“You can never go back. That’s your tragedy.”
The Idiot’s Lantern is one of those mythological Doctor Who episodes, the one everyone’s heard about it even if they haven’t seen it because it freaked out a whole generation of ten-year-olds and was also, incidentally, pretty weird. It’s the Tenth Doctor one where an electronic creature called The Wire sucks people’s faces off through their televisions, because reasons.
While the in-universe explanation for all of this is, er, less than satisfactory, it’s actually a pretty potent manifestation of the lie-to-children that “TV will rot your brain”. (I know this was a favoured maxim of the Resident Grammarian when I was about ten.) What if TV actually rotted your brain? What if all those suspicious old people (everyone’s old people when you are ten) were actually right? What if the TV you are watching right now is about to eat your brain? (Doctor Who goes meta!)
I’m inclined to say that the episode isn’t actually about the Wire and the Doctor’s mad attempts to stop its plan to eat everyone as they patriotically watch Queen Elizabeth’s coronation on TV; that’s just distraction. Rather, it’s about a family in which the main problem emphatically isn’t the telly, and which isn’t going to be helped by the simple removal of a telly. All the brain-rotting actually turns out to be a catalyst for Tommy Connolly to grow up, for Rita Connolly to throw out her abusive husband; the episode ends with Rita and her family and friends sitting around the television to watch the Coronation. Television rotting your brain is not really the issue, says the episode; there are worse things, human things, that can happen in a home, and the brain-rotting thing is just a distraction.
Which is a nicely self-serving message for a TV show, and also shows a surprising amount of nuance, grounded in the real as it is. Unfortunately, it’s one that tends to undermine the actual role of the Doctor here: if his antics here are a distraction from a real, human form of oppression, what’s the point of watching them at all? And, indeed, the episode feels weak and underwritten, the drama and the peril manufactured for our viewing pleasure. Even the faceless people are really not that scary. It all feels weirdly pointless; perhaps this is a sort of self-damning comment on TV culture, or, more likely, it’s just badly written, full of clever tricks and references that go nowhere, a superficial confection of vaguely Whovian tropes without anything to hold them together. Even Tennant can’t lift it into some kind of life. It may have been scary to a ten-year-old me; to a twenty-year-old me it’s just hilariously bad.