The Empty Child / The Doctor DancesBookmark and Share

Monday, 30 May 2005 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

‘The Empty Child’/‘The Doctor Dances’ is, for me, the apex of the new series of Doctor Who thus far, a witty, creepy, and beautifully crafted tour de force in which everything comes together, from plot and script, to characterisation and acting. And best of all, we get a proactive, useful Doctor, and a use of subtext that is subtle rather than crass.

Making good use of the two episodes offered to him, writer Steven Moffat crafts a story with a gripping, intriguing plot, set against the well-realised backdrop of the Blitz. Although there is inevitably a science fiction explanation for the child that haunts Nancy in the first episode, ‘The Empty Child’ has lashings of ghostly horror, as a creepy, gas-mask wearing boy wanders the streets of war-torn London crying for its mummy in a hollow voice that reflects Nancy’s assertion that he is “empty”. There are some genuinely chilling moments in the first episode in particular, from the impossible phone call to the TARDIS, to the child’s forlorn cries as its attempts to enter the house whilst Nancy hurries her charges out the back door. Director James Hawes wrings every drop of tension out of the child’s scenes, with fast cuts to show the child appearing suddenly, and point of view shots from behind its gas mask, and the sound of its voice coming from the telephones, typewriters, wirelesses, and in one case a toy monkey are extremely eerie. The fact that it never says anything other than “Are you my mummy?” and variations on this line make it seem less than human, but as the Doctor realizes during ‘The Doctor Dances’ it may seem like a confused, lost child, but its also unstoppable, something illustrated by its remorseless pursuit of Nancy. Once the Doctor reaches Albion hospital and finds its other victims, the horror builds, as the army of zombies lying in the hospital reinforces the threat posed by the sinister boy. The cliffhanger ending to ‘The Empty Child’ is exceptionally effective, as the mindless patients come to life, advancing on the Doctor, Rose and Jack, all of them chanting the child’s habitual refrain. With two episodes to play with, Moffat is able to devote all of the first to such unsettling build up, and another scene especially worthy of note is the Doctor’s meeting with Doctor Constantine and his horrified realization that not only do all of the lifeless patients have the same wounds, but that their gas masks are fused to their heads. His grim assessment of “physical injuries as plague” is a disturbing moment, topped shortly afterwards as he tells the Doctor, “They’re not dead” and makes a noise, whereupon they all sit up suddenly. The emphasis of the story shifts during ‘The Doctor Dances’, as Moffat concentrates both on explanations and the interaction between the Doctor, Rose and Jack, but the episode is just as effective and still boasts a few creepy moments, such as the Doctor’s realization, “I sent it to its room. This is its room.”

The decision to set the story during the Blitz is inspired, with both Moffat and Hawes exploiting the potential of the setting, which is already pretty horrible. The location filming, sets, and costumes are all highly convincing, and although tape recorders may not, apparently, have replaced wire recorders until several years after the war, and although London looks surprisingly well lit during the blackout, these are minor details. Moffat is able to use the situation to complicate the Doctor’s task of finding his rogue space junk, realised in a brilliant scene as he leaps on stage in a club, and asks, “Might seem like a stupid question, but has anything fallen from the sky recently?” only to be met with howls of laughter. The look on his face when he hears the air raid siren and sees the Hitler poster is priceless. Moffat exploits the era in other ways too; as the story unfolds, the Doctor asks Nancy whom she lost, and she mentions her little brother Jamie. It soon becomes obvious that Jamie is the empty child of the title, and from there it doesn’t take long to realize that his relentless pursuit of her with the question, “Are you my mummy?” is hinting at a greater truth, especially when, during ‘The Doctor Dances’, Rose ponders, “Always, ‘Are you my mummy?’ like he doesn’t know. Why doesn’t he know?” It isn’t terribly surprising when the Doctor finally realises that Nancy is the boy’s mother, but the setting justifies her secrecy, as the Doctor understandingly refers to the terrible stigma of being a teenage single mum in Britain in the nineteen forties. Also worth mentioning is Nancy’s blackmail of Mr. Lloyd, whom she accuses of “messing about” with the butcher. There is already some debate as to whether this is an illicit gay affair, or whether Lloyd’s possession of wire cutters points to black market dealings in partnership with the butcher (either that, or extremely hardcore S and M sessions!), but either way, Lloyd has a secret that he can’t risk being revealed at that time and place, because he’ll either become a social pariah or find himself arrested, or both.

