When You’ve Seen The Ages That I’ve Seen (The Idiot’s Lantern)
|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.
July 3, 2013 @ 12:23 am
Another wonderful entry. I was worried after previous comments regarding Gatiss that you were going to tear this story a new one, and I'm relieved to see instead a frank yet redemptive assessment of its failings and the reasons behind them. Because deep down, I quite like this one.
I've always felt that Tennant's "narrower range of tones" is a direct consequence of the decision for him not to use his natural accent. I mean, we're nowhere near Nicola Bryant territory here, and Tennant makes the accent sound natural…but unfortunately in doing this his line readings tend to lack spontaneity, and require him to fall back onto well-rehearsed tones.
When fans talk about creative decisions that afflict entire eras, I can't imagine why "Tennant's accent" isn't mentioned alongside "question mark lapels" and "Colin Baker's coat".
July 3, 2013 @ 12:39 am
I never made the connection before this essay as to how perfectly named Coronation Street is as the ultimate British television soap.
July 3, 2013 @ 12:55 am
I think the simple answer is that "Doctor Who" fandom has collectively never quite managed to get over the cancellation. We're the Chicken Lickens of the fandom world, living in near-perpetual terror of the sky falling in on our heads and our show being taken away from us yet again, and every single minor misstep, every single SFX that looks a bit dodgy or lame character or plot point that doesn't quite hang together, is another raindrop that convinces that the powers-that-be are within moments of saying "hang on, Doctor Who's actually a bit shit isn't it, what a mistake it was to bring it back!" and pulling the plug.
It's the same reason fans reacted with absolute horror when Michael Grade got the job of BBC Chairman just before the new series started, as if the first thing he was going to do was cancel the show without even broadcasting it, laughing maniacally all the while. It's the same reason we panic if there's not going to be thirteen episodes a year, and about a billion other examples of Doctor Who fandom collectively losing it's nut over things that the fans of almost any other show would just shrug off. The cancellation and the wilderness years are the psychic scar in fandom's collective unconsciousness, and even the massive success of the series hasn't been enough to heal it.
July 3, 2013 @ 12:57 am
To be honest, I suspect my feelings towards the Tenth Doctor would have been much warmer fonder if David Tennant had just been allowed / decided to use his lovely natural accent.
July 3, 2013 @ 1:46 am
This story comes in the middle of a common element of the new series – the Mid-season Ratings Dip, which I suspect was a major influence on the recent practice of splitting the season in two parts. What is loses in slightly messy plot and characterisation, it makes up for with period feel, in spades. I'd also go so far as to say "The Idiot's Lantern" has far more resonance for a UK audience than, say, a US one. Which makes it all the more strange that more people watched this than the next (arguably more "straight SF" accessible) "Satan" two-parter.
In fact "Love & Monsters" does almost as well in viewers as "Lantern" which amuses me no end, seeing as they represent almost opposite ends of the spectrum in Fandom's eyes.
July 3, 2013 @ 1:52 am
Probably not the first thing Grade would have done, but maybe the 34th: http://blogtorwho.blogspot.fi/2013/07/bbc-wanted-tom-baker-for-rtd-relaunch.html
July 3, 2013 @ 1:59 am
@Scott. I don't think it's the previous Cancellation that stokes the fires of fan fears (almost lost m' false teeth there!), as I suspect a significant proportion of fans nowadays started with the new series.
I think that it's old fans who instill the fear of cancellation in new fans by the usual method of forum propagation. As we know by now 90% of fandom's attitudes and beliefs are picked up by osmosis from forum discussions, and the belief that the series is only a few million viewers away from cancellation is rife on places like Gallifrey Base. You only have to read the Ratings threads to see the futile attempts of the Common Sense posters to dispel each week's hysterical round of doom-mongering.
Akin to constantly worrying an aching tooth with one's tongue, there's a terribly pessimistic tendency in fandom to latch onto anything that might indicate grounds for future cancellation. It's also a tendency that seems strangely attractive to fans, who find themselves subscribing to the same theory, after months of discussing it online.
The recent decline in overnight viewing figures (despite it having no effect on consolidated figures) has been continually seized on as proof in just this way.
July 3, 2013 @ 2:00 am
Agreed. One of the delights of Eccleston's portrayal was the decision to let him use his own regional accent. Clearly, when it came to Tennant's lovely Scots brogue, although lots of planets have a north they apparantly don't go that far north. This was lampshaded in 'Tooth and Claw' – Dr. McCrimmon indeed! – as part of the hubristic 'let's see what happens if we treat everything as a lark' trope. Now unfortunately Matt Smith's strangulated RP has brought us right back to the old middle class white man reading of the character.
