Doctor Who: "Rise Of The Cybermen"/"The Age Of Steel"/"The Idiot's Lantern"

Doctor Who: "Rise Of The Cybermen"/"The Age Of Steel"/"The Idiot's Lantern"

“Rise Of The Cybermen” (season 2, episode 5; originally aired 5/13/2006)

(Available on HuluNetflix, and Amazon Instant Video.)

“And how will you do that... from beyond the grave!?”

In the great rankings of Doctor Who monsters, the Cybermen have always run a creditable but unmistakable second to the Daleks. The Daleks showed up in the show’s second ever story, instantly spawning a “Dalekmania” phenomenon that came to encompass comics, toys, and two feature films, not to mention several classic adventures starring William Hartnell’s 1st Doctor. The Cybermen debuted in Hartnell’s final story and became the most iconic monsters of the late ‘60s, featuring in a number of excellent Patrick Troughton serials, but they never achieved the same sort of cultural cachet. Just as crucially, so much of what makes the Daleks recognizable as the Daleks—the iconic design, the terrifying voice, the xenophobic hatred, the word “exterminate”—are there in that original tale. In all the essentials, the monsters in 1963’s “The Daleks” are the same as the one that appears in 2005’s “Dalek.” The Cybermen, by contrast, are the most redesigned monster in Doctor Who’s history, with the cloth-faced, singsong-voiced creatures of “The Tenth Planet” bearing only the vaguest of resemblances to the more robot-like creatures in their subsequent Troughton-era appearances, let alone the steel behemoths that feature in this week’s two-parter. The Daleks were great monsters just waiting to be brought back, whereas the Cybermen were great concepts for monsters with a history of tangled continuity and lackluster execution.

In that context, it’s not surprising that Russell T. Davies decided he needed to start from the scratch with the Cybermen, so he devised this two-parter’s parallel universe setting as a way to dispense with the Cybermen’s often contradictory, frequently ludicrous backstory. This also enabled Davies and writer Tom MacRae to present an origin story for the Cybermen without overwriting the story’s acknowledged source material: Marc Platt’s Big Finish audio “Spare Parts,” in which Peter Davison’s 5th Doctor witnesses the creation of the original Cybermen on the dying world Mondas. The finished product bears only a vague resemblance to “Spare Parts”—indeed, the introduction of an insane, wheelchair-bound creator of the Cybermen means the story owes just as much from “Genesis Of The Daleks”—but it does carry over the core theme of that earlier story: For all their evil, the Cybermen are a tragic race, monsters that should be pitied just as much as they are hated.

The result is a two-parter that, for all its problems, does show a better understanding of what makes the Cybermen unique than any other TV story since the end of the Troughton era. The Cybermen aren’t scary because they are a bunch of evil killer robots; that just makes them second-rate Daleks (leaving aside the technicality that neither of them are actually robots). After all, the worst thing the Cybermen can do isn’t killing you but instead turning you into one of them. This two-parter plays up the body horror of becoming a Cyberman, even if the show’s family-friendly timeslot means all upgrades occur off-screen (and the whirring knives and lasers don’t exactly represent the show’s most convincing CGI). The simplest detail is also the most convincing: Even when humans are brainwashed into senseless docility, they still can’t help but scream once the conversion process begins. These are all solid ideas, but the problems creep in when we begin to consider the larger context. For the Cybermen to exist in the first place, humans must decide to remove all that makes them human, shedding their emotions, pain, and irrationality to become creatures of cold logic. Why would anyone in their right mind ever choose to do that?

“Spare Parts” justified this decision by presenting Mondas as a society in the midst of apocalypse; faced with a hellish existence where even the most basic humanity represented a potentially fatal weakness, the only recourse was to become Cybermen. The situation on the parallel Earth of “Rise Of The Cybermen”/“The Age Of Steel” is not nearly so bleak, although MacRae’s script does seem to suffer from some inconsistent world-building. There are occasional hints in “Rise Of The Cybermen” that this Earth is in far worse shape than our own: Don Warrington’s President of Great Britain declares it a “sick world,” while the military-enforced curfews and the floating zeppelins suggest an even unhealthier divide between the haves and the have-nots. But this Earth still has to be a nice enough place that Mickey would choose to remain there at the story’s end, so “The Age Of Steel” strongly implies that everything will go back to normal once the Cybermen are defeated. This later suggestion that the two Earths are basically the same also allows the Doctor to get in his crack about humanity’s apparent willingness to be conquered, as long as it means an easier life. It’s not a fair comment, perhaps, but the Doctor isn’t always fair.

