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Doctor Who - 'The Idiot's Lantern' (Photo: BBC)

For the second time, the Doctor tries to take Rose to visit an exciting musical event (first it was Ian Dury and the Blockheads, then Elvis performing on The Ed Sullivan Show) and misses his mark. There then follows a sustained satire of the pernicious effect of the television in the corner of the living room, one that is riddled with references to very early British TV.

Here are a few things that you should keep an eye out for, the next time you watch.

(The episode is available on iTunes and Amazon.)

Mark Gatiss first began work on a story for the Ninth Doctor entitled “Sonic Doom.” This would have used a similar idea to The Wire, but placed the Doctor and Rose at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, where teenagers were being terrorized by a living song, rather than a malevolent TV set. As the Queen’s 1953 coronation was a defining moment in the history of British TV, the temporal location was shifted back a few years. Other working titles included “Mr Sandman,” while the song idea was still under discussion, and “The One-Eyed Monster” for the new televisual version.

Being a huge fan of British TV’s early years, Mark managed to work a lot of references into his script. These include the panel show What’s My Line? (a similar format to the U.S. version), Muffin The Mule (a hugely popular children’s TV show, starring a puppet donkey, and The Quatermass Experiment, a sci-fi horror that also featured faceless victims with clutching hands. Mark had been working on a remake of Quatermass with David Tennant while writing “The Idiot’s Lantern” (originally for the Ninth Doctor), and that’s when David found out he was to be Christopher Eccleston’s replacement. Mark’s script was therefore able to be adjusted with David in mind.

The Wire, as played by Maureen Lipman, is closely modeled on the British TV presenter Sylvia Peters, one of the BBC’s primary continuity announcers from 1947 to 1958. Here she is discussing the Queen’s Christmas TV broadcasts, which began in 1957.

The Wire’s threatening line, “Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin,” is a parody of one of BBC radio’s most famous catchphrases. Daphne Oxenford, presenter of the children’s show Listen With Mother, would always begin her stories with the line “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.”

Rose claims to have learned 1950s slang via “Cliff Richard movies every Bank Holiday Monday.” For a while in the late ’50s, Cliff (now Sir Cliff Richard) was the British answer to Elvis Presley. And like Elvis, a lot of Cliff’s attraction to wild rock ‘n’ rollers was lost as he took up a more family-friendly role in the movies. Although his first big screen appearance, in 1959’s Serious Charge, was anything but benign:

The Doctor’s less-than-thrilled response—”I knew your mother’d be a Cliff fan”—is entirely down to Cliff’s subsequent reputation as an unchallenging family entertainer, albeit one with a hugely successful career that has lasted more than 60 years, and a sizable following among older women.

If you’ve ever looked at the rooftop TV aerials and noted that they look a little like swastikas, that’s deliberate. According to the DVD commentary the set designers opted for the sinister design so they could evoke a post-war era in which something isn’t quite right.

Margaret John, who plays Grandma Connolly, holds the record for the longest gap between Doctor Who guest appearances. She appeared in 1968’s “Fury from the Deep” (a Second Doctor adventure), and then as Grandma Connolly in this tale, 38 years later. Of course, according to the timeline of the story, her second appearance is actually 14 years before her first, but let’s not spend too long pondering that.

Originally, the events of this story were supposed to take place on Powell Street, so called because it was the same part of London in which Rose Tyler’s block of flats (the Powell Estate) would eventually be built. However, the Powell Estate is firmly established within Doctor Who as a South London location, and the resolution of this story had to take place at Alexandra Palace, in the north. This allowed Mark Gatiss to drop in a further reference to classic British TV. Florizel Street, home of Magpie Electricals and all the affected houses, was also the working title of the hugely popular British soap opera Coronation Street, which began broadcasting in 1962. There were plans for a further neat ending, in which the Doctor taped over the Wire with an early episode of Coronation Street, but they didn’t come to fruition.

One line that also didn’t make the final script was a throwaway remark by the Doctor, in which he says he’s always had trouble with radio transmitters. This would have been a reference to the Fourth Doctor story “Logopolis,” at the end of which the Doctor chases the Master up the Pharos Project transmitter, but falls from it, triggering his fourth regeneration.

Since the events in this story, Magpie Electricals has gone on to develop a fine and long-standing influence over Doctor Who. The Twelfth Doctor’s guitar amp has a Magpie logo, as did Martha Jones’s TV set in “The Sound of Drums.” As the Tenth Doctor scans the internet in “The Runaway Bride,” the Magpie logo pops up; River Song uses a Magpie scanner in “Day of the Moon”; “Voyage of the Damned” features a Magpie-branded microphone and Wilfred Mott’s Magpie TV; and there’s even a Magpie logo on Starship UK in “The Beast Below.”

Oh, and as the Doctor puts the TARDIS back together after the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration (in “The Eleventh Hour”), some of the console parts—the monitor, typewriter, keyboard and one of the controls—are branded Magpie Electricals.

Now read the rest of the 10 Things You May Not Know About Doctor Who archive.

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By Fraser McAlpine