Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE IDIOT'S LANTERN - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE IDIOT'S LANTERN

Throughout the history of Doctor Who, there are stories which are succinct, and simple, and complete in and of themselves.

Period pieces tend to frequently fall into that category, and Mark Gatiss’ The Idiot’s Lantern is very much a period piece – however much the setting of pomp and circumstance against a backdrop of social privation and hardship may seem distinctly familiar in 2023.

The central idea is absolutely exquisite – it’s one of those “things” that people always remember, or have had handed down to them ever since 1953, how “everybody crowded into one room to watch the telly for the first time to see the coronation.”

So, why not make that event – and that behaviour – the point of an alien invasion/feeding frenzy? As a single-story episode idea, that’s genius.

And the episode has better things in it than you might remember, too. Ron Cook’s initial exhaustion and fear as Mr Magpie, the TV maker and dealer. The arresting look of what, for the sake of enjoying a bit of Doctor Who confusion we’ll call the “faceless ones.” The closeness to Fascistic measures shown to be just beneath the surface of 1950s policing – especially when there’s upset to a coronation to be avoided.

(Is it worth pointing out that protestors have been arrested for shouting and for holding up blank signs en route to the coronation of Charles III, right here in 2023, and drawing a monstrously contrived and tiresome conclusion that not much has changed across the reign of Elizabeth II?).

David Tennant’s ‘Angry Doctor’ getting probably its fullest flowering so far in the history of Series 2 is joyous too, although by this point, he’s becoming a Doctor who’s notably less adept at keeping his rage in check than some others. Here, he does a kind of angry version of the trope where a secretary takes off her glasses and is suddenly beautiful – he takes off his glasses, and suddenly, he’s an angry god, waiting to punish every stupid mortal who gets in his way.

In many ways, it’s a thing that was better managed in both The Christmas Invasion and School Reunion, where his power was beyond question, than it is here when he’s spitting fury at whatever force it is that stole Rose’s face and left her outside like the rubbish. But nevertheless, letting Tennant off the fury-leash once in a while always makes for good TV.

What The Idiot’s Lantern never has much time for or truck with is any kind of subtlety.

From the Doctor and Rose’s fairly vomitous early banter about Elvis to Maureen Lipman’s increasingly self-referential dialogue as the Wire, there’s a sense of need to immediately establish goodies, baddies and actions in primary colours, so that the pacing doesn’t ever suffer from too many pauses.

Eddie Connolly (Jamie Foreman) is a kind of composite Fifties Dad who, while he fought against Fascism has hardened into its attitudes himself, tinged with empire, flag-waving patriotism and petty dictatorship in his own home. While an actual war against Fascism has been thankfully denied generations of angry British men, it’s fair to see he’s an archetype we still hear from relentlessly in 2023.

Eddie’s quickly established, and signally dressed-down by the Doctor and Rose – the latter in particular acting like an idiot, to an idiot, to rub his nose in his own small-minded pettiness.

The Wire too, suffers from some issues in terms of subtlety. While Lipman in 2006 had a knack for playing terribly posh, terribly English women, and so was the right choice to play the TV Lady whose form is used by the Wire, there’s a certain overwriting of her dialogue, so that, for instance, some of her “maniacal laughter” is overdone to the point of Christopher Bowen’s Mordred from Battlefield, and some of her “Hungry!” roars hark back to that other semi-electrical life-form, Kroagnon, from Paradise Towers. Neither of these are good things.

In other words, while the nature of the villain is great, and the actress is right for the part, there needed to be a little more active dialogue and a little less random laughter and catchphrase to really sell the thing.

But the pacing is great, and it builds neatly to the Doctor and Tommy Connolly (Rory Jennings) saving the world, with the Tenth Doctor happily scaling the transmitter at Alexandra Palace in a vaguely Logopolitan throwback, but one tinged with monster movie drama and perhaps just a dash of Rocky Horror Picture Show.

With the faceless ones re-faced, the Wire trapped on a Betamax tape, and Rita Connolly (Debra Gillett) having discovered what a scared, angry man her husband is and shown him the door, there’s a slightly odd adjunct at the end where, when Tommy decides that his dad’s an idiot and they’d all be better off without him, it’s Rose who convinces him to go after him.

That seems like an absurd idea from every angle – if Eddie Connolly comes home, he’ll still be the proto-Fascist he was before all this, still the man who sold out the street, still the man who insists on being obeyed even though he’s increasingly an idiot. If Tommy goes away with him, he’ll break his mother’s heart and throw away any potential of a college future. So the “epilogue” of the story feels like a marker of Rose’s self-indulgent need not to see another idiot father walk away (after the ending of The Age of Steel), rather than any kind of good decision.

And at the end, the coronation has taken place, the world has been conquered by nothing more or less insidious than reinvigorated monarchism (about the dangers of which, probably, the least said the better), and the Doctor and Rose kick back and help themselves to the cake and pop of a Muswell Hill street party.

The Idiot’s Lantern is perhaps best thought of as a two-issue comic-strip story from Doctor Who Magazine, translated straight onto the TV screen. The primary colours of its characters as avatars of the good, the bad, and the twisted, the pacing that won’t let anyone get a word in without a police raid and a faceless victim stolen away by “Men In Black,” the evil television set largely confirming the rumours of its negative effects on the minds of those who watch it, it’s all a luscious, demented blast of mostly coherent nonsense, an adventure where the stakes are high and yet where it can harmlessly bear no relation nor resemblance either to what’s come before or what’s about to follow it.

As a standalone, there’s more to like about The Idiot’s Lantern than you may remember – just absolutely don’t come to it looking for a subtle dialectic about the impact of television. For that, there’s always Vengeance On Varos.

The Idiot’s Lantern a full-on, subtlety-free, high-octane one-shot with much more oomph than the Doctor’s moped.

Although… having said that… let’s get the 60th anniversary out of the way, to be sure, but then, it might be fun to have Ruby Sunday find an old Betamax tape in the a box somewhere on board the Tardis, just as the Doctor prepares to take her to see the coronation of the next of the British monarchs in 2023… exactly 70 years since the last one. A chance to revisit all the potentially detrimental – and beneficial – aspects of TV in a streaming, social media, binge-watching culture? That’s very RTD, you must admit.

Re: Wired, anyone?

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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