July 3, 2013 @ 2:56 am
I've long attributed some of fandom's pathology to their own guilt over the cancellation. True or not, a big part of the wilderness years narrative is that one of the major contributing factors to Grade's cancellation of the original series was that, earlier in his career, he was the guy whose job it was to read angry letters from Doctor Who fans telling him how much Doctor Who sucked now. So part of the fandom's baggage was the sense that their constant whinging about how Doctor Who was total crap ever since (insert random thing from the series history which just coincidentally happened around the same time as the letter-writer hit puberty) had RUINED DOCTOR WHO FOREVER was, ultimately, what got the show cancelled.
July 3, 2013 @ 3:15 am
I think you nail it quite well in your last paragraph there – I like The Idiot's Lantern very much because I like the substrate of the love of the history of television that shines through so obviously to me but which I can see would fly right over the head of most viewers; it's similar to, for instance, Oz The Great and Powerful where reviewers comment on the b&w opening but not so much on the aspect ratio, or the way The Artist not only embraced silent movie clichés (which most people would be aware of) but also with things like the evolution of shot selection by directors (which most people wouldn't realise although they might be subconsciously aware of.)
You have referred to this before in the observation that 60s Who was meant to be watched live on small b&w flickering screens, not giant super HD monsters, so we tend to misevaluate what we are seeing today because we can't live in the past no matter how much we kid ourselves that we can.
Meanwhile, surely there is also a case that The Wire wins in a sense, because television does indeed take over and turns us into a different species…
July 3, 2013 @ 3:46 am
This is one of the few post-2005 I’ve blogged about, largely as DWM’s Time Team happened to be covering it round about the time of the Jubilee last year, so I posted my set of provocative one-liners about it on the day in ‘celebration’: http://loveandliberty.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/doctor-who-idiots-lantern.html Happily, one of them even got printed that month.
In theory I have another blog that’s posting all my Time-Teamings, but it’s not exactly gone at the same speed you have (I can never understand how you and the likes of The Wife manage such an industrious rate). I’ve given it a kick up the arse recently, but even so: http://nexttimeteam.blogspot.co.uk/
Anyway, thank you – that’s a fascinating analysis in context. It might help explain why I really took to David’s Doctor in The Christmas Invasion, was much less impressed through Season 2006, then really took to him again in Season 2007 (his best, for me). I remember having been told by a Who writer that Russell was ill for some time during the writing process for this season – perhaps that’s why there weren’t enough rewrites to suit the new Doctor’s style? Though Bennett above probably has a point about acting in an unnatural voice cramping his style. Your point about David’s anger is very telling: he just seems to go psychotic about Rose’s disappearance, which I never found convincing. On the other hand, Billie’s impishness in her cut-down appearance this week is one of my favourites of her performances.
Thinking about it, though it’s obviously not a deliberate decision by the actors for some of them to be a bit below par, it fits in with the story’s fairly liberal moral that the women are much better than the men in this one – whether naturalistic or deliciously over the top, the women nail it for me here and the men really don’t.
I always find myself conflicted about this story: a lot of it doesn’t work for me, but when I’m in the right mood, it can be tremendously entertaining. Particularly, Maureen Lipman’s scene-stealing fabulousness made her the most fun villain for me since the series came back. The contrasting ‘villain’ would be Eddie Connolly, who may be written as a monstrous bully but is played so badly (rather than archly) that he utterly fails: imagine a performance of a scary real-world bully who gets brought low in a humiliating real-world way and has to reconsider himself? But no, it’s all one-note spam, and I’ve never got over seeing a Doctor Who actor later the evening it was first broadcast who did a cutting impersonation cut in with ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’.
And “two overperforming Troughton stories”? Tsk! Call yourself a Whitaker-ite? I’d place of them very much higher… I’ve reviewed The Macra Terror in great detail, and am delighted to say on checking that, at the time of the Mighty 200, I rated it exactly 100 places higher than the fan consensus!
July 3, 2013 @ 3:49 am
PS It strikes me looking at your caption above that the Wire – being a weird other-dimensional being – does Maslow's Hierarchy in reverse: she starts in the medium of television, being nothing but an expression of creativity, and as she gradually filters into our reality she gradually works her way down to hunger!
