Saturday, June 02, 2012


Doctor Who – The Idiot’s Lantern

Queen Elizabeth II was crowned sixty fifty-nine years ago today. Not being much of a royalist (having been responsible for a political party debating the monarchy for the first time in centuries), I’d been intending to review an appropriately celebratory Doctor Who story such as Jubilee or Snakedance (in which the Doctor doesn’t enjoy the festivities) or perhaps The Pirate Planet or State of Decay (in which old Queens just keep hanging on). We went to a movie instead. Fortunately, here’s one I prepared earlier; Doctor Who Magazine’s Time Team marked the occasion this week with David Tennant’s The Idiot’s Lantern. And as well as an electric piece of art from Adrian Salmon, they printed a line from me in DWM 448 alongside their main review! So I’m chuffed.

What a shame that William Shatner’s festive cover of God Save the Queen (as sung on Have I Got News For You a week ago) doesn’t seem to be available to buy, and so tragically won’t be the Number One it deserves to be this weekend. Never mind – I’ll just have to put on those jolly carousers the Sex Pistols instead.

The idea of DWM’s Time Team is that – starting right at the beginning of Doctor Who and more than a decade ago in real time – they get four regular reviewers to sit on the couch and watch every story (including, these days, the lovely Mr Will). And to one side, they feature comments sent in by readers. When I get round to sending in one-liners to Time Team, I watch the story to brainstorm a lot of quickie ideas so that, hopefully, that way at least one of them’ll be something no-one else has come up with. The latest issue’s the first for three Doctors that I’ve had comments in two consecutive issues, and a letter about Philip Madoc, too. Coo. A few years ago, I was encouraged to set up a blog printing all of these; well, all right, I need a bit of a prod to get that going, but it’s not going to happen tonight, so I thought I’d leap ahead and publish what I sent in last month (try and spot how much I’ve nicked from Richard’s review on Millennium Dome, Elephant). If you read my usual reviews, this is something very different… Shorter, punchier and – a consequence of trying to keep the word count down – much cattier. Or, at least, not dressing it up. Actually, when I watched this a month ago, I quite enjoyed it, and having not seen it for a few years, some of it seemed quite fresh. But not all of it…

The Idiot’s Lantern – Not the Time Team
The tone’s all over the place, it’s hardly original, and the Doctor’s lost the big picture… But Maureen Lipman’s scene-stealing fabulousness makes the most fun villain since the series came back. And showing her frock properly even justifies Doctor Who Confidential!

I’m no royalist, but “Are you suggesting that the Queen does the housework?” is a brilliant way to puncture ’50s sexism. And did you time this Time Team for the Jubilee specially?

It almost gets across the feel of 60 years ago, when TV was rare and the Royals aloof. Before it all just became meaningless, greedy, third-rate celebrities. And TV’s nearly as bad.

They should leave Billie out of half the story more often if it means she concentrates what she has into flashes of pure impishness – taking the mickey out of Eddie and vanishing like a sprite is the best she’s been all season.

Mr Gatiss likes his Autons, doesn’t he? Blank faces, Doctor’s lash-ups needing a quick fix, New Domestic Thing Turns Evil at Evil Signal from Transmitter of Evil… Filling in the rest with dashes of Quatermass and Sapphire and Steel. Still, it’s more original than Night Terrors.

The only bit that doesn’t feel nicked is the family, and that just because it’s not very good – it might name-check Corrie, but can’t do it. And as for Dad… Not as well-rounded and subtle a working-class character as Sam Seeley.

The Wire’s sheer fun but also a real threat – Mr Connolly should be scarier, if anything, a more immediate brutish bully, but his terrible ‘My old man’s a dustman’ schtick makes him just a prat.

Eddie’s fine to start with, deliberately overdoing it like a dad when he marvels that it’s like the TV people are in the room with you. Shame that that’s as underplayed as he gets.

