Doctor Who And The Idiot’s Lantern

David Tennant as The Doctor and Billie Piper as Rose Tyler in Doctor Who - The Idiot's Lantern (BBC1, 2006).

By the second series of Doctor Who, there was no way I was accepting a randomly assigned episode to review. Or, to put it another way, I was aware that there was going to be an episode written by Mark Gatiss, set in the fifties, and loosely inspired by the BBC Quatermass serials, and there was no way that I wasn’t reviewing that. As a consequence, I had some idea of what I was likely to want to say and what jokes and references I might want to use in advance of actually seeing the episode, and by extension this ended up a more confident, assured, focused and overall entertaining review than the one of The Long Game (which, incidentally you can find here). Let alone that sodding review of The Empty Child.

Unfortunately, this opinion did not seem to be shared by a large number of online Doctor Who fans. Apparently there was some kind of meeting that I wasn’t invited to where it was decided by committee that The Idiot’s Lantern was a lode of rubbish!!!4 and nobody was allowed to say otherwise. For a brief but intensely frustrating couple of days, this review became the subject of much derision and even outright insults on discussion forums, which did bother me a bit, not least because I remember the days when if you disagreed with a review in a fanzine you had to sit down and write your own retort, then type it, then post it, then wait at least two months for it to be published, by which time you had probably decided that you would probably have more constructively used that energy on going for a walk or something. That wasn’t the only controversy surrounding this review either – it originally opened with a jokey reference to the longstanding (and demonstrably untrue) rumour that Mark Gatiss had somehow come into possession of some off-air audio recordings of the long-lost episodes three to six of The Quatermass Experiment. The editor was concerned that this might constitute actionable libel, which I’m not sure it actually could, but if you’re reading, Mark, and you’re upset, send me them all on CD and we’ll forget all about it. Incidentally this review was originally titled Coronation Treat. Yes I know. Incidentally you can read a lot more about my love of all things creaky, black and white and science fiction in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. Also, if you want to hear me talking about how much I loved that year’s Christmas Special The Runaway Bride, then you can find that here.

If anyone knows their ancient black and white television sci-fi shows, it’s Mark Gatiss. After all, if the rumours are to be believed, he has all of the missing episodes of The Quatermass Experiment hidden under his bed.

Whether or not a popular actor, comedian, writer and cult television obsessive is in fact likely to own elusive recordings of live television programmes that were never even recorded in the first place due to a combination of strikes, technical problems and magnified insects finding their way into the film recorder is a question best pondered on another occasion. More pertinent is the fact that The Idiot’s Lantern, Gatiss’ most recent contribution to the revived Doctor Who, is a clear homage to this distinctive and often neglected strain of sci-fi. While his work with The League Of Gentlemen is awash with references to classic British horror films, Gatiss himself also has a pronounced fondness for the Quatermass serials, A For Andromeda, Night Of The Big Heat, The Trollenberg Terror and any other monochrome effort featuring an overabundance of research stations, indecipherable signals from outer space, and men in long coats from ‘The Ministry’.

Gatiss’ enthusiasm for Professor Quatermass and his flickeringly-telerecorded chums is easy to understand; even despite the mannerisms and technical limitations of the age, these are all terrific shows that display remarkable imagination and superb direction, often relying on little more than lighting and shadows to create a sense of terror. But does their influence have any place in a programme that has purposefully reinvented itself and abandoned all of the perceived limitations and shortcomings of ‘classic’ BBC science fiction? Recent BBC Four remakes of The Quatermass Experiment and – slightly less successfully – A For Andromeda have stayed true to the original storylines but have given them a thoroughly modern interpretation. And that’s straightforward ‘modern’, as opposed to the trying-to-appeal-to-all-ages dialogue and excessive application of cutting edge technology to be found in present day Doctor Who.

David Tennant as The Doctor and Billie Piper as Rose Tyler in Doctor Who - The Idiot's Lantern (BBC1, 2006).

