In which the Doctor decides to take Rose to New York in 1956, to see Elvis Presley's famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. To get to the studios, the Doctor drives a Vespa scooter out of the TARDIS. It quickly becomes clear that they are nowhere near New York. They are in London, and the city is gearing up for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. They meet Mr Magpie, who is selling TV sets for the big event. He tells them that the ceremony will take place the next day. Rose is surprised to see so many TV aerials on the rooftops, as she had always been told that people had to cram into their neighbours' homes to watch - so few were households with a set. On Florizel Street, the Doctor and Rose witness a man being bundled into a car with a blanket over his head. One of the neighbours - a boy named Tommy Connolly - tells them that this has been happening a lot recently. The Doctor pursues the car on his scooter, but loses it. Tommy's father, Eddie, orders his son not to say any more.
Intent on learning more about what is going on here, that evening the Doctor and Rose turn up at the Connolly residence, pretending to be employed by the Government to look into how the population is preparing for the big day. Eddie is clearly a bully, who terrorises his family, and so they find ways to embarrass and belittle him. It is clear that the family is hiding a secret, and that Tommy would like to talk. He tells them of the abductions, and of how people are being turned into monsters. This includes his own grandmother, who is being kept upstairs, The Doctor goes to see her, and finds that the old woman has been left completely faceless. The police turn up, led by Inspector Bishop. The Doctor is knocked out and the old woman is bundled away. The Doctor recovers and gives chase - this time seeing how the police cars enter a warehouse that has its entrance quickly hidden with a market barrow. He breaks in and discovers twenty or so faceless people held there. Rose sees a strange red glow emanating from the back of the Connolly's TV set. She goes to Magpie's shop to investigate. He tries to warn her away. One of the TV sets comes to life - showing a female continuity announcer. Rose is shocked when it starts to talk to them. It then sends out a beam of energy which starts to suck off Rose's face.
The Doctor has been arrested by Bishop, but soon turns the tables and gets the Inspector to tell him everything that has been going on. Bishop has been under orders to simply remove the faceless people, to be dealt with once the Coronation is over. Another victim is brought in - and the Doctor sees that it is Rose. The following morning, the day of the ceremony, the Doctor and Bishop go to enlist Tommy's help. They go to Magpie's shop, after the boy tells them all this happened after the neighbourhood began to take in his inexpensive TV sets. They find the faces of all the victims staring out at them from TV screens, silently appealing for help. The female face appears and reveals that she is the Wire - an alien entity who was executed by her own kind, but whose mind escaped through space. It arrived at Magpie's shop some time ago via his TV aerial. It spared his face on condition he worked for it. It is simply using the female face as an interface. It attacks them, but only Bishop loses his features, as it retreats on recognising the sonic screwdriver as advanced technology. It has Magpie transfer its essence into a portable TV set, and he flees.
The Doctor realises that the Wire intends to exploit the Coronation ceremony to harvest more people. He discovers that they are in Muswell Hill, in the north of the city, and close by is Alexandra Palace - site of one of the BBC's TV transmitters. Magpie will have gone there. They give chase after the Doctor cobbles together a rudimentary video recorder. At the Palace, the Doctor pretends to be the King of Belgium to gain access. Magpie is climbing the transmitter tower and the Doctor goes after him, whilst Tommy goes to a control room with instructions on operating the recorder. The Wire kills Magpie, then starts to feed on the mental energies of the people watching the ceremony. The Doctor traps the creature on the video recorder - intending to tape over it some time later. Returning to Florizel Street, a party is underway. All the faceless victims have been restored. It transpires that Eddie had been reporting his afflicted neighbours to the police. His wife Rita, fed up with his bullying, decides to throw him out, as the house belongs to her. The Doctor and Rose encourage Tommy not to become estranged from his father, despite what he thinks of him. Tommy is given the scooter as a gift.
The Idiot's Lantern was written by Mark Gatiss, and was first broadcast on Saturday 27th May, 2006. As with his Series One submission, Gatiss was given a period story to do - this time one set in the 1950's - an era which fascinated him. He had hoped to dramatise his New Adventures novel "Nightshade" which also features a formless energy being, which makes use of an antenna tower, and which had Quatermass influences. Quatermass was the other big TV event of the 1950's.
Asked to come up with something new, Gatiss first thought about Rock & Roll, and had an alien taking over people's minds through a hit pop song. This wasn't deemed visual enough, so TV became the medium by which the Wire would attack.
The title comes from a slang term for a TV set - in that people would sit in front of any old rubbish rather than go out and do something more interesting.
The Muswell Hill location was well known to Gatiss. One of the residents of this area is actress Maureen Lipman. She was called upon to play the Wire. Unable to travel to Cardiff due to her work commitments, she filmed all of her material at Alexandra Palace itself. If you have ever seen any archive footage of the real early TV announcers, you will know how spot on her casting was.