It’s charming but not really threatening – too cosy, save that scene where the Doctor suddenly goes off the deep end. Usually he’s just all teeth and lack of curls, not psychotic.

Tommy seems much younger than he is – not just the actor, but after children in School Reunion and the Fireplace, suddenly this seems an oddly child-populated season. It doesn’t quite suit the horror.

It might be laid on with a trowel in Tommy’s soliloquy, but it’s good to have such an unambiguously Liberal message again – in the Wire and Eddie, the Doctor stands up to bullies, big or small.

In a story from a child’s perspective, I can see the arbitrariness of authority excusing Bishop flashing between violent fascist and trusty Dixon copper, but I still don’t believe it.

I know ‘Feed me’ has been done before, but how Paradise Towers is this? That line, the disembodied villain, the Doctor reversing the interrogation… Towers still seems much fresher and wittier, though I’d take Lipman over Briers any day.

Cosy and horrific; domestic and pomp and circumstance; perhaps the tone’s at its most uncertain when it tries ‘Lovely Fifties nostalgia’ and ‘Things shouldn’t live on beyond their time’ at once. The obvious love of TV while sending up ‘It rots your brain!’ is a fab juxtaposition, though.

Lipman does a great lip-smacking single megalomaniac villain, but there just aren’t enough characters or time to pull off a ‘Florizel Street’ soap – and it doesn’t help that each member of the family appears to be acting in a different series or, in the case of Dad, a school play.

Bizarre that a ‘smaller’ historical seems so much less believable than the more ‘important’ ones – is it because we don’t all know queens (well, not all), but we can all tell when a family isn’t convincing?

The Wire’s probably the most OTT villain since the series came back, while Eddie’s just like every brute who beat you up. He should be the real scary monster. But ‘arch’ beats ‘hammy’ hands down.

I don’t think much of the Doctor being blasé over the whole of London but psychotic losing Rose. Get over yourselves!

Oh, dear, the Doctor’s ‘armed’ and the sonic much too handy. But I forgive this for sending up the psychic with “The King of Belgium, apparently”. A scream!

So how exactly does everyone get their face back…? It’s just a bit too easy – ‘Don’t worry, once TV people leave, everything returns to normal’. A more modern take would say ‘TV people do you, move on, and you’re left in a right old mess’.

It’s quite an elaborate revenge on continuity announcers always talking over the credits, isn’t it? If only they were all that cool (and had such killer frocks).

Bizarre fact: this is the episode most likely to be repeated without the “Next Time…” at the end. So it lets the continuity announcers in quicker.

Alex Wilcock
Isle of Dogs

And a few from Richard Flowers
I love the Doctor constructing a video recorder out of spares whilst on the run. A perfectly Doctor Who moment.

Is Tommy gay? I only ask because the script slaps you around the face with the obviousness of it and then pulls the punch.

In spite of the proprietor being vaporised by the Wire, Mr Magpie’s business is going to go from strength to strength, seen to still be in business aboard Starship UK in the Thirty-whatever-ish Century. I guess catering to those early Betamax adopters really paid off!

Tonight, Richard and I are watching and greatly enjoying the story that followed The Idiot’s Lantern, The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit. It’s the day before its sixth anniversary, for a story full of sixes; it’s time (slightly past time, probably) for the next Time Team… But, mainly, because we’ve just been to see Prometheus, which in no way recalled this story with its sensible black captain, industrial future chic, tepid comments about faith, giant carved face down in the darkness, Cthuliana and Alien feel. Completely different. I’d say what I thought of it, but I suspect someone else’ll be along shortly with something a lot more incisive and insightful than I’d be after one viewing…

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59 years - coronation was 1953.
D'oh! Thanks, Caron - you're completely right. I'd forgotten that the gap between accession and coronation was so long. No wonder the Jubilee's so drawn-out (and this weekend ought to be next year).

Which made The Quatermass Experiment quite brilliantly topical at the time, obviously.
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