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Family, abuse and The Idiot’s Lantern (2006)


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.

The Monster, the Doctor and Dalek (2005)


We are so used to Doctor Who these days. We get new episodes every year and a special at Christmas. We’ve had eight series and over 100 new episodes. We take it for granted that every year there’ll be more of it. But it wasn’t always the case.

Back in 2005, each new episode was a miracle. Everyone had thought Doctor Who was dead. The idea that it might come back was only a dream. The news that it was coming back for a 13 episode series on BBC1 was almost unbelievable. Then on top of all that it turned out to be good…  Well, to steal a word from Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor, it was fantastic. Meaning it was like a fantasy.

Episode 6 in that joyous run is Dalek. Cunningly held back to counter any mid season slide in ratings, this was an event within the bigger event of the show’s return. And while the other episodes had been good,  I distinctly remember watching this on broadcast and thinking this was where it really felt like the series was clicking. If it weren’t for those gas mask zombies, it would surely be the stand out episode of that first year of Doctor Who‘s revival. Perhaps it still is.

Its job was to reintroduce the Daleks as an integral part of the series iconography, to an audience who had not given a flying Thal about them for about twenty years. Who didn’t even know them, unless they had seen them as the butt of jokes on TV ads and sketch shows. It pulls off this trick by concentrating on just one Dalek, running amok in a billionaire tyrant’s underground headquarters. And look, we all want this for Murdoch, but that’s not the point.

No, the point is that it does it methodically and effectively; it drip feeds information about the Dalek, gradually revealing its powers, confounding expectations about its limitations, so that by the end of the episode, they are firmly established as big metal badasses. In the season finale, there’s a moment when Rose acknowledges a job well done in this episode when she says, ‘There’s thousands of them now. We could hardly stop one. What’re we going to do?’. We know what she means because the Dalek in Dalek is so formidable.

But I think the really clever thing this episode does is the role reversal between the Doctor and the monster.

We’re used to having villains presented as a dark mirror of the Doctor. In fact that might be essential to any hero/villain relationship. Anyway, you can list them off by heart. The Master, Davros, the Valeyard… but even comparatively b-list villains, like Borusa or Professor Lazarus to choose two random examples, are always there for us to compare to the Doctor.

To directly compare the Doctor to a monster is rarer, but that’s what Dalek does, through role reversal. The Doctor for instance, played with saliva propelling emotion by Eccleston, behaves in a very un-Doctorly way. Upon first discovering the Dalek, the Doctor does not do any of his normal tricks. He doesn’t negotiate or befriend or cajole. He just tries to exterminate it. The first instinct of a Dalek.

The Dalek meanwhile demonstrates its Doctory ingenuity at every turn. It absorbs energy from Rose and escapes by tricking its enemies into a false sense of security before suckering their faces. Its next step is to absorb information. ‘The Dalek’s a genius,’ the Doctor warns. So just like him then, but murderous. Oh, he’s that too now.

For the rest of the episode, the Doctor is largely impotent. He can merely react to what Dalek does. It’s his own tactic turned against him. While the Dalek methodically climbs the levels of Van Statten’s space museum, countering every attempt to destroy it with silent determination, the Doctor’s reduced to tapping on a laptop, shutting bulkheads by remote control.

This culminates in a famous scene where the Dalek chooses to destroys a room full of soldiers by setting the sprinkler system off and electrocuting them with one zappy shot. It’s interesting because there’s no plot reason for it to show such an innovative approach to death; we all know it could just pick off those guards one by one. It chooses the showy way of killing, presumably as a display of strength and to terrify any onlookers. It certainly seems to work on the Doctor, who ends up bawling at the screen, like a showrunner who’s reading on doctorwhonews.net that his season premiere has been leaked online: ‘why can’t you just DIE?!’ But this is surely the Doctor’s modus operandi: come up with a clever solution which not only does the job but underlines your point.

The Dalek gets a bad dose of mercy from being touched by Rose, meaning it thinks twice before exterminating all and sundry. But it also uses Rose as a hostage, manipulating the Doctor’s emotions by threatening to kill her so that he will open a bulkhead (cue more laptop tapping). Now that in itself is not overly Doctor-esque, but when it says “What use are emotions if you will not save the woman you love?” its awkward lack of familiarity with human relationships sounds a bit like someone else we know.

By episode’s end, the Dalek has used guile and intelligence to work its way to freedom, and stands at the finale with the spunky girl by its side. The Doctor on the other hand has resorted to wielding a big gun. Rose says to him, ‘What the hell are you changing into?’ making the implied point explicit. As it turns out, the story’s conclusion has very little to do with him. The Dalek commits suicide with Rose’s consent, while the Doctor is reduced to a bystander. In a strange way, the Dalek has won, while the Doctor has failed at every turn.

We’re so used to Doctor Who these days, but back when we had just 13 episodes of new Who, this one felt like a keeper. It does its job. It brings back the Daleks. But it also forces us to look at the Doctor in a new light. And that’s an astonishingly confident move only 6 episodes in.

‘You would make a good Dalek’ the monster tells the Doctor. He could at least be polite enough to repay the compliment.

LINK to Silver Nemesis. Because there’s a Cyberman’s head on display in Van Statten’s museum, this is the first time we’ve seen one since Silver Nemesis. Unless you count Dimensions in Time, and if you do, god help you.

NEXT TIME: Are you picking your nose? More bubbling lumps of hate in Revelation of the Daleks