The Idiot's Lantern.



TV Anyone else slightly freaked out by bald Mark Gatiss on Doctor Who Confidential tonight? In amongst what seemed like the many hundred interviews he'd apparently done in various modes of facial and cranial hair was that initial answer in which he looked like he was plotting the downfall of the human race. Although it was obviously for a role (?) he strikes me again as someone who's keen to make a statement, and that's exactly what tonight's episode felt like. Again. About what Doctor Who is.

Glancing over at Outpost Gallifrey I can see that already the fan reaction is mixed which is amusing if slightly disappointing, because really this was the best episode since The Girl In The Fireplace. Tonally it was perfect, mixing the comedy and drama to just the right measure, dropping just enough pop culture references to be funny without being annoying ('Or was it Kylie?'). And for once it did that thing which gives the Doctor's quest some resonance -- it put Rose, the companion, in actual danger. Recently his ideology has been y'know because. Here it was personal and for once you really, really cared. And, in keeping with much of this series, the Doctor saved the day. Why couldn't it have been like this last year?

I remember watching an interview with Sir John Reith, the first Director General of the Beeb, in which he described television as "A potential social menace of the first magnitude!" Now, we all know that's not true (depending whether you've been watching this year's Big Brother). Unlike the new new Cybermen, whose creation felt very abstract thematically, the idea of your television taking over your life is a very real and tangible threat, especially when you consider how many man hours some of us actually spend in front of it rather than in a park somewhere enjoying the grass, the trees, the air, the view. I sometimes look at those HDtvs in Currys the size of a house and wonder whether it really will suck the life out of you a bit at a time if you let it.

As the manifestation of the threat, the ever dependable and completely brilliant Maureen Lipman was excellent. Given that she apparently spent but a day at Alexander Palace, her performance was three dimensional and perfectly captured that kind of abstract madness you need in a villian. And for once the Doctor just wanted to kill it, not save it for a rainy day. Ron Cook's Magpie was just the right sort of minion too, the ones with the weak souls without an actual axe to grind who perish in the end because they don't have the strength the fight back. If I had a worry, it was that the victims were a touch like the gasmasked ones, that same lack of face. If they'd started marching places I would have wondered why they weren't bumping into lamp posts...

It'll take someone older than I am to say whether the setting was authentic, but the street party certainly brought back memories of the jubilee in which I remember a cousin turning up in fancy dress as a television set -- someone had scooped out the innards of an old Granada rental set and cut holes in the bottom. It seemed right that Rose should still seem incongruous even though she was wearing close to period costume, although I'm not sure about the Doctor's blow back which was a bit too far the wrong end Mark Kermode. Still at least he tried.

The Radio Times threw flack at the domestic subplot in this episode as being a touch superfluous that seems unfair. It was good for once to have a bit of social commentary layered into the episode to give the characters within the story a life when they could so easily be cyphers. I used to love this sort of thing in Quantum Leap and it wasn't really out of place here. Like the wedding guests in Father's Day, they give the show heart. That said, I'm surprised someone like Russell T didn't pop-up in Confidential to say that the show has always talked about the social issues of the time, citing the quest for fire in The Tribe of Gum.

I've said in the past that it's really tricky to divorce the contributions of the various directors, but it's really odd how, for my money, the best episodes of the season have been directed by Euros Lynn. Which isn't to decry Graham Harper or James Hawes (I don't think) and surely it's the luck of the draw, but each of these episodes enjoyed a particular feel, a certain coalescence that the others lacked. This Doctor has a particular manic energy and particularly in this episode it let rip and we could see it -- no useless cutaways to actors waiting for something to happen here. Also I've been a bit critical of Murray Gold lately but the score here was perfectly fine, even if, again, there was far too much of it. I would have like something close to the period though. Sometimes the orchestration jarred with the setting.

Tennant's bedded in now but still we're seeing new sides to the performance. Eccleston voiced a concern last year that there was a danger with the role that you could end up repeating yourself in each episode. Whilst that's true, it's also normal. People fall into patterns of behaviour so they're not going to be doing something entirely new all the time. Everything I love about Tennant was on display again tonight, that on-a-dime twist from friendly to angry -- which we saw when he discovered that Rose had become a faceless one -- that keeps him from being totally cuddly.

Despite dropping out of the episode for the last twenty minutes, Billie was a shiny as ever, particularly in the scenes when Rose confronted Magpie about the televisions. One of my favourite moments of the series was at the end when we saw that her face had returned and she gave that smile of hers. I don't know about you but I melted. Davies (again in Confidential) was fueling the rumour that our friends are heading for a fall and I can't wait, if only to see what these actors do with it.

So here we are past the half way point. Has the series been as good as last year? At the half way point it has, although I think it's been hurt slightly because understandably we no longer have the shock of the new. The format and formula are in place so re-itterating my comments from last week, the production team are going to have to try very hard not to be in the thrall of the repeated meme. The Idiot's Lantern worked because it didn't look or feel like a previous episode and that's something they're going to need to continue doing. What we've heard about Love & Monsters sounds exciting, and shroud of secrecy surrounding Fear Her is interesting and tantalising. I'm most concerned about the finale though -- the last thing we need is another hour and a half on contemporary Earth even if it is battling you know what. We've seen that. We know what it looks like...

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