In the seventh episode of the second series of Doctor Who, the Doctor and Rose accidentally end up in London on the day before Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. They discover that the local police are covering up a disturbing affliction that is caused by some bizarrely inexpensive television sets. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
Oh man. For most of this episode, the creepy factor was raised to a billion. Let me start of by saying that Maureen Lipman, who portrays The Wire in “The Idiot’s Lantern,” carries this episode solely on her tiny portions of screen time. I don’t they could have picked a woman who was better at combining the purity of 50s television with the terror of an alien being keeping itself alive through electricity.
This episode has a decent plot/mystery and a fantastic set of minor characters in the Connolly family. Mark Gatiss, who also wrote “The Unquiet Dead” last series, manages to write a pretty tight script here, one that primarily focuses on the Doctor and the Connollys. (A side note: Rose seems unnaturally jubilant after the events of the last episode, but this wasn’t filmed in order, so I understand that. To an extent.)
They mistakenly land (this happens a lot, doesn’t it?) in London, just prior to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and we get to see Billie Piper in a fantastic hoop skirt and David Tennant with a smashing new hairstyle. Actually, a lot of this episode is us watching both the main characters try something new, in a way. Of course, it’s not long before the two of them land in a new time and place and discover that SOMETHING IS WRONG! AND WE MUST FIX IT!
A whole lot seems to go wrong that the Doctor fixes, right?
Anyway, that isn’t really the point. WHAT WOULD THIS SHOW BE IF THEY DIDN’T HAVE THINGS TO SOLVE? Actually, I’d probably just stare at David Tennant making faces and that would be it. Clearly, this is a bad example. But I did appreciate that this episode had a much longer cold open than usual and I was, of course, reminded how The X-Files used to open that way, without the lead characters appearing at all. Again, it’s a very unsettling way to deliver this episode’s mystery: What if your television could talk to you? And what if your television was actually bad for you?
But for me, as interesting as the “mystery” is, the portrayal of the (somewhat) stereotypical 50s family and how that disintegrates over the course of the episode. The Connollys are the center of what happens with The Wire, though we don’t learn why Gatiss chose to focus on them until the end. There’s a very specific order to this household, with Mr. Connolly firmly in charge of everyone else there. The thing is, it isn’t until Grandma Connolly is afflicted with The Wire’s face-stealing that the dark side of Mr. Connolly’s dynamic comes to life. Maybe it’s the stress or the terror of the unknown, but I loved the parallel that Mr. Connolly transformed at the same moment as his mother-in-law, but in an entirely different way.
The Doctor and Rose witness someone being taken away by the police, but covered in a sheet, and, naturally, they’re curious. But when they try to speak to a young boy named Tommy, his father, Mr. Connolly, refuses to allow him to do so, piquing the Doctor’s interest. I mean, that’s literally the worst thing you can do to the Doctor and expect him to leave you alone. Oh, Mr. Connolly. You had no idea!
I don’t think the faceless people in this episode are quite as creepy as the faceless aliens in season five of The X-Files (guarantee you will see me mention that show a couple thousand times on this site), but it’s still hard to look at them becauseâ€¦well, it just looks so wrong. What’s creepier too is that, until the end, we don’t even know where these people’s souls went or if they’re any way for them to get them back.
Knowing this, the Doctor’s reaction to Mr. Connolly’s insistent desire not to help out is one of his better moments in the series. I think we’re so used to Tennant’s infectious silliness that when the moment happens (and, by the way, the camera zooms into his face quite uncomfortably), it’s possibly the most shocking scene in the series.
It’s also fascinating because the Doctor so naturally takes the side of Mrs. Connolly and her son and pits them against their father. Something could be said about how he interferes with a family he knows nothing about, and I don’t think he should be absolved of any criticism. However, especially with the revelation that Mr. Connolly has locked up his mother-in-law in a bedroom upstairs and has made no attempt to help her, I can forgive the Doctor for doing what he does to this family. Because holy god, Eddie Connolly is the douchiest of douchebags in “The Idiot’s Lantern.” And maybe this is a caricature in that sense, and I’m ok admitting that. My experience growing up was not in the slightest the same as this. (My mom ran my family, not my father.) But the Doctor’s work here is to dismantle the dishonesty Mr. Connolly lives in, a dishonesty to save his reputation at the expense of his wife’s mother and at the expense of his son’s happiness. It’s all made even worse when the Doctor discovers that Rose had been affected by all of this too.
There wasn’t much of her in this episode, since she was rendered faceless early on, but it was great to see her begin to work independent of the Doctor. She certainly doesn’t have the same smooth confidence that comes with being a Time Lord, but at least she tries to talk to Mr. Magpie, who is distributing the “infected” TVs for an absurdly low price. It’s a nice change to see Rose figure it out long before the Doctor, but then, of course, her face gets sucked away, soooooooâ€¦.is she going to take this as a sign that maybe she should leave things up to the Doctor? We’ll see, but my guess is that she’ll only feel more confident after this.
Like most plot conclusions we’ve seen, “The Idiot’s Lantern” wraps up rather rapidly, though I will say I expected the Doctor to disable the signal before it ever went out, so it made it much more tense than usual. The only really memorable thing from the conclusion of the main plot was that a pair of Chucks saved the Doctor’s life. That’s pretty awesome.
I will say that after everything that happened, most especially considering the Doctor’s role in dismantling the Connolly family and giving Mrs. Connolly the motivation to leave her husband, I hated that the Doctor and Rose told Tommy to go run after his father. SERIOUSLY, HE IS LEAVING BECAUSE OF YOU. Doesn’t it defeat the purpose to keep him around? Sorry, I just can’t accept that. It doesn’t make any sense.
All in all, this was a solid and unsettling episode of Doctor Who. And now:
- No, seriously, could Billie Piper and David Tennant dress like that in every episode?
- Whenever Maureen Lipman introduced herself as “The Wire,” I couldn’t help but think of the TV show.
- I’ll have to watch it again, but I could swear one of the policemen referenced Torchwood in this episode. DUN DUN DUN.
- “Start from the beginning. Tell me everything you know.” “Well, for starters, I knowâ€¦you can’t wrap your hand round your elbow and make your fingers meet.”
- “That’s incredible, it’s like a television, but portable! A portable television!” Oh, Bishop, you have no idea.