|In the original version the Wire was to steadily move up|
Maslow’s Hierarchy until, in the climax, it shouted “lacking
in opportunities to express my creativity” instead of just
It’s May 27th, 2006. Oh look. Gnarls Barkley. What a shock. Busta Rhymes, Rihanna, Red Hot Chili Peppers, LL Cool J, and Shayne Ward also chart. In news, Montenegro has voted for independence from Serbia, and scientists have confirmed that HIV originated among Cameroonian chimpanzees.
Anyone hoping to be enlivened from a slow week by a fresh episode of Doctor Who would have found themselves at least somewhat perplexed by The Idiot’s Lantern. As has been noticed by more people than I care to count, The Idiot’s Lantern does not quite work. This is mostly not interesting – it tends to go loud when it should go quiet and vice versa. Eddie Connolly is portrayed as a straight villain from the get-go when too much of the plot revolves on sympathy for him – there needed to be scenes where he’s given an underlying dignity as a man struggling to keep a family going. Gatiss’s decision to avoid the title “The One-Eyed Monster” is, of course, as unforgivable as it is completely understandable. And if we’re being perfectly honest, it is ever so slightly possible David Tennant does not wear a bouffant well. But these are small reasons and uninteresting to anyone not heavily invested in writing as a craft. Which is to say that I could go on about them for ages, but that I don’t want to unless they say something substantive about the evolution of the show as well.
So let’s move on to the interesting way that The Idiot’s Lantern fails – the fact that the script is actually harmed by David Tennant, or, more accurately, by the fact that it’s not written for him. There’s a very fundamental difference in how Tennant and Eccleston play the part, and this difference requires some attention in writing. In short, Tennant plays the role with a narrower range of tones that he can take, but with a lot of very deliberate turns and reversals within those tones, whereas Eccleston tends to flit about manically and respond in ways that are very slightly off from the expected tone. And in this script that causes two problems.
The first is in what I already noted – the story’s poor decisions on when to go loud or quiet. Tennant’s Doctor is, from the start, designed to not have a lot of gradiations in angry. No second chances and all. But even as an actor, this is true – Tennant does shouty and angry the way he does shouty and angry. He doesn’t have a setting for “kinda shouty and angry.” So where Eccleston finds new ways for the Doctor to be angry, Tennant continually goes back to one terribly effective way of doing the Doctor incandescent with rage. This is fine, but it means that the Doctor’s anger has to be deployed much more carefully than with his predecessor. But this script is written for a different sort of Doctor, which means that Tennant often feels like he’s overreacting to a given thing. Particularly egregious is his discovery of faceless Rose, which he treats as inexplicably worse than every other time his companion has been kidnapped or hurt. The scene just doesn’t play to Tennant’s strengths as an actor.
The second is that Tennant is relatively flat within this story. The scene where he starts helping the police is indicative. It’s a small thing, but Eccleston would have played that scene in a fundamentally different way in terms of basic performance. Tennant stands in the center of the room looking at one file, and carefully layers his performance so that we see him figuring things out in three or four distinct steps. This is something Tennant is excellent about – cramming a dense number of subtle decisions into a performance and using those decisions to clearly map out the arc of a scene. So Tennant communicates “the Doctor figures important stuff out” with a few changes in where his eyes are looking and his facial expressions. It is, in point of fact, sublimely good acting. But it’s terribly static. Compare to how Eccleston would have done the scene, where instead of making four decisions about one folder he’d have moved quickly around the room, looking at everything and having a distinct reaction to each thing.
This is not a value judgment of a comparison. Both are excellent ways to play the Doctor. But they require ever so subtle differences in how you structure scenes. Tennant has to be the focus of a scene for his approach to work, and so the camera hangs on Tennant during a scene where the exposition is actually happening from another character. Which is just the wrong way to structure that scene. It’s very, very hard to have an exposition scene with Tennant in which Tennant isn’t giving the exposition – if you do, it has to be a dialogue instead of a monologue, with Tennant asking questions. That exposition scene is written for Eccleston, who could easily move around the edges of the frame looking at things while Sam Cox stays in the center and explains the plot. All of this is wholly understandable – Gatiss found out Tennant was going to be the Doctor midway through scripting, and had to hurry the script up when it got moved up the schedule because The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit wasn’t quite ready. The script is slightly rough as a result. Except inasmuch as that roughness lets us understand Tennant’s performance as distinct from Eccleston’s, that’s not that interesting.
Especially because approaching the story primarily from the perspective of its technical construction just isn’t the most interesting way into it beyond it being particularly good for illuminating that point. What we have here is one of the most extreme forms of Series One’s “Doctor Who crashes into other television,” as Doctor Who crashes into the early history of television itself.
