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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “The Idiot’s Lantern”

(intro to my Who blogging, please read before commenting / previous: Episodes 5/6: “Rise of the Cybermen”/“The Age of Steel”)

So I started by Googling the phrase “idiot’s lantern” because it’s such a perfect euphemism for television, even better than “boob tube,” but I’d never heard it before, and I wondered whether scriptwriter Mark Gatiss invented it. It appears not, but that’s not the point. The point is that most of the results Google returns on that phrase are related to Doctor Who, and most of those are related to Doctor Who fans bitching about how much they hate this goddamned episode.
Oh man, I laughed and laughed reading the complaints of some of these fans, not because they’re wrong but because they’re absolutely right, for the most part, and I never even noticed. I was laughing at myself. Because I’m so madly in love with this show, and with the Doctor, that I never even notice when it’s repeating itself, or not making sense, and what kind of dork does that make me? I’m so critical about so many other things, but when it comes to Doctor Who, I have rose-colored glasses on over my blinders. And I don’t care. More than one person has asked me, derisively, over the course of my career as a film and TV critic, why I can’t just relax and enjoy whatever it is I’ve savaged for what it is. So here ya go: this is what it takes for me to do that. It takes Doctor Who.

I’m not even going to repeat the complaints of those less thoroughly enamoured fans: you can click the links above to explore them for yourself if you feel you must. All I really care about is trying to figure out exactly why I’m able to enjoy Doctor Who so easily and uncritically. In this instance, I’m reminded of one of the great episodes of The Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” in which a power outage and some other weird events send the denizens of a nice, respectable suburban street into a downward spiral of paranoia and suspicion, of neighbors turning on neighbors. Of course, there was no genuine threat to Maple Street, which is not true of Florizel Street here — there’s a monster, and it’s already here. And the bad, unneighborly behavior is concentrated in Magpie, the TV dealer, and Eddie, the bullying husband and father. But still, same idea: how tenuous civilization is, and how easily it is dissolved (if, thankfully, only temporarily) in the face of fear.

And it’s funny, too, this episode, in a sly way. Remember how Mom always said TV was bad for your eyes? Turns out its bad for your whole face. We talk about getting sucked into television, and that’s the actual fact here — which is perhaps extra doubly ironic not merely because this is a TV show criticizing the hypnotic powers of TV but because this is, clearly, a particularly hypnotic show on the whole criticizing, it could be interpreted, itself. Or maybe just its own rabid fans.

No matter that this is set in the 1950s: science fiction is always about the time in which it is written. We’re going through an intense new love affair with TV again: just the other day I snarked about the wonders of high-def and likened it to the introduction of television itself. We laugh when Eddie the bully marvels at how the puppet show in black-and-white on a 12-inch screen is like having it in the room with you, but, hey, maybe we know how he feels.

The idea that this is about today, not about the 1950s, is at work in the one criticism other fans have had of this episode that I don’t agree with: they see a “gay agenda” in Doctor Who and particularly here, in “sissy” Tommy who needs to have the momma’s-boyness smacked out of him before that leads to you-know-what. I don’t know why they don’t believe that the show’s “live and let live as long as you’re not hurting anyone else” agenda shouldn’t extend to the likes of Tommy, or why gay men like Russell Davies and Mark Gatiss shouldn’t use their own experiences to craft their stories, but fine. It seems to me, though, that Tommy and his relationship with his father is more about countering Eddie’s contention that “it matters what people think,” and about Tommy’s pointing out that his father, who fought in the war and uses that as an excuse for his bullying, fought “so little twerps like me could do what we want, say what we want.” That’s not about a “gay agenda” — except, perhaps, as it connects to the “live and let live” one — but about life half a century onward, today, when those who support the pullback of civil liberties (in the U.S. and in the U.K.) offer excuses similar to Eddie’s. Freedom may not be free, but the price of freedom isn’t freedom itself either. See also: the Doctor’s line about this not being “Stalin’s Russia,” despite the secret informants and the men in black.

I myself am more disturbed by the constant and blatant “the Doctor continues not to come to my house and steal me away from this rock” agenda that the show keeps throwing in my face. Because I can’t avoid acknowledging, no matter how much commentary on contemporary social realities I can finagle out of an episode, that it’s simply all about the Doctor for me. I’m in love with him — all of him, not just David Tennant’s Doctor, except that he happens to be the Doctor at the moment. The Best. Doctor. Evar., of course, but I’ve pretty much thought that about all of them at the time, kind of. So I don’t care if he wears a silly pompadour hairdo that I would have to tell him, were I traveling with him at this time, that he really shouldn’t bother with again. I would forgive him thinking he’s landed the TARDIS in New York when we are quite obviously in London. I would love him even more for standing up to all kinds of bullies, even one so minor as Eddie (at least in comparison to, say, Davros), and for throwing a touch of feminist outrage into a pre-Betty Friedan era (“Mr. Connolly, what gender is the queen?”). I might be mystified to hear him say, “I love telly, don’t you?” but then again, if I were traveling on the TARDIS, I’d know why the hell he has a Betamax VCR, and what he’ll tape over the Wire with. Perhaps an episode of The Wire?

Random thoughts on “The Idiot’s Lantern”:

• Why does this episode make me wanna yell, “Feed me, Krelborn, feed me now!”?

• The Doctor’s a Kylie Minogue fan! (“It’s never too late, as a wise person once said. Kylie, I think.”) Hey, let’s make her a companion…!

• The Doctor is decked by a punch? That doesn’t really happen to him a lot, does it? In fact, I can’t think of another example. Usually his force of personality is enough to bowl people over before they get a chance to knock him out.

• With that Bakelite portable TV, I think its safe to say that Doctor invented the first iPod.

• Even a lowly DI knows about Torchwood? “Something happens out in public on the big day,” the cop says in the background while the Doctor stares, grief-stricken and enraged, at the faceless Rose, “we’ll have Torchwood on our backs then, make no mistake.” I would have thought Torchwood would be a bit more secret than that…

• Great quotes:

“You’re burning me inside, behind my eyes!” Creepy.

“He’s armed and clever!” Hee.

“This one is tasty! I’ll have lashings of him!” Oh my, yes.

(next: Episodes 8/9: “The Impossible Planet”/“The Satan Pit”)

MPAA: not rated

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