July 3, 2013 @ 3:53 am
I know there's one guy left on rec.arts.drwho who insists after every episode that cancellation will surely be announced any minute now, and that any ratings other than the overnights can't be considered at all since "Anyone who didn't watch the show as it was broadcast clearly did not really want to see it, they were just watching it later because there was nothing better to do."
July 3, 2013 @ 3:55 am
I don't know, I think "The Idiot's Lantern" isn't more highly rated because it just feels flat and uninvolving to watch. The component parts are interesting and apt, it's fully of good ideas and lovely moments, but it just doesn't gel into a cohesive, organic whole. This is my beef with a lot of Gatiss' writing for Who – it seems like a collection of things Who should be doing, but lacking that magical synthesis that makes it all sing. For all it gets right, it just has no heart at the center of it.
And is no one going to mention "Little Shop of Horrors"? The period setting (all right, "Little Shop" is 10 years later, but that's nothing in the TARDIS), the schlubby little loser who finds himself in a Faustian pact with an outer-space creature who looks innocuous but loudly demands to be fed?
Oh yeah and a random note – I do love how Magpie Electronics keep popping up in Doctor Who and Torchwood.
July 3, 2013 @ 4:13 am
It's become clear to me that there are a number of regular posters on Gallifrey Base whose main problem is that they have no idea how anything actually works, whether in TV in particular or in the world in general.
July 3, 2013 @ 4:28 am
@Ross. God is anyone still on rec.arts.drwho?
Funnily enough he may be right when talking about '60s and '70s Who, especially during the winter months. I suspect it was probably easier for parents to just leave it on in front of the kids, especially if what was on the other side wasn't something that would keep kids quiet for half an hour.
Nowadays though with so many damn channels there's always something on worth watching, which makes watching a recorded Who a more conscious decision.
July 3, 2013 @ 4:30 am
"I don't think it's the previous Cancellation that stokes the fires of fan fears (almost lost m' false teeth there!), as I suspect a significant proportion of fans nowadays started with the new series.
I think that it's old fans who instill the fear of cancellation in new fans by the usual method of forum propagation. "
A good point, but then the question becomes: if the new fans get their fear of cancellation from the old fans, where do the old fans get it from?
Pen Name Pending
July 3, 2013 @ 4:36 am
@Ross That reasoning you report is just complete BS, because if you record a show you are very much intending to watch it, wheras if you are watching it live there is the possibility that you just happened upon it and are watching because there's nothing better to do. And since the show is on at 6:30 or so in the UK, I really don't blame people for recording it.
July 3, 2013 @ 4:38 am
I wonder if Gatiss deliberately wrote Connolly that way to fit in with the 50's feel? If you imagine him as a character actually appearing in a soap broadcast on 50s telly then he actually works.
Pen Name Pending
July 3, 2013 @ 4:47 am
I've seen "The Idiot's Lantern" only once, and I hated it. I have no idea why. Something about it was distasteful to me…probably the father. Still worth a rewatch whenever I feel like rewatching Tennant, which probably won't be for a couple of years (once I saw The End of Time, it ruined everything, and the fans weren't helping).
Considering your comments, I find it highly ironic that the Confidential for "Night Terrors" has a segment where Gatiss is talking about how he wrote differently for Eccleston and Tennant (and later Smith).
July 3, 2013 @ 4:50 am
I wouldn't put the accent up there with That Coat – Tennant's acting is somewhat held back by the accent, but it's nowhere near a disaster. It's just a bit frustrating.
July 3, 2013 @ 5:01 am
God is anyone still on rec.arts.drwho?
Yes. That one guy.
July 3, 2013 @ 5:14 am
Part of the problem here may be what could be termed the Gatiss effect: equal parts reaction to the writer, whose recent work for the show may change some minds but who had previously tended to be problematic, and reaction to the particular volitility of Gatiss's themes. Miles's criticism of Unquiet Dead may misread, but the way the episode works invites that misreading.
Idiot's Lantern manages to hit multiple explosive premises at once. Beyond being yet another special TV episode about how you should really turn off the TV, go outside and talk with the neighbors/family, it manages to create a villain who could be (mis)read as a reference to the early series of Doctor Who. Writing an episode of a show where the hero is directly responsible for the cancellation of its previous incarnation isn't likely to endear your episode to fans, even if that's not at all what you were going for.