So then, these new Cybermen are entirely the responsibility of their creator, John Lumic. As is pointed out multiple times in the story itself, Lumic is utterly mad, and Roger Lloyd-Pack’s performance is best appreciated in light of that fact. Best known for his comedic work in Only Fools And Horses and The Vicar Of Dibley, Lloyd-Pack plays Lumic as a sneering supervillain, which rather oddly ends up adding to the idea that the Cybermen are more pitiable than evil. In “Genesis Of The Daleks,” Davros was a cold, calculating genius possessed of unreasoning hatred; the Daleks could not help but be evil when created in the image of such a man. But the very lunacy of Lumic’s motivations suggests that the Doctor is correct, that Lumic started out with corrupt but understandable intentions and just lost sight of everything. Lumic is so terrified of pain, loss, and death that he would destroy humanity itself in the name of survival. That, remarkably, is the more charitable interpretation. The other possibility is that Lumic is so obsessed with control and holds humanity in such contempt that he would willingly initiate its destruction. In that case, Lumic spends the entire two-parter trying to disprove the president’s reminder that he isn’t God. Even then, Lumic is so insane that he can’t truly be considered responsible for his actions; the only man brilliant enough to invent the Cybermen is so mad he can’t understand the horror of what he created. He’s the only Cyberman not affected by the deactivation of the emotional inhibitor, after all.

Ultimately, “Rise Of The Cybermen”/“The Age Of Steel” is Doctor Who as a big dumb action movie: Lumic’s Cyber-Controller dies plummeting into a giant fireball, for goodness’ sake. Graeme Harper, who previously directed “The Caves Of Androzani,” making him the only person to direct both versions of Doctor Who, keeps the story exciting, and he makes all the split screen work with Noel Clarke as convincing as possible, but he can’t bring same sort of focused, almost nasty virtuosity that Joe Ahearne brought to last season’s Dalek episodes. There are individual moments in which the full horror of the Cybermen becomes clear—the screams during the conversion, the reveal of Jackie Tyler’s fate, the death of Sally the would-be bride—but much of the rest of the two-parter plays more like a slightly goofy quest in which the heroes defeat the killer robots. The story relies on the Doctor’s big speech at the end to tie everything together, a scene that calls for David Tennant to bust out the ham. It’s an over-the-top monologue to an over-the-top villain in an over-the-top adventure, but Tennant hits just the right tone so that the speech’s compelling points aren’t lost amid the theatrics. 

The Doctor’s most astute observation is that Lumic has eliminated the very genius that made an abomination like the Cybermen possible in the first place. Indeed, that reveals the most basic tragedy of the Cybermen: They are pointless. The Cybermen would upgrade all humanity, creating a world without forward movement, without progress, without anything. The Daleks always had their genocidal hatred to guide their actions, but the Cybermen don’t even have that much justification to their existence. As the Cybermen tell an approving Lumic, they see humanity’s pain and fear and they want to help. The way in which they want to help is insane, because what can a world of Cybermen possibly do next? The Cybermen that the Doctor encounters in this story haven’t realized yet that they are the monsters, and they haven’t discovered yet that their only possible purpose is to conquer and convert the entire universe. Considering their fatal lack of imagination, it’s an open question whether they would even figure out that much. Lumic is more right than he realizes when he calls the Cybermen his children. These are newly created beings with no past, no preconceptions, and—as the Doctor realizes when Mrs. Moore is arbitrarily killed—no potential to be anything better. 

The Doctor may recoil at the thought of genocide, but what he does here by shutting down the emotional inhibitor isn’t mass murder. It’s mass mercy, a blessed relief from a horrifyingly logical madness. At least the Cybermen are defeated in a way that only the Cybermen could be. After decades stuck in the Daleks’ shadows, that alone is progress. This two-parter is too goofy to sustain the psychological horror that drives its best moments, but Davies and MacRae do show an understanding of what makes the Cybermen unique that had been lacking in Doctor Who for far too long.

