21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Idiot's Lantern

TV – where would we be without it? Who would have thought that an electronic box of tricks could have the ability to instruct and entertain? Well, unless you tune into ubiquitous Oompa Loompa convention, The Only Way Is Essex.

Without TV, we wouldn't have been able to see key events like the first man on the moon, the first ever Doctor Who story...

Oh, and I suppose some might say the coronation of Mrs Majesty way back in 1953. Judging by the 15 or so extras in the latest Doctor Who story, The Idiot's Lantern, interest must have been very high – despite the fact that Mrs Maj pulled her usual sour-faced expression throughout. Maybe she should hire a court jester to accompany her wherever she goes.

Mind you, that's probably the sort of sneering look of disgust that I've got on my ugly mug right now, having just sat through The Idiot's Lantern. In case you didn't know, an Idiot's Lantern was contemporary slang for a telly. It's also an appropriate term for this story, given the behaviour a lot of the characters. Sadly, that applies to the main man himself.

Putting all that on the back-burner for just a quick moment, the basic premise of The Idiot's Lantern is actually quite a creepy one. An evil alien entity escapes into a TV and sucks people's minds in order to recreate its own body. A great idea, and the sight of the Wire's poor victims staggering about without faces is memorably eerie (shades of the Sapphire And Steel episode, The Man Without A Face here).

Mark Gatiss, fresh from success with the previous season's excellent Unquiet Dead, returns to the fold with a decent, well-worked out plot that contains some good ideas. It's got its fair share of atmosphere, thanks again to Euros Lyn, who goes to town with plenty of Dutch camera angles to heighten the psychological tension. Even Murray Gold's music score is effective this time around, full of ersatz '50s film noir pastiches and off-kilter keyboard warbling for the Wire scenes.

Despite all this promise, The Idiot's Lantern seems hell-bent on picking apart its good bits with a corny script, some broad performances and one of the worst portrayals of the Doctor and Rose. In fact, this is probably the nadir of their cliquey, smug frivolity. The Doctor spends the entire 45 minutes shouting at everyone within earshot and carrying on like an arse, while Rose – despite a good scene in which she uses her loaf and quizzes hapless electronics salesman Mr Magpie – gets to be just as obnoxious and annoying.

It's a pity this. In the past, admittedly, the Doctor hasn't always been a boy scout. He was selfish and abrasive during his first incarnation. He was prone to patronising and hectoring companions, UNIT staff and pompous politicians during his third incarnation. He would take bad behaviour to a whole new level when he turned into his sixth incarnation. But during these first few adventures for the Tenth Doctor, it's hard to relate to him, simply because he regularly behaves like a shouty, immature teenager rather than a wise old Time Lord.

Right from the moment when he leaves the TARDIS on a funky moped, the Doctor's on a one-man mission to annoy the viewers with his own brand of smarmy arrogance and mugging. Bad Elvis impressions are bad enough, but when they stroll round to angry Eddie Connolly's abode, it gets worse. With a cheesy, unified “HI!”, the Doctor and Rose then barge their way into the Connollys' house like the smuggest pair of estate agents that you ever did meet. In a matter of minutes, they're belittling and bullying the huffy patriarch in equal measures. OK, so Eddie's a pillock (more on this later), but it's a shame that the Tenth Doctor has to rely on sarky comments, indiscreet giggling and bully boy shouting (“AND IMMMMAAAA NOTTTTTAAAA LEESTENEEENNNGGGAA!!!!!!”) to make his point that the family need help.

All through the story, the Doctor's shouting and yelling like a man who's just been for a beer or three with Brian Blessed. He barges into Magpie's shop, roaring at the top of his voice. He outlines his reasoning to Tommy (“Ohhhh! That's! Why! They! Chose! This! Place! TOMMY!!!”) in a holler that could decimate eardrums from a million miles away. He bellows dreary I'm So Powerful-esque speeches at Inspector Bishop (“Because now, Detective Inspector Bishop, there is no power on this Earth that can stop me!!”).

This last example's also troublesome in that it's only Rose's plight that seems to inspire the Doctor to actually get off his scrawny arse and do something about the problem.

All in all, not the sort of Doctor you want guiding you through your travels. Inevitably, this isn't David Tennant's finest hour either. As I've said, Tennant never seems comfortable with OTT histrionics – he's far better with subtle humour and moody contemplation. Looking back at his first season, it's odd that the scripts keep demanding this type of overly manic performance from such a talented actor. It's really not a good sign if you find yourself cheering when the Doctor's just been lamped in the jaw by a thuggish policeman.

Likewise, you're not supposed to breathe a sigh of relief when the companion's in big trouble. But Rose has been just as smug and annoying throughout the story, whether she's barking at Eddie to put the flags up the right way or foolishly giggling at the Doctor's impersonations and bad jokes. The scene in which she takes Magpie to task is at least a throwback to the previous season, which saw her as a more resourceful, braver smart cookie – and Billie Piper acts this scene very well. If only the production team weren't quite so determined to make Rose such an unlikeable character this season.

