21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances

Damn these separate two-parter titles. Not only are they a huge pain when it comes to writing reviews, some of them are a bit rubbish. Take the story about gas mask zombies in World War Two: The Empty Child's an excellent title for the story, full of mystery and wonder. Part Two, on the other hand, is called The Doctor Dances, which sounds like a weak spin-off of geriatric dance bore Strictly Come Dancing.

Luckily, there's no over-padded, tacky dance tedium on display in this magnificent two-parter. It's one of the cornerstones of Eccleston's lone season and also the first script from Steven Moffat. You might have heard of him incidentally.

2018 seems like a different country though when reassessing Moffat's contribution to Doctor Who. He's barely vacated the executive producer's chair, and already a number of newspapers, magazines and websites have pointed fingers at convoluted plots, the same old tropes, smugness, and let's not forget the plummeting ratings.

Contrast that to 2005, when Moffat was the golden boy of the day. While Moffat's helming of the show resulted in a plethora of issues, The Empty Child two-parter is a reminder that on a good day, he can create some of the finest Doctor Who tales around. Such skills are in evidence for his debut two-parter: The tight, well-worked out plot. The non-stop flow of one-liners. The well-drawn characters. The less said about Everybody Lives the better, but it's something I'll have to address later on in the review.

Despite this, the other ingredients come together to form one of Doctor Who's best remembered stories, not only of the new reboot, but of the show as a whole. Kiddies were presumably terrified of the gas mask zombies and probably staggered around the playground with their arms outstretched shouting: “Are you my mummy?”

The terror of being turned into a gas-masked zombie like the eponymous kid is seen in a memorable sequence in which Victor Meldrew's head graphically morphs into the finished masked article. They had to cut the sound of crunching bone out apparently, but what's on screen is still memorably grim, partly because it's so unusual, and partly it's a welcome return to the Hinchcliffe/Holmes themes of body horror. The body's abused in such a terrifying way, becoming a blank-faced symbol of death. In actual fact, Captain Jack's buddy, Algy's transformation in the second part is the more gruesome of the two, especially the close-up shot of his bulging eyes mutating into those of a gas mask.

The gas masked zombies are inspired creations, and sum up the horror of war to a tee. We've already seen a good example of this blank-faced nightmare trope in the Matrix sequence for The Deadly Assassin, when the Doctor met a stumbling gas-masked soldier and war horse. The zombies represent warriors of death – a troop of soldiers protecting their own (in this case, the Chula War Ship). It's an effective metaphor, and is part of how well Moffat handles the time period.

The bleak desolation is everywhere in the two-parter, from Constantine's haunting admission of how he was once a father and a grandfather before the war, through to Nancy's amazed disbelief that the world can change. She takes Rose's confession that she can travel through time at face value, but can't quite comprehend the fact that the war will be over with victory in sight (“But what future?”). The visuals also help to convey this murky despair, with its images of dark, swirling streets, empty hospitals and smoky jazz clubs.

The up side of all this is that the story offers a more optimistic look at human resilience. Bluff old cove Mr Lloyd and his wife, Heav from EastEnders, shake their fists at the sky as the sound of an air raid siren fills the air. Nancy manages to look after her ragtag band of kids by finding well-stocked larders and big dinner tables full of food. Dr Constantine, despite his ailing condition and isolation, carries on looking after the affected gas-masked patients in the best way that he can. Don't forget the big tub-thumping speeches, including the Doctor's comparison of Britain to a “mouse in front of a lion”, refusing to be beaten by the Nazi troops or Rose's heart-warming reassurance to Nancy.

The attitudes of the time are well portrayed, notably the way in which some characters have to keep taboo (for the time) secrets well hidden. Mr Lloyd's secret affair with the butcher is kept to himself, just so that he can put a large amount of food on the table – well, at least until Nancy gets wise (“Oh look, there's the sweat on your brow”). Nancy herself is forced to call Jamie her brother, because of the attitudes to teenage single mothers in 1941. It's not until near the end of the story that the Doctor realises her secret, as Nancy wails that it's all her fault.