Of course, ‘The Empty Child’/‘The Doctor Dances’ is also notable for the introduction of new companion Captain Jack Harkness, who makes an immediate impression, not hindered by the fact that he’s dashing, charming, and gets some of the best lines. John Barrowman is superb in the role; it would have been easy to make Jack irritatingly smug and smarmy, but he’s very likeable and Moffat’s script reveals various facets of his character as the story progresses. Initially, he seems very heroic, a member of the air force and a mysterious time traveller who saves Rose from certain death as she drops from a barrage balloon from which she has been unwisely dangling in the middle of an air raid whilst wearing a Union Jack flag across her rather prominent knockers. Jack then demonstrates his romantic side as he offers her champagne on top of his spaceship whilst Glenn Miller plays in the background, as well as his reckless streak as he makes the ill-advised decision to illuminate Big Ben in the middle of an air raid. He then tells Rose, “I like to think of myself as a criminal”, and it doesn’t take long before he admits, “It’s a con. I was conning you, that’s what I do. I’m a con man”, and we learn that he spends his time selling various pieces of space junk to time agents, of which he used to be one. He also spends a great deal of time trying to evade responsibility, insisting, “I harmed no one! I don’t know what’s happening here, but I had nothing to do with it!” until the Doctor rather witheringly points out that Tula ambulances don’t contain bandages. As with Mickey and Adam, the Doctor is automatically distrustful of any other men in Rose’s life, and is very cynical about the likelihood of Jack returning to rescue them after he teleports to safety without them, but by the end of the episode Jack has proved himself, risking his life to dispose of the bomb, and he fairly quickly forms a rapport with the Doctor, who seems happy to have him aboard the TARDIS. This, along with the intriguing background detail of his two years of missing memories, bodes well for the remainder of the series.

Jack also spends a lot of time bantering with the Doctor, and Moffat’s pedigree as a comedy writer comes to the fore during these scenes. With Rose clearly taken by Jack’s good looks and charm, there is an inevitable game of one-upmanship being played out between the Doctor and Jack, and it is nicely demonstrated before they even meet; having begged the Doctor, “I think you should scan for alien tech. Give me some Spock!”, Rose is visibly impressed when Jack does just that and she happily murmurs, “Finally, a professional!” The similarities between Jack and the Doctor, both single time travelling men, are played up further, as Jack also uses slightly psychic paper, in this case prompting the amusing line from Rose, “You just handed me a piece of paper telling me you’re single and you work out.” Then of course we have the Doctor and Jack comparing their tools, with Jack announcing that he has a sonic blaster and the Doctor grudgingly admitting that he has a sonic screwdriver, which results in more wit as Jack asks, “Who looks at a screwdriver and thinks, ‘this could be more sonic?’”

All of which brings me to one of the triumphs of the storyline, as Moffat addresses the obvious sexual tension that Russell T. Davies has been establishing between the Doctor and Rose. There are many fans that feel that sex has no place in Doctor Who and that the Doctor should remain asexual, and it’s a view with which I can sympathize. Nevertheless, Davies has introduced sexual tension between Doctor and companion and is the series has progressed its become increasingly difficult to ignore. What Moffat does is to not only explore this issue, but also to complicate it by adding Jack to the mix, but he examines it subtly through the use of metaphor. The significance of the episode title ‘The Doctor Dances’ takes on new meaning as dancing becomes a metaphor for sex; Rose dances with Jack on top of his spaceship, and when the Doctor asks why she trusts him, she replies, “I trust him ‘cause he’s like you, only with dating and dancing”, a line that is absolutely crammed with potential deeper meaning. Especially when the Doctor responds, “You just assume I don’t dance… I’ve got the moves, but I wouldn’t want to boast”, which can be interpreted as an admittance of sexual prowess. The subsequent exchange on board Jack’s ship as the Doctor says that he and Rose “were talking about dancing”, Jack amusedly notes, “It didn’t look like talking” and Rose, puzzled, adds, “It didn’t feel like dancing” creates the impression of inexperienced teenagers fumbling in the dark. If the episode is interpreted in this way, Rose’s line “the world doesn’t end because the Doctor dances” can of course be seen as a nod to those fans who want none of that sort of thing in the series thank you very much. Later of course, the metaphor is made even more obvious, as Jack cheerfully notes that he’s got a much better chance of distracting Algy than Rose has; the Doctor informs the dumbstruck Rose, “He’s a fifty-first century guy, he’s just a little more flexible when it comes to dancing” which of course opens the door to even more sexual tension on board the TARDIS. Indeed, at the end the Doctor remembers how to dance and sweeps Rose off her feet; she tells him, “Actually I thought Jack might like this dance” and the Doctor raises an eyebrow at his new companion and replies, “I’m sure he would. I’m absolutely certain. But who with?” All of which is great, and subtly done, although with this metaphor in mind, it’s rather worrying that when the Doctor claims he’s remembered how to dance, he does so like a teacher at a school disco. Make of that what you will.