Stray observations:

  • Going back to the world-building, it seems weird that the President of Great Britain would have such a paltry security detail. There are a couple agents flanking him when he goes to meet Lumic, but I don’t think there’s any indication that the President has any protection at Jackie Tyler’s birthday party. Also, while I realize Pete Tyler was attempting to infiltrate Lumic’s organization, it also seems a bit strange that he is the only other businessman we actually see throughout the story. New Doctor Who generally does a good job hiding its budget limitations, but here the show struggles to fill out its world while maintaining economy of characters.
  • This Week In Mythos: The Doctor mentions it was once easy to travel between parallel worlds, something he most famously did in the Jon Pertwee classic “Inferno.” The plan to attack the Cybermen’s factory by going above, between, and below recalls the various Doctors’ movements in “The Five Doctors.” And, of course, the presence of the Cybermen means this episode is positively choked with mythos-y goodness, but the best little detail is the name of Lumic’s dummy company: International Electromatics, which was also the name of Tobias Vaughn’s company in Patrick Troughton’s final Cybermen story, “The Invasion.”
  • It’s worth noting that the original Cybermen grew out of creator Kit Pedler’s concerns about the cybernetic replacement of limbs; I’m not sure how much this was an actual concern during the ‘60s versus an idiosyncratic fear of Pedler’s. Either way, Tom MacRae’s script updates this to something more appropriate to 2006, with the Cybermen being presented as the ultimate upgrade. In a reflection of just how quickly technology marches on, this portrayal already feels a bit dated. I suspect a subsequent attempt to reinvent the Cybermen would play upon slightly different fears of technology. Indeed, I’d say we already see some hints of that in last year’s Neil Gaiman-penned Cybermen episode, “Nightmare In Silver,” which is more about evolving software than upgrading hardware.
  • For the record, I’ve always enjoyed Roger Lloyd-Pack’s work as John Lumic. It is a strange performance, but he does seem to play the part in the way the script asked of him. I quoted his most infamous line at the top of the review, and it’s worth noting that that initial scene was a last-minute addition, perhaps explaining why it feels sillier and more arch than the rest of the episode. Even so, I can’t help but love the mad commitment with which Lloyd-Pack says a line as wonderfully cheesy as the one up top, not to mention his later one-liner about “crashing the party.” Lumic is never going to be considered one of Doctor Who’s greatest villains, but I don’t think he was ever intended to be. Sadly, Lloyd-Pack died last month at age 69, and so I’d like to close out this review by suggesting John Lumic should stand as a worthy part of his acting legacy—not on the same level as Trigger, obviously, but still.

“The Age Of Steel” (season 2, episode 6; originally aired 5/20/2006)

(Available on HuluNetflix, and Amazon Instant Video.)

“We’ve had a laugh though, haven’t we? Seen it all, been there and back. Who would have thought, me and you off the old estate, flying through the stars.” “All those years just sitting there, imagining what we’d do one day. We never saw this, did we?” “Go on. Don’t miss your flight.”

The Doctor destroyed Mickey’s life on the day that they first met. Before the TARDIS first materialized in the Powell Estate, Mickey didn’t exactly have it all, but he was happy. He and Rose had something nice; special is too strong a word, but “nice” sounds about right. He took her for granted a little bit, and he definitely cared too much about the football, but he was still willing to drive her to Clive’s house when she started talking nonsense about killer shop mannequins and some mysterious stranger called the Doctor. After that, it all went downhill. He got eaten by a burping trash bin, replaced with a deeply unconvincing Auton copy, and reduced to a blubbering mess while that damn Doctor whisked Rose away on what she would later refer to as her and the Doctor’s “first date.” And that’s only what we saw on screen; let’s not forget that Mickey spent the following year being accused of murdering Rose by Jackie Tyler. Mickey’s great failing was being crushingly, horrifyingly normal just when the impossible showed up. That first episode dismissed him in rather cruel terms when Mickey asked what Rose what she was thanking for, only for her to respond, “Exactly.” Even then, he was nothing, and the Doctor was everything; his non-presence made it that much easier for Rose to run away. To add insult to injury, the Doctor never even noticed what he had done to Mickey, instead taking childish pleasure in dismissing “Ricky the idiot.”