Mind you, some of the other guest characters of The Idiot's Lantern aren't much to write home about. Eddie Connolly, for example – the idea that he's a violent, over-bearing bully is a good one on paper, but this kind of gets garbled in translation, thanks to too many clichéd lines. Jamie Foreman (Derek Branning in EastEnders – Eddie could well be his long lost pops) has the same problem as David Tennant. He's actually very good in his quieter moments, exuding a chilling menace. But when the script regularly calls for Eddie to shout the place down, he becomes a huffy, red-faced caricature who stomps around in a fever of ever-increasing mania. Maybe this is due to the fact that he seems to have some sort of identity crisis in that he thinks he's a world-famous author. “I AM TOLKEIN!!” he keeps shouting, even though Eddie would be hard pressed to complete a greetings card, never mind a multi-page book.

Naturally when it's revealed that he's been grassing up the faceless victims to the police, he looks like he's going to spontaneously combust. “SHE WAS FILFY!” he bellows about Rita's faceless mother. “A FILFY DISGUSTIN' FING!” Despite Foreman's best efforts, it's hard to take a shouty goon like this seriously. Yet even when Eddie's been rejected by both Rita and Tommy, the Doctor and Rose still suggest that Tommy should try and sort things out with a bullying monster. Whatever happened to the Doctor being a no second chances kind of a man?

The main baddie's also prone to lots of manic hollering. The Wire manifests itself in the form of a genteel TV presenter – Maureen Lipman is, to be fair, very good initially, giving off a creepily supercilious air as she drains the brains of her victims. Like the Doctor, Eddie and Rose, it's a shame that she ends up as a shouty parody. She's cackling at the top of her voice all the time or screeching “Feed me!” on a non-stop loop. In fact, I was reminded of that ancient chips advert which consisted of a kid bellowing “Feed me!” non-stop to his mum, before singing “Ain't that a real mother for ya!”

Like much of The Idiot's Lantern, The Wire's a great idea on paper which somehow loses its impact by the time it gets to screen. There's too much emphasis on shouty pantomime histrionics, and so the eerie ideas and set-up are sacrificed to way too many cartoony elements.

It's not all doom and gloom with the characters though. At least some of the guests are better catered for. Margaret John (of Gavin And Stacey, Fury From The Deep and Blake's 7 Way Back fame) and Debra Gillett as the long-suffering women of the Connolly household are very good, as is Rory Jennings, who makes for a good sub-companion in the absence of Rose during the last half of the story. Stealing the show is Ron Cook, who gives an excellent performance as the tortured Magpie – one of those typical misguided henchmen, who manages to get himself into deep water. At the beginning, we see him down on his luck with a wad full of mounting debts and the wish of a miracle. And yet, the next day, he's selling TVs by the lorry-load – all at a price of course.

Still... Wire Worry, eh?

It's never explained why or how Magpie gets to keep his face, given that his visage is pulled off like the others in the pre-credits teaser. But at least Cook successfully portrays the vulnerable second banana – his two-hander confrontation is particularly good, especially his sad echo of the Tenth Doctor's familiar catchphrase “I'm sorry, so sorry”.

The visuals too, are striking. The effects of the faceless ones are very good, thanks to some excellent make-up and Euros Lyn's knack of short, sharp cuts. There's that excellent little scene in which the Doctor finds a cage full of faceless victims, and Lyn films this sequence superbly with quick, alternating close-ups of the featureless heads and the clenching/unclenching fists. Good lighting for this, too. The video effects of the Wire sucking out its' victims brains are also well done – there's something grim about the whole idea of losing your identity, and this concept is handled effectively on screen.

It's a shame that The Idiot's Lantern overall, lacks that power. Too much time is spent on shouty cartoons and pompous speech making (“You were fighting so that little twerps like me could do what we want,” blusters Tommy at one point to his furious dad. “Say what we want”). Like one or two other of the weaker stories in this season, it's the script that lets the side down. I wonder how much of Mark Gatiss' original script was hacked about – especially since the main problems of the season are the same every time: Annoying Doctor. Smug Rose. Zero subtlety. Too many cartoony aspects. Now there's a question to chew over until the cows come home.

The Idiot's Lantern is reasonably diverting. It's got some good, creepy ideas at its core. It's another bang-up directing job from the ever-versatile Euros Lyn. Oh, and at least the Doctor still doesn't seem too keen on the Royals after his brush with Queen Victoria in Tooth And Claw (“Oh look, God Save The Queen, eh?” he almost sneers at the TV) - mind you, if this Doctor's a bit more of a rockabilly punk, this isn't any wonder.

Now can he turn down the volume just a little bit?

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