July 3, 2013 @ 5:58 am
The thing about ratings, though, is that we don't know exactly what the show is until we've already seen it. So to use ratings as any kind of a barometer against the kind of show we got is rather pointless. (If you want to examine trailers against ratings, though, that's another matter entirely.)
But most of what goes into ratings has to do with bigger real-world issues that affect the large majority of casual viewers — the weather, what else is on, and whether or not the upcoming story represents a Big Event.
July 3, 2013 @ 6:09 am
Something that some GB posters often forget is that BARB figures are extrapolated up from only 5,000 UK homes. Not from everyone. I chuckle when some poster claims that he will stop watching Doctor Who and that will show them.
@Scott. The old fans get their fear of cancellation from…the Cancellation.
July 3, 2013 @ 8:12 am
I enjoyed and appreciated your discussion of Tennant's acting style and staging needs vs. Eccleston's — these things have become so much more important in the new show, and it's refreshing to talk about them a bit more alongside the thematic/symbolic elements.
And I think it's appropriate to discuss them here because they play such a big part in why I'm not a fan of this episode. The meta-ness of the premise doesn't enchant me at all (though maybe if I could find more resonance in the face-stealing nature of the threat I'd be sold), and so I end up focusing on the characters.
So the Doctor's overblown fury bugs me, but that's forgivable. What feels deeply uncomfortable is the way Connolly is written and performed, the way we're supposed to root for Rose and the Doctor as they bully him back, seeming scarcely more enlightened as a result, and then the premature (at best) reconciliation at the end. Those things exerted far more pull for me as the heart of the episode (vs. the monsters). I think you expressed the "train wreck" problem here very well, and I wish I could make my peace with it as easily as you have. This is a theme that's clearly close to Gatiss's heart and I would love to see him treat it in a nuanced way leading to a resolution that feels deserved, but this isn't it.
My favorite thing about the episode: the Doctor actually builds something to defeat the enemy, rather than just waving his screwdriver at it or insisting "I'm the Doctor, you've lost, give up!"
July 3, 2013 @ 8:42 am
Here's what I find interesting in your analysis, Phil (apart from how you examine how Tennant's acting style doesn't quite fit how Gatiss writes the part, which is a subtlety I'm not entirely sure how to read myself), is on an issue that I call "The Unforgivable."
Some stories in the past you just can't come up with a redemptive reading for, no matter how hard one would try. And I can't forgive this episode for Gatiss' handling of Tommy and his father. Because Ed Connolly can't redeem himself. I don't care what degree of PTSD his character may suffer from: this episode, at least as far as I was concerned, clearly paints Ed as a man who beats his wife and son in fits of rage. Verbal abuse of that level clearly implies physical abuse of that level too. On the domestic level, Rita is clearly the hero of this story for growing a pair of ovaries and booting him out. And Tommy goes back to his father, at least as far as including him in the family life. It's simply sickening to me, because the episode has shown how violent Ed inevitably is, and even though he's sad at the moment, as soon as he gets some confidence back, he'll return to his violent behaviour. Ed is a broken man who can only behave toward his family as a tyrant who controls them with physical violence. And Tommy will only end up with more bruises on his torso (because a good child abuser never kicks his son in a place that's visible outside his clothes; broken ribs only, and if you break a tooth make it a molar).
What's even worse is that Gatiss positions Rose as encouraging Tommy to reconcile with his father for her own reasons. She implies that one's life is incomplete without a father in it, calling back to her own failed relationships with her own father (dead, timey-wimey then dead, parallel universe version too freaked out to talk to her). It's the episode right after Parallel Pete's rejection, so that's clearly in her mind when she sees the opposite: a boy rejecting his father after learning who he is. But Pete Tyler is a good person, and Ed Connolly isn't. Rose has, out of her own sentiment and blinded by her problems with her own father(s), thrown Tommy back into the reach of his father who doesn't really love him. If Ed loved his family, he wouldn't control them with physical and emotional violence.
And even worse for Gatiss is that the Doctor is okay with this, seemingly only because Rose does it. Earlier in the episode, he was a crusader against Ed, belittling him, fighting back against him (from Ed's reaction, it's the first time anyone has ever challenged his authority in a language the bastard can understand), inspires Rita to take a stand against him, and gives Tommy a positive male role model as he helps defeat the alien villain. Then because the image (certainly not the substance, to which Rose has become completely ignorant) suits Rose, he lets her send Tommy back into a set of hands that will be wrapped around the kid's neck again in a couple of weeks.
