The Empty Child / The Doctor DancesBookmark and Share

Monday, 30 May 2005 - Reviewed by Eddy Wolverson

Steven Moffat’s two-parter, like “The Unquiet Dead,” it had a very “Talons of Weng-Chiang” feel to it, not only in it’s dark tone but also in it’s more light-hearted moments. All in all, the story is another classic – and I mean classic – right up there with “Caves of Androzani,” “City of Death,” et al.

The opening scene of "The Empty Child" throws us right into the action with the Doctor and Rose chasing the Tula ambulance. I had to laugh at the Doctor’s little digs at humanity; “red is just humans,” and how “you can’t go anywhere in the universe without bumping into Earth.” I thought the latter comment especially funny, as by the looks of things we don’t get a single episode in this series set away from our Solar System, except “Parting of the Ways” perhaps? Wishful thinking! Even this budget will only stretch so far.

When the TARDIS lands, a month too late as per usual, I loved the quick succession of brilliant scenes we had to enjoy. We had the Doctor wander into the nightclub with his immortal line asking “if anything had fell from the sky”, followed by Rose first hearing the Empty Child’s voice, following him up onto a rooftop then being swept away by a barrage balloon! When the Doctor comes out of the club to find Rose gone, he strokes a cat (how 6th Doctor!) telling it how he wishes he could find someone who got the “don’t wander off thing.” Brilliant! The ringing phone was also a nice touch, and the introduction of Nancy was also wonderfully done. What is she hiding?

As for the scenes of Rose, Union Jack T-shirt and all, hanging from a barrage balloon from the sky in the middle of the Blitz… well. What can you say? On a TV budget the special effects were superb. More importantly, it introduced us to John Barrowman’s fantastic character, Captain Jack Harness. If you can forgive him for saying “excellent bottom” instead of “nice ass” or something american (which after all, he is a time agent posing as an american… I think) his introductory scene is brilliant. I loved how the “cellphone” creeped into the story again, and I couldn’t contain my laughter when he told her to turn it off because it was interfering with his tractor beam!

The Doctor stumbling onto Nancy’s air raid feeding frenzy was my favourite scene in the episode for a number of reasons. First off, both the Doctor and Nancy are brilliant in the scene. The Doctor’s dialogue is superbly written in fluent ‘northern,’ right from “good here innit” (a catchphrase of my brother’s) to his line about looking for a blonde in a union jack – well, a “specific blonde.” I loved his line about him not being sure whether it was “Marxism in action or a West End Musical” – mirroring the audience’s thoughts exactly! Trust him to take two slices as well! When the child arrives, causing everyone to scarper, it is a truly chilling scene. There is something about a gas mask that is really, really frightening. Put a child in one and as far as horror and creepiness goes, you’re onto a winner. I was impressed with how the Doctor was the only one who opened the door to the child; still after all he’s been through the optimist. But, aha, the child has gone.

The Doctor follows Rose to the site where the Tula ambulance crashed and another wonderful tete a tete ensues. Again the dialogue is dazzlingly written, “my nose has special powers,” says the Doctor when Nancy asks how he was able to follow her. “Do you ears have special powers to?” is Nancy’s savage reply, which isn’t just funny because the Doctor’s ears are quite big, but because of all Rose’s jibes that he should be more ‘Spock!’

Incidentally, I thought the Spock jibes were a great idea and worked brilliantly in the context of the story. Doctor Who has always been about good stories and characters, not too heavily reliant “alien tech.” No disrespect to the Star Trek franchise which I’m also a huge fan of, but they’ve always had far more money to spend on such things and it’s great how Rose – a typical child of the late 20th century – sees the Doctor as quite lo-tech and so when the flash Captain Jack comes along… crush!

“You want to know about the bomb? You need to talk to the Doctor,” says Nancy. Spoiler free-people must have thought “what?” and for a moment thought they were going to bring in Tom Baker, Davison, Colin Baker, McCoy or even McGann but no….

Meanwhile Captain Jack is entertaining Rose on the roof of his Tula warship, dancing with her, flirting and setting her up to be conned. It’s blatantly obvious how much Rose has fallen for the dashing Captain, especially with all his flash alien tech and champagne, not to mention his dancing. “Finally a professional.”

The Doctor and Nancy have another wonderful scene together. Somehow he knows she lost somebody, reasoning that is why she looks after all the kids, in a way making a comparison with himself. Then we have an epic and Doctor-like speech about the German war machine, “one damp little country says no…” Fantastic stuff. “I don’t know what you do to Hitler, but you lot frighten me.” Who’s he mis-quoting?

