The Idiot's Lantern

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173 – "The Idiot's Lantern"
Doctor Who episode
Idiot's Lantern.jpg
The Wire claims Mr. Magpie, the owner of a shop who sells the televisions she inhabits.
Directed by Euros Lyn
Written by Mark Gatiss
Script editor Simon Winstone
Produced by Phil Collinson
Executive producer(s) Russell T Davies
Julie Gardner
Incidental music composer Murray Gold
Production code 2.7
Series Series 2
Length 45 minutes
Originally broadcast 27 May 2006
← Preceded by Followed by →
"The Age of Steel" "The Impossible Planet"

"The Idiot's Lantern" is the seventh episode of the second series of the British science fiction television series Doctor Who, first broadcast on 27 May 2006 on BBC One. It was written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Euros Lyn.

In the episode, Mr Magpie (Ron Cook) sells overly cheap television sets because he is held hostage by The Wire (Maureen Lipman). She blazes rays from screens to take faces and soul energy from victims, including Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). The Doctor (David Tennant) must save millions of endangered viewers before they watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.


The Doctor, intending to take Rose to an Elvis Presley television appearance in New York, accidentally lands the TARDIS just outside London in 1953. While looking around they see that most of the houses have TV antennas on them, which Rose recalls should be rare in this time. They question a local merchant, Mr Magpie, about the TVs and are told that the TVs are on sale to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. While they are talking, the Doctor and Rose witness someone being taken from their home with a sheet over their head and driven away by the police. The Doctor and Rose question the Connollys, a local family. They are introduced to Tommy Connolly's grandmother, whose entire face is missing. Before the Doctor can learn more the police burst in and remove the woman. The Doctor follows where the police are taking her while Rose investigates Magpie's shop. At the shop Rose discovers an entity calling itself "the Wire", an alien that managed to escape execution by its people by turning itself into an electrical form. The Wire seeks to consume enough minds to recreate a body and plans on using the broadcast of the coronation to do so. Rose is unable to flee before the Wire steals her face as well.

The Doctor locates a holding pen where the police are keeping the victims. He speaks to Detective Inspector Bishop, the police, bring in a faceless Rose. Angered at Rose's condition, the Doctor, Tommy and Inspector Bishop confront Mr. Magpie at his store. The Wire reveals herself and tries to consume them, but upon seeing the Doctor's sonic screwdriver she stops, retreats into a portable television built by Mr. Magpie and escapes, heading for the Alexandra Palace television station transmitter. The Doctor and Tommy use equipment from Magpie's shop and the TARDIS to create a device to capture the Wire. The Doctor pursues Magpie as he connects his portable device to the transmitter, allowing the Wire to start to consume minds while killing Magpie. The Doctor connects his device to the transmitter, and The Wire is captured. The faces of those who were consumed by the Wire are returned to normal. The Doctor shows Tommy that he has captured the Wire on a Betamax cassette, which he tells Rose to remind him later to tape over. The Doctor gives Tommy the scooter he was riding throughout the episode, and he and Rose celebrate the coronation with the rest of town.


One of the police officers mentions that the faceless people will get "Torchwood on our backs, and no mistake." Torchwood is the story arc for the second series.

The story is set at the time of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, due to its significance as the first key event televised across the United Kingdom putting the story date as 1–2 June 1953. Elizabeth II appears here in archive footage; she previously appeared (played by an impersonator) in the Seventh Doctor story Silver Nemesis (1988). Her majesty is again portrayed in "Voyage of the Damned".

The Magpie Electricals logo has been seen several times in Doctor Who since "The Idiot's Lantern" was first broadcast. It is seen on Martha Jones' television in "The Sound of Drums", aboard the Starship UK in "The Beast Below", on the Doctor's electric guitar amplifier "Before the Flood" and even within the TARDIS itself from "The Eleventh Hour" onwards. Additionally, Magpie's television sets appear in the "Hub" from the spin-off series Torchwood,[1] and the Magpie branding is seen on Sarah Jane Smith's computer in The Sarah Jane Adventures story The Mark of the Berserker.


"The Idiot's Lantern" is written by Mark Gatiss, who also wrote the Ninth Doctor episode "The Unquiet Dead" as well as several spin-off audios and novels. The title of the episode was suggested by writer Gareth Roberts, who recalled the term being used by his father to refer to television.[2]

The episode is set in the Muswell Hill area of London, and second-unit photography was conducted around Alexandra Palace. The exterior of Magpie's shop was filmed on Blenheim Road in Cardiff.[3]

The game associated with this episode, the "Magpie Online Archive" is a "file sharing application" in which the player must search through various clips of BBC television history to look for messages left behind by the Wire. Unlike earlier games, it is only accessible through the BBC Doctor Who website.