I can understand how you fit this episode into your current interpretive arc, Phil. It's part of trying to explain this weird tendency in fandom today of histrionic reactions to mediocre Doctor Who episodes. But watching the Connolly family in The Idiot's Lantern is just unforgivable. I don't hold a grudge against Gatiss for it, because resentment and grudges eat the soul, and it would keep me from enjoying the other Gatiss episodes, which I quite love. But The Idiot's Lantern sickens me.
July 3, 2013 @ 8:45 am
I think the phrase "overperforming Troughton stories" was intended to mean that they were Troughton stories that performed better than their relative rankings among fandom polls. As in, the stories themselves overperform their rankings.
As for The Idiot's Lantern, I think its ambitions overperform its execution, which is the opposite of those Troughton stories. And you can see how I feel about its ending in the longer post I wrote below.
July 3, 2013 @ 8:50 am
As I said, I think this is largely a matter of acting. Eddie is, I think, supposed to be a post-war "proud working class" sort not entirely unlike Wilf, albeit, obviously, with some serious issues. And I think he needed an actor who played the character's sense of dignity seriously. Instead we got, basically, the John Cleese rendition of Connolly, with the character being all seething rage barely kept in check by his desire for a dignified British demeanor.
That, I think, would have allowed for both sides of the story – Rita's growing a pair of ovaries and Tommy's decision to try to reconcile with his father – to work. Instead we got a cartoon villain that, yes, made the ending terribly upsetting.
July 3, 2013 @ 9:34 am
I always got the impression that the rage is down to the fact the family live on a street where Bad Things are happening. But I haven't seen this in a while.
I think it's a mix of writing, acting and directing. I agree with Phil about what they were trying to do, but I think they made the mistake of thinking that tacking on a moral at the end would do it.
July 3, 2013 @ 9:39 am
I think you'll find that The Macra Terror and The Enemy Of the World are two of my favorite stories ever. What I meant was that they were overperforming with relation to other Troughton stories, whereas The Idiot's Lantern is sub-par compared to other Tennant stories. And that the Troughton era on its very good days is as satisfying as the Tennant era on an off-day, or, at least, it is when adjusting for the inherent tendency for more recent television to be easier and more fun to watch for the average viewer.
July 3, 2013 @ 9:45 am
Adam, thank you for saying what I was feeling while being way less confrontational and fired up about it. This kind of abusive situation gets me going, which is why I haven't and likely won't post my personal feelings on this episode.
July 3, 2013 @ 10:06 am
Cue Ian Levine?
July 3, 2013 @ 10:08 am
Thanks, Gaius — several things on that page I didn't know. The bit about the CBC wanting to dub Eccleston is daft; was the idea that Canadians wouldn't be able to understand his accent? Really? I mean, even we Americans can understand it.
July 3, 2013 @ 10:12 am
if the new fans get their fear of cancellation from the old fans, where do the old fans get it from?
The new fans travelled back in time and instilled the fear in the old ones.
July 3, 2013 @ 10:27 am
Now, who could it be? Could it be … oh, I don't know … SATAN?
July 3, 2013 @ 11:13 am
Okay, this one comment almost makes the idiocy of the coming two-parter worth it. Bravo!
Amsel von Spreckelsen
July 3, 2013 @ 11:22 am
I actually really like this episode in great part because of what it tries to say about Eddie as a villain. It works because he's a horrible person (he is definitely not an 'honourable working class type', and I think to have played him as such would have been deeply patronising, suggesting that working class men are unable to express themselves except through violence and aggression). I think that by assuming that the reconciliation is the point of the story you end up wanting the story to be something else, apparently a story about a decent man being bullied out of his home.
I feel Eddie's story is directly contrasted to that of the Wire, who like many fictional villains produces a situation in which she has to die, absolving the protagonists of responsibility. Eddie doesn't make it that easy and I think that although its clear he is defeated the story continues after the pat ending most people would be happy with to the much harder, much more complicated idea that you have to continue living in the same world as people who might once have held power over you.
July 3, 2013 @ 1:41 pm
You know, the thing is, "the Doctor Who fandom" isn't quite right here. Even "the Classic Who fandom" isn't it.
For quite a while, I've noticed that most fandoms are actually multiple separate fandoms that have different consensuses, either to agree with or react against. This is especially visible with Doctor Who on Tumblr, where there are at least two very different threads of Classic Who fandom – one who acts like the comments above, and another who are all about shipping Two/Jamie and Eight/Fitz, and are basically the most chill, relaxed fandom on the entire site.
