The Empty Child / The Doctor DancesBookmark and Share

Monday, 30 May 2005 - Reviewed by Robert Tymec

After a fun little roller-coaster ride comprised mainly of "one-off" stories, we are treated to our second two-parter of the season. Admittedly, I was approaching this story with a bit of hesitancy knowing it would not be resolved by the end of the episode. The new format of the series seemed to be working much better with just one-episode stories and although a cliffhanger ending seems to constitute a sense of "truer Who", our last two-parter seemed bit weak in comparison to the many "fantastic" (as the good Doctor seems so fond of saying these days) one-parters we've seen this season. I was starting to feel sure, already, that the day of the cliffhanger needed to be done with. That this latest story would, like the little Slitheen debacle, be half-decent, but would pale in comparison to such great one-part stories as "Dalek", "Father's Day" or "Unquiet Dead".

I was already starting to feel right in my convictions as the story began. The whole pre-title-sequence-intro was nice and very "Whoesque" (I always like it when there's a little bit of dialogue in the TARDIS interior before our heroes go and face their new adventure) although a tad difficult to understand over all the noise and mood music. But then, we arrive in war-torn London. And, for a while, my doubts about two-parters tend to deepen....

The story seems off to a bit of a shaky start. I almost wondered, as we are treated to a series of nearly proposterous sequences involving ringing TARDIS phones, overly-redundant gas-mask-wearing boys and companions hanging on to blimps if maybe the whole story wasn't actually taking place on Earth. If, perhaps this some kind of surreal "dreamscape"-type story like "Mind Robber" or "Celestial Toymaker". It would certainly tie in nicely with all the other neat twists and turns the series has been taking in its first new season. But no, we are expected to believe that a woman can hang somewhat indefinitely from a blimp while being bombed by German fighters and that Rose is just dumb enough to grab onto a rope without checking out, first, how its tied (shades of the Doctor at the end of Episode one of "Dragonfire"). As I watch these developments, I'm almost starting to wonder if this will be the one story of the season that "got it wrong" and will be the equivalent of a "Time Flight" or a "Creature From the Pit". But I hang in there and try to keep my mind open.

But then, along comes Captain Jack Harkness and the story starts taking some better turns. It helps, I think, to know that he will be a recurring character and so I'm paying better attention to him than perhaps one needs to this early on in the story. But even if I hadn't read the spoilers about him becoming a regular on the show, I found myself warming up to the Captain quite quickly. Although I can agree with some of the points made in negative reviews I've read regarding this character, I still find myself really liking him. In fact, as the series progresses, I almost feel like he could merit his own spin-off show since he is so multi-layered. But, at this point, we are just getting introduced to Jack and the introduction is going along very well. He's a bit roguish, bringing back to me hints of some of the old Robert Holmesian scoundrels like Garron or Sabalom Glitz. And I've always enjoyed the intergalactic conman character - he's a fun little icon to play with in a sci-fi series.

As we return to the Doctor's storyline, some of the surreal elements seem to be getting better treatment now. The Doctor appearing mysteriously at the dinner table is definitely a bit of a "magical" moment and the ensuing arrival of our mysterious boy becomes a bit more scientifically plausible. Although, the constant asking for his "Mummy" is beginning to grate a bit. Still, some of the spookiness is really starting to set in nicely. And this is easilly the "darkest" of the Who stories to come out in the season. I'm also starting to warm up to the overall "feel" of the story at this point. And some of the commentary going on about the Second World War is very moving too. Particularly the whole "mouse standing up to a lion" speech given near the end of the episode.

Then we go to the hospital and get yet more explanation of what's going on. Mister Moffat, I will agree, is masterful at building up a sense of intrigue - he seems to know exactly when a viewer is about to get tired of not getting any of his questions answered and gives us just enough hints to keep us interested. We can see that something is obviously messing around with human DNA but we still can't figure out who or what is at the bottom of this. And that is enough to keep us wanting to tune in next week as the somewhat subtle cliffhanger comes in to play.

Whatever doubts I had about the quality of this particular story get very quickly dismissed as episode two starts up. There is a great little chase sequence going on in the hospital and the banter with the Doctor and Jack is very amusing. Jack is blending in with the TARDIS crew really well and we can see some character development going on already as our conman begins to develop a bit of a conscience over what he's done. And the eeriness of the story is now going through the roof. With some genuinely bone-chilling moments that the classic series could never achieve. Oddly enough, the empty child chiming out "and I can hear everything you're saying" over the radio was the moment that spooked me out the most. Even though there were several other occassions that would seem to be more effective in their "scariness"! Just goes to show how quirky I can be, I suppose.

