The Empty Child / The Doctor DancesBookmark and Share

Monday, 30 May 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

One of the things that annoys me most about the new series is Russell T. Davies's refusal to take his job seriously: he fills his scripts with unsubtle subtexts, gives planets and monsters comedy names and has a general nudge-nudge-wink-wink-aren't-I-postmodern attitude. One good by-product of this though is that when another writer is allowed to pen an episode it very often looks doubly good-and that is exactly what has happened now, for The Empty Child two-parter is one of the scariest and best episodes of Doctor Who that I've seen for a long time.

As no other episodes are written by Steven Moffat or directed by James Hawes I had very little idea what to expect, but I was generally optimistic. This was paid off very quickly with one of the best directorial touches I've ever seen in the series: Rose sees the child perched on a rooftop and the camera cuts jerkily closer towards the eerie figure, much as James Whale did for Frankenstein. What follows is a truly spectacular piece of effects work as Rose dangles helplessly from a barrage balloon; a lot of the time with Doctor Who I find myself defending scenes that, while ambitious, are a bit too much for the budget to manage (I'm thinking The Web Planet here); now I can happily say that producer Phil Collinson, the Mill and of course Billie Piper rose to the occasion (no pun intended) in superb form.

Moving on like a roller coaster, we are then introduced to the new companion, 'Captain' Jack Harkness, excellently played by John Barrowman. He seems like a more interesting character than Rose: although nobody is criticising Piper's skills as an actress the whole working-class-girl vibe is hardly original. Now we get a rogue time-travelling con man with his own memory-loss story arc being set up, which looks to be very interesting. He is given an excellently designed ship (which feels more like the TARDIS than the TARDIS does), and the scene with it tethered to Big Ben is brilliant, if a little indulgent.

Meanwhile, the Doctor, with Christopher Eccleston playing him to his usual standard, has been investigating the mystery of the Child. He meets the kind-hearted Nancy, beautifully played by the lovely Florence Hoath, whom I would say is the best guest star in the series since Simon Callow in The Unquiet Dead. A very sympathetic character, with the idea of her helping out the street kids through the loss of her brother (more on that later) being very touching. From her we come to Albion Hospital and an excellent cameo from Richard Wilson, who delivers a huge amount of plot. Although subtle exposition has never been one of the programme's strong points here it works well through a combination of acting, writing, and an exceptional core idea. This culminates in one of the programme's scariest ever scenes, where Richard Wilson's face transforms into a gas mask in a truly horrific moment. It is exactly the kind of thing that used to scare me as a child, and is in fact so frightening that the BBC's decision to tone down the sound effects seems rather pointless and tokenistic. In truth this scene has provokes less outcry than I was expecting, and I must stress that I am in no way criticising it: I thought it, like all the rest, was brilliant.

This is, in truth, a very scary story. It is a real contender to the title of Scariest Story Ever, which for me still goes to The Curse Of Fenric (it's something about the Second World War, I swear). The two stories have a lot in common, such as the flawless period detail, the lovely scene where Ace / Rose comforts Rev. Wainwright / Nancy about the uncertain future, and ordinary people being converted into monsters. This seems like a good point to mention the monsters: like the Autons in Rose and the Reapers in Father's Day they aren't actually named on screen, so I've been thinking of them unofficially as the Plaguebearers, which seems to fit the bill. They are seriously frightening, as gas masks always look slightly grotesque at the best of times. What makes the Plaguebearers scary is the concept behind them, the knowledge of their dreadful internal injuries, and the aforementioned transformation scene. They are very original spin on the traditional zombie, and it takes an excellent writer and director to turn "are you my Mummy?" into a genuinely chilling line.

With the Doctor reunited with Rose we move on to part two, The Doctor Dances. It gets off to a strong start with a superb line about famous last words, proving that comedy writers are indeed the best people to write comedy. It then resolves the issue of the cylinder fired to Earth by Captain Jack hitting and killing a child, which is something I'd had a problem with after part one. I'd been a bit sceptical about part two as the first episode had been largely carried on the sense of mystery, and I was wondering if it would stand up to repeated viewing once the plot was explained. I needn't have worried, with the mystery giving way to some superb dialogue and a race-against-the-clock feel that I always find exciting.

This leads on to its dramatic climax, which fulfils all the criteria for something epic: out heroes stand by an alien device in a disused railway station while German bombs fall and the Plaguebearers advance. This leads to a final twist revelation followed by an unexpectedly moving resolution. The enormous optimism of the finale makes the lighter moments of the episode, such as the dancing Doctor, fully justified as opposed to an episode like Inferno where the pessimistic tone makes the jokey ending seem inappropriate.

The only thing that worries me is the proposed return of the Slitheen next week; I can't think of any other episode that I'd least like to see a sequel to. How about a third episode of The Empty Child? I don't want to end such a positive review on a negative note, so to sum up then, on behalf of fandom I would like to thank everyone involved in production for giving us a quite brilliant story that along with Dalek is surely going to stand as one of the highlights of 21st Century Doctor Who, for however many years it lasts.