But here’s the thing: Mickey’s story didn’t end there. He refused to have his life ruined by the Doctor, so he became better. To keep up with the woman he loved in spite of himself, he made himself extraordinary, at least as much as a fundamentally ordinary person could ever hope to. The improvements were incremental, as he went from a cowardly wreck in “Rose” to someone who understood himself well enough to decline the Doctor’s invitation in “World War Three,” before he finally worked up the nerve to ask for his spot on the TARDIS in “School Reunion.” The fact that it took him so long to ask shouldn’t be held against him. For all the talk of Mickey being an idiot, he is a thinker. He don’t naturally rush into deadly situations like the Doctor or Rose would. He needs time to come to grips with the impossible, and he possesses precious few of the instincts that make Rose such a natural companion. But give Mickey time, and he always proves himself to be immensely resourceful. His computer skills help save the day both back in “World War Three” and in this week’s story; indeed, he’s part of the only team that actually manages to complete its mission.

So much of Mickey’s story in this story is built around his recognizing that he will always be surplus to requirements—a “spare part,” in a rather nice nod to the two-parter’s inspiration—as long as the Doctor and Rose have each other. Yet there’s an argument to be made that the Doctor and Rose need Mickey far more than he needs either of them. The Doctor and Rose’s relationship has become so intense, even codependent, that Mickey is the only reason they ever give each other any space. After all, it was Mickey who quietly led Rose away from a heartbroken Doctor at the end of “The Girl In The Fireplace,” and it’s Mickey who tells the Doctor that Rose could do with some time to herself after learning of parallel Pete Tyler’s existence. He makes the most of his spare part status, coolly realizing that the Doctor is never going to chase after him when Rose is walking away in the other direction. But it’s not until the final assault on the Cybermen’s factory that Mickey finally accepts emotionally what he already knew intellectually. Rose cares enough about Mickey to bid him a heartfelt farewell, but it’s the Doctor she loves and saves her real goodbyes for. Mickey hasn’t even finished walking away before he is forgotten.

Noel Clarke has come a long way from his underwhelming work in the first half of season one. He did great work as the rejected, hypocritical boyfriend in “Boom Town,” and he conveyed the full impact of Mickey’s decision to help Rose get back to the Doctor in “The Parting Of The Ways.” But this two-parter asks so much more of him than any previous story, and he excels. Indeed, “Rise Of The Cybermen”/“The Age of Steel” succeeds far more as a character story than it does as a monster story primarily on the strength of his work as Mickey. For all the drama and heartbreak at the Tyler mansion, the most affecting scene of the story is Mickey’s reunion with the grandmother who died years before in his universe. Standing in that doorway, he is confronted both with the spitting image of his beloved relative and with the loose carpeting that killed the original. In that instant, he sees all his failures and shortcomings, yet he still has the second chance he never imagined he could get. As has been the case so many times before, he knows he was useless, but he swears to be better. Even so, he’s become enough of a companion to switch into investigation mode when his parallel grandmother start talking about his mysterious friends.

It’s fitting that Noel Clarke plays a dual role in his big departure story, considering he also played multiple Mickeys way back in “Rose.” His work as Ricky is odd; Clarke is unconvincing as the badass leader of the Preachers, but that’s sort of the point. Ricky is just who Mickey would be if he lived in a slightly harsher world (and, perhaps, wasn’t held back by his love for Rose). Ricky’s toughness is an act, but then Mickey has always exemplified the old Kurt Vonnegut line that you are who you pretend to be. It’s alternately silly and touching that Mickey should be so desperate for the approval of his parallel self, even after it’s revealed Ricky’s Most Wanted status is based entirely on his flair for parking violations. When Ricky is killed, Mickey makes an earnest attempt to step into his parallel self’s shoes, but he never loses sight of what makes him different from his doppelganger. He demonstrates how well he has learned the Doctor’s lessons when he convinces Jake not to kill the guards, and he shows some impressive quick thinking when he gets the activated Cyberman suit to electrocute itself smashing through the Transmitter Controls.

