The Empty Child / The Doctor DancesBookmark and Share

Monday, 30 May 2005 - Reviewed by Paul Hayes

There’s a select band of Doctor Who stories often mentioned by fans as being the ones they do or would use to convince sceptical friends and family of just how good this silly little series we know and love so well can really be. The likes of City of Death, The Caves of Androzani and so on and so forth. Now the new series has produced such a story, one that makes you really proud of the programme and must surely remind even the most jaded of fans of what they love about it. Yes, The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances looks set to become that most wonderful of things, a bona fide Doctor Who ‘classic’.

With so much so good about this story, the real question when writing a review is where to start? Well, the thinking has long been that a Doctor Who story can only ever be as good as its script, and there’s no doubting that Steven Moffat has produced what must be one of the most accomplished efforts of the new series to date, and the series as a whole of all time. Anybody familiar with his work on the sitcom Coupling – particularly episodes such as the season two finale The End of the Line – will know just how adept Moffat is at plotting, threading together all the strands of a complex story. The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances is not an overly complex affair, but it is superbly structured.

From the explanation of why the three disparate alien elements – the TARDIS crew, Jack and the Chular ambulance – have all descended upon Blitz-torn 1941 London, to the explanation of what has happened to the eponymous child and its fellow gas mask-laden victims, to the child’s connection with Nancy and the ultimate resolution of the plot, it all works perfectly. Nothing it made too obvious or too subtle, and nothing is left dangling – it’s all wonderfully controlled and laid out at a well-pitched pace, it’s almost like a model of how to construct good television drama and superb Doctor Who.

Plotting is not the only string to Moffat’s bow, however, not by a long shot. The Ninth Doctor has probably never been better than he is here uttering Moffat’s lines – of particular note is the beginning of the second episode, as the Doctor and Jack converse about guns and bananas. “A good source of potassium!” indeed! At times it feels like classic Tom Baker era-stuff, although Eccleston also does things it’s hard to imagine the Fourth Doctor doing, such as his sheer joy at the end when he realises the problem has been solved and “everybody lives!” This Doctor has been through so much that his delight at the way everything has come together is particularly infectious, and once again he’s the brave, happy, heroic adventurer we’d all love to travel with, which it has to be said he hasn’t always been at times this season. Moffat also gives a knowing wink to the suddenly all-purpose sonic screwdriver – “Setting 2428!” – and creates possibly the first instance in the entire history of the series of the time honoured “Doctor who?” gag being used and not being embarrassing or annoying.

Interestingly, this handling of the Doctor leaves Rose at times, particularly in the first episode, slipping back more into the traditional companion role than ever before, although this isn’t a complaint. It’s nice to see her taken down a peg or two, namely by being left dangling from a barrage balloon hanging over London! She does get more into her typical Rose style as the story progresses, however, and her teasing of the Doctor over his dancing abilities. Of course, she also manages to swoon into the arms of the story’s leading guest star, and new companion, Captain Jack Harkness, excellently played by John Barrowman. Having only ever experienced Barrowman before as a presenter of Live & Kicking on Saturday mornings a decade ago I wasn’t really sure quite what to expect from Captain Jack, but I absolutely loved him – charismatic and confident without ever seeming too irritatingly cocky or arrogant. He brings an interesting new dynamic to the TARDIS crew, and I’ll be extremely interested to see if he continues to be handled as well in the next three episodes of the series, with Russell T Davies this time feeding him his lines.

Barrowman may have made an impact as Jack, but if awards were to be handed out for this episode then he’d have a hard fight for ‘best supporting character’ from Nancy, as wonderfully played by Florence Hoath. She’s a real discovery, and I hope that on the strength of her performance here Hoath goes a long way in the future. Nancy is part lovable cockney sparrow braving the Blitz, but there’s a lot more beneath the surface, shades of darkness as well as a world-weary kind of knowledge she seems too young for, and of course the secret eventually revealed by the Doctor at the end of the story. In fact, all of the child actors in the story deserve credit – Doctor Who doesn’t have a fantastic record with the performances of youngsters, but all of Nancy’s urchins were superb, and they never felt false or awkward, as is often the danger with putting young children on screen.

Mention too should go to Richard Wilson as the only other really notable turn in the story – he has a surprisingly small role, but he plays it excellently and gets to deliver one of the laugh-out-loud comedy lines at the end of the second episode, having had one of the most horrific moments in the first.