One concern that I had after watching ‘The Empty Child’ was that in ‘The Doctor Dances’ Jack might prove to be a Mary-Sue character, who would be made to look good at the Doctor’s expense. Instead, in a series that has seen a curiously ineffectual Ninth Doctor, ‘The Empty Child’/‘The Doctor Dances’ redresses the balance, as the Doctor proactively sets out to solve the mystery of the child and resourcefully works out what is going on from various clues that Jack has completely missed. It is the Doctor who resolves the cliffhanger, realizing that on some level the child really is still a child and ordering it, “Go to your room”, and later he keeps his sonic screwdriver hidden so that Jack will use his blaster, allowing the Doctor to see some of his technology and work where he’s from, or at least where he’s been. He spots the similarities between the ability of the nanogenes in Jack’s ship to heal tissue and the ship’s ability to “on-com” with the powers exhibited by the child and realises that nanogenes released from the Tula ambulance are responsible for what has occurred. He works out that Nancy is Jamie’s mummy, and in doing so saves the day; the scene in which Jamie is restored and the Doctor jubilantly swings him up in the air is a joy to behold, as the Doctor’s plea, “Oh come on! Give me a day like this! Give me this one!” is answered. Best of all, he saves everybody, performing a “software patch” on the nanogenes, as a result of which, “Everybody lives Rose! Just this once, everyone lives!” And he saves Jack too, materializing the TARDIS on his ship in the nick of time. Perhaps not coincidentally, Christopher Eccleston gives his best performance in the role to date, and he gets some great lines and scenes, including his inspiring “a mouse in front of a lion” speech to Nancy. Later, Billie Piper gets a similarly touching scene, as Rose tells Nancy, “You win”.

The supporting characters are also well crafted, and superbly performed by the guest cast. Richard Wilson’s Doctor Constantine is a great character, a tired and dying man who tells the Doctor, “Before this war I was a father and a grandfather. Now I’m neither, but I’m still a doctor” and who has resolved to spend his remaining time caring for those whom he can’t help in any other way. Wilson brings great dignity and gruff compassion to the role, and after Constantine is restored at the end, he also gets a comic moment (something Wilson is well known for thanks to One Foot in the Grave), as the old lady indignantly tells him, “My leg’s grown back” and he deadpans, “Well, there is a war on. Perhaps you miscounted?” Nancy too is a great character, and Florence Hoath conveys her grief and fear convincingly throughout, but also her resolve and the strength of character to protect her charges and stand up to Mr. Lloyd.

Finally, although I’ve mentioned several examples above, it really is worth noting that Moffat’s experience at writing Coupling results in some genuinely funny lines that are a world away from Russell T. Davies’ increasingly sledgehammer wit and propensity for toilet humour. Examples not mentioned above that I can’t resist mentioning include the Doctor’s “Not sure if it’s Marxism in action or a west end musical” when he finds out what Nancy does, and Nancy’s response to his claim that his nose has special powers with, “Yeah? Is that why it’s, er… Do you ears have special powers too?” His switch of Jack’s gun for a banana is a very amusing moment, especially when he adds, “Don’t drop the banana!” and answers Jack’s urgent query “Why not?” with “Good source of potassium.” Later, after Jack has mocked his sonic screwdriver, he asks his companions to list their assets, prompting the caustic response, “Well I’ve got a banana and in a pinch you could put up some shelves.”

Overall, ‘The Empty Child’/‘The Doctor Dances’ is my favourite story of the season thus far, and quite possibly destined to be regarded in the future as a genuine classic. One question is left unanswered however; what exactly are subatomic robots made out of?!