Finally we meet the mysterious ‘Doctor’, Doctor Constantine, played by the superb Richard Wilson. In his brief appearance he conveys a sense of disparity in keeping with the episode, and his line about before the war being “a grandfather and a father” and now being neither, “but still a Doctor” reminds us very much of a nameless Doctor we know – and I don’t mean the starship Voyager’s E.M.H. The premise of “physical injuries as plague” which becomes apparent as the Doctor examines all the victims is a very original idea for the show, and the big reveal – “what was the cause of death…. They’re not dead” – when all the zombies sit up is a classic Who moment.

Doctor Constantine’s horrific transformation reminded me of the nightmarish imagery in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” movie. As I said earlier, gas masks are somehow inherently disturbing and see one grow out of someone’s throat… bone chilling stuff. I bet that scene put many a child behind the sofa. And to think this episode was shown EARLIER than usual!

When Jack and Rose find their way into the hospital the confused Jack is pleased to meet “Doctor Spock,” before realising that they aren’t “time agents” after all and so he can’t con them. Instead, he insults them by calling them “Flag girl” and “U-boat captain” (how many times can the Doctor’s appearance be attacked in one episode?)
Before he bleats out apologetically, almost pleadingly, “I’m a conman. That’s what I do.” The Doctor, of course, takes an instant dislike to the flash Captain.

Then we get the second cliff-hanger of the season, much more understated than the first, and all the better for it. The zombies advance on the Doctor, Rose and Jack, while the Empty Child closes in on Nancy… “are you my Mummy? Are you my Mummy…” So, how are they going to get out of this one? The Doctor is going to give the zombies a telling off. “Go to your room!” Fantastic, though as the Doctor pointed out, it’s a good job it worked because they would be crappy last words, especially compared to “it’s the end… but the moment has been prepared for,” “…it’s time to say goodbye… might regenerate…” and the like.

As "The Doctor Dances" begins proper, Jack reveals his con and the plot starts to come together. The interaction between Jack, the Doctor and Rose is superbly written and performed here. Jack’s “Volcano Day” joke is wonderfully turned on it’s head by the Doctor (does anyone else think that would have been a better title than “The Doctor Dances”?) and the whole banana joke was brilliantly executed, especially the Doctor implying he blew up the weapons depot where Jack got his gun, then switching a banana for Jack’s weapon! “Bananas are good.” Immortal words. The banter goes on as the Doctor is too embarrassed to say that his sonic device is a ‘screwdriver,’ and it’s Jack’s weapon, ironically, that saves them from the marauding hordes of zombies on their tail. When Jack takes the mickey out of the Doctor for having a sonic screwdriver the Doctor comes out with another classic “you ever been bored? Ever had a long night? Ever had a lot of shelves to put up?” Absolutely brilliant script-writing. It looks like this menage a trois is going to be a lot of fun to watch.

I also enjoyed the scene where Nancy returns to the house she’d taken the children to eat at only to be caught by the obese householder. Nancy’s gall is impressive as she blackmails him not only into letting her go, but into getting her some wire cutters, some more grub and letting her have a Johnny Cash before she leaves!

The scene with the Doctor, Rose and Jack in the Empty Child’s room where the tape runs out is the first of two brilliantly terrifying scenes. The young child’s voice is awfully harrowing “I’m here can’t you see me?” The way he ‘sings’ everything makes him even creepier.

Shortly after, Jack does his most Spock-like trick of all and is ‘beamed up’ to his ship. At this point we are still wondering about this intergalactic conman… has he taken off and left the Doctor and Rose to their fate, or will he really help them?

The second creepy scene of the episode sees Nancy go back to tell the children she is going to the bomb site because the Empty Child isn’t following them, it’s following HER. Just as Constantine implied in the previous episode, only Nancy knows why the Empty Child is stalking her, and at this point most of us are still guessing. The typewriter being controlled by the child is executed beautifully. It’s directed so well you get used to the noise of it in the background, then when you see the little boy who was writing the letter isn’t operating it anymore it’s a big shocker. Very creepy indeed.

The Doctor gets sulky as Rose goes on and on about Jack’s good looks, how he saved her life and how he’s like the Doctor, but with dating and dancing etc. The Doctor makes an effort not to be insulted, but just like with Jo Grant and her bloke all those years ago in “The Green Death” he’s seething. “…you just assume I don’t darnce…”

“You got the moves? Show me your moves. The world doesn’t end because the Doctor dances,” Rose says, holding out her arm to the Doctor. Of course, he doesn’t dance with her, just examines her hands disapprovingly as he realises they’ve been healed and the pieces of the puzzle start fitting together in his head. His line about Rose “setting new records for jeopardy friendly” was another nice line; as I keep saying the dialogue by Moffat is brilliant.