July 3, 2013 @ 1:59 pm
I think I see your point — I mean, you can just turn off your TV (or record the show that's traumatizing you and toss the tape), but when the monster's a real person, it's more complicated.
I think that if Eddie had been a little more sympathetic (as he's portrayed, I agree with Adam that he's a lost cause) and the reconciliation maybe at least two or three years down the road rather than RIGHT after he's kicked out, that complicated idea might have worked. But when paired with such a simple sketch of a right bastard — well, you might have to live in the same world with him, but you don't ever have to speak to him again if you can possibly avoid it.
July 3, 2013 @ 2:09 pm
More than any other TV or movie series that has a large fanbase, Dr Who seems to attract fans who hate Dr Who and I really mean hate. Whereas Star Trek fans can laugh at or roll their eyes at particular episodes, or think the 3rd season of the original series is sub-par, they still get to enjoy it for its faults. However, Dr Who fans to me seem to get really angry about stories they don't like, or dismiss entire eras and Doctors…and watch out for the Baker/Hinchcliffe/Holmes Only fans who hate anything not of that era!
I really liked the premise of The Idiot's Lantern. The Wire was a good villain with a great schtick. The setting was ideal but, yes, the two human villains were underdone. Enough's been said of Eddie Conolly but what of Mr Magpie? I wanted to know more about how he came to be under the control of The Wire, what about his inner conflict? You talk about Jamie Foreman's broad playing style as Eddie, but he comes out of the laddish cockney gangster movies of Guy Richie. Ron Cook is a far more nuanced and stronger performer and maybe more time should have been spent on him than Eddie. I don't know if RTD wanted Gatiss to inject more domestic drama along the lines of Coronation Street as a way to parallel Florizel Street and East Powell Street, which takes Gatiss out of his historical concept comfort zone but as a theory it fits. I was more interested in the TV shop down the road.
Also, Rose annoyed me in this episode more than usual. Her smugness at how the Union flag should be displayed in order to humiliate Eddie ran contrary to her behaviour at the end. It seems that Rose is often written to present her in the best possible light at any given moment in the story but it just makes her seem narcissistic and inconsistent when not done right.
July 3, 2013 @ 2:19 pm
I agree 100% where the large majority of casual viewers comes in. In fact I'd rephrase that – the large majority of viewers are casual. In most cases what else is on and how the weather's doing pretty much decide who watches Doctor Who. As far as Big Events go though, my recent experience tells me that it's only fandom that considers such things anyway. Regeneration stories are about the biggest event that can happen in the world of Doctor Who, and yet their ratings are often the most prosaic. Eccleston's last story was watched by fewer people than most of his season, as was Troughton's. As a general rule, I've found that shows that fandom thinks are classics are often not watched by a correspondingly high number of viewers. "Blink" for example had the lowest rating of its whole season.
As far as what the show is until we've seen it, as I understand it BARB ratings are every 15 minutes, and the final figure is an average. There are often higher numbers in the middle of a programme, because viewers do decide what the show is halfway through, and then switch over.
God, I've turned into a ratings bore…
July 3, 2013 @ 5:34 pm
Well, I suppose I should confess that I actually like the…distinctive…look of Colin Baker's coat. I've always thought that it's Colin Baker's pants that are the real problem. And, unlike the coat, he never takes them off.
I was just using the first examples that came to mind of fandom's bugbears. Tennant's accent may not be on the level of That Coat but I do wonder why I very rarely see it criticised, particularly as it's part of the often hypercriticised new series. It may not be bad per se…but it does make you wonder what could have been.
July 3, 2013 @ 6:06 pm
Chadwick – "More than any other TV or movie series that has a large fanbase, Dr Who seems to attract fans who hate Dr Who and I really mean hate. Whereas Star Trek fans can laugh at or roll their eyes at particular episodes, or think the 3rd season of the original series is sub-par, they still get to enjoy it for its faults."
I like to think that this is because that Star Trek is, more or less, the same show delivered with varying degrees of success – with the only really major shakeup being its transition to modern day blockbuster. Whereas Doctor Who is…well, mercurial. Its chameleonic concept liberates the show's producers, writers and directors to an extent that makes it impossible to evaluate as a single television programme.
The fans that appear to hate the show may simply be trying to apply a single metric to measure the success of the entirety of Doctor Who, a metric based on the qualities of the show that first appealed to them. You can see why someone who associates Doctor Who with gothic horror and violent terror may squirm at the sight of the Kandyman.
