Defined by an Absence

arrow the grave season 4 laurel lance katie cassidy fridging marc guggenheim oliver queen stephen amell six months later defined by an absence

It is difficult for me to put into words quite how much it offended me – because it didn’t just offend me. It made me angry.

I knew it was coming, of course, because I watch the show in the UK, so that means I’m always a couple of weeks behind. It’s difficult to avoid spoilers at the best of times in that position, but this caused enough outrage across the pond that UK newspapers were reporting on it, just under a month before the episode was set to air here.

Even then, though. The death had been… not telegraphed, obviously. That implies a degree of foreshadowing had gone into it. That it had been planned out, considered, evaluated. That any degree of thought had gone into it.

It hadn’t. This death was not planned. The grave was empty when it was first shown to us – little more than a promise of angst, and darkness. Not an inspiring promise at the best of times, really. But the Powers That Be had decided it was a good way to get ratings. To inspire a buzz. Make headlines.

Shortly afterwards, they realised they would need to actually follow up on that promise. It was, it seems, a relatively easy decision for them to make, albeit one made very late in the day. The actress in question was informed, at most, just a few short weeks before the episode was to be filmed that she was to depart the series.

Organic storytelling at it’s finest, evidently.

Like I said, though. While it hadn’t been telegraphed, it had been eminently predictable. The character who was dispatched hadn’t exactly been getting much of a focus in recent episodes. Season four had seen her increasingly sidelined, with more and more focus diverted to another.

There was something cruel, then, in the way the episode was structured. After denying this character any real plotlines of her own for so long, the prospect of her receiving a greater focus was a welcome one. The suggestion of an ongoing character arc was dangled before us tantalisingly, with the implication of a greater role to come.

In some ways, then, it feels a mockery. Someone, somewhere, no doubt thinks they are very clever. They are wrong.

“Look,” they say, “we fooled them completely. What an intelligent twist! There was no way this death would be predicted, after we teased their future plotlines.”

It was a hollow plot twist. A hollow victory for a programme long since past its prime, with writers who have done better work, and actors who have long been denied material that befits their talents.

The death is self was far more egregious still. In some ways, it’s an achievement; the programme could well go down in history as having provided the most emphatic instance of callously stuffing a woman in a refrigerator ever.

Perhaps that was the aim. After all, it was at least the fourth time the show had engaged in such an offensive trope.

And yet, something felt different this time.

Certainly, it was compounded by the allure of change, the allusion to future character development, the promise of greater focus; all brutally cut down and dispatched. But the nature of the death itself. It was almost symbolic, really, in terms of how it was structured.

This character had come so far. Been there since the start. Developed, changed, progressed. (Up until the point she did not, of course; but then, no one did, bar one.) She had dealt with alcoholism. Built relationships with her father, her friends, her lovers.

She had become a hero.

And then she was stabbed to death. A simple act, which really has no reason to kill at this stage; it’s a program which has, after all, brought its entire cast back from the dead at least once.

Prior to that, though, she was restricted. The villain used his ill defined yet cheap magical powers to freeze the character in place.

To strip her of all agency. To strip her of all autonomy. To take away any control she had, to take away the development she was promised, and brutally cut her aside.

It was a death framed explicitly in terms of the male characters. The male villain wanted to get revenge on the character’s father, and this of course has the added benefit of providing that cheap, boring, generic angst that we were promised so many episodes ago.

Lovely.

Further still, the character was not allowed to have any real final words. Not for herself, of course; she was reduced to a soapbox, for the writers to speak through. An organ for their agenda. Denying this character a moment in character.

I was not sad. I was not surprised. I was angry.

For obvious reasons.

The sadness came later, though, because there was sadness. Not of the type that the writers had intended to elicit, naturally, but sadness all the same.

It was as early as the next episode. Not a bad one, as they go, but not a good one. A particular scene stood out. Two talented actors, working through their tragedy. Impressive. A tour de force in terms of their performance, undoubtedly.

But not a scene worth what we lost. Not a patch on all the impressive scenes we could, and should, have been allowed.

The sadness hit in the morgue, as is perhaps appropriate following a death. The programme felt the need to show us the lifeless, pallid corpse of the recently deceased. A questionable decision, certainly, but they felt the need to drive home the point.