Rose also benefits from Mickey’s expanded role here. As good as Billie Piper has been this season, the show has sometimes lost track of Rose. Her mind was largely absent from the body-swapping madness of “New Earth,” and she only got a couple of decent scenes in the Doctor-centric “The Girl In The Fireplace.” I’ve already discussed at lengths my issues with Rose’s characterization in “Tooth And Claw,” while “School Reunion” presented Rose at her most immature and possessive. Rose isn’t perfect in this two-parter—her jealous reaction to the Doctor’s mention of Lucy the caterer is a low point—but there are several instances in which the perceptive, compassionate Rose of season one reemerges. The scene in which Rose tells the Doctor about Mickey’s past and realizes how much they take him for granted is a much-needed moment of introspection for the characters; it’s also a good reminder that Rose is still the human to the Doctor’s alien.

But my favorite moment in this story comes in Rose and Mickey’s final scene together, after the Doctor has reentered the TARDIS. I quoted the exchange up top, and what makes it so powerful is that, for those lines, it’s just Mickey and Rose again. For that brief moment, the Doctor doesn’t matter, because the Doctor wasn’t there on the estate, growing up and dreaming of all the things they might someday do. It’s a reminder of just how far both Mickey and Rose have come, how two ordinary, insignificant people became so much more. What makes Mickey unique in Doctor Who is that he never forgets that person he once was, because the old Mickey isn’t buried very far underneath the new Mickey. Rose, on the other hand, takes so naturally to her life in the TARDIS that she’s in danger of losing that connection to who she was before she met the Doctor. It’s only right that her last moment with Mickey sees him remind her of that past. Now that he’s gone, it’s an open question as to what will keep Rose’s feet on the ground, even as she goes flying through the stars.

Stray observations:

  • Oh, right, I almost forgot: Shaun Dingwall and Camille Coduri are both on hand as the parallel Pete and Jackie Tyler. Both acquit themselves well, and it’s more than a little devastating when the parallel Jackie so coldly rebuffs Rose’s attempts to patch things up between her pseudo-parents, but I don’t really have much more to say about them here than what I already said back in the “Father’s Day” review. Either way, I do really enjoy Dingwall’s work as Pete, so it’s nice to see him again. 
  • It does seem a bit of a shame that John Lumic was upgraded before he met the Doctor, which means we never get a proper face-off between Barty Crouch Sr. and Barty Crouch Jr.
  • “I’m London’s Most Wanted for parking tickets.” “Great.” “Yeah, they were deliberate. I was fighting the system. Park anywhere, that’s me.” “Good policy. I do much the same. I’m the Doctor, by the way, if anyone's interested.”

“The Idiot’s Lantern” (season 2, episode 7; originally aired 5/27/2006)

(Available on HuluNetflix, and Amazon Instant Video.)

“Digging that New York vibe.” “Well, this could still be New York. I mean, this looks very New York to me. Sort of London-y New York, mind.” 

During Russell T. Davies’ tenure as showrunner, every season of Doctor Who followed roughly the same structure. There would be three or four standalone episodes to kick off the season, then a two-parter that was built around an alien invasion of Earth—the Slitheen had their go last season, and this time it was the Cybermen’s turn, albeit in a parallel universe. Later in the season would come a more experimental two-parter, which consistently emerged as one of the best stories of the year. There would then be one or two episodes, often written by Davies, that would tie up any loose ends and attempt to save as much money as possible in anticipation of the big finale. The weak spot in the schedule tended to be found in the gap between the first and second two-parters. There would often be an episode or two around the season’s midpoint that felt undercooked, as though there hadn’t been enough time in the mad rush of the season to fully develop each story. Indeed, that’s literally what happened with “The Idiot’s Lantern.” Originally slated to be the season’s ninth episode, a combination of story reshuffling and delays on other scripts meant it had to be filmed earlier than expected, and writer Mark Gatiss had to finish the script on short notice.

