Joe Pasquale: I'm Joe Pasquale and I'm broadcasting secret messages to dogs!
The studio audience cheer like rabid maniacs. A dog barks off-screen.
Joe Pasquale: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen -
Bollocks. I can't keep that up. Believe me, I've tried.
I've been procrastinating about writing this review of The Idiot's Lantern for a number of reasons. Firstly, I couldn't get the whole Price is Right thing to work, but the deciding factor was that it took me a whole week to muster up enough enthusiasm to sit through it again. The first time I watched it I actually started to nod off, which is probably the most damning criticism I could ever give to an episode of Doctor Who. I'd rather be slack-jawed with disbelief and despair (see New Earth) than bored stupid.
There's something relentlessly dreary about this episode. And I'm not just talking about the austere 1950's surroundings or the vaguely patronising subplot about domestic violence; the main reason it's so depressing is because it's so goddamn predictable. Any shreds of mystery or intrigue are dispensed with as soon as they are introduced, and everything plays out in a frustratingly linear fashion; the only genuine surprise is the hilarious police tactic of hiding all the victims in a shed!
This is always going to be a problem with the 45 minute format (unless you are a genius like Steven Moffat), and my advice would be to concentrate on the A-plot and ditch anything even remotely superfluous. However worthy it might be.
But not only is The Idiot's Lantern thoroughly predictable, it also has a faint whiff of deja vu about it. The similarities to The Unquiet Dead are actually quite striking: the Doctor arrives in Earth's past (slightly off-target) where he takes on a non-corporeal alien who travels through domestic appliances. Then there's the family hiding a dark secret, and the threat of humanity being harvested to ensure the villain's survival. Even the scares are second hand (Sapphire and Steel really should sue), while the climax is pure comic book cliche, ruined, yet again, by a score so loud it would make Nigel Tufnell's ears bleed.
Forgive the man who beat the shit out of you? Build some bridges with a complete bastard? Whatever next? Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with Peter Sutcliffe?
The Wire is a ridiculously two-dimensional (no pun intended) antagonist. Its motives, backstory, powers and goals are all revealed in less than one minute of screen time, for heaven's sake! So many questions, so little time. Like, just how coincidental is it that an executed alien who can now travel down wires just happens to be called the Wire? Or did the villain collide with an episode of Dick Barton as it approached Earth? Why does it chew people's faces off? How come they all get their faces back at the end when they are nowhere near a telly? How does Magpie manage to build and sell so many TVs (at a loss) when he's already 200 quid in the red? What the hell is going on? They should have sent in the 1953 branch of Torchwood to investigate.
Sod that, let's spend some more time with the pantomime wife-batterer instead. I don't really blame Mark Gatiss here. I'm sure it was all very subtle on the page, but it's disastrously undercut by a woefully ripe turn from Jamie Foreman. At one point, on the doorstep, when he's trying to protest his innocence, he actually looks like he's in an episode of Benny Hill. Go on, check it out. All it needed was some comedy steam coming out of his ears. And he's in the episode more than the Wire is! Go figure.
I'm also fed up with the Doctor yelling all the time. I wouldn't mind so much if he only lost his rag under extreme circumstances, but discovering that your companion has bitten off more than they can chew is, let's be fair here, par for the course. It feels like he's blowing his top every five seconds in this incarnation. When Tom Baker was really, really angry he'd simply lower his voice an octave and glower a bit. Tennant just flips out like a contestant on Big Brother who's had their bottled water taken away from them. And when he's not shouting the odds he's a smug, patronising egotist. And what's the deal with the Bondian puns all of a sudden? Git.
Rose continues to exude uber-smugness, too. In fact, my favourite moment in the whole episode occurs when her cockiness descends into fear, as she suddenly realises that Mr Magpie isn't going to cave in with a "damn you, pesky kid" surrender. I was actually relieved when she disappeared into a VT loop, even if her temporary replacement was as bland as wallpaper.
I can't believe I'm saying this but I want my heroes to fall on their arses. Soon. That can't be right, can it?
It's not all bad news, though. In fact, various elements of this story are extremely good. The opening ten minutes are very atmospheric and Euros Lynn's direction is consistently interesting (even if BBC Wales need to buy a new tripod). It's full of clever little moments that I can't help but admire (the see-saw interrogation, the aerials that look like swastikas), and Ron Cook is simply sublime given, alas, so little time to shine. Maureen Lipman starts out well but when she descended into rant-mode ("Hungry!") I was in Agony.
Unfortunately, the very last scene had me boo-ing my television set (how apt). I've just about had it with the touchy-feely ethos that seeps from every pore of this new series. We've been asked to feel sympathy for Daleks, Cybermen, mass murdering Slitheen, megalomaniacal skin, even Mickey Smith. This week we're supposed to feel sorry for a man who has systematically and mercilessly abused his own family (albeit with all the subtlety of Baron Hardup at the Ipswich Hippodrome).
What are we supposed to take away from that, exactly? Forgive the man who beat the shit out of you? Build some bridges with a complete bastard? Whatever next? Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with Peter Sutcliffe? The Redemption of Sutekh? An pseudo-historical where Hitler just needed a cuddle?
5/10. I feel old.
The Bumper Book of Made-Up Doctor Who Facts has this to say about The Idiot's Lantern: the episode was originally going to end with the following continuity voice-over: "If you have been effected by any of the issues raised in this programme, simply give your abuser a big hug and a conciliatory handshake. Then text TARDISode to 84444."