It made me sad because that was when I realised, really realised, what we’d lost. Of course that was when I realised – that was when we saw her, quite literally, stuffed into a fridge. (Well, a freezer, which is perhaps worse, but at least serves to emphasise the point further.)

That was when I realised that the show – like this post – will now always be defined by an absence. By her absence. Not because she was the best character, nor because she was my favourite – because she was neither.

The show will be defined by her absence because of the shitty and offensive way in which it wrote her out. The way in which casually, brutally, tossed this character aside without a second thought, without any care or consideration, because the show did not care.

It did not care about how it treated a key female character.

It was cruel. It was poor writing. It was pathetic.

And it can never be forgiven.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Idiot’s Lantern

doctor who review the idiot's lantern mark gatiss florizel street the wire maureen lipman eddie connolly euros lyn russell t davies

Are you sitting comfortably?

I wasn’t exactly very involved in fan circles when this episode came out – excluding the playground, of course – so I’m not exactly hugely in tune with the received wisdom of this one, or indeed a lot of the early Davies/Gardner era stuff. I have mostly just tended to take the view that it’s all brilliant; usually it is.

Gatiss in particular has something of a reputation for writing some clunky episodes. I always sort of resist that reputation, because I’ve typically enjoyed (or remembered enjoying) his episodes at time of broadcast. (I think I was one of the very few people who actually really liked Sleep No More.)

But then, there is the fact that a lot of these episodes aren’t stories I’ve ever really watched critically. The Idiot’s Lantern was never really one I opted to rewatch frequently, so the only impression I had of it was the initial enjoyment – but, to be perfectly honest, at the age of eight I loved every single episode, with very little else to say. It was Doctor Who, and it was the best thing on television, and thus that was that.

When I’m watching them now, though, ten years later, they’re all getting something of a reappraisal. And admittedly, it does have to be said, The Idiot’s Lantern isn’t actually all that great. (There is a part of me that is genuinely worried I’ll get to my favourite episode of the series, and it won’t live up to my expectations.)

Don’t get me wrong, of course – I think it’s probably clear that preamble is leading to a criticism of this episode. It is, because there are problems with the episode. But there’s a lot of good stuff here too, and I think that’s worth commending and commenting on.

Evil TV is a wonderfully, uniquely Doctor Who idea. Of course this show, of them all, is going to put forward the dangers of watching too much TV – it’s not just twisting the mundane into something frightening, like the plastic sunflowers or vinyl chairs, but it’s something that is part of Doctor Who. That is a fantastic concept; not entirely dissimilar from the Weeping Angels, in a way, where the whole point is that you can’t hide behind the sofa. (Though, on the subject of the Weeping Angels, I wonder if perhaps this episode would have been improved with a Blink-esque final sequence to suggest that all TVs, even in the present day, remain dangerous?)

The episode is also very funny – to be expected, perhaps, given Gatiss’ comedy background. (I mean, I’ve never actually seen League of Gentlemen, but they were funny when they were on Horrible Histories together.) Lots of very good jokes in there; the one typically picked up on is where Crabbe tries to wrap his fingers around his elbow after the Doctor’s flippant rebuke of the Detective Inspector. (I just tried myself. It is, I can confirm, impossible.)

So, you know, all of that is good…

doctor who review the idiot's lantern mark gatiss david tennant billie piper motorbike scooter elvis hair mary poppins

… but the episode is sorely lacking in other places.

I think the main problem arises when the episode sidelines Rose from the narrative. (You can, of course, read a level of positivity from this, because Gatiss had done quite a good job of writing Rose up until the point when she was removed. Generally good lines all round, Billie Piper did a great job with the performance, it was all going quite well. Up until it wasn’t, really.)

On one level, it’s a shame because it means Tennant doesn’t have Piper to work with here. In the early part of the episode, their chemistry and interplay with one another really helped to enliven the episode – Tennant with DI Bishop and Tommy Connelly (more on whom later) just doesn’t have anywhere near the same spark. It is, ultimately, just a little less interesting with Rose gone.

But…

See, I just went and looked up some of the production history for this episode, on the Shannon Sullivan website. (It’s a great resource if you’re at all interested in how Doctor Who is made, and how the stories evolved from their original conception.) What I found out, then, was that this episode was in the fourth production block, and so was one of the later episodes in the production run.

That was a surprise, because from David Tennant’s performance, I could have sworn it was one of the earlier episodes to be recorded.

