The Idiot’s Lantern ★★

Mark Gatiss's tale of a face robber at the time of the Queen's coronation has fine period detail but no sense of place. Plus, a peculiar brush with Maureen Lipman...

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Story 173

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Series 2 – Episode 7

“Hungry! Hungry! Feed me!” – the Wire

Storyline
The Doctor and Rose arrive in Muswell Hill, north London, in 1953, just in time for the Queen’s coronation. At Magpie’s Electricals, a malign force within the television signal compels the shopkeeper to sell discount TV sets to the local population. The Wire feeds off the electrical activity of the brain but gorges itself, removing people’s faces while extracting their essence. Rose also succumbs, and the Doctor races to Alexandra Palace to halt the Wire’s plan to feast upon all those gathering to watch the coronation on TV…

First UK transmission
Saturday 27 May 2006

Production
January–February 2006. Locations: Alexandra Palace, London; Florentia Street, Cathays, Cardiff; Blenheim Road, Cardiff; Cardiff Royal Infirmary and Cardiff Heliport; Newport Dock. Studio: Unit Q2, Newport.

Cast
The Doctor – David Tennant
Rose Tyler – Billie Piper
The Wire – Maureen Lipman
Magpie – Ron Cook
Eddie Connolly – Jamie Foreman
Rita Connolly – Debra Gillett
Tommy Connolly – Rory Jennings
Grandma Connolly – Margaret John
Detective Inspector Bishop – Sam Cox
Crabtree – Ieuan Rhys
Aunty Betty – Jean Challis
Security guard – Christopher Driscoll
Mrs Gallagher – Marie Lewis

Crew
Writer – Mark Gatiss
Director – Euros Lyn
Designer – Edward Thomas
Incidental music – Murray Gold
Producer – Phil Collinson
Executive producers – Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
(filed 27 May 2016)
The morning after this episode aired, I was minding my own business, walking the dog on Hampstead Heath, when a woman came thrusting through the foliage. “Is that a Basenji?” she asked excitedly. “Eh?” I said, startled as she flung herself down to dog level. “A Basenji!” she trilled. “The barkless dog of the Congo!” As my hound recoiled and the theatrical intruder reared up, I realised we were in the presence of Maureen Lipman. “No,” I told her, explaining my mutt was a lowly collie-cross. “Oh…” She looked deflated so I blithered, “But hey, we enjoyed you in last night’s Doctor Who.” Instantly snapping into character as the Wire, she thrust her hand towards me like a claw, snarled “Hungryyyy!” – then scuttled off down the lane.

I give you this anecdote as a typical north London experience – which is something that cannot be said for The Idiot’s Lantern.

One of the crucial failings of this episode, for me at least, is that though it is set in Muswell Hill, it patently was not filmed there. The few shots with Alexandra Palace CGI-ed on the horizon fail to convince. Of course I appreciate the practicalities of shooting Doctor Who. I realise that many viewers won’t be familiar with north London, but an awful lot of people (including Lipman) do live there, will have visited Ally Pally and are aware that Muswell Hill is, well, hilly. Very hilly. It’s always been frightfully middle-class. In Doctor Who, Cardiff often fills in just fine for London, but the nondescript terraces where The Idiot’s Lantern was filmed are flat, have none of the undulations and distant vistas of the capital that characterise the neighbourhood. There is no sense of place.

Happily, there is a persuasive sense of period. I wasn’t around in the 1950s but am impressed by the attention to detail in the costumes, the interiors and the hardware – the all-important television sets. Full marks to the production department on that score. In his script, Mark Gatiss also presents a believable picture of Britain emerging from postwar austerity, the backward mindset of some adults and the forward-thinking of the young; wives and teenagers about to break free. He captures the zeitgeist and – in a literal sense – once again turns the “spirit of the times” into his monster of the week.

It’s easy to spot similarities between The Idiot’s Lantern and Gatiss’s previous script, The Unquiet Dead. No 1: an ethereal alien threat with a female face coming into homes via new-fangled technology (then gas lamps, now TV sets); again there’s a duplicitous local businessman and a creepy grandma…

The faceless victims of the Wire may have seemed like a decent idea on paper, spooky and weird; you could see them working in a pulp comic strip perhaps; but on telly, quite frankly, they’re absurd. One’s first thought must be: how the hell are they breathing?

The grandma is a thankless role for Margaret John, nigh on 80 standing around in a blank mask. Her long and respectable career included, 38 years earlier, a classic Doctor Who (Fury from the Deep). After Idiot’s Lantern she would memorably play Doris, the oversexed pensioner in Gavin & Stacey, and even had a small role in Game of Thrones, shortly before her death in 2011.

The domestic drama of the Connollys develops reasonably well within the time constraint. Meek mum Rita and “proper little mummy’s boy” Tommy eventually stand up for themselves and turn against martinet dad Eddie. He’s written as the angry, unreconstructed archetype (“I! AM! TALKING!”) and played without reference to subtlety by Jamie Foreman. He’s easily outclassed by Rory Jennings, who is sympathetic and earnest as Tommy, one of several implicitly gay characters in this series.

Maureen Lipman adds another touch of class and a few acid drops as the alien-cum-continuity-announcer, just the right side of OTT. David Tennant, though, is far less appealing when he overeggs. If he’s not mugging, he’s gaping. He bawls emptily and winks like a navvy. And the gelled 50s quiff serves only to increase his air of cockiness. It’s a relief when one of the Men in Black lamps him, knocking him out. That really isn’t something one should wish upon the hero of the piece.

These issues, some minor, some major, mar the viewing experience for me. It’s still perfectly watchable and told at quite a lick, but there’s little to love in the flickering glow of The Idiot’s Lantern.

*

RT Archive

In 2006, writer Mark Gatiss introduced the episode for RT’s Doctor Who Watch
(Page 1)  (Page 2)

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David Tennant and Billie Piper – rare RT photos from 2006

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