Doctor Who And The Idiot's Lantern

This look at the Doctor Who episode The Idiot's Lantern - originally titled Coronation Treat (yes, I know) - was dogged by controversy, which was a little strange as I'd thought of it as one of the most innocuous and even inconsequential pieces I'd ever written. First of all the fanzine editor who had commissioned it refused to print it in full, fearing that the jokes about Mark Gatiss having lost bits of archive television stashed under his bed were verging on libellous(!?), and then after publication it provoked all manner of scoffing and scorn from readers who were beside themselves that I'd dared to say that I actually quite liked it. Apparently there was some law passed about it being the one to forget about that year, without anyone telling me. I would later elaborate on this, at some considerable length, in an epic overview of the entire Russell T. Davies era which you can find in my book Well At Least It's Free. Anyway, I no longer necessarily agree with all of the points made in the review, but here it is regardless...

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 comedian, writer and cult television obsessive is in fact likely to own elusive telerecordings 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 particular and oft-overlooked 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 gem containing 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 BBC4 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.

Countless articles in ancient issues of Doctor Who Magazine may have repeatedly proclaimed 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. On top of that, with the best will in the world, the average script for new Doctor Who is hardly on a par with the work of Fred Hoyle or Nigel Kneale.

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 concept 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 after a couple of patchy opening episodes, this run has already seen an undisputed fully certified moment of greatness - 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 JNT, bless him, was forever hampered by budgetary and technological restrictions, interference from BBC 'Top Brass', brainless 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 John Birt's 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. If he'd been given an 'adult' sci-fi slot to play with the results would at the very least have been less akin to watching the world's slowest-drying paint than Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts' Moonbase 3, and 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, as best evidenced by Remembrance Of The Daleks, Black Orchid and Delta And The Bannermen in particular, 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, and as such there was never any question of being unable to match a well-realised script with suitably well-realised visuals - witness how closely the opening scenes resembled those of Remembrance Of The Daleks only with a touch more visual panache. 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 the Hinchcliffe-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 yarn next time round. Upon which we can all start speculating about those copies of Marco Polo he has stashed away somewhere.

You can find my huge piece on the entire Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who in my book Well At Least It's Free, available as a paperback here or as an eBook here.