Saying that I feel a little guilty, because it just seems sort of… it doesn’t feel right to critique David Tennant’s acting. I mean, quite apart from the fact that he extremely well renowned and has received many an accolade, whereas I would have trouble as a non-speaking extra, there’s also the fact that he’s, you know, the Doctor.

But the fact remains that his performance just doesn’t quite work after Rose’s disappearance, because Tennant doesn’t seem to have figured out how to do an angry Doctor properly. Which is weird, I guess, because I seem to remember it working well enough in New Earth, but perhaps the difference is that here all he’s being given to do is essentially just be angry.

It is jarring, to say the least. Something which stands out to me is a point at which he yells in Tommy’s face, for no apparent reason – I think it’s supposed to be read as the Doctor feeling galvanised, because he’s just had a realisation, but it just comes across as deeply uncomfortable, on account of how harshly the line is delivered.

So, yeah. There’s not really any way of getting around this. Once Rose is gone, Gatiss just sort of writes an angry Doctor, and David Tennant can’t get that to work. It’s a shame, really, because it constricts the episode a lot.

doctor who review the idiot's lantern mark gatiss eddie tommy conolly rory jennings jamie foreman father florizel street

The other big problem and point of contention is the issue of Tommy and his father Eddie. It’s worth unpacking this one a little, I think.

Eddie as a character seems complex, but I suppose in reality it’s more applicable to describe him as messy, or even bungled. There are certainly a lot of scenes, at least initially, which seem to be aiming at depicting him as being something of a weak man, who does the things he does out of fear, but despite this is still a largely good person. You can see this from the fact that he is quite blatantly terrified by what’s going on around him; it’s particularly evident early on, regarding Gran who has her face stolen. And there are moments where he is nice to Tommy, and appears to be caring towards his wife. So, maybe he’s not completely irredeemable?

Arguably, this is something of a theme within the episode: weak men who are limited because of their fears. You’ve got Eddie Connolly, who’s clearly insecure and frightened, hiding behind this veneer of strength and all the associated bluster. There’s Magpie too, who does what he does because he’s scared of the Wire. Even Detective Inspector Bishop could be considered to fall into this mould, given that he simply rounds up the faceless people rather than dealing with them, instead of going out and doing his job properly.

That’s why Tommy is such a sympathetic character, then; he’s scared, yes, but he rises above it and goes further and does more. It was the third Doctor who once said that courage is being scared, but doing what you have to do anyway – and Tommy exemplifies that really well. (Hence, perhaps, his being dressed in similar colours to the Doctor.) It even fits in with the general idea raised by the Doctor at the end, that this is a brand new nation, shrugging off the shadows of war, with no place for men like Eddie Connolly.

Because that’s the other thing. For all that you can make a redemptive reading of Eddie, there are some things you can’t get around – he is also a horrible person. We feel so triumphant when the Doctor and Rose take him down a peg, because he’s a bully. He’s just not a very nice guy. He’s shout-y and angry and aggressive (making the Doctor seem unfortunately similar to him at times) and it is certainly quite heavily implied that he’s abusive towards his wife and child.

It is worth noting, too, that Tommy is gay. That’s the subtext, here, but it’s not exactly subtle – references to “mummy’s boys” and Tommy saying he wants to be able to love anyone he chooses makes it clear enough what the intention is. He was at one point going to admit a crush on the Doctor, but RTD cut that as he decided it was too far.

So, you know, Eddie Connolly isn’t just a horrible person, he’s also abusive, as well as being sexist and homophobic.

The message is absolutely that he should be left behind, and that the episode should unequivocally end with him being cast off and left behind.

But then we have Rose convincing Tommy he needs his father in his life. Which is spectacularly wrongheaded, really.

I mean, how is that meant to be taken? Is it a clever indictment of the 1950s, with Gatiss actually levelling a criticism at this era, and pointing out that even despite the air of optimism and the fact they cast off the shadows of war, some archaic attitudes remained? Or is it suggesting that we should still treat horrible people with a level of decency, even if they don’t extend the same kindness to us?

Of the two interpretations, I prefer the former. That would go some length towards salvaging the episode, certainly.

At the minute, though, it just feels like there were a lot of clever ideas, which all fell apart over the course of the script. And that’s a shame, really.

6/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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