Personally, my first era of the show was the Hartnell years* – which varied so much in tone, scope and quality that it made it impossible for me not to appreciate the show's flexibility above all else.
*Not the original run, sadly, just sequential repeats of the remains.
July 3, 2013 @ 9:23 pm
"You can see why someone who associates Doctor Who with gothic horror and violent terror may squirm at the sight of the Kandyman."
Bit of a side remark, but I've always found this a bit odd, as the character's always felt a bit Tim Burton-esque to me, who fits very well into that milieu. He's probably not as horrific and violent as what they would want, but I dunno, the Fondant Surprise always seemed to me a way of getting gore without it actually being gore.
July 3, 2013 @ 9:26 pm
As an enormous fan of the Corman film and the Ashman/Menken stage show, I have to say that connection never crossed my mind.
July 3, 2013 @ 11:28 pm
"Also, Rose annoyed me in this episode more than usual. Her smugness at how the Union flag should be displayed in order to humiliate Eddie ran contrary to her behaviour at the end. It seems that Rose is often written to present her in the best possible light at any given moment in the story but it just makes her seem narcissistic and inconsistent when not done right."
Rose's behaviour in this story does tie in well with the theme of "hubris" allegedly running through this season, and I do wonder if Gatiss consciously added these elements from RTD's brief. Yes she is written very smug, but she also gets her comeuppance when it becomes obvious that without the Doctor to back her up she is hopelessly outclassed by the Wire and gets her face sucked off for her troubles, in a scene that to me is quite reminiscent of her speech to the Sycorax in "Christmas Invasion". In both cases the moment when she realises how out of her depth she is, is both saddening and cringeworthy.
As a character Rose seems to embarrass fans mostly when she attempts to step out of her standard "companion" role and advance the plot herself. Of course in both this and the Sycorax scene she metaphorically "trips over while running away from the monster" and both times has to be rescued by the Doctor. Which effectively puts her firmly back in Companion territory, satisfying the misogynistic fans who want her back in "her place".
July 4, 2013 @ 12:29 am
Misogynistic fans…I've yet to meet one of them. The companion advancing the plot doesn't bother me in the slightest but I don't see as much hubris with Rose as people make out there is. I see a conscious effort to make us love and respond favourably to her at all times. Compare Rose dealing with Eddie with Ace at the boarding house in Remembrance of the Daleks. Ace's disgust at racism is evident, but she's consistent in her behaviour and doesn't ever stop to gloat or try to humiliate Mike and his mum.
But back to those Dr Who fans. I started watching the show back in 73-74 with the later Pertwee series and right from the start I knew it was a very changeable show: He's with UNIT, and he's fighting this monster, then he's fighting dinosaurs, then Daleks, then spiders, then back with UNIT but this time he's a different person, then he's off to a space station with insects, then more Daleks, the back with UNIT…There's action with Pertwee and strange action-comedy with Baker. My goodness, if you can't get that this show changes and changes and gives you the rough with the smooth then how can you call yourself a Dr Who fan? Hate? I really don't get why with the fans.
July 4, 2013 @ 6:49 am
Well now it has 🙂
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July 4, 2013 @ 6:49 am
As a character Rose seems to embarrass fans mostly when she attempts to step out of her standard "companion" role and advance the plot herself. Of course in both this and the Sycorax scene she metaphorically "trips over while running away from the monster" and both times has to be rescued by the Doctor. Which effectively puts her firmly back in Companion territory, satisfying the misogynistic fans who want her back in "her place".
This is basically the reason I can't take Rose-bashing seriously. I'm sure that lots of the people who do it have valid complaints, but the whole concept of bashing Rose has been tainted by the folks who are just upset that a mere woman would dare to get uppity and forget "her place".
(Similarly, I can't stomach RTD-bashing because, again, there are many legitimate complaints, but bashing RTD means throwing in your lot with a bunch of raging homophobes who are convinced that the depiction of Eddie is actually part of RTD's plan to destroy traditional families and turn our children gay.)
Incidentally, this is the second of several episodes where someone uses the phrase "your lord and master" to describe someone.
July 4, 2013 @ 7:20 am
Ratings do matter on a season-to-season level, though, and as overall trends.
July 4, 2013 @ 7:32 am
See, I think pretty much every fandom has those people. Certainly, I've met Star Trek fans who get really seriously annoyed about how the end of Deep Space Nine turned away from the interpersonal and political conflicts and more towards the mysticism, or how Voyager screwed up Q, the Borg, and Species 8472.