The character of Nancy is integral to the story, as she holds the key to saving the day, and it's boosted by an excellent performance from Florence Hoath. All of the guest cast provide strong performances, especially Richard Wilson, who didn't once cause me to shout “I don't believe it!” at the telly, thanks to his nicely understated cameo as Constantine. Shame he doesn't get to do more in the story though, which is actually a common failing of Moffat's Doctor Who stories. Big name guest stars, more often than not, appear in fleeting cameos rather than in meaty roles – but Wilson luckily makes the most of his limited screen time.

Moffat caters well for the regulars, but there are one or two caveats. The Doctor's thankfully a bit more chipper after his recent traumas with Daleks, Rose's blunders and weedy child prodigies. Eccleston gets to show off some surprisingly good comic timing for once. There's less gurning and more of a good grasp of great one-liners, whether he's wondering how his TARDIS phone can ring (“What's that about? Ringing?”), gleefully dining with Nancy's mob (“I'm not sure if it's Marxism in action or a West End musical”), or ineptly trying to compete with Captain Jack's smooth operator moves – the bit in which he feebly tries to keep the Sonic Screwdriver hidden from a scornful Jack is priceless.

The only downside is that Eccleston's playing the 'Moffat Doctor'. A visit to Chakoteya's excellent transcript page of the Doctor Who stories spotlights this problem. Select any of the Moffat-penned scripts for each of the 21st century Doctors, and the characterisation is, by and large, the same. A wisecracking, speech-making, flirtatious Time Lord who's occasionally prone to smug outbursts and overconfidence. Moffat's version of the Eccleston Doctor is never less than entertaining company, but it's at odds with the moodier, battle-scarred interpretation seen so far. While other writers try and think outside the box a bit with what each Doctor can offer, Moffat sticks to tried and tested lines, which can get tiresome.

The Moffat Doctor's romantic side is a common theme of his stories, including l'amour pour Madame du Pompadour, River Song and Clara. This two-parter introduces this idea, which is seen in the way that the Doctor's a little bit jealous of a new rival in town.

It's rare for the Doctor to try and keep up with a lesser being, who's that bit more 'Spock' in Rose's eyes. By now, the Doctor's becoming all the more taken with Rose, and I'm sure that there's a bit of jealousy afoot here (Rose even comments that the Doctor's experiencing “Captain Envy”), whether he's blustering over the merits of his Sonic Screwdriver or just as uselessly trying to “Dance”. It's one of the most contentious aspects of this story, in that Dancing is seen as a metaphor for (whisper it) S-E-X. Mary Whitehouse would be doing the Can Can in her grave if she could hear the Doctor confess that he's at some point “Danced”.

Moffat does handle this hoary old subject well, with a wry commentary on the Doctor's lack of hanky panky (“Doesn't the universe implode or something if you – dance?” splutters Rose). He's a powerful hero who's still a bit clueless when it comes to women. Tom Baker's Doctor did the same thing, when at times, he was clearly a bit too clumsy or goofy to win over the female of the species. The Ninth Doctor's awkward dance moves suggest that nothing's changed over the years.

Billie Piper is again on good form as Rose, and she gets a lot to do here, whether she's musing who to choose out of the Doctor or Captain Jack, reassuring Nancy or showing off her dance moves to the strains of Glenn Miller. At this point, Rose is still a likeable, engaging character, free from future smugness, and she makes for a valuable part of the TARDIS crew, whose number now includes...

Captain Jack Harkness.

We learn a number of things about the Captain. One, he's an outrageous flirt. Male, female, hermaphrodite, Jack'll try and win 'em over with a smart one-liner and a cheesy grin. Give him a baked potato and he'll start whispering sweet nothings at it in a number of seconds. Sure enough, he's onto Rose, who's falling for his admittedly impressive range of gadgets such as invisible spaceships, swanky guns or teleport devices.