Cast notes[edit]

Rory Jennings, who plays Tommy Connolly, plays the teenage Davros in Big Finish Productions' I, Davros: Innocence.[4] Margaret John, who plays Tommy's Grandma, also played Megan Jones in the Second Doctor serial Fury from the Deep (1968).

Historical details[edit]

  • What's My Line?, which began in 1951 on UK television, is mentioned by the continuity announcer in the pre-credits sequence.
  • The "Bat's Wings ident" is seen on the television sets in this episode, but that particular ident did not see use until 2 December 1953[citation needed], six months after this episode is set. Although the ident is seen the BBC logo is never shown clearly.
  • Muffin the Mule, clips of which feature in this episode, was also mentioned in the 1999 Doctor Who Night sketch, "The Pitch of Fear", which was also written by Mark Gatiss.
  • The phrase, "Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin," was popularised by the 1950–1982 BBC Radio series Listen with Mother, which began each episode with those words. The Wire uses a paraphrase of this when first speaking to Magpie. Another paraphrased version was said by the Doctor at the beginning of "School Reunion". The phrase "Goodnight children, everywhere," used by the Wire as she feeds on Rose, was the catchphrase of Children's Hour presenter Derek McCulloch.
  • The Morris Jb van used in the filming is a 1957 van. The van has also been used in Willy Wonka and other film/TV work.[citation needed]
  • The normal price for a Pye television set in 1953, including installation, was about £70, compared with the £5 Magpie was selling them for as part of the Wire's plan.[5]
  • Throughout the story, several later developments in television technology are alluded to and shown: colour television, portable televisions, and video recording.
  • The street in which the episode is set is Florizel Street, the original name of the long running UK soap opera Coronation Street.
  • Towards the end the Doctor "captures" the Wire into a videocassette using a makeshift receiver and commented that he has incidentally invented it "thirty years earlier". Although videotapes were invented before the Coronation, the videocassette prototype was only introduced commercially nearly a decade after the Coronation.

Broadcast and reception[edit]

Overnight viewing figures for the initial broadcast of this episode were 6.32 million, peaking at 7.78 million, an audience share of 32.2%. The final rating was 6.76 million, making it the most watched programme of the day.[6] It was given an Appreciation Index of 84.[7] This episode was released as a basic DVD with no special features in the UK in July 2006, together with "Rise of the Cybermen" and "The Age of Steel".

"The Idiot's Lantern" received mixed reviews. Ian Berriman of SFX gave "The Idiot's Lantern" a rating of four out of five, calling the main plot "fairly insubstantial" and noting it would not please viewers who liked everything explained. However, he referred to it as "enjoyable" and praised the directing of Euros Lyn. Berriman considered the highlight of the episode to be the subplot of family.[8] IGN's Ahsan Haque rated the episode 6.8 out of 10, finding several logic flaws and calling the story "marginally interesting".[9] Digital Spy reviewer Dek Hogan felt "The Idiot's Lantern" was a disappointment after Gatiss's previous Doctor Who script "The Unquiet Dead", feeling that a similar plot had been done before and it played like a "pastiche of Doctor Who than the show itself". He was also not favourable to Lipman's performance as the Wire, saying the character "[lacked] menace", and found the subplot of Tommy's father "annoying".[10] Stephen Brook of The Guardian named it as an episode of the series he disliked, finding it "too clever and way too preachy".[11]


  1. ^ "'Yes, they're Mr Magpie's TVs,' says our set guide, production designer Edward Thomas. 'His son eventually took over the business and Jack has sourced three televisions from his shop. The TVs are scanning for signals.'" "Base Notes". (28 October – 3 November 2006) Radio Times, p. 10
  2. ^ Andrew Pixley (2006). "The Idiot's Lantern". Doctor Who Special Edition No. 14 – The Doctor Who Companion: Series Two: 62–69. 
  3. ^ "Blenheim Road". The Locations Guide. 
  4. ^ "1.1 I, Davros – Innocence". Big Finish Productions. Retrieved 27 April 2012. 
  5. ^ "Your Place And Mine - Topics - Arts - Window on the World". 
  6. ^ weekly report Archived 18 April 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ Doctor Who Magazine: Series Two Companion. Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent: Panini Comics (14 – Special Edition). 9 November 2006.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  8. ^ Berriman, Ian (28 May 2006). "Doctor Who 2.7 The Idiot's Lantern". SFX. Retrieved 29 April 2012. 
  9. ^ Haque, Ahsan (13 November 2006). "Doctor Who: "The Idiot's Lantern" Review". IGN. Retrieved 29 April 2012. 
  10. ^ Hogan, Dek (28 May 2006). "Unwire The Doctor". Digital Spy. Retrieved 29 April 2012. 
  11. ^ Brook, Stephen (10 July 2006). "Doctor Who: that was the year that was". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 April 2012. 

External links[edit]