Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Idiot’s Lantern written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Euros Lyn

This story in a nutshell: The Queen’s coronation approaches and the Wire is hunnnnngrrrrrrry!

Mockney Dude: When people talk about Tennant and Piper being the ultimate NuWho pairing (I disagree strongly) I can almost see their point during the opening scenes of The Idiots Lantern as they laugh and flirt with each other. It’s a very relaxed partnership now, gone is the smugness of Tooth and Claw, the jealousy of School Reunion and the melodramatic soap operatics of the Cyberman two parter. This is more akin to the gorgeous chemistry shared between Tennant and Tate in series four. Looking back at series two now though you can see a real period of adjustment for David Tennant and while at times he touches on his later genius (especially in The Girl in the Fireplace and Doomsday) these are still tentative, nervous steps into the role. It seems if he is in doubt how to play the role he falls on two default settings in his first year, the squeaky excited voice and the hysterical over reactor. And we get a little bit of each of those people in this story. When he realises they are in 1952 he shifts into squarking gear and you just want to give him a clip around the ear. I think he reminds me too much of my other half in a rant when his voice threatens to smash the windows, that’s why it grates (sorry Simon). The screaming match between the Doctor and Eddie is just embarrassing, even more so when you consider this is two very fine actors that are completely without direction. When he does get a right hook you can’t help but applaud. There’s a real smugness to Tennant’s performance in this episode that has absolutely nothing to do with charisma, it’s the same sort of haughty self righteousness that prevents me from watching Castle even though I adore Nathan Fillion as an actor. When the character is written with this much conceit it feels as though it is covering up for the fact that they just don’t know where to take the character. Fortunately once Rose leaves they figure on a direction for him and never look back. I found Tennant’s cool, quiet threats to Anthony Head’s Headmaster in School Reunion extremely effective because of the quiet intensity of the scene but his frenzied barking at Magpie fails because it lacks any of that subtlety. He isn’t scary, he’s just loud. I think this what some people call the Colin Baker syndrome. And he literally spits some lines out (‘…like a fat ugly pig!’) which is a very unattractive thing to do (watch the saliva fly!). On the other hand his chemistry with Tommy is rather lovely and it is a crying shame that Tennant never had a younger male companion as I think that would brought something interesting out of his performance.

Chavvy Chick: There’s a lovely moment when the Doctor says he loves how Rose always takes the domestic approach and she is beaming with delight until she realises it is a insult. She’s cribbed a little naval knowledge because her mum went out with a sailor! She’s absent for a great deal of this episode but for the first fifteen minutes she breezes through with a smile on her face, insulting idiots, confronting the bad guys and generally having a great time. For once in season two I have very few complaints about her.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Time for a lovely bit of pomp and circumstance. What we’re best at.’
‘That was the sound of something ending’ – speaking of somebody who had an obnoxious, bullish father taken away that is one of the most satisfying lines in Doctor Who for me.
‘Good Lord! Colour television!’

The Good: I love the Grandma who warns about the dangers of new technology because she sounds just like my old Nan whose terrified any kind of technology, even teletext. Even funnier is the old dear who marvels at how clear the picture is despite it being a fuzzy black and white blur behind glass. Imagine them gawping and gaping at a 3D television? The pre-credits cliffhanger is so memorable it just screams of Doctor Who, a TV coming to life and lashing out and snatching your face off. That's where Mark Gatiss is at his best, developing something quirky and disturbing and Who-ish. Unfortunately that is the most innovative idea in the entire piece and is repeated ad nauseum until it loses its impact towards the end of the episode. What The Idiot's Lantern needed to do was to keep upping it's game with more exciting innovations. Euros Lyn is too good a director of atmosphere to fail to bring the horror aspect to life and the old woman at the window with the blank face and the cage full of twitching blank faced nasties (strong hints of Sapphire and Steel there) are enough to give anyone the chills (plus Murray Gold’s score is absolutely on the money). Rory Jennings is one of those adult performers bless with younger looks (ala Daniel Anthony in The Sarah Jane Adventures) and can fool you into thinking they have found an astonishingly good child actor. He’s fantastic in this as Tommy and gets to play the Doctor’s assistant at the climax giving us a peak at how things could have been different if he had hopped aboard at the end of the story. I wouldn’t have complained. Whilst his score during the climax is just loud, one of my favourite Murray Gold themes is during the last scenes of this episode where the Doctor and Rose reunite.

The Bad: Jamie Foreman is such a good actor and I have seen him give really impressive performances in other shows but his turn as Eddie Connelly doesn’t convince me. He needs to be a really bullish, frightening man to make the point the episode seems to want to make about his character but for the most part he is quite cuddly and Foreman seems uncomfortable when he has to go into shouty mode. They should have asked my dad to play the role, he was a terrifying presence before he was given an extended stay at Her Majesty’s convenience. Go and watch the Jonathan Creek episode The Tailors Dummy in series four and see how Maureen Lipman gives a fantastic villainous performance that walks a fine line between camp and menace (you can also see how good Julia Swalha would have been as a companion in that episode too) because you wont get much of a sense of anything from her in this episode which is a tragic waste of a major talent. When you get somebody like Lipman on board you’ve got to give her more to do than gurn and snarl on screen. Those elongated cries of ‘Hungreeeeee!’ just don’t cut the mustard for me (I think I preferred it when Kroagnon said it) plus you can see Lipman staring awkwardly at the camera waiting for somebody to say ‘cut!’. The silently screaming faces on the TV are a good idea in theory but look decidedly comical in practice. The story needed a clever ending to give the episode some punch but instead it kicks off the annual new series fascination with sticking the Doctor at a great height and fighting the elements (Evolution of the Daleks, The Vampires of Venice, The Rebel Flesh). This sequence goes on for far too long (with some horrendous Lipman gurgling intercutting the action), lacks any kind of depth or visual appeal and when the joke eventually strikes (the first VHS) it isn’t very funny. Plus Murray Gold feels the need to wallpaper over the cracks with a deafeningly epic score that goes on and on and on and on... I’m not quite sure what happened to Magpie at the climax – death by TV airwaves?

The Shallow Bit: Both Billie Piper and David Tennant look memorably stylish in their period dress.

Result: With credentials like this it is a shame that this episode doesn’t hang together better than it does. Written by one of the League of Gentlemen, directed by one of NuWho’s finest and featuring an evocative location, a villain played by Maureen Lipman and lots of scary bits…but like the two parter that precedes it there is an awkwardness in both the script and the presentation that holds it back from any greatness. The tone is all over place, touching on everything from teen musical (hints of Grease), pure soap opera (the Connelly scenes), horror (the old woman silhouetted in the window), film noir (the shadows and jaunty angles of the interrogation scene), spy movies (the fake market) and finally action adventure (the shallow, hectic conclusion). Rather than focussing on doing one thing well, it left me feeling aimless and unsatisfied as it tried to do too much and delivered so little. On a scene by scene basis it is can be very good (although Lipman is completely wasted in an empty role) but stitching all these genres together is an uncomfortable experience and I remember watching with Simon and our mate Ally when this was transmitted and all of us looking at each other afterwards with looks as blank as the victims. It was like we had gorged ourselves on Chinese but still felt really hungry, full of flavour but leaving you strangely unsatisfied. Rory Jennings is exceptional in his role, though, and he would have made an awesome companion: 5/10


Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

Never cared for this one.

Anonymous said...

I've always loved The Idiot's Lantern, but I don'to know why. Tommy makes a better companion for one scene than Rose did for a whole season.

David Pirtle said...

Very mediocre. Other than, as you say, a few good scenes with The Doctor and Rose, it isn't much of anything.