The Empty Child / The Doctor DancesBookmark and Share

Monday, 30 May 2005 - Reviewed by Matt Kimpton

It’s an odd thing, reviewing. Writing bad reviews is easy, you just let loose with your critical cannon, taking smug pot-shots at easy targets and winching up the bitch factor until you come off looking cool. Writing good reviews, on the other hand, is a right pain in the word-processor, because there isn’t really anything to say beyond “Good this, isn’t it?”.

For that reason, and for that reason alone, I despise The Empty Child. I have nothing to say about it whatsoever. It is, quite simply, magnificent.

After apparently leaving not a dry eye in the country in Father’s Day, Russell T’s meticulously planned season moves to the opposite end of the anatomy, threatening the safety of children’s mattresses everywhere with the most deliberately frightening story since Tom Baker’s gothic heyday. That it does so with little more than an air-raid siren, a toy monkey and a kid in a gas mask says all you need to know about the talent behind this show. But that it combines the fear factor (“Chilling” to “Terrifying”, according to the BBC’s adorable clique of fear forecasters) with drama, intrigue, a fiercely-paced plot, laugh out loud comedy and enough emotion to bring tears even to the eyes of a reviewer irritated by not having anything complain about… That tells you what you really need to know. This isn’t just good; it’s a classic.

The script comes courtesy of Stephen Moffat, author of, among other things, the Dr Who sketch The Curse of Fatal Death and the hit sitcom Coupling (recently exported wholesale to the US, with the only changes being the accents, the location, and the substitution of ‘hit’ with ‘cancelled’). Justly famed for his use of complex narrative devices in the tired old genre of sitcom, Moffat has a real eye for structure, with the result that this is by far the most strongly plotted story of the season. With comedy and drama being essentially the same but for the nature of the punchline – it’s all about disguising the set-up so you can’t see the pay-off coming – The Empty Child is as well constructed as one of his jokes, combining terror, action and mystery in a story that intrigues as much as it scares, and keeping all the subplots and elements balanced until the crucial resolution. When the end arrives it turns out to be feel both surprising and inevitable, the mark of true storytelling - and after two episodes spinning from chills to thrills to witty banter, it still manages to find new emotional territory, hitting an emotional high by finding a conclusion that not only works, but matters. It can’t be easy creating a fresh character arc for the regular cast when you’re ten episodes into the season, but Moffat manages it, by putting a romantic comedy at the heart of a horror story, and then not playing by the rules of either. If only it hadn’t worked, I could have had a bitchy reviewing field-day, but no – his whole script is flawless, gripping and beautiful. Damn his eyes.

Mind you, the visual side of things was even worse, in the sense of being even better. Even a great script can be ruined by rubbish execution, which would have been handy for me, but no, there are remarkably few flaws on display. The taut, gripping direction is absolutely terrific, conveying a creepy, shadowy view of night-time London, and keeping the sense of menace only barely hidden in the background even during the lighter scenes. Use of point-of-view camera feels like a genuinely frightening way of telling the story rather than a budget-saving measure, and the lighting – or rather the darking, in most scenes – adds a real sense of cinematic scope. The period setting is exquisitely realised, with studio sets and location work combining perfectly to bring a rainy night in the Blitz to life, and even the budget-stretching cgi dogfights over London only marginally straining the credulity. It comes to something when you can’t even rely on Murray Gold to cock up the score, instead delivering a subtle, haunting soundtrack that adds to the tension, underlines the emotion and effortlessly fleshes out the scale of the piece without ever overpowering it. Even the bloody editing is great.

Bringing life to all this is a genuinely exceptional cast, led by Christopher Eccleston’s glorious Doctor, who after being arguably somewhat neglected in recent stories is, to every reviewer’s irritation, once more back on top form. His handling of the complex, layered emotions of many scenes is a joy to behold, and his own joy at the conclusion a truly moving moment, only surpassed by the insanely un-Whoish, gloriously perfect closing minutes that round off his character arc. This more modern Doctor had already beeen accepted on an equal footing with the technobabble-spouting, frock-coated fops of older generations; after his performance in The Empty Child, it’s hard not to say he surpasses them.

The fabulous guest cast is, gallingly, equally good, from Richard Wilson’s gravelly cameo as Doctor Constantine (it’s a credit to him that he never once comes across as ‘that bloke from One Foot in the Grave) to John Barrowman’s masterful Captain Jack. Even the scenes with the de-evacuated children, which could so easily have become a stage-school-accent bloodbath or a Twin Dilemma disaster, either one a reviewer’s wet dream, remain instead utterly naturalistic, thanks in large part to the stabilising presence of Florence Hoath, whose phenomenal performance as Nancy threatens to steal every scene she’s in.

Unfortunately even that doesn’t count as a criticism, as Billie Piper is on hand to steal it right back again, starring in sweeping, FX-laden money shots (of which there are ridiculously many) and acting her little socks off in funny, intimate scenes with the Doctor and Captain Jack. John Barrowman, meanwhile, is every bit as charming and attractive as Rose seems to think, which won’t do the ratings any harm, and his more-doctor-than-the-doctor characterisation is, contrary to my initial hopes, actually great fun, making the Doctor come across as all the more human and, by highlighting his flaws, much more ours.

There was a faint hope, between the showing of the two episodes, that in competition with Jack’s fancy-schmancy wrist-held computer thing the sonic screwdriver had become far too useful, able to double up now as a Star Trek medical scanner, as well as a pen, a computer-pad stylus, a radio jammer, a lock-pick, a spot-welder, a gun and even at one point, rumour has it, as a screwdriver. If it turns out the Cybermen are allergic to it too, I planned to bitchily point out, the props department won’t have anything left to build. But then they go and make a plot point of exactly that, and it turns out not to be a criticism but a glorious piece of witty, clever storytelling.

As the last minutes of The Doctor Dances played out, all hopes that this might turn out to be a Stones of Blood anti-climax faded away. This is a cast-iron classic to the end; terrifying, suspenseful, hilarious, gripping, uplifting, pacey and perfect. As a reviewer I hate it with every bone in my body. As anything else, I want to have its babies. But I still don’t have anything to say.

Good, isn’t it?