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.