July 4, 2013 @ 6:04 pm
I wouldn't go so far to say 'disaster' — the Tenth is nowhere near my favourite Doctor, but that's for reasons beyond his accent — but I do think I would have found it a lot easier to like him, at least. The accent just seemed… fake. Not a bad accent so much, but fake.
(Plus, it made his plosives go all weird. Especially his 'p' and 'b'. I found them really distracting.)
To be honest, I've often thought that the Coat could actually work if it had just been 'anchored', for want of a better word, with some more normal clothes underneath. Like if they'd gone with a sober black or grey Victorian suit underneath it and had this riotous explosion of colour on top. It would have still looked weird, but I think it could have looked quite a trippy and intriguing kind of weirdness. Like how Tom Baker's costume basically could have come out of any thrift store most of the time, but the Scarf elevates it into inspired lunacy.
It's the rest of Colin Baker's costume that makes it into an eyesore.
July 4, 2013 @ 6:11 pm
@ Spacewarp: That was kind of my whole point all along, though; I take your point about new fandom, but I don't really see how you can then say that "I don't think it's the previous Cancellation that stokes the fires of fan fears". It clearly is; it's just that the new fans have got their fear of cancellation second-hand from the old ones.
Although BerserkRL's suggestion would be kind of appropriate.
July 4, 2013 @ 6:26 pm
I'm kind of inclined to go with Philip on this one; the acting doesn't quite match the intentions for the character. Although Eddie clearly becomes a bully, I honestly never got the feeling that he was actually physically abusive (although this may have been naiveté on my part and in hindsight I can see where such a reading can come from); the opening scene, where they buy the television, doesn't suggest to me that this character is supposed to be a irredeemable abusive bastard. He was just an ultimately weak man who couldn't handle the situation he'd found himself in and ended up making things worse for himself. Like tantalus1970 says, the anger comes from his inability to comprehend what's going on and his increasingly misguided attempts to try and keep everything normal.
July 4, 2013 @ 11:45 pm
Whoa, Ross. I think there's a big difference between complaining about certain aspects of Rose Tyler or flaws in RTD's writing and labelling people who do so as either misogynistic or homophobic. You'll always get weirdos on forums mouthing off, but I don't come across many, or any, comments that Rose's problem is that she's uppity and doesn't know her place as a companion. Most complaints are around her either being put on a pedestal by the writing or that she gets a free pass to be smug and condescending to supporting characters. Likewise, most complaints about RTD's writing is to do with his over-egging his puddings, so to speak: Undercutting drama with something stupid like belching wheelie bins or living paving stones and shoving in pop culture references that will seem clunky in just a few short years. A number of fans have commented that he can't do endings very well and I think those are all legitimate criticisms but is that RTD bashing? Is that Rose bashing?
Trek fans may get seriously annoyed by a few episodes of their show, but do they spend more time being negative about the shows than praising it? I still think Dr Who fans win in that regard.
July 6, 2013 @ 6:33 pm
This bothered me more upon rewatching it than I expected it to. Not for any of the traditional reasons; I had always read Rose as an active member of the plot, yet in rewatching this season she starts to take on more and more time as Damsel in Distress. Here, she's nothing but that, except for a few comedic scenes.
August 6, 2014 @ 8:48 am
"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."
I wonder if that's true, though. Gatiss specifically talked about the point of that scene being the "inversion joke" of the Doctor and the detective across the desk from each other, the joke being that where the Doctor starts sitting under interrogation they then seesaw and change position as the Doctor gains authority and becomes the interrogator. While your observations about the differences between performances may be accurate, I think the specificity of this construction shows that it was less about actorly choices and more about how the scene was written and directed. Surely to get this point to come across Eccleston would have had to sit in the chair, and not have had the option to roam about the edges of the room looking at different things. It might have been better, but it would have defeated the purpose. Which is why I suspect keeping Tennant in the seat here is less about his acting style and more that that the script & director probably just told him to sit there.
September 19, 2014 @ 12:09 am
I think it goes without saying that any aspect of Doctor Who that is specific to UK television is going to have less appeal in America. To put things in perspective, 1953 is the year that both television and the rerun first arrived on US television. Even taking account the long period of acceptance (the former did not become standardized until 1965, and the latter was not fully-fledged until around 1956 when CBS started airing reruns of I Love Lucy on daytime TV), Americans just can't fathom a lot of the realities of British TV.