Countless articles in ancient issues of Doctor Who Magazine may have repeatedly heralded it as the ‘great grandfather’ of the adventures of the TARDIS crew, but in a less abstract sense present day Doctor Who is about as far removed from the original version of The Quatermass Experiment as it’s possible for small-screen science fiction to get. For a start there have been countless technological advances in the intervening years, and The Doctor and Rose weren’t exactly likely to be going out live and in black and white, let alone struggling with ten-minute plus single takes on one small set (or indeed battling with a giant radioactive fly landing on the broadcast equipment). The new series also relies just as much on visual spectacle as it does on atmosphere and ambience, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but isn’t really suited to the style of storytelling being pastiched here.

If anyone can pull this ambitious conceit off, though, it’s Mark Gatiss. Not only does he have a genuine affection for the source material, with the previous series’ The Unquiet Dead he proved himself the most adept writer so far at reconnecting this all-singing all-dancing all-too-much-CGI setpiece with the dramatic values and stylistic devices that had characterised the best moments of the show’s past. While The Unquiet Dead was where the first series really found its feet, this run has already seen an undisputed fully certified moment of greatness in The Girl In The Fireplace, so there was less pressure for The Idiot’s Lantern to do something truly spectacular.

What The Idiot’s Lantern did achieve, though, was something far more remarkable. Whether by accident or design, the writer, the production team and the performers all managed to finally perfect that ‘retro sci-fi’ template that former producer John Nathan-Turner was striving towards in so many of his later stories. Although forever hampered by budgetary and technological restrictions, interference from BBC ‘Top Brass’, witless scheduling, dodgy casting decisions and his own inability to see that contrived ‘celebrity’ cameos by people who weren’t even that well known were never a good idea, he always desperately wanted to produce something that could simultaneously appeal to both lovers of cerebral science fiction and family audiences while still staying on the right side of programme planners with their brow furrowed over the latest nonsensical bureaucratic edict. There’s no denying that he was adept at all of these, including on very rare occasions the last one, but what he could never really manage to do was to make them work together. Only a couple of years later he’d have been right at home in the fifties-tinged world of massive viewing figures for Heartbeat and The Darling Buds Of May, but his attempts to bridge the two with Doctor Who never quite hit the mark.

That’s not to say that the results weren’t often good, but as great as such stories may have been, they were really just an indication of what could have been achieved with more available time and resources. New Doctor Who, of course, has both of these to spare – well, comparatively – and as such there was never any question of being unable to match a well-realised script with suitably well-realised visuals. The storyline itself was hardly the most original of plot devices, calling to mind reference points as diverse as the Ace Of Wands story The Beautiful People (itself more than a little indebted to Doctor Who‘s own Terror Of The Autons), that episode of Angel where he gets turned into a puppet, and most jarringly – if probably unintentionally – Life On Mars. However the script was so well-realised that this didn’t really matter at all.

Having already succeeded in translating Tom Baker-era Gothic horror-comedy overtones into the modern format with The Unquiet Dead, Mark Gatiss has now done what many indignant JNT-bashers would have doubtless have deemed impossible, and belatedly made good on the overlooked promise of the ailing last couple of years of original Doctor Who. Here’s hoping that he fancies having a go at a First Doctor-style ‘pure historical’ story next time round. Upon which we can all start speculating about those episodes of Marco Polo he has stashed away somewhere.

Some things that may need explaining…

Episodes One and Two of The Quatermass Experiment were recorded by the BBC and still exist. Episodes Three to Six, barring some footage taken in dress rehearsals to make trailers with (long gone and reputedly not that exciting), never were, and the theories for this decision vary between industrial action, a projected international sale falling through, and the general poor quality of the recordings of the first two; in particular the second, where a giant radioactive fly landed on the film recorder partway through and remained indelibly burned into to the image of the bulk of the episode. I’d say this was entirely in keeping with the nature of the serial but that’s by the by. No further footage from the other episodes, visual or audio, has ever been located.

A For Andromeda was broadcast by the BBC in 1961 and involved intergalactic signals that ultimately resulted in the ‘construction’ of a female humanoid; a sequel, The Andromeda Breakthrough, followed in 1962. Based on a 1959 novel about a heatwave masking an alien invasion, Night Of The Big Heat was broadcast by ITV in 1960; it was remade for the big screen in 1967, with the script reworked by none other than eighties Doctor Who regulars Pip And Jane Baker. Unambiguously ‘inspired’ by the success of the Quatermass serials, The Trollenberg Terror – about a mysterious mist masking an alien invasion – was broadcast by ITV in 1956 and remade for the big screen in 1958. Aside from a small amount of material from A For Andromeda (and all of The Andromeda Breakthrough), nothing exists of any of these productions.