As such, it’s understandable that this story is less than the sum of its parts, a common issue with stories from this part of the season. I don’t want to overstate this phenomenon; after all, “Dalek” and “Father’s Day,” both classics of the first season, were broadcast in between “Aliens Of London”/“World War Three” and “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances.” But consider “The Long Game,” which sit at the precise midpoint of season one, just as “The Idiot’s Lantern” does here in the second season. Despite their wildly different settings, they share many of the same structural problems. Neither story suffers from a shortage of good ideas, but each struggles to unify its disparate ideas into a coherent whole. Both stories bring in recognizable comedic actors and then do precious little with their guest stars’ talents. (Admittedly, Maureen Lipman can’t rival Simon Pegg’s fame in America, but she’s quite well-known in the United Kingdom.) I’m not sure there’s a great episode to be found lurking beneath either “The Long Game” or “The Idiot’s Lantern,” but it’s easy to see a version of each story that is significantly better than what ended up being broadcast. In his second effort for Doctor Who, writer Mark Gatiss can’t match his work on “The Unquiet Dead.”

And yet, I did like “The Idiot’s Lantern” far more this time around than I did back in 2006. The coronation backdrop provides another reminder of just how thoroughly British Doctor Who is, and Gatiss does find some nice moments for the Doctor, as his script has particular fun with the psychic paper. The King of Belgium gag is good, but the more telling moment comes earlier, when the Doctor sizes up Eddie Connolly and then presents the exact credentials needed to get him in the door. The brisk pace of new Doctor Who means these latter-day Doctors can’t spend nearly as much time being imprisoned and falsely accused as their classic-era predecessors did, but the story gets in an abbreviated version of that hallowed story beat when the Doctor finds himself being interrogated by Detective Inspector Bishop. The Doctor is at his best when he reveals just how he knew the man’s name and then appeals to Bishop’s fundamental urge to go detective inspecting. There are enough of these little moments to make for a decent enough episode. It’s just that “The Idiot’s Lantern” lacks that one entirely successful element that would elevate everything else that doesn’t quite work; for instance, Gatiss’ previous story benefitted immensely from Simon Callow’s wonderful, lived-in performance as Charles Dickens, which helped the audience invest in the potentially stuffy historical setting.

On that score, the business with the Connolly family comes the closest to succeeding, if only because it’s the element that Gatiss’ script devotes the most attention to. Rory Jennings does well portraying Tommy Connolly’s nascent rebellious streak, even if his big speech to his father is more on-the-nose than it needs to be. For his part, Jamie Foreman is rather one-note as the family’s odious, bullying patriarch, but the script doesn’t offer many opportunities for nuance amid all the shouting. Foreman’s best moment comes right at the end of the episode, as Eddie silently walks away from his former home; there’s a quiet dignity to his gait that suggests the well-meaning soldier he might once have been before fear and rage consumed him. Rita’s decision to kick Eddie out of the house might feel a tad anachronistic, but let’s not forget what show we’re watching. The real-life Eddies likely weren’t dispensed with so easily, but such optimism is at Doctor Who’s core. After all, Rita and Tommy would never have gained the courage to stand up to Eddie if not for the Doctor and Rose’s example. As far as the show is concerned, such departures from what “really” happened is a feature, not a bug.

The story’s villains also show some potential. Ron Cook is suitably tortured as Mr. Magpie, his every gesture and intonation indicating that this is an unremarkable man so desperate to be released from the Wire’s clutches that he will help her steal the brainpower of millions. Magpie’s conflicted position should add complexity to the story, but it doesn’t lead anywhere in particular. He doesn’t get a redemptive if futile sacrifice, nor does the Doctor offer to help Magpie defeat the Wire only for a defeated Magpie to refuse. He does have a moment’s attack of conscience while clinging to the transmitter, but Magpie remains a pawn throughout; his pointless death does sap just enough of the Wire’s power to give the Doctor a chance to defeat her, but even that is a minor part of the resolution. The Wire herself is a potentially intriguing creation, particularly in how her weakened state makes her alternate between oily villainy and feral hunger. That’s a fantastic idea for a villain, but it requires rather more development than Maureen Lipman shouting “Hungry!” over and over.