That blend of humour and darkness is this story in microcosm, really. Moffat’s background in television comedy means that some humour was probably to have been expected, but none of it is overly obvious or ever seems out of place. Indeed, the humour works well to contrast with the darkness present in much of the story. So for every scene of the Doctor becoming an unwitting stand-up comic, Jack wielding a banana or Constantine asking a patient if she’s sure she counted her legs properly, we have the oddness of the TARDIS phone ringing, the blank-faced ranks of the gas-masked zombies, and of course the haunting cries of ‘are you my mummy?’ There’s also a definite Quatermass tinge to proceedings with the influence being caused by a crashed spaceship in the heart of London, although the influence of Nigel Kneale’s serials over British television science-fiction is so great that it’s perhaps hard to tell whether such referencing is conscious or whether its simply bred into the psyche of enthusiasts of the genre in this country.

Yes, this story has the spookiest imagery we’ve seen so far in this series, and just as a generation of 1970s children seems to remember The Green Death as “the one with the giant maggots”, so the children of 2005 will probably grow up to speak nostalgically of “the one with the gas masks”. As well as being scripted as such, a lot of the literal darkness of the episode has to do with the highly accomplished direction of James Hawes, who shoots the thing like a feature film and has some delightfully noir-ish touches. My particular favourite shot was the pull-back from Jack’s cockpit through the open doors of the TARDIS into the console room to reveal that the Doctor and Rose had arrived to save him – a bit of a cheat in having the TARDIS land without the usual sound effect, but I’m more than willing to excuse that for the sake of such a nice piece of camerawork. Certainly, it’s good to know that Hawes will be returning to the series to helm the forthcoming Christmas special, at least.

The only instance where I felt Hawes did mis-step slightly was with the cliffhanger ending to episode one. While it was certainly much tighter and more effective that the conclusion to Aliens of London, it did still linger a little too long on the approaching menace. Similarly, Murray Gold’s incidentals – which fitted the action very well on the whole throughout the story, with some nicely atmospheric, suitably creepy moments – went all Rose on us during the cliffhanger recap in the second episode, for no apparent reason and completely against the mood of the story.

Aside from these very negligible points, however, the entire production team seems to have really pulled together to turn this story into something special. Set design, costume, lighting, and of course the wonderful effects from both Mike Tucker’s model team and the CGI specialists at The Mill… This is a perfect example if ever there was one of a massive group of people pulling together and giving their all to create a really special piece of television, reminding you of just how good this medium can be when it’s at its best.

The whole story is just so brilliantly made, written and acted that it’s impossible for all but the most churlish to find much more to criticise, I would think. And all the more intriguing for being a rare example of a Doctor Who story where there isn’t really a villain to speak of. The ending is uplifting and it really is nice to see the Doctor actually get to save everybody for a change, even the nobly self-sacrificing Jack. It’s so Jolly, the TARDIS team even get time for a nice little happy dance at the end, which despite seeming almost tacked-on and not part of the main story, works perfectly, and I wouldn’t have lost it for the world.

In short, this is wonderful, wonderful stuff. Doctor Who at its very best. If every other episode of the new series had been a complete disaster – which they haven’t been not by a long shot – then it still would have been worth bringing the show back for these two episodes alone. I already can’t wait for Moffat’s episode in season two, but for now I shall just have to content myself by going to watch the story again…





The Empty Child / The Doctor DancesBookmark and Share

Monday, 30 May 2005 - Reviewed by Andrew Philips

Introduced as “the scariest Doctor Who story yet”, can The Empty Child live up to the hype?

The first thing that struck me about this two-parter is the visuals. After the ordinariness of Father’s Day, the grand depiction of the Blitz looks absolutely epic, and whilst the shots of Rose on the end of a rope aren’t quite convincing, the views of war-torn London are breath-taking. Doctor Who usually works best on a smaller scale, with narrow corridors and claustrophobic sets. This is a radical departure, and it works incredibly well. The shots of Jack in his spaceship and Jack and Rose in front of Big Ben are both beautiful and iconic.

However, as the 1996 movie proved, pretty pictures alone do not good Doctor Who make. So what of the script?

It’s well-structured, allowing for lots of character moments, and stylishly sets up all the clues you need in part one to work out the resolution, without being obvious about it. There are comedic moments aplenty – my personal favourites including Jack and Rose’s awkward moments with the psychic paper; the Doctor asking if anything has fallen from the sky; and his exchange with Captain Jack about his sonic screwdriver. As promised, though, there’s also a lot of very creepy moments indeed, especially in the first part. Add to the mix Nancy’s touching revelation about Jamie, the Doctor’s “mouse in front of a lion” speech, Rose’s emotionally charged scene where she tells Nancy about the future, and a particularly joyous Doctor at the story’s resolution, and you have an intelligent piece of drama which engages the full range of emotions.

