The Empty Child


Once upon a time, around when Doctor Who had gotten itself cancelled, there was a brilliant TV show on the ABC called Press Gang. It starred Saffie from Absolutely Fabulous, and some guy who’s since been in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. It was about a bunch of kids running a school newspaper, which sounds like a hokey idea for a show, but trust me if you can and believe me that it was awesome. I’ve always felt that if you’re going to make a soapie about young adults, you’ve got to have an extra element to add to the mix, be it a newspaper, or vampires, or the ability to alter time, or something.1 Anyhow, the point of the story is that this show was written in part by a guy called Steven Moffat.

It’s come to my attention that everything Mr Moffat touches turns to gold. Well, almost. My favourite sitcom ever is probably his Coupling, simply on the basis of the fantastic characterisation of the male characters.2 Not so much the women, but as long as there’s a scene with the blokes coming up, one can overlook these things. Or if the women are naked in that episode, which occasionally happens.3 And then of course, there’s the best Doctor Who spoof ever, The Curse of Fatal Death. The title says it all there, really, but if you need any further convincing, it’s got Rowan Atkinson, Jonathan Pryce, Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley in it.

And then I find out last year that he’s writing a two-parter45 in the new Doctor Who series. So, what with such high expectations, I clearly must have been very disappointed, yes? Oh no. No no no no no. Not a bit of it. Sometimes, there just isn’t enough hyperbole in the world to express how damn good something is. “Awesome” doesn’t seem to do it justice. “Fantastic” seems a bit obvious. A whole list of them is rather derivative of Jess’ Prisoner of Azkaban review. But I think you’ve got the idea by now, so let’s just assume I thought of the perfect word and put it here.

At the beginning of the tale, the Doctor and Rose follow a piece of tumbling time-junk to London during the Blitz in World War Two. Director James Hawes creates a brilliant mood of doom and gloom outside, helped by the eerie voice of a child seeking its mother, and the spooky ringing of the TARDIS’ supposedly fake telephone. The cold, dark tones outside provide a stark contrast to the cosiness when the Doctor follows a bunch of kids into a warm house with a roast dinner. The story as a whole feels very much like a movie: a scary, funny, heart-warming movie. Hawes even manages some alien point-of-view shots that don’t look like incredible clichés.

I’m not sure if it’s Marxism in action, or a west end musical…

Child actors! Aaarrgh! Run for the hills! Wait, no, come back. You won’t believe this, but not only are the ten or so filler-kids quite passable, but the head of the bunch, Nancy (Florence Hoath) is just amazing. I almost wanted her to be a new companion. I don’t know if it was the story suggesting this, or just Hoath’s performance, but she came across almost as a young, female Doctor, which was pretty impressive. Of course, she’s had experiences that have forced her to grow up a little, and the little touches of her character that suggest this are wonderfully laid across the tale. I was absolutely terrified for her when we reached the cliffhanger in the middle.

Finally… A professional!

It’s not too surprising, given Coupling, that Moffat could write someone as awesome as Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). Funny, flirtatious, slightly dangerous and very resourceful, he’s a great help to Rose and the Doctor, and just the right thing to shake up their cosy twosome. I was a little unsure at first: his initial scenes with Rose were just a little too sitcom for me, but things progressed nicely, and his interaction with the Doctor was classic, especially the banana. Captain Jack is yet another in the Doctor’s string of inspired heroes, and the fact that in this episode the Doc actually lets on that he’s manipulated Jack into saving the day has caused me to massively reinterpret some of the previous episodes.6

Are you my mummy?

This story is notable also for having a moment that actually kind of scared me — and which certainly would have frightened the bejeesus out of me when I was twelve. The transformation from human to crazy gas-mask creature is a magnificent effect, using some of the best CGI I’ve seen on TV.7 And debuting the sinister effect at the end of the first episode allowed it to be held in reserve for the next, creeping you out by the very threat of it. The moment when Nancy’s stuck in the room with the potential Gas Maskifying person had amazing tension as a result.

Oh, come on. Give me a day like this. Give me this one.

The most amazing thing about this story though is the Doctor. Over the course of this season, I’ve come to love the Eccleston Doctor: his fragility, his anger, his happiness, his depression, his loneliness, his vulnerability. But I’ve had a nagging wish that he’d actually step up to the plate and be really proactive, and get it right, and save the day properly, and intelligently. That is this episode, and it’s all the better for the long wait