The 2005 remount of The Quatermass Experiment – not entirely coincidentally featuring both Mark Gatiss and David Tennant – strove to simply rework the original scripts using modern equipment and technology to the extent of actually being performed live, and was a resounding success. The 2006 version of A For Andromeda, commissioned as a direct result of The Quatermass Experiment, made more of an effort to update the storyline and structure and as a result fell a little flat.

The Marco Polo gag – at that point, certain rumours about a certain story possibly existing depending on which way the hailstones were hailstoning or something had yet to start circulating, so this felt hilariously far-fetched in its original context. Incidentally, while the opening gag was cut from the published version, this was left in. No me neither.

Watching The Idiot’s Lantern again has left me feeling distinctly unimpressed at this review. From this distance it feels all ‘surface’ and primarily concerned with how I felt about Doctor Who coming back, with very little room left to talk about how and why I enjoyed the episode to such a forum-enraging extent. I also think “and that’s straightforward ‘modern’, as opposed to the trying-to-appeal-to-all-ages dialogue and excessive application of cutting edge technology to be found in present day Doctor Who” reads like a negative observation when it clearly wasn’t intended to be one, although admittedly I’m now not sure what point I was trying to make. I’ve also removed a snarky comment about the standard of the scripts in the revived series as I don’t agree with it now and I’m not even sure I did then. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced it was actually what I originally wrote. As for the observation about the many other shows using similar plot devices, I now think this is absolute codswallop and would like to apologise to Mark. So they all featured ‘evil’/possessed televisions as a plot device (and I’m not even certain without checking that The Beautiful People actually did, and Terror Of The Autons certainly didn’t)? Big deal.

What strikes me about The Idiot’s Lantern now is just how colourful and vibrant it is, dispensing with the myth that the fifties were dull and grey just because television was – this was, after all, the era of gaudy supermarket packaging, the Festival Of Britain and Eastmancolor film – with a lively and eyecatching setting, helped in no small part by the fact it is overlaid with very modern special effects. What’s especially amusing is that it starts with The Doctor and Rose stepping out of the Tardis expecting it to be even more gaudy and colourful still, under the misapprehension that they’ve landed in rock’n’roll-era America, and their incongruously clichéd costumes are a nice touch; in fact in both this and The Long Game (as you can read here), I was particularly impressed by how quickly they just charge straight into the story with no messing about. This is a point that we will very definitely be returning to in subsequent reviews. It does seem odd in retrospect that I didn’t see fit to mention the feminist angle of the episode – which felt a little clumsy and unwieldly at the time but doesn’t so much now – or Rose’s pointed comment about someone who has so much ‘respect’ for the Union Jack not knowing that it’s actually called the Union Flag outside of sailing vessels. I think I mainly left the latter out due to the fact that at the time pretty much everyone else was celebrating it, but it’s also pertinent that back then, pointing out that a furious bonehead was a furious bonehead seemed much more incidental and unremarkable and basically like something that was just taken as read. Now of course it’s a bit different; again, that’s something that we’ll be coming back to. As will the fact that even when The Doctor and Rose are alone with the family in their front room at night, there are still distant voices and cars and door slams on the soundtrack to reinforce the idea that there’s an actual world out there beyond what is directly happening on screen. This was a welcome hallmark of Russell T. Davies’ tenure and as we shall see, when they took their eye off that particular ball I really started to have problems…

David Tennant as The Doctor and Billie Piper as Rose Tyler in Doctor Who - The Idiot's Lantern (BBC1, 2006).

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Not On Your Telly is a collection of some of my columns and features with a slant towards ‘forgotten’ television, and includes plenty of pieces related to Doctor Who. Not On Your Telly is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

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Further Reading

You can find my review of The Long Game from the previous series of Doctor Who – this time featuring Billie Piper with Christopher Eccleston – here.

Further Listening

You can hear me talking about how much I love that year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special – The Runaway Bridehere.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.