As Jack comes to the rescue, ‘beaming up’ the Doctor and Rose, we realise it’s possible he’s not all bad, just like when Han Solo returns to help Luke blow up the Death Star in “Star Wars.” Still, he’s no angel as he’d be the first to admit, and he does, boasting about how he stole his Tula warship from a gorgeous lady. We also get the first big reveal about his character here – he was a ‘Time Agent,’ whatever one of those may be, and the ‘Agency’ wiped several years of his memory. He wants them back. This memory block gives his character a real edge. The good looks and charm we saw in “Empty Child” were okay for an episode or two, but if they’re making him a regular he needs the kind of depth something like this gives to his character. I hope it gets a good payoff and he wasn’t just a “nice guy” during those missing years. It is also in this scene the Doctor first sees the nanogenes and pieces it all together. Watching “The Empty Child” I thought the premise of “physical injuries as plague” was a unique idea, and it is nice to see it being backed up with a scientific explanation that seems half-plausible!

Meanwhile Nancy is captured trying to re-enter the bombsite. She is chained up and left under the supervision of an soldier showing the first symptoms of “Empty Child Syndrome.” His commanding officer, who I think was called Algie (presumably the same officer Jack spoke to in “The Empty Child”) leaves Nancy in his custody despite the solider calling him “Mummy!” Florence Hoath as Nancy once again puts in a wonderful performance, pleading with the solider to let her go, trying to reason with him. When he is completely overcome by the Syndrome, she cleverly byes some time by singing a lullaby to him…

I love the shot of the Doctor, Jack and Rose walking through the bomb site. The lighting is superb, Murray Gold’s score is as epic as in “Dalek”, it’s a shame the scene couldn’t have lasted a second or two longer.

I only have one real complaint with this two-parter, and it’s all the bi-sexual innuendo which is a bit over the top. Fair enough if you want to imply that “51st century guy” Jack is bi-sexual, but why make the Army officer, Algie, gay too? Even the man who’s house Nancy stole food from was “messing about with the butcher.” I think for something watched by kids and families it’s a little bit too much.

When the Doctor realises the plague has now become airborne as we see Algie transform horrifically, it becomes obvious we are building up to the story’s climax, though like in “World War Three,” it does feel a little early. Luckily, the climax here it stretched out right until the episode’s end.

As the zombies march relentlessly towards the bombsite we are treated to a delightful scene between Rose and Nancy, very similar to “The Unquiet Dead” scene with Rose and Gwyneth. This one is probably even more profound; how can Rose convince a girl who looks up into the sky and sees a devastating war raging, that the world isn’t about to end? The look on Nancy’s face when she realises who wins is priceless. It’s a really beautiful scene.

I love the ending of the story. So far it has been a dark story in almost every sense, from the lighting to the setting to the plot to the horrific imagery shown. At this point everything is bleak, the Doctor is giving a trademark speech about how unstoppable the nanogenes are and how they will turn the whole human race into zombies, and even Jack realises what his con has led to. He even appears to feel guilty.

“There’s never been a little boy born who wouldn’t tear down the world to save his Mummy… and this one can…”

But just as a fate worse than death is about to take all out heroes, the Doctor finally works it out. Nancy is the Empty Child’s Mother. “Are you my Mummy? Where is my Mummy?” The Doctor persuades a reluctant Nancy to admit the truth to the Empty Child, Jamie, her son who she’d always claimed was her brother to protect herself from society’s scorn. “Yes, I am. I am your Mummy.”

The Doctor is rubbing his hands together, looking up at the sky. “Gimme a day like this please… clever little nanogenes!!!” then we are treated to a rarity in this series – even the Doctor cannot believe it – an old fashioned Hollywood happy ending!


Normally I hate such things but it just works so well. Even Doctor Constantine and his patients are saved when the Doctor takes the nanogene “software patch” and, let’s say ‘manually’ “e-mails the upgrade,” with particularly humorous consequences as the nanogenes not only restore all the zombies’ humanity but heal all their injuries… one woman’s leg even grows back. “Perhaps you miscounted?” suggests Constantine, Richard Wilson’s comic timing still perfect.

So the Doctor is running into the TARDIS, waving his arms all over the place, laughing and grinning like a Cheshire cat. He even has an 8th Doctor-like “I know everything” moment when he tells Rose what she got for Christmas when she was twelve. “I’m on fire!” he exclaims. “But what about Jack?” asks Rose.

Jack has taken the “Splichter Wolf” (‘Bad Wolf’… sigh) bomb into space and is now facing certain death. He’s very cool about it though, supping his drink and reminiscing on his sexual misadventures with his executioners… but of course, it really is a happy ending and the TARDIS arrives to save him just in the nick of time.

The story that began in the darkness and despair of 1941 London in “The Empty Child” ends as “The Doctor Dances,” albeit with a bit too much bi-sexual innuendo (still!), but at least it’s the Doctor and Rose who have the last dance.

“All things considered, fantastic!”

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