For a family program, old Who rarely concerned itself with families. Companions tended to be orphans and runaways. Families were rarely at the centre of stories. New Who, from the get go, has been much more interested in families. It regularly presents us with mothers, fathers and their kids. They often become unwilling adventurers. We’ve even had a family of villains. The Doctor’s family – his daughter, his mother, his wife, his stepparents – have all featured.
Generally, families are shown to be important, positive aspects of life, but also often imperfect. Often, a key family member is missing: a father, a mother, a sister hiding in the hydrangeas. And this absence upsets the whole unit. Occasionally, a family member is afflicted in some way; the alien inhabited daughter in Fear Her, the alien disguised as a son in Night Terrors. All these are presented as crucial problems for the Doctor to solve.
And so to The Idiot’s Lantern, a story which does something quite different, perhaps even unique in showing a family which is inherently broken.
Meet the Connollys: father Eddie (Jamie Forman), mother Rita Connolly (Debra Gillett), teenage son Tommy (Rory Jennings) and Gran (Margaret John). Londoners in 1953, they are complete – no missing members. And although one of them, Gran, becomes afflicted when her face is stolen by the television (we’ll get to that), that’s not the root cause of this family’s troubles. The real problem lies with one of them.
It’s shouty, belligerent Eddie. He rules his house through fear and intimidation. Early in the story we see him bawling out Rita and Tommy and they are clearly terrified. “I am talking!”, he roars at them, if they dare interrupt him. We never see him hit them, but it’s clear that what we’re watching is domestic abuse. That’s what I think makes The Idiot’s Lantern unique. In all Doctor Who‘s permutations of family, we’ve never been allowed to see a wife and child in fear for their safety at the hands of the man of the house.
Luckily, the program punishes Eddie for his behaviour. Firstly, through a visit from the Doctor (David Tennant, with a stratospheric quiff) and Rose (Bille Piper, rockin’ the bobby soxer look). They manage to cleverly mock Eddie without him noticing, causing him to momentarily lose his power. Once that magic trick has worn off, the Doctor stands up to the brute. “I am talking!” barks Eddie, trying his old trick on the Doctor, only to get back an equally ferocious “And I’m not listening!”. The Doctor and Rose have set an example for Rita and Tommy, that standing up is important, and can be done.
Eddie has locked Gran in a room upstairs. She’s not herself, since she watched TV and an alien inhabiting it stole her face (well, it’s that kind of show). She’s catatonic and featureless, but harmless, but still he’s isolated her. Like all the suburb’s various faceless ones, Gran is bundled into a black car and hoarded by the police in a big cage. “This Churchill’s Britain, not Stalin’s Russia,” remarks an astonished Doctor.
The reference to a totalitarian regime is relevant. There’s a strong sense in The Idiot’s Lantern of people being persecuted due to their difference from the norm. This is relevant to sensitive lad Tommy, who, it is hinted, is gay and who seems like Eddie’s next target after Gran. This, and the constant threat of violence from Eddie converge in a nice piece of dialogue.
EDDIE: Oh, he loves his Gran, this one. Proper little mummy’s boy all round.
AUNTY BETTY: Oh, you know what they say about them. Eddie, you want to beat that out of him.
EDDIE: That’s exactly what I’m going to do.
This leads to an impressive confrontation where the Doctor and Detective Inspector Bishop (Sam Cox) are mere spectators. Appropriately it’s Tommy, not the Doctor, who confronts Eddie, having worked out that he’s been ratting the faceless ones out to the police (Bishop, the man who has been incarcerating the afflicted remains unchallenged for some reason). Gran is the latest abductee, again abetted by Eddie, and taken while Tommy and Rita looked on traumatised.
Perhaps, we might reasonably think, Eddie is acting out of a justifiable concern for his family’s safety. But any hope of that is dashed in an outburst where he betrays his true feelings about Gran sans visage. “She was filthy!” he spits in rage. “A filthy disgusting thing!” It’s not that hard to imagine he might be talking about gay people or black people. He’s the face of old time bigotry.
This is where Rita draws the line and throws her husband out on the street. As she points out, Eddie’s the monster in this house. Good for her too. The Doctor’s house call has opened her eyes, given her the courage to act. It’s fortunate that the house turns out to be in Gran’s name. Many others – then and now – wouldn’t have that security. In story terms, its satisfying that both Tommy and Rita have had the chance to successfully confront their tormentor.
But it all ends on an unfortunately ambiguous note.
The alien of the week has been defeated, and life’s returning to normal. There’s a street party, all orange pop and bunting. We see Eddie walking away from the house, coat, hat, suitcase. “Good riddance” mutters Tommy, but Rose convinces him to go after his father. It’s a delicate final touch, and how right that it’s Rose who delivers it. She knows what it’s like to live without a father; her advice to Tommy is some the Doctor couldn’t give. Convinced, Tommy runs after his father, helps carry his bag on the way to wherever.
Perhaps Eddie is not beyond redemption. And that seems fair enough; he’s a confused and angry man, but not a fundamentally bad one. The mention of his war service puts the viewer in mind of returning veterans and the psychological battles they face. And yes, he ratted on all and sundry, but no harm came to them in the end.
But that last image of a son running after his father… should the program offer even this glimmer of hope to the man we saw perpetrating domestic violence? Would it have been better to leave him completely humiliated? Go on kids, forgive your abusive parents, it seems to say. I dunno.
There’s no right answer. Life’s complex. Families are complex. And this is a harder problem for Doctor Who to solve than a son lost in a forest or a father being turned into a Cyberman. It goes to show that the series’ format isn’t endlessly flexible. Perhaps there are some topics it’s wise to stay clear of.
LINK to The Aztecs: both contain figures of female rule; Queen Elizabeth and Barbara as Yetaxa. Sure, it’s not great. Suggestions welcome!
NEXT TIME… The sun is blazing high in the sky over the New Atlantic, the perfect setting for a contemplation of Gridlock.