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.


FILTER: - Television - Series 1/27 - Ninth Doctor