Two, he's an intergalactic conman with a shifty past. There's a common trend these days for regular sci-fi/fantasy characters to have murky back stories. We do learn that Jack is a former time agent from the 51st century, who's spent most of his life conning gullible sorts out of their money. He even tries the trick on the Doctor and Rose, since he was the one who threw the “ambulance” at them in a vain bid to sell them a useless piece of “space junk”. Of course, this time he's found himself in way too deep, since the Chula ambulance is the cause of what the Doctor refers to as “Volcano Day”.

Which brings us on to the third and probably the most important aspect. Jack, despite his bluff, ultimately proves his worth to the Doctor by capturing an active bomb which he takes back on his ship. It's that all-important bit of bravery that leads the Doctor to welcome him aboard the TARDIS at the end. Just like Rose, Jack has proved that he's worthy of a place in the TARDIS. John Barrowman makes for a welcome presence as a regular character in Doctor Who, and indeed Jack's popularity was enough to win him his very own spin-off show, Torchwood.

It's happy endings all round, as “Everybody lives!” It's the first and by no means last time that Moffat would use this trick. I think that it works here for a number of reasons. One is that at this point it was still something of a rarity for all supporting characters to live to see another day. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking Snakedance and Fury From The Deep, but these (and probably other examples) are in the minority. It's still a comparative novelty, and quite a welcome one – especially when the battle-scarred Ninth Doctor almost weeps with delight at the fact that just once, everything's gone his way. Problem solved with no loss of life. “Oh go on, give me a day like this, just this once,” he pleads, and there's something touching about the Doctor's evident joy at saving the day in such a fashion.

While the trick works this once, unfortunately, Moffat would go on to repeat it way too many times – whether it's the underwhelming denouement of the otherwise flawless Library two-parter (an ending that nearly wipes out the horror present in that tale) or the reboot of the Big Bang two-parter (which results in a finale that's an emasculated cop-out). But at least in this story the Everybody Lives mantra is in context, and it works well.

The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is a very smart deal indeed. It's packed full of everything that's good about Doctor Who. It's scary (the zombie corpses and the well-executed effects of the morphing gas mask faces). It's expertly written – Moffat lays out all the clues in the first part and neatly weaves them together to form a solution that's both logical and effective.

Not only that, but Moffat's script is highly amusing. He'd previously created sitcom Coupling (which I never cared for much, to be honest), but this two-parter showcases his considerable talent for crafting witty one-liners which flow as freely as water. Too many to mention, but I'll just throw in the Spock jokes, the Doctor/Rose banter over Captain Jack (“If he ever was a Captain, he's been defrocked”) or the banana gun as just a few examples. Plus, for hardcore Doctor Who fans, there are plenty of subtle nods to the past including references to The Talons Of Weng-Chiang (Time Agents) and Shada (invisible spaceships).

The story is assembled beautifully, this time by newcomer James Hawes, who captures the atmosphere of the piece effortlessly, with some stunning filmography. Again, good POV work, with distorted close-up shots from the Child's point of view. The effects are superbly realised, especially Rose dangling in mid-air and then falling from a barrage balloon, Jack's spaceship and the mutating heads. He perfectly captures the atmosphere of World War Two Britain with some authentic set designs and costumes, which by now, the BBC could do while sleepwalking.

By turns exciting, funny and poignant, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is one of the picks of the season. It's up against some stiff competition, but everything in Moffat's brilliant script comes together to form a quality whole. A masterpiece of storytelling, this one has it all.

Oh, and it also has 'In The Mood' and 'Moonlight Serenade' by Glenn Miller. What more could you ask for?

* Plenty more classics are talked about in my great value ebook guides to the Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and Peter Davison eras of Doctor Who.


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UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B077K8MN2P

US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B077K8MN2P


UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07DBBSSW9

US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07DBBSSW9