The acting is also wonderful throughout. Richard Wilson is his usual dependable self, and his lines about no longer being a grandfather but still being a doctor are delivered perfectly, and clearly resonate with a certain Time Lord. Florance Hoath as Nancy is also wonderful at portraying this most imaginatively-conceived yet realistic and sympathetic character. And then we have Captain Jack. John Barrowman is charming, dashing, a rogue, and (so I’m told) quite handsome to boot. His relationship with the Doctor promises an interesting dynamic for the TARDIS crew, and I look forward to the final few episodes all the more as a result.

In all, what we appear to have here is a classic. Funny, scary, precisely crafted and gorgeously directed, this has to be one of the very best Doctor Who serials ever.

10/10.





The Empty Child / The Doctor DancesBookmark and Share

Monday, 30 May 2005 - Reviewed by Alan Morrison

Piper’s leaving Doctor Who! So what? Is the current wave of media panic finally evidence of the companion’s superior cult status to the Doctor’s? Well, this never should have been the case anyway. Develop the character of a companion, fine, but not to that degree. As someone said recently somewhere among the mass of media publications touching on the subject, ‘companions come and go’. Well, yes, since Colin Baker, so do Doctors, admittedly, and we have that with Number Nine now too don’t we? Not that I’m all that bothered on that score either, as although Eccleston is a great and intense actor, and has shone sporadically in some recent episodes, he is in my mind not suited to the part of the Doctor, at least, certainly not in the way he has been directed to portray it. So, I’m not bothered about the Tardis crew being replaced. In fact, I think it can only be a good thing, especially given the untoward attentions rather unsubtly lavished by this current Doctor on his superficially attractive companion – and one hopes such tedious developments will be swiftly abandoned when Tenant is poised at the console, although this is unlikely given RTD’s obsession with ‘sexing up’ Doctor Who (predictions of a new leggy companion in short skirts doesn’t bode too well; not to mention a leggy Doctor in a kilt to boot!).

Onto this last two-parter. Well, overall it was pretty good wasn’t it? Visually well-realised, sufficiently (though not exceptionally) creepy and suspenseful (the child’s voice down the Tardis telephone; Dr Constantine morphing into a gas masked zombie) with some very original imagery (the eerie gas-masked child) and concepts (the gas masks welded to the skin of the bodies as if part of their anatomies) and nicely (though not exceptionally) directed. Though the shot of the monkey toy with the child’s voice coming through it was quite disturbing, as was the child trying to get into the house, overall this story did not unsettle quite as much as I had hoped (though as it is on at 7pm that’s probably fair enough) and I think what it lacked very slightly was the sort of subtle and almost dreamlike eeriness of old chillers like Sapphire and Steel, a series which achieved a surprisingly tense and dread-filled atmosphere considering it was very cheap and all on video camera, and one which is still palpable on viewing 25 years later (it played on our latent fears such as people without faces, photographs etc. and so in this vein, Empty Child has at least touched, albeit slickly, on this genre of ‘not showing but suggesting’). To be more germane: take the Gothic era atmos-gems such as Brain of Morbius, Pyramids of Mars, and in particular Seeds of Doom, Planet of Evil and Terror of the Zygons – those later two are genuinely chilling in places, and that’s a lot to do with that bleak, darkly-lit seventies style of direction. Then there’s the slightly more unsung post-Gothic chillers, Kinda and Snakedance; even aspects of Ghost Light. And what about that incredibly disturbing salvaged scene from Fury from the Deep? What a loss that is. Still, I suppose Empty Child/Doctor Dances has at least come a little nearer to suggesting the nightmarish than the other episodes so far, save Unquiet Dead, which is also on a par in this regard with the screaming zombie woman walking towards the camera (a classic shot).

Anyway, this story was as I say sufficiently creepy. The best thing about it though is its fully comprehensive, multi-layered, even slightly polemical (re the young girl being a single mother; the Doctor commenting on her communal altruism with the children as ‘either Marxism in action or…’; the Doctor citing the Welfare State at the end of story) storyline which is given a full explanation at the end which is truly unusual and quite inspired (and one in which the Doctor takes his true central place as a deductive character surrounded by less incisive compatriots). In this sense especially this is a true pseudo-historical in the old Hinchcliffe/Holmes sense of the word: alien intervention in Earth history causes seemingly supernatural occurrences. Moffatt has surprised me with a sharp, well-scripted and inventive script: surprised me because although Coupling could be very witty in places, essentially it was slightly elevated doggerel with vacuous gender stereotypes and unconvincing situations; a sort of post-modern Carry On for the Blairite era.