The cast also includes Ron Cook as Magpie, and Sam Cox as Inspector Bishop. The Connolly clan are Jamie Foreman (Eddie), Debra Gillett (Rita), Rory Jennings (Tommy) and Margaret John as Gran.
Jennings was actually in his early twenties when he made this story. Like Florence Hoath in the previous season, he was one of those actors who could play much younger roles. Margaret John had appeared in Doctor Who before - having been Megan Jones in Fury From The Deep.
Gillett is best known these days for her role as Mrs Thursday, in ITV's Morse prequel Endeavour. Foreman tends to get cast as criminal types, apt as his family grew up in that milieu in the East End of London. He wore his father's period watch for the part.
Story Arc: Torchwood is mentioned as being behind the police cover up of events.
Tardisode: Not so much a prequel this time, more what happens between the pre-credits sequence and the start of the episode proper. Grandma Connolly is sitting down to watch her new TV when strange red lightning surrounds it. She gives it a thump, then the lightning reaches out to seize her face. We then see on the screen an advert for the Coronation broadcast.
Overall, a slight disappointment after Gatiss' first series script. It didn't fare well in the season polls. In the DWM Mighty 200 poll it managed position 138, but had dropped to 195th place (out of 241) five years later with the 50th Anniversary Poll. Perhaps it's a bit too preachy (Tommy's challenging of his father). Things aren't helped by the Doctor only seeming to get really angry when Rose falls victim, like the other faceless people don't seem to matter quite so much. You'd think she was his girlfriend or something...
Things you might like to know:
- Let's get the anachronisms out of the way first. The BBC ident seen on the screens in Magpie's shop - the "bat-wing" one - wasn't introduced until the end of 1953, whilst this takes place on 1st and 2nd June of that year. The Doctor claims to have invented the home video 30 years earlier. Yes and no. 10 years is more accurate for the video cassette, but he's right in terms of it becoming a household item. Magpie's van is four years too early.
- If Florizel Street is in Muswell Hill, then Alexandra Palace is facing the wrong way.
- Florizel Street was the original name for Coronation Street.
- Rory Jennings will be familiar to Big Finish fans as the voice of the young Davros in their I, Davros miniseries.
- Viewers on 2nd June 1953 did not get to see every bit of the Coronation ceremony. The BBC weren't permitted to show the part where Elizabeth was anointed, as this was the religious bit. The rest was more about becoming a terrestrial monarch, whilst the anointing symbolised her becoming the Defender of the Faith and the head of the Church of England. It will be interesting to see if the same rule applies when it is Charles' turn. (Or William's, depending on how much longer Liz 2 goes on).
- Programmes seen or referred to next. We see clips from Muffin The Mule; Animal,Vegetable or Mineral; and What's My Line. The Wire says: "Are you sitting comfortably...", from Listen With Mother (radio rather than TV but it will go on the telly and give Dalek voice man Peter Hawkins a good living). She also says "Goodnight children, everywhere...", which comes from Children's Hour. Fans of the VFX in Doctor Who will be familiar with the Puppet Stage, as the location where many of the model shots for the series were filmed. This space got its name as it was where Muffin The Mule was recorded.
- Surprisingly, only the Doctor mentions the first ascent of Mount Everest - news of which reached Britain on the eve of the Coronation.
- When it was still going to be a story about a pop song, this had a working title of "Mr Sandman". Gatiss is obviously obsessed by this song, as it will crop up in his Series 9 effort, Sleep No More.
- It was fellow writer Gareth Roberts, shortly to be given a commission of his own but at this point writing the Tardisodes, who suggested the on screen title. It was a phrase his father used to describe TV sets.
- Gatiss put some of himself into the character of Tommy. It is obvious that he is gay, but never explicit. Some critics at the time actually liked the Connolly family material, but others found it too preachy.
- The Wire's demands to be fed seem to have been influenced by the carnivorous plant Audrey II in The Little Shop of Horrors. You can also clearly see the reference to Kroagnon in Paradise Towers. Gatiss clearly rates this story, as the Seventh Doctor turns the tables on the Caretakers in exactly the same way that the Tenth does with Bishop in this.
- The TV aerials on Florizel Street look not unlike swastikas - suggesting the fascistic nature of the Wire, and tying in with Eddie having fought fascism only to become a bit of a fascist himself.
- Last, but certainly not least - the ongoing success of Magpie Electricals. Considering that this was a tiny one-man business, heavily in debt and selling TV sets for £5 when the average cost at the time was £70 - and its owner gets himself killed - the company seems to have done remarkably well for itself. It is still going strong in the 21st Century. Martha Jones has one of their TVs, and Sarah Jane Smith one of their computers. The Torchwood Hub also boasts one of their TV sets. They are still around far into the future, as a sign on Starship UK testifies. The Doctor even uses their products - such as his guitar amp - and the Eleventh Doctor's first TARDIS console used bits of Magpie products. Here's a picture I myself took, on a set visit in 2012, to prove it: