THE IDIOT'S LANTERN

"It matters what people think."

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Another Mark Gatiss, and another near miss.

The Unquiet Dead wasn't a bad little historical, but it wasn't terrific either. Spookily, The Idiot's Lantern falls into exactly the same camp.

It's not as if the Doctor visiting the Fifties isn't a good idea. It's close enough in time to have the audience going "We had a sofa just like that!/"Mum had a sofa just like that!"/"Gran had a sofa just like that!", but distant enough to be interesting. The pseudo-American beginning, with Rose in a floomphy pink skirt and the Doctor driving a scooter out of the TARDIS, could have been winceworthy, but is actually loadsafun. It's also a nice glossy contrast to the ever-so-authentic flying-duck-festooned postwar grime. The use of the Coronation, in the working-title-for-Coronation-Street Florizel St yet, is an excellent wheeze, underpinning the fictional bit with a sense of real authenticity. In another layer of meaning, it also handily points out the difference between then, when 20 million people would all sit down and watch the same thing, and today, when Russell T Davies can only dream about viewing figures like that. For a piece concerned with the effects of TV, it's a nice and subtly made point.

The trouble is that it just isn't enough. A well-realised historical setting is all very nice, but you've got to have a decent plot to plonk into it. Maureen Lipman puts in a bravura performance as The Wire, but that isn't enough to cover the fact that the character just isn't that interesting or novel. Using the TV to control people has been done so often we're not even going to bother citing the references, while the faceless thing although deliciously creepy is a lift from Sapphire And Steel (amongst others). And the bellows of "Hungry!" and "Feed me!", Little-Shop-Of-Horrors-mining aside, are just plain embarrassing. What's more, we really can't get all that drawn in by some random unexplained alien, especially when we have no clue why it's been turfed out of its body by a jury of its peers. Fair sentence? Miscarriage of justice? From the regulation maniacal cackling, we're guessing it's supposed to be the former, but who knows and, more to the point, cares?

Then there's the mechanics of the thing. We have an alien, and it grabs faces. How does that work, anyway? How do the victims breathe? Why are their families hiding them in the attic instead of phoning 999? How come if The Wire is nicking their brain energy it's swiping their features as well? How do they get them back afterwards, and without any teethmarks? You've guessed it: once again we are transported to the all-too-familiar Land Of Bollocks.

Then there's the way it all works out. The transmitter climb is way too familiar: Logopolis is the obvious reference, but we couldn't get Rocky Horror out of our heads either. (The Doctor as Frank-N-Furter? The horror, the horror.) Worse than that, though: because we don't know exactly what the Doctor's trying to achieve it's pretty much devoid of suspense too. Try watching it with Murray Gold's look-out-suspenseful-moment music turned down and it's clear how flat it is. As for capturing the villain on Betamax and then recording over it, it's a yawnarama, because the Mighty Boosh have already done it.

So the plot's a little weary around the edges. What about character?

Well, it's a great episode for Rose: one of the best, in fact. She's smart, proactive and brave, and her empathy at the end for Tommy and his relationship with his father shows a human compassion that's beyond the Doctor's reach (even if it is arguably slightly wrong-headed). We don't know when we've liked her more.

The Doctor also has some excellent moments. While we can do without him bawling "There is no power on this Earth that can stop me!" (what were they thinking?) the bit before that when he discovers Rose is missing a face is superlative. His response to "Do you know her?" of "Know her? She..." says a hundred times more about his and Rose's relationship than a Single Emo Tear (TM) will ever manage, and it's a thousand times more affecting too. For us, this is the single most telling and most effective Doctor And Rose Relationship Moment in Rose's entire tenure, all the more powerful because of its obliqueness.

We think this Doctor is at his chilling best when he's in angry mode (think about that incredible toe-to-toe scene in the swimming pool in School Reunion), and here he does angry like a champ. (We particularly liked the moment where he yells "Shop!" before breaking Magpie's door down.) Unfortunately, he also does a lot of manic smartarsery, a look we're becoming progressively less enthused about. We cheered when immediately after delivering a more than usually self-satisfied clever-clever line he got punched in the face - a certain indication characterisation's taken a turn down a very bad street. And we're sick, sick, sick of the unlikely and undignified pop culture references. Name-checking Kylie doesn't make the Doctor look like a smokin' cool hep cat. It just makes him look sad.

The rest of the characters are variable. Ron Cook does a more than competent job as Magpie: he even manages to make "You're burning me...inside...behind my eyes" work (despite our chorus of "It buuuurns uss!"). Tommy, Rita and the Detective-Inspector are also excellent. Unfortunately, however, the character of Eddie, around who so much of the episode turns, is a nasty cliche, made even worse by Jamie Foreman's constant volume-on-eleven roaring. (The smirksome similarity of I am talking! to I am smoking a fag! doesn't help either.) As with Rose's efforts to raise Gwyneth's consciousness in The Unquiet Earth, Rita's throwing her bullying, homophobic husband into the street seems too much like a twenty-first century solution: things just weren't that easy in the 1950s.

And that's it, really. Cliched plot, (some) cliched characters, dull, cliched villain. This is the shortest review we're done for quite some time: while many of you are no doubt breathing a sigh of relief, we think it's an interesting reflection on the episode. We don't have much to say, because there really isn't all that much to it.

MORAL: Donít be a couch potato. Be a behind-the-couch potato.

OUTTAKES

DIT DIT DAH

If Gran's brain is "barely ticking over", how come she's got the nous to bang on the floor with her stick?

MY MAJESTY

The King of Belgium carries an ID card?

POWERFUL

The Doctor isn't electrocuted while hanging on to the tower, and comments that he swears by his rubber soles. But since he's clinging onto the tower, his hands are earthing him. Look there....appearing over the horizon...yes, it's the Land Of Bollocks again.

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