Sunday, May 28, 2006

Doctor Who - The Idiot's Lantern

Like last year's The Unquiet Dead, Mark Gatiss gets another historical adventure, this time going not quite so far back in time, but to 1953 and to the Coronation of Queen Elisabeth II (which took place on 2 June 1953). As the story opens we're introduced to Mr Magpie, a superb character well played by Ron Cook, owner of a television store. He has problems, being in debt, but his problems mount when a red lightning bolt hits his television ariel, and a television announcer talks directly to him before his face is sucked into the TV by bolts of red lightning. This is a cracking opening, and sets the scene for what is to come. The Doctor and Rose are on Earth, expecting to go and see Elvis Presley perform on the Ed Sullivan show at TV studios in New York (this would therefore place the date the Doctor expected to arrive as either 9 September 1956, 28 October 1956 or 6 January 1957) however they are in Muswell Hill, London in 1953! I thought the Doctor had control over the TARDIS now - the idea of him arriving where he doesn't expect is slightly out of place. However there is no lead in from The Age of Steel, so we have no idea how many adventures the Doctor and Rose have had in the interim. As the Doctor realises they are in the wrong place and time, someone (Mr Gallagher) is taken from one of the houses by police, their head covered. There is much consternation, and one of the the locals, a boy called Tommy Connelly (played by Rory Jennings - I knew I'd heard his name before. He was in an episode of Urban Gothic: http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/davidjhowe00/e_s01_e11.htm), mentions that people are turning into monsters - something that appears to have happened already in the Connelly household as their Gran (Margaret John) is now in an upper room, and the family are terrified by her banging on the floor. The tension builds nicely, and we're kept wondering as to what has happened to Gran. However this doesn't worry Mr Connelly - Eddie (Jamie Foreman) - who has been watching a little too much EastEnders and comes over like Al Murray's Pub Landlord at every turn. Meanwhile, Magpie, under instruction from the strange announcer, has built a portable TV set. These scenes are really excellent, with Magpie's reactions - 'burning me' - a great counterpoint to the TV lady. Getting Maureen Lipman to play the announcer was a stroke of genius. She manages to bring over haughty power, calcluating alienness and genuine menace in all her appearances. A brilliant performance. So the Doctor and Rose decide to pay a visit to the Pub Landlord and family, and Rose suddenly displays talents beyond keeping her mouth open too long - lucky that Jackie went out with a sailor and that Rose knows all about Union Jacks and Flags as a result ... well you would. Wouldn't you? We finally get to see Gran, and the poor dear has no face! This is terrifying stuff, and incredibly well realised. Shame it makes no sense whatsoever. Why should wiping someone's brain make their face vanish? And how do these people breathe? Through their ears maybe? I liked the clenching, grasping hands, but again, why? Are they in pain? In torment of some sort? If so, then they all recover pretty quickly at the end. So as the Doctor races off after the police, who arrive to take Granny Connolly away, Rose decides to do some investigating of her own and turns up at Magpie's shop, only to have her own brain sucked and face wiped. The Doctor meanwhile is hauled up by Detective Inspector Bishop (Sam Cox) and ends up helping him. The scene when he sees Rose all faceless in front of him is brilliantly done, which shows how good Tennant can be ... it's just a shame that he doesn't seem able to be able to do angry very well. To be honest, the Doctor started to remind me of someone in this story, and I couldn't think who ... but then it came to me. Eric Idle. But Eric Idle as his 'nudge, nudge, wink, wink' character from Monty Python. The Doctor seemed to veer off into monalogues about things which I started to hear as a variant of the 'nudge, nudge' man. Most disconcerting. And when combined with the Pub Landlord, this started to break down the believability of this episode. I think the main issue is that the Doctor is not a part of the episode - he stands separate from the action, and he's almost like a narrator or something. I hope he can get more involved soon. The next day dawns, and family and friends (excluding Gran of course) assemble at the Connolly's to watch the Coronation. However family tiffs ensue and young Tommy goes off with the Doctor and Bishop to investigate the TV shop, wherein they find disembodied faces on the televisions (why?) and the portable TV. They are also confronted by the announcer, now revealed to be something called the Wire, executed on its own planet, but escaped into space, only to arrive on Earth (shades of The Hand of Fear). It feeds on electrical activity in the brain and wants to take power from people watching television. Bishop is faceless but the Doctor and Tommy escape as the Wire sees that the Doctor is armed (with his all-purpose sonic screwdriver), and they collect together piles of equipment from the TV shop before chasing after Magpie who has taken the portable TV with the Wire now in it to the Alexandra Palace transmitter, intending to allow the Wire to feed on a wider scale. Aside from the question of how Magpie gets into Ally Pally (even the Doctor is accosted by a guard), how does he get access to climb the mast! On this day, the security there would have been immense. But Magpie manages to do this, plugs in his portable and everyone's faces are dragged into the TV. But the Doctor connects up his gizmo which - I hesitate to say - reverses the polarity and turns the receiver into a transmitter and traps the Wire. Now ... don't think about this too long ... Ally Pally is a transmitter anyway, so Magpie's box turned it into a receiver ... and then the Doctor reverses this back, and manages to record the Wire onto a Betamax video tape ... Neat idea. I'm sure I've seen it before though, that something can be recorded to trap it ... can't think where, but I'm sure you folks will let me know. So all is back to normal. Rose gets her face back (she must have missed standing with her mouth open) as do all the others that the Wire fed on, and all is well. We even get a resolution to the small story of the Connelly's as Mrs C (Debra Gillett) kicks the Pub Landlord out. But Rose persuades Tommy not to cut his dad off completely and to go after him, which he does. This is an excellent ending to a superb episode. Despite concerns about the characterisation of the Doctor, and his general uninvolvedness, I loved this story. The mood was excellent and well maintained. The faceless people were terrifying (and brought back fond memories of Sapphire and Steel where a faceless man was on the stair ... http://www.steve-p.org/ss/mwaf1.htm) and the villain was one of the best we've seen. Next week ... black holes, the TARDIS going further than ever before, creepy looking monsters with tentacular faces ... looks superb.