With the chase sequence settled down and the Doctor and Rose trapped in a store room of some sort, a whole new type of atmosphere settles in to the story. One that can only be termed as "classy". With the 1940's music piping through, we discover why the story is given the title is has. And again, Rose and the Doctor have a little bit of that "eighth Doctor/Grace Holloway" formulae developping between them (albeit, somewhat more subtley since there has still been no onscreen snogging going on yet). This particular sequence is what truly and finally "sells" me on this story. The two leading actors execute it so well and with such finesse that I truly find myself regretting that Eccleston is not sticking around longer with the series. He does some things with the Doctor that no other actor in the role could manage. And though that can be said for all the actors who have taken on the part, somehow Eccleston does it in much greater abundance than other Doctors. He has truly made the role his - and that shines through wonderfully in such moments as the "near-dance" he and Rose have in the hospital store-room. As much as us fans hate to see the Doctor "getting some action", we're almost rooting for him and Rose a bit in that moment. Especially now that the competition for Rose is getting even thicker with Captain Jack in the picture.

With the "classy" bit now over, we go back into a bit of runaround. With things getting more and more interesting as more and more of the plot comes together. The mysterious gas-mask-wearing boy and his army of zombies finally makes sense. And again, we see Moffat's gift as a writer as he makes us wait just long enough before dishing out the necessary explanations. There's also some great suspense going on here. With the bomb now only minutes away from dropping and we have no clear idea how the Doctor will save the day.

And then, once more, the story takes on a very different atmosphere. Not just in the context of this particular episode - but in the entire history of the series as a whole. I was shocked and amazed to find myself "misting up" a bit during "Father's Day" as Rose's poor Dad most go off and do what we all know he needs to do in order to resolve the conflict. I didn't think Who could be that genuinely touching. But I didn't think the series would achieve such a moment again so quickly with the resolution of "The Doctor Dances". As the nano-genes swarm around mother and child, I found myself getting glassy-eyed as the Doctor removes the gas-mask and a real boy is once again underneath it. It was both triumphant and very moving. I had no idea this new series would be so deft at playing with my hearstrings - and that's one of the things that is truly amazing me about it. That Doctor Who can very legitimately bring me to tears. In the old days, of course, some of the special effects could make me cry - but those were an entirely different kind of tears!

The denouement of the whole tale takes a bit longer than most of the stories have but we are treated to yet more of that sense of "classiness" that I so enjoyed earlier in the story so it doesn't really bother me. Poor old Captain Jack is in his space ship about to die. At last, he's definitely become a good guy and we don't want to see him go. His "emergency protocol" of having the computer make him one last drink was a real hoot! And that slow pan back from his cockpit to the interlinking TARDIS console room might even qualify as a "classic moment" in the series. It's all very stylish without trying to be overly intentional about its stylishness. Something that can happen in less-carefully-crafted sci-fi stories. But everything about the new Who series seems to be handled so well by its creative team that it can get away with all kinds of neat and novel concepts. Such as actually showing the Doctor dancing in his console room with his companion and even going to such lengths as actually using the sequence as a name for the whole story! Once again, an old hardcore fan like me can enjoy just how well this series is blending "the old with the new" and feels confident that no matter what Russell T. throws at us. He'll do it well. The show moves from strength to strength with him at the helm as producer. Poor old JNT must be a bit jealous of just how well some of the revisionist work Davis is doing is being so well-accepted! After all, he changed the show just as radically back in the 80s. Perhaps we just needed to be "starved" of on-screen Who for a bit before realising that re-inventing itself regularly is one of the finest features of this programme.

Anyway, in the final analysis, "Empty Child" holds up much better if you watch it back-to-back with its second episode rather than having to wait the week you had to wait when it was transmitted. All the wierdness and mystery is much more justifiable now that you know where it's all going to go. And when you think about some other "bigger picture" aspects of this tale, you can really feel some enormous hope and enthusiasm for the series. Once again we have a truly great story being told. Making it now four stories in a row (from "Dalek" onward) that just seem to have little or no real flaws to them. And when you take into consideration that Steven Moffat can not only write great comedy T.V. like "Coupling", but can also write some great hardcore sci-fi drama, one becomes even more impressed with what Doctor Who is offering the public. In a nutshell, it's some of the best television of 2005! Whether you're a Who-fan, a sci-fi geek or just a casual viewer - this is, undeniably, some great storytelling.

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