Rose is rendered faceless for a good chunk of this episode, but Gatiss and Piper do a good job furthering Rose’s development in the time they do have. This season has taken its time in figuring out just what precisely is the relationship between Rose and the 10th Doctor, and “The Idiot’s Lantern” suggests they are now equal partners, at least as much as a 900-year-old Time Lord and a twentysomething human can ever hope to be equals. Rose takes obvious delight in talking down to supposedly respectable members of the ‘50s establishment like Magpie and Mr. Connolly. This is the same domineering Rose that we saw in “Tooth And Claw,” but here her arrogance makes more sense, particularly since Magpie and Connolly deserve a browbeating or two. There are episodes this season where the Doctor and Rose can be a bit much, but Gatiss’ script does a good job positioning them in opposition to people who are in need of some disrespect. The Doctor taught her well, as she handles her investigation into Magpie’s business just as he would, refusing to stand on ceremony and demanding he reveal his connection to the unearthly happenings on Florizel Street. Rose enters Magpie’s store with no real idea what is going on, at least in the particulars, but she knows innocent people are being hurt, which is enough to prompt her to decisive, rash action. It costs Rose her face, because, even if she acts as the Doctor would, she doesn’t have his knowledge or his alien intelligence—or, more relevant to this particular discussion, his sonic screwdriver.

One area that may well have been adversely affected by the mad rush to finish the script is the inter-episode continuity, although this isn’t the first non-Davies episode that feels disconnected from the rest of the season. I don’t have any particular issue with the lack of mention of Mickey, especially assuming some time has elapsed since “The Age Of Steel.” But the bigger missed opportunity comes at the end, when Rose convinces Tommy to catch up with his departing father. Considering Rose’s own failed reunion with the parallel Pete Tyler in the preceding story, her words to Tommy should carry massive emotional weight, as though she is urging Tommy to do something that she desperately yearns to do but is forever unable to. Billie Piper’s performance sort of suggests all that, but it’s rather too subtle for an episode that is so often more obvious than it needs to be; these are connections Doctor Who could stand to make just a touch more explicit. The episode ends on a nice character moment for Tommy and Eddie, but the whole thing feels adjacent to a partially realized moment for Rose. There’s potential for something special here, but the ideas aren’t developed in sufficient detail. That’s true of the episode in general, really, but “The Idiot’s Lantern” comes far closer to working than I once gave it credit for.

Stray observations:

  • Indeed, a big part of the reason that “The Idiot’s Lantern” succeeds as much as is does is down to Euros Lyn’s direction, which can be summarized as “All Dutch angles, all the damn time.” I realize I don’t talk about the direction of these stories as much as I do the writing. That’s attributable to what I tend to watch TV for—I respond more strongly to ideas than to visuals, and I don’t know as much about directing as I do about writing—but it’s also because most direction on new Doctor Who is just sort of generally good; Joe Ahearne’s work last season was noticeably better than average, but otherwise good direction tends to be direction I don’t notice. Lyn directs the hell out of this episode, even if I’m not entirely sure why he elected to frame every shot at such angles. These shots do add some extra tension to the story, but this is another element of the episode that feels disconnected from everything else. Still, Lyn’s direction does make the story that much more memorable, so that’s something.
  • This is such a minor thing, but it’s a good illustration of why “The Idiot’s Lantern” could have benefited from another draft or two. When the Doctor returns to the Connolly house on the day of the coronation, prompting Eddie and Tommy’s climactic confrontation, Detective Inspector Bishop just stands there the whole time. The officer witnesses a lengthy domestic dispute and makes no comment whatsoever, which is particularly odd when you consider Bishop was presumably the man to whom Eddie was informing. Lyn’s shot selection seems consciously designed to hide Bishop as much as possible, because it just doesn’t make much sense that he would be standing there silently the whole time.
  • The distinction between the Union Jack and the Union Flag is a myth, more or less, though I think this was slightly less well-known in 2006 as it is now. Still, if we’re going to be exactingly correct and pedantic, I’d point out that there’s no such thing as a King of Belgium; it’s actually King of the Belgians, as that is the only current European monarchy where the ruler is understood to be king or queen of the people, rather than the country. Also, in case you’re curious, the security guard would have mistook the 10th Doctor for a then 22-year-old King Baudouin, which is actually almost plausible.

Next week: Having left three-episode reviews behind forever—and I can’t even begin to tell you how thrilled I am about that—we move on to meet Ood and demons in the slice of sci-fi goodness that is “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit.”

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