8 comments:

Dave Mullen said...

Absolutely hated it!

It's an A-B-C join the dots plot of the sort you'd write back in junior school - alien taking over world but needs to use something we all recognise & trust to take over the populace. Never mind it makes no sense and is unimaginably unimaginitive.
Nice to see Rose is missing Mickey. I'm of the growing opinion that Roses value as interesting companion is now used up and she has not a lot left to do or say within the series besides her bizzare infatuation with the Doctor - it'll all end in utter disaster Luv and you should know it!

Murray Golds music is now entering criminal overload of the eardrums, I had to stamp on the Mute button several times, when I hadn't left the room that is.

A Dire story of which the only saving grace is the always superb design - deserving of awards.

David said...

You didn't like it then :)

Dave Mullen said...

No!! ;(

Aghhhh! I left the room TWICE! I've not done that since the show came back! Even the other half left early on to do some pottering...
OTT Bad acting, sub-par directing, OTT music score, shoestring plot & yet another alien invasion of Earth story with a period gloss to make us not notice the Deja vu' of it all too much...

I've really enjoyed season 2, I really have, but there's a fatigue developing in both the format and the duo that needs addressing badly.

Andy said...

There was a Benny story in Life of Surprises about a video recording of some creature/race dying, and every time anyone watched the tape the creature died again. That's about the only "trapped alive inside a video tape" story I can remember.

I do have a vague memory of a monster that travelled down phone lines to kill people being defeated by ending up on an answerphone cassette. No idea where from though.

Anonymous said...

re: the monster that travelled down phone lines and was trapped on an answerphone cassette

I haven't seen the film for years, but In Gremlins 2 wasn't there a Gremlin which had been turned into an electrical impulse and travelled through the phone lines. IIRC they trapped it in an answerphone, and later released it to electricute all the other gremlins

Michael C said...

I have to agree with DM, it was the worst Dr Who story I have ever seen.

I would suggest that there was a massive quality control problem in the writing/direction department as the Doctor was portrayed as some kind of cartoon mad man.

Also no real explanation of the wire. What was 'its' crime/goals etc. Cartoon Doctor, cartoon villian.

The series needs to remind itself of what it's core values are less it descends into the storylines that marked the end of it's original series.

Anonymous said...

Neil Gaiman's "Good Omens"...a demon is travelling over the phone lines and gets trapped on an answering machine tape. The tape is then put into a car player that has the mysterious property of changing any tape it plays into Freddy Mercury.

Anonymous said...

I actually liked this episode, though it's probably the weakest of the new series. Mainly because it doesn't explore the relationship between the Doctor and Rose, or as you put it, the main characters were not in the forefront as they could, or should, have been until later in the episode.

Dodn't care fuch for the father, as it seemed a bit too stereotypical. I'm sure some people were like that, but I think the relationships between men and women were more complex that just the Man being an overbearing jerk and the women being submissive weaklings. That said, I liked the kid's story about coming to terms with his own identity, and that was probably the strongest part of the episode, especially the end when Rose prompts him to go to his father and carry his suitcase. That gave it a depth the rest of the story was lacking.

The other thing I didn't like was Magpie. I wish he had more of an arc, like struggling more internally with his involvement in what he knows what was wrong.

I liked the Wire a lot. She was brilliant. I have no problem ignoring or not thinking about why the victims faces vanished. I thought it was a nice touch, and it was effective watching it with my kids. The dialogue was fun and the story was good. Not my favorite one by far, but I liked it.

And in WHISPERS OF TERROR BF audio the sound creature gets trapped on a disc as a sound file at one point.

-Erik