“THE IDIOT’S LANTERN” – Series 2, Episode 8, Story 173 – Written by Mark Gatiss; Directed by Euros Lyn – The Tenth Doctor and Rose land in New York so they can watch Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show, except they actually land in London a day before Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. It’s all Up With Britain until they realize this newfangled device called television is sucking people’s faces off in order to feed a villain called The Wire. This The Wire has nothing to do with HBO’s The Wire, which is probably a good thing. Because If You Can Go Anywhere, Why Go To Baltimore in 2008? The Orioles Totally Sucked That Year.
THE IDIOT’S LANTERN (penned by Mark Gatiss, who wrote last season’s engaging THE UNQUIET DEAD). It’s a solid, if unspectacular episode, but it perfectly exemplifies, for me, what a standard episode of the modern DOCTOR WHO should aspire to: it tells an actual, honest-to-goodness story with a solid villain and inventive visuals, it’s got a great location, it’s paced exceedingly well, it requires a reasoned solution, and it doesn’t overreach by trying to sell the story as the most important freaking thing that’s every happened.
The set-up is exceedingly simple and straightforward: an alien presence is using combining two historical moments to spring a trap on the British public: the existence of televisions and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. With everyone set to find a television to sit their fat fannies in front of, the Wire (who’s an electronic presence who’s taken the form of a TV talking head) is going to eat people’s mind so she can make herself whole again.
Gatiss is a fine writer, but he does engage in a bit of RTDism here – he makes things fun enough that you don’t realize they’re also kinda stupid. There’s an alien presence wanting to consume people’s brains/minds/whatever it is through the TVs and the result of this feast is that people get their faces sucked off, leaving them with totally blank, feature-less faces.
What? Why? How does getting your brain/mind sucked out leave-
You know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s not like the episode hinges on this bit – Gatiss simply gives us a cool visual to represent what’s happening. Does it make sense? No. And if that ruins your entire viewing experience, well, you probably hate the Russell T Davies era. Look, I’m the first guy to argue about Davies’ silliness with plots, but the problem I have with that technique is often based on how important it is to the episode. It’s not important here at all, but I’m guessing it’s something of a Rorschach test – if you dislike the episode, you’re probably going to dislike this visual and if you like the episode, it’s probably not going to hinder your enjoyment of the face sucking.
Rose is the star of the first half of this episode – she doesn’t have Mickey around to ignore, or her dad around to try to connect with, and she’s not even making googly eyes at the Doctor all episode. Well, some of that is because she gets her face sucked off, but even before that Mark Gatiss gives us a great take on Rose: concerned, considerate, active, investigating, and willing to put herself in danger. Rose was also fantastic in THE UNQUIET DEAD, too, as she bonded with the working class servant as all the craziness with the Gelph was going on.
She’s full of cheekiness at first, teasing the Doctor about being in the wrong place, but then she becomes more than just a sidekick as the investigation starts. When she and the Doctor bluff their way into an ordinary household on a street where lots of people have disappeared (the cops throws blankets over the heads of the face-sucked and hurry them away), she’s all full of vinegar towards the father, who’s a control-freaky dick.
The dad, Eddie Connolly is an excellent character in his dickishness, representing the changing times. He’s clearly a member of the patriarchal, old order while his wife and son (who learn to stand up to him) symbolize the hope of a new day. And in case you missed that, there’s a big neighborhood festival after the coronation where people drink some bright yellow liquid that looked like flat Squirt, but he’s not invited because his wife kicked him out. (Connolly was turning in people to the cops who’d been sucked besides just being a general bully.)
As the Doctor tries to interview Connolly’s wife and son, Rose is all over Eddie, ordering him about and using his own ignorance against him as a bullying tactic. When Mrs. Connolly starts to break down, though, it’s Rose who comforts her.
The cops stop by the Connolly’s to steal Grandma away (Eddie has locked her face-sucked body in a room upstairs) and the Doctor chases them. The Detective Inspector has a great scene with the Doctor where he laments how he’s got 20 years on the force, but doesn’t even know where to begin investigating this mystery.) Rose doesn’t follow, noticing that something’s wrong with the television. Noticing that it has a Magpie’s Television sticker on the back, she heads off to the store to challenge the proprietor. He tries to get her to flee, but she’s adamant about sticking around. It’s clearly Rose trying to play the Doctor by emulating his confidence and directness but she can’t pull it off and ends up with her face being sucked off.
It’s kind of awesome and kind of not. On the one hand, I want to see Rose rewarded for taking a more active, less batting eyelashes approach to their adventures. On the other, however, it’s nice to see the unexpected happen, especially since the Doctor has already been knocked on his ass by the cops who stole granny away.
It’s the Doctor who’s a bit annoying in the episode, though admittedly this is just after Rose gets that ol’ mug sucked off that he goes all, “I’m gonna go medieval on someone’s ass.” Seeing the Doctor get angry at the mistreatment of Rose gets old. Not that he should be happy about it, of course, but it’s part of the deal and he knows it, so just go out and undo the damage that’s been done. Seeing the Doctor give a Schwarzeneggerian proclamation of his intent to let nothing stop him comes off as silly. Just get angry and go do it, already.
What is nice about this flash of anger, however, is that the Doctor is clearly caught between what he wants and what he needs. He wants to be with Rose but he needs her to be safe. This can’t end well, of course, because he’s not going to settle down and play domestic but he’s not going to drop Rose back off at home so she can be “safe” (whatever that means, it’s not like she lives inside a protective bubble at home), either.
The Doctor has to solve the case without Rose, so he employs Connolly’s son Tommy to … um … do something sciencey. I don’t get it. I’m sure it’s easy enough to understand but the Wire plans to use a big tower to extend her range and the Doctor stops her by … I don’t know … capture her. I’m not sure how any of it is supposed to work (though I kept hoping he’d point out how it “reverses the polarity of the neutron fow”), but at least the Doctor is madly assembling a device and Tommy’s got to replace a burned out tube and it’s all very exciting and up-tempo.
Rose gets her face back, which is a good thing. One, it’s a nice face. Two, I don’t want to watch a world with the Doctor grumpy and angry because Rose has a boo-boo.