eyes of the world are on Britain, so orders are to sweep any weirdness under the rug until afterwards.  As evil conspiracies go, it's all a bit half-arsed: all the police are doing is locking them up, besides which, they aren't to blame for their wacky orders, and they turn into guilty wrecks the moment they're taken to task over it.  They only know about the faceless people in the first place because Mr Connolly is ratting them out one by one – because somehow he knows which houses contain them, and for some reason he really hates people who don't have faces.  The whole thing's held together with silly string.

On the other hand, at least it allows for some serious Doctoring.  The moment Rose is de-faced, the Doctor snaps: "Now, Detective Inspector Bishop, there is no power on this Earth that can stop me!"  As turning points go, it's cringily overwritten, and it suggests he doesn't really care about what's going on unless it impacts Rose... but okay.  Where's it going?  Simple: stand back, everyone, the Doctor's going to shout a bit!

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like the louder he gets, the less impressive he is.  This is an episode full of the Doctor yammering on and acting wacky, with a silly haircut and lots of pop culture references.  (The Doctor loves watching TV and listens to Kylie, because we don't want to frighten anyone by reminding them he's from another planet.)  When the big change comes over him, awesome as it's clearly meant to be, all he really does is whack up the volume, put on his pouty face and brandish the sonic screwdriver some more.  People listen to him as much or as little as they already did; as for his battle of wits with The Wire, all he needs to do to scare her off is produce the screwdriver.  Yawntastic.

The Doctor is at his best here when he's quiet and subtle, either regarding the misogynist Mr Connolly with silent boredom, or deftly talking the police interrogater into being the interrogated.  As this stuff clearly shows, throwing your Doctorly weight around ought to be about being the most influential person in the room – not, necessarily, the loudest.  And it's got sod all to do with the screwdriver.

Rose has her moments, though despite her Magical Powers Of Observation she still can't deduce that someone's trying to warn her away from danger.  And hey, Tennant's not bad when he's not trying quite so hard: those quiet moments really do resonate.  I don't like the idea that his only investment in all this is Rose, but if it's cause for him to emote well, which he does nicely before launching on his "No one can stop me now!" monologue, then it can't be all bad.

The plot rumbles along as always, Euros Lyn tilting the camera like mad and Maureen Lipman shouting her head off, but still the whole thing leaves a resounding impression of... meh.  For all those criticisms, the tenuous plot, the hit-and-miss monsters, the ironically black-and-white moralising, it's more underwhelming than terrible.  This is sadly not an ideal position for something all about people being glued to their TV screens.


  1. How do they breathe? Also, under the 'face' there isn't just a layer of skin. There's bones and blood and stuff. This is even dumber than Face/Off!

    Why doesn't Andy Pandy know that HIS doll comes to life when he's not looking? Does HER doll come to life to? And ITS doll? Mega creepy.

  2. I frequently forget that this story even exists :/