Monday, July 31, 2006

REVIEW: Doctor Who: Season 2 - The Idiot's Lantern

[ARTICLE written for Outpost Gallifrey - Summer 2006]

With Mark “The Unquiet Dead” Gatiss at the helm, we are whisked off into England’s past to see the Queen’s Coronation, Squiffy haircuts, archaic BBC footage and most importantly, the year 1953.

“The Idiot’s Lantern” is a stand-alone episode that takes Doctor Who away from the action epic of the Cyber Saga and back to its more New Series orientated character drama. Period drama is what the BBC has always excelled at and The Idiot’s Lantern is a lavish slice of fifties Britain. While I’ve never had the chance to dip my twinkly toes into the 1950’s, I’m assured by several elder sources this was a pretty authentic take on the time and captured the atmosphere of the Queen’s Coronation.

The tale is a fairly simple: The Doctor and Rose unintentionally land in London, 1953 just before the Queen’s Coronation. In usual style, they find themselves slap bang in the middle of a rum mystery involving missing faces, cutting edge TV sets and a new callous villain called “The Wire”.

To a certain degree, the fantasy element of The Idiot’s Lantern plays a relatively minor role for the majority of the story allowing Gatiss to immerse the viewer into the characters and social dynamics of the period. The whole episode is focused around the Queen’s Coronation and that not only plays an important story role, it also successfully roots the audience in the 1950s via a major event.

In the forefront of the story is Mr. Magpie, a debt riddled television salesman under the control of villainous The Wire. Magpie is a beautifully tragic character lucklessly doomed from the show’s teaser. We also have the Connelly family - an atypical 50s household with a dominating husband, a submissive mother and son who is gradually rebelling against his father’s authority. As much as they are an example of the post war family unit, the challenge between the father and son convey the transition between the rigidity of the 1950s to the liberalism of the following decade. Eddie the father is a portrayal as to how historically rigid many family sets were in post war England, trapped in their need to retain a sense of order after a decade filled with uncertainty. The irony as to how so many who fought against the unrelenting power of German forces would assert a similar dictatorship in their own home – particularly against the shift in a younger more liberal generation - is not lost in this story. As with Tommy Connelly, the youth of the 1950s began experiencing a life beyond the constraints of fear, death and rationing as times became wealthier and more stable. As the stability grew, the young began to balk at the controlling older generation and we see Tommy do with his father. These historical movements are neatly encapsulated in this episode - quite a feat for a little teatime sci-fi drama.

This intense and rich focus on the 1950s characters works in more ways than one. Not only does it bring the period to life, it actually supports the story’s weaker arc -the fairly uninteresting alien threat.

The interstellar invasion of the week - The Wire - is consuming the faces of the local populace by absorbing their energy. The Wire’s intention is to escape its non-corporeal form via the communities TV sets. It is all very quirky science fiction, replete with that unique Who flavour. The Wire’s visual identity of a televised 50’s BBC announcer (played by Maureen Lipman) fulfils that Doctor Who requirement of being both eccentric and British all at once.

Unfortunately, people being left as faceless zombies was a key threat of “The Empty Child” last season and this concept doesn’t really evolve beyond Moffat’s gas masked creations. The Wire’s demands of being “Hungry!” is overused and Lipman’s abrasive cries become rapidly irritating. Furthermore, when Rose has her own face absorbed, the story automatically loses the threat value because we know the process will be resolved in order to save the heroine.

That said, Rose’s dilemma does benefit the story as much as it dissipates the danger. The Doctor’s reaction to the faceless remnant of Rose does add some extra energy to the story; by making the attack personal, it brings the Doctor even further into the mix. Tennant plays his more edgy Doctor persona perfectly.

Personally, I had a second benefit to this plot turn - we loose Rose for half the story. From being pleasantly surprised with Rose’s character in Series One, I’ve grown to find her presence detrimental to my viewing pleasure. For this story she is – as always – perfectly performed by Billie Piper and realistically written by Mark Gatiss. In The Idiot’s Lantern, dear Miss Piper is really pushing her all into the role, clearly looking for ways to give the audience a fresh take on Rose Tyler. Piper pulls off all her lines with ease and Rose never feels contrived, nevertheless Miss Tyler is simply frustrating to watch. Throughout Series One, many viewers have struggled to see what the Doctor saw in Rose; just what for him put this companion beyond all his others. We are now half way through Series Two and it feels as if we’re still no closer to understanding what makes her so special. Yes, she does occasionally see things which one wouldn’t expect a 19 year old to notice, for instance, the mass of aerials on the houses they pass in this story was unusual for 1953 – it is indeed Rose who spots this. However, she seems to retain far more negative attributes compared to the Doctor’s past associates and certainly far from the perfection he seems to see. She is demanding, cocky, selfish and when it suits, quite manipulative. These characteristics are indeed a perfect portrayal of a teenager, but unlike Mickey or the Doctor, Rose doesn’t feel like she’s evolving through the Doctor’s travel. Maybe this is realistic - she is a fairly arrogant and confident character, and such are the types who rarely change, but as we watch the Doctor’s presence affect so many (and in this episode we see how several characters break their shackles in his company) we see no advancement with Rose and this is frustrating. There is no progression from irritating selfish love struck teen, to anything further.

