Monday, January 24, 2011

"The Idiot's Lantern"

Poor old Mark Gatiss seems to keep getting saddled with having to write the rubbish storylines. First it was gas ghosts with Charles Dickens, and now it's this. I remembered "The Idiot's Lantern" as being a particularly bad episode and upon rewatch I almost thought I had been mistaken until they encountered the first person 'sans visage' as Detective Inspector Bishop puts it. The storyline is unfortunately nothing but unscientific rubbish and the episode has absolutely nothing to say. It's obviously a piece of filler and suffers substantially as a result.
One thing in its favour is that the Fifties setting is pretty interesting. The Fifties is an era that gets a lot of attention in modern media and between nostalgic, wistful looks back like this one and satirical examinations of the almost insane optimism of the early Nuclear Age I'm surprised that this is the first time Doctor Who's really done a story in this setting as far as I'm aware. Elizabeth II's coronation is a good backdrop too and it's nice to avoid both the 'aliens disguised as monsters' and 'celebrity historical' stereotypes. It's a shame then that the plot we do end up with is so unbelievably bad.
What is The Wire? At the very end the Doctor claims that it's some kind of electricity-based lifeform but that doesn't tell us much. What species is it? How is it able to possess television screens? How does stealing 'brain energy' or whatever made-up human function which it feeds on cause it to become more powerful? How does this process cause people's facial features to vanish? The Doctor claims that 'it feeds on their essences, their souls' or something to that effect because it's more of the same bunk magic thinking which dominated the show in this era. When the woman in the telly sits there screaming "Hungry!" and "Feed me!" and "The Wire is feeding!" and stuff like a villain from a children's cartoon it becomes incredibly difficult to take it seriously and is fairly cringe-worthy to watch. The stuff where it talks like a Fifties TV presenter, calling the Doctor 'smart as paint' and so on is actually pretty effective, and it should have talked like that all the time, presenting an insufferably calm and prim exterior. The inconsistency isn't jarring, it just seems stupid. The Doctor's solution to the problem is just as unscientific as everything else, somehow trapping it on a video tape with essentially no explanation. It must be nice to be the Tenth Doctor and live in a world where your villains are all so ridiculous that they can be defeated through totally ridiculous means. Magpie is pretty rubbish too, a textbook desperate slave, and with lines like "It burns!" when he's being electrocuted he's completely unbelievable and I'm surprised he didn't shout "I'm melting!" when he was disintegrated.
It would have been a lot cleverer if they actually had followed through with the premise of their original arrival and had been in America to see Elvis, come to think of it, because maybe then they could have done something interesting with the whole 'Elvis was abducted by aliens' thing but maybe that would be exactly the kind of idiot-pandering celebrity historical nonsense that I've been railing against this whole time. I'll avoid speculating any further about an imaginary series from this era where stories aren't consistently set in cheap-and-cheerful London however and get back to it.
There's the whole issue with the Connolly family and how the typical big fat dad doesn't want his reputation harmed by everyone knowing that the family old person had her face wiped. Of course according to the good old 'tell don't show' policy of the RTD era big fat dad has a shouting match with his son about how "I have a reputation around here!" without us having a clue what he does or why people are meant to look up to him, and son Tommy says "You've been informing on people, haven't you!" without us ever seeing him do this, so we have to take their word for it. The issue of people's reputations in this era and so on is not weaved throughout so you basically think that big fat dad keeps being horrible just because he's an unpleasant person even though at the start he doesn't seem too bad so it comes across as inconsistent. Tommy is a template 'concerned teenager' and it seems like they tried to explore the family dynamic from that era but sort of gave up.
The Doctor and Rose are as insufferably smug as ever, although they are okay when they are riding around at the start. Then the Doctor starts shouting at people just because Rose lost her face and Tennant starts doing his one-note 'angry' performance, snarling and growling. It's incredibly frustrating to watch because when Tennant does his 'angry', 'facetious' and 'excited' modes they're all so over-the-top and hammy it's impossible to invest in his personality as believable. Manic behaviour rarely suits the Doctor well and Tennant's gritted teeth and staring eyes along with the writing's predilection for this attitude makes difficult watching and also makes the Tenth Doctor increasingly difficult to like. There's even a bit where he shouts "Tommy!" right in Tommy's face for absolutely no reason. How come DI Bishop lost his face when Tommy didn't? Bishop himself seems completely unnecessary apart from the initial conversation, following the Doctor around for a little bit not saying anything and then not even shown recovering. One thing I will say is that apart from flashing a crazy smile at big fat dad du jour Eddie Connolly, Rose is pretty good in this one and is considerably less annoying than the Doctor, but she spends so long without a face that it doesn't get much opportunity to show, such as when she's just a face on screen. Why on Earth does it steal their faces? It makes absolutely no sense. All in all it feels cobbled together, arbitrary, pointless and rushed, with too many characters and not enough to say, and I'm not sure there's a great deal more to say about it either. It only reinforces the mediocrity of this series and serves as a rather obvious example of how this era prioritised shock value, spectacle and melodrama over artistic integrity or meaning, and I can't help but wonder why Mark Gatiss, who has written Doctor Who short stories and is clearly a well-versed fan of the series, kept being given these filler episodes.

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