Not quite the beginning – BBC television service dates back to 1936, with a break for World War II. But that’s television as a medium. As a popular technology, television emerged in 1953 when a wave of sets were bought so people could watch the coronation of Elizabeth II. The Quatermass Experiment, essentially the preserved earliest example of British science fiction television, went out a few weeks later live from Alexandra Palace. Most of Gatiss’s references to The Quatermass Experiment itself were cut, but one, the specific portrayal of the faceless people’s clenching hands, survived. So did naming the street most of the action takes place on Florizel Street, the original name for 1960 debuter Coronation Street.
And so the period The Idiot’s Lantern is set in amounts to the primordial era of television itself, having the same relationship to Doctor Who that 100,000 BC purports to have to us. Having calmly invaded everything else on television, Doctor Who calmly invades television itself.
Implicit in this is a populist turn. As I said, 1953 is the point where television emerges as a popular medium. It’s the start of television as mass culture, as opposed to the start of television as a funky engineering project. Note that this divide is reflected within the episode itself – the Wire represents television as a medium. Of particular note is a gorgeous little sequence where we see her turn color for moment – not for Detective Inspector Bishop’s lame joke, but for the fact that every shot of the Wire prior to that one emphasizes the grainy, low-quality of her signal. The physicality of the 1953-era television is always present with her, whether because the camera is positioned to look out of one or she’s shown with visible lines. Until the shot right before she goes color, where she’s also presented without any visible artifacts of transmission. In other words, before her upgrade to color she stops off at 625-line transmission. And then when she goes color, it’s only really as far as the 1970s, with characteristic color bleed. It’s all terribly subtle, but it highlights the degree to which the Wire is conceived of in technological terms.
Against that is a material social history – what the Doctor declares as real history as he drops by a street party. It’s this world of families and the everyday where the world gets saved. And it’s that world that the Wire attacks, devouring the world precisely because her technology is about to intrude into that world. Notably, the stakes are recognizably our world – this is the beginning of a piece of history we’re still living in (how convenient to have a long-lived monarch – this episode will start working very differently in not too many years now). But this very much is The Quatermass Experiment – a story about how new technology will bring us to face horrors we cannot imagine.
Except the Doctor saves us through literal material social progress, moving a family from the patriarchal material conditions common to 1953 to a sort of feminism that is ever so slightly ahead of its time there, and ringing in the youth culture that would start to rise imminently. Which is lovely. Yes, the portrayal of Eddie Connolly is a train wreck given the ending – if you want the end moral message to be that Tommy should reconcile with his father you need to have the father not be an abusive fascist. But Connolly is painted in too broad strokes when he needs to be a dignified but flawed working class character portrayed by Christopher Eccleston or something. But it’s trying, and the instinct to reach back and acknowledge that this progress doesn’t actually mean killing the World War II generation off is probably a sound one.
It is, in other words, a celebration of television as a populist medium. Which is the thinking behind Hugh Greene’s BBC, out of which Doctor Who itself emerged. What we have here is Doctor Who paying tribute to the very set of political and social ethics that formed it. The idea that television is for a racially diverse set of working class people in north London living their lives, and that giving them good television is an act of public service is why the BBC adopted the attitudes that got Doctor Who made. It’s a restatement of the basic ethical case for Doctor Who, framed in the socially inclusive hedonistic ethics that form the backbone of what Doctor Who is.
So, yes, it’s a bit wobbly, but it’s wobbly in ways plenty of things have been. It’s not even the worst made episode of its season, and the mistakes it makes are no worse than the ones that set back any number of other stories. And what it’s shooting for is just about the perfect Doctor Who story. Monsters. Monsters from the dawn of television. Beautiful.
There is still, at some point, a need to discuss why we think otherwise. Because this is an odd reading of the supposed 138th greatest Doctor Who story of all time. (Although actually, nestling it right between The Macra Terror and The Enemy of the World actually comes closer to an accurate description of The Idiot’s Lantern’s quality than it perhaps intends to. An underperforming Tennant story with a great concept comes between two overperforming Troughton stories with great concepts. That’s about right for a contemporary viewing audience.) The usual mantra is that this is rubbish. And yes, it kind of is, but it’s rubbish with relation to its time on the same level that, like, The Hand of Fear or The Claws of Axos are with relation to their times. It’s not The Celestial Toymaker or The Dominators or anything like that. To be honest, Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel and Fear Her both botch their premises considerably worse than The Idiot’s Lantern. So why doesn’t this get points for its premise?
The cynical answer is that nobody but Mark Gatiss cares about the history of television, but, well, that is cynical indeed. A better answer, I suspect, is that there is something about Doctor Who, or Doctor Who fandom at least, that renders this a source of considerable anxiety. We are, as I’ve suggested, oddly more invested in the issue of sub-par episodes of the new series than anyone else, considering weak episodes to be egregious personal affronts instead of mediocre television to consider skipping when rewatching on Netflix. Why is this, and what does this say about us?
Actually, hold that thought for an entry, and let’s talk about Satan.