Aspects of the story which I dislike and find unnecessary however are symptomatic of this writer’s former TV output: namely preoccupation with sex to an almost juvenile degree. Not that the sexual semiotics of this story were juvenile as in Moffatt’s sit-com output. But the mere fact that they were so palpably present and indeed integral to the script of this story warrants some comment. Far from having ever really explored even the ins and outs of heterosexual relationships, Doctor Who, under the rather visceral and scatological direction of RTD, and in this story, by the pen of a similarly driven writer, has jumped light years ahead in its sexual didactics and is now quite openly examining bisexuality as manifest in a new companion, Captain Jack. I know kids of today are far more sexually literate than back in 1989, but isn’t this perhaps the least appropriate fictional scenario in which to investigate the increasingly public (though this is fine in society itself) heterogeneity of sexual preference? Or am I just old-fashioned? I don’t think so. The point is: what does this sexual sophistication add to a programme like Doctor Who? As far as I can see, nothing at all. It simply raises the question once again: just who exactly is RTD’s target audience? Seemingly not the under-12s. In that case then, add more drama, add more horror, and show it later in the evening. The Doctor alludes to Jack being a 51st century man in terms of tastes or ‘how he dances’ as the metaphor goes, but again this begs my other chief (rhetorical) question: So what? I just don’t care to be honest whether Jack has a fetish for Movellans in rubber! What’s this got to do with anything? It seems this new companion’s character is being defined solely on the basis of his bisexuality! Isn’t that a little bit…well…puerile? Not to mention arguably unsuited to a fantasy adventure programme. It seems RTD/Moffatt want to go one step further than the suggested incest in the old Star Wars films here. Lucas missed an obvious innuendo with Obi Wan-Kenobi showing Luke Skywalker his light saber!

I’m not going to hark on about this endlessly like some sort of TV Puritan, but again I felt this thread to the story was unnecessary and detracted from the inherent drama of it. What was especially unnecessary was Harkness’s implication that he knew the officer at the bombsite intimately and most ridiculously of all, the implication that the man with all the food in his house was ‘messing around with the butcher’. What seems to be irrational about the new Who universe is that far from just touching on the social reality of sexual diversity, which in itself and in the right context is fair enough, it seems to be going to the other extreme with implications that anything other than heterosexuality is the universal norm!!! Again I urge the producer to get the balance right here and not indulge in a frankly irrelevant fantasy based on his own sexuality which is arguably beginning to hint at a Homoerotic Who. What I’m saying is, unless it comes pertinently into a storyline, just jettison the sexual politics altogether! What partly made the series so fascinating before was the intellectually lifting feel to it, the inspiring otherworldliness, and the enigmatic androgynousness/sexlessness of the central character. I know the first great error was with the repeated kissing scene in the McGann film, but that’s not an excuse to open up the floodgates to a continual stream of sexual innuendo and metaphor in virtually every single storyline.

That all said, the strength of Empty Child’s storyline manages to still elevate it far above its writer’s/producer’s puzzling attempts to anchor it with sexual/romantic tension, and this is overall a satisfying and well-realised story with the best plot in the series yet. Stylistically and dramatically however I find Unquiet Dead and Dalek superior, and Father’s Day may still have a slight edge in terms of its refreshingly emotive take on the concept of time travel. I think the key point to end on here, and for all involved to remember, is that, ironically, the pivotal sublimity to Empty Child’s plot was indeed sexually pertinent and socially incisive in its subtext of the single unmarried mother pretending her son is her younger brother, for fear of social stigma. This then is a perfect example of how the nature of sexuality, if touched on in Who, should be done: as germane to the historical context and thus challenging, didactic and plot-enhancing. Moffatt made a profoundly good judgment here and this plot revelation at the end lifted the story’s conclusion to a higher, more thought-provoking level than the initial conclusion did in serving its own function as first twist; so we had this nice, socially polemical second twist. Very well done. Jack’s bisexuality can be partly vindicated in that it shows a massive contrast in the society of 51st century Earth to that of the mid-20th. But it could have just been very subtly hinted at, not so blatantly implied as it was. Suggestionism is the key. Let’s have more of that. Next week’s episode, judging by its absurdly unimaginative plot and return of farting aliens, obviously isn’t going to have any at all.

6/10.





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?!





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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.





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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?