Perhaps, the reason why Rose can’t evolve is that she’s locked in a deep relationship with the Doctor and akin to Whedon’s Angel and Buffy characters they are trapped within the limits of their relationship. With no signs of any catalyst to change this dynamic and with Rose’s background fully explored, the chemistry stagnates.

In fact, I’m not even sure whether it’s Rose who is so frustrating – maybe the Doctor, for whom Rose’s importance overrides all else. We see in “Rise Of The Cybermen” how he follows Rose on one of her impulsive whims leaving Mickey alone, clearly doubting his worth to Rose or the Doctor. He and Rose seem blissfully unaware or uncaring when their travels ice others out and this has long term damage to the audience’s relationship with the lead characters.

Thankfully, both Tennant and Piper do their very best to keep The Idiot’s Lantern fresh and visually exciting. Nevertheless, if there is a weakness to Doctor Who at the moment, it is Rose. In fairness, Rose was actually fairly fun this week, so any audience animosity – in this reviewer’s opinion – comes down to an overspill of her more negative presence in previous episodes.

Regardless, having her absent for half the episode didn’t do the show any harm at all and with Rose, I’m wondering if less is more; if having a reduced role actually makes her more likeable.

While the characters really captures the British values of the 50s, the resolution has a little too much contemporary social value. I would be surprised if Eddie Connelly would have been so easily kicked out of the house in 1953 - even if the house were in his mother-in-law’s name. In the 1950s, courts did not favour divorces filed by the wife unless there was evidence of extramarital affairs. While there is no explicit reference to divorce, it is fairly clear the family is heading towards break up. One wonders whether Eddie is suffering a resolution at the whims of 21st century expectations and this does jar with my understanding of the period. The outcome is not an impossible solution for 1953, but one that feels contrived to appease the audience than to be true to the era. Perhaps one could argue this is just evidence of the Doctor’s presence - once again affecting those who meet him.

I was also a little uncomfortable with the advice Rose gave to Tommy about not cutting off his father. This maybe a realistic piece of advice to come from Rose bearing in mind her own personal feelings towards her dad, but the implication is that Eddie is not just mentally abusive, but physically. I’m not sure having the narrative imply that such relationships should be continued simply because of blood relations is healthy. I would go so far to suggest there would be few in the medical field that would generally advise someone like Tommy to retain ties with Eddie. Mental abuse alone can wreck a child’s ability to function in the world and any such ties should be broken until the kid is at an age to deal with parent on an even footing. It is certainly a questionable moral to end the show on.

While the show’s pacing is fairly fluid, the finale gets a little confused. I certainly wasn’t sure if DI Bishop would become such a believer in The Wire affair so quickly as he seems to accept the situation all too fast. Furthermore, the time differences between Magpie and the Doctor’s race to Alexandra Palace appear a little garbled. The Magpie rushes to Alexandra in a van and races up the transmitter, yet the Doctor manages to find time to grab some gadgets from Magpie’s shop, go to the TARDIS, grab some more gadgets, run to Alexandra Palace, set up said gadgets and then make it up the transmitter in what seems like relatively the same space of time. Be there a missing scene with a car or TARDIS, whether there was some serious stalling by a drained Mr. Magpie on his climb up the tower, the final cut just doesn’t flow evenly to the story’s climax.

Nevertheless, The Idiot's Lantern is a good story. It does suffer from a couple of minor glitches in pacing and a diminished threat value but in the overall scheme, it doesn’t damage the production. It has to be said that the acting is excellent throughout and the incidental music complements the drama. However the highlight of the story is Gatiss’ script - there are so many intelligent and witty touches to the dialogue it truly is a delightful experience.

The Idiot’s Lantern is another great episode from a generally excellent second series. The fifties are very much brought to life and Elvis would be proudly rocking in his grave at such a decent rendition of the era – that is if he was actually dead of course.

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