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…
… 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.
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.
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.