Doctor Who – The Idiot’s Lantern

I’m a little late with this one as we didn’t get back until late last night.

Not for the first time there are strong Sapphire and Steel overtones this week, especially the faceless people1 and the crying faces on the television screens: absolutely creepy imagery, and a great sense of something else having arrived in a particular time and place in Earth history. Typically of New Who this is blended with a healthy dollop of running around and shouting.

The underlying conceit of this week’s episode is, oddly, not dissimilar from the much weaker Cyberman story: the rush of the new; technology out of control; consumerism outpacing wisdom. The ’50’s setting is a brilliant period to exploit those ideas given the burgeoning rise of household gadgets, and the strange feeling of a country caught on the brink of modernity. Plus they had hilarious quiffs and pink skirts.

Likewise Maureen Lipman’s urbane villain plays perfectly, capturing a nostalgic never-never England and tinging it with menace. A shame that her “hungryyyyyyyy” is a little overplayed as she could have been even more menacing had she stayed perfectly in character throughout.

Quite why David Tennant feels the need to frown and shout all the time is mystifying to me. He’s the very essence of a likeable and compelling hero without the need to resort to sudden bursts of shouting, so I’d like to see him try something else when moral outrage is required. I can’t help thinking that Eccleston did angry far more convincingly. That said, Tennant is still a great Doctor, and his commanding intrusion into the Connolly household works very well (one time when shouting is an appropriate response), as does the comedic turnaround in the interrogation scene. For the first time in a while we also get to see Rose coming into her own; she’s acting more and more like the Doctor, from challenging Mr Magpie in his shop to the quixotic way she puts Mr Connolly in his place. Obviously she still has to be rescued, but then what are companions for if not to be rescued?

The supporting characters follow the show’s standard approach of being fairly archetypal but well-enough fleshed out to engage our sympathies, and writer Mark Gatiss manages this better than most. The Connolly family fares particularly well, but Mr Magpie manages to be sympathetic and conflicted despite being given very few lines. The Detective Inspector fares less well, being little more than a cipher, but he fills his slot in the story amiably enough. The advantage in using archetpyes and giving them humanising quirks is that it’s a shorthand which allows the viewer to fill in the blanks, and as long as the writing doesn’t rest on its laurels I think it’s acceptable in an episode of this length.

Overall there’s very little wrong with this instalment (although I did miss the first five minutes due to our Sky Box being tardy), plenty of atmosphere and just the right amount of mortal peril. I can’t quite put my finger on why it doesn’t quite click for me; perhaps only that it feels slightly rushed. It could sorely use another twenty minutes being slow and sinister and fleshing out the characters before the running and the shouting start. Also the directorial style of tilting the camera evokes a sense of noiresque strangeness very well, but is over-used and becomes slightly intrusive. But while this episode isn’t perfect, it remains well above average for the new series: nearly but not quite a classic.

1 Okay, yes, and The Twilight Zone.

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