Doctor Who - The Idiot's Lantern
Like some people, I've been watching this series of Who with a vague sense of disappointment, tinged with guilt. With the exception of the superb The Girl In The Fireplace, I've found each episode great fun, well worth watching, and amongst the best British TV has to offer at the moment... but ultimately slightly hollow. It's less that I think the episodes aren't as good as this year, and more that we've simply got higher expectations. It may sound ungrateful, but what it comes down to is: great, Who is back. Now, show us what the programme can really do. We've had glimpses, certainly - I will never forget the conversion scene in Rise - but apart from TGITFP, we've not the sustained brillance we know the show is capable of (Father's Day, Bad Wolf, The Parting Of The Ways). So - a Mark Gattis episode? A 50s set historical story? The televisual revolution? Surely this will be the second breakout episode of the series?
This episode seemed almost designed to hit my TV nerd buttons. BBC Batwings! Maureen Lipman as Sylvia Peters! A fight on the Alexandra Palace transmitter! You got the same feeling from Mark Gattis hanging around set on Doctor Who Confidential - he came across less as the distinguished writer that he is, and more like a Who and vintage telly fanboy let loose around set, that he also is. I was already in love with the whole imagery of the episode - to see it on primetime BBC ONE was just marvellous.
Tennant as The Doctor was brilliant as usual: "I'm gonna tape over it." The more surprising and welcome thing in this episode was, after a few episodes of Rose being shunted into the sidelines slightly, she was back again on top form. And, for once, going out and investigating things for herself and generally worrying people. I'm one of the people who wasn't convinced about Billie Piper when she was first cast - but from halfway through the first series, she just suddenly clicked in my mind, and really worked. She carried this on effortlessly in this series - she just makes a lot of the comedy scenes in New Earth - and unlike some fans, who were mumbling that her lack of screen time really proved the show didn't need her - I really, really missed her presence. I'm very glad she's back, and dressing up in silly costumes. She's certainly not irreplaceable - in Doctor Who, who is? - but it would be a sad loss if she doesn't stay past this series.
The Connolly family subplot was interesting; and a necessary addition to prevent the episode from romanticising the period (especially if you're going to do that final street party scene). Tommy's speech to his father about the war was verging on the Standard Clunky Dialogue That Should Never Have Got Past The Draft StageTM, and certainly sounded more like the writer than the character, but in the end got away with it due to the fact that at least relevant and interesting. Personally I would have let the father piss off alone at the end of the episode rather than making Tommy go after him; maybe I'm a hard-hearted fucker, but I don't think a bit of a sad face and a slow wander down the street earnt enough sympathy from the audience after how that character behaved.
On the special effects side: mostly excellent. The only effect that didn't convince for me is the top-down shot of the Doctor and Magpie on the transmitter; like the opening moments of New Earth, I don't think the team has quite got the hang of doing OB greenscreen work yet. It just looked fake. Still, that's a minor complaint; in general, the effects work was very good. I've sometimes thought that these last two series of Who have tried to overreach themselves with the effects - trying to do a few more than they can actually manage well on their budget, in order to satisfy the team's (admirable) quest to provide movie-quality stuff on telly each week, and their occasional (slightly less admirable) tendency to think that kids won't watch TV unless there's a big effects sequence every two minutes. Not so here.
As for the music, it was great, especially during the climax. I don't tend to mind when the music is plastered everywhere and very high in the mix - but I think that's mainly because it reminds me of old Who, rather than it actually being the correct artistic decision. Here, the use of music was more restrained, as it tends to be in the historicals, and is frankly all the better for it.
So, what's stopping this episode getting the highest rating? I'm not honestly sure. It was a very, very good episode - but somehow, it didn't quite reach the absolute heights of what Who can do. The main criticism that has been levelled at the show is that there is no explanation for why people's faces disappear when The Wire sucks their energy. This is true (although no doubt Gattis has some form of answer that didn't quite make it to the screen) - but I'm terrible at spotting logical flaws in episodes at the best of times, if the show carries me along with it - as this one did. Frankly: it doesn't much bother me.
Perhaps it's just that, for all of its many many strengths, the show was still that bit too straightforward. The climax was suitably exciting - and made me gasp when I realised exactly what they were going to do - but the show really needed a couple more twists and turns to turn it into a classic.
Indicative of this is that I found the most intriguing thing Who-wise this week came not from the main episode, but from Confidential - with RTD confirming that The Doctor and Rose are having rather too much fun, and are heading for a fall. Unlike some, I've had no problem at all with the way Rose and The Doctor have behaved so far this series - but then I just like seeing David Tennant and Billie Piper piss about and pull silly faces. (The start of this episode - Rose in pink glasses, and The Doctor driving a scooter out of the TARDIS - it just puts a huge smile on my face to see them have so much fun.) But for a show that - for all its wonderfulness - sometimes seems slightly too keen to pander to an audience, and (ironically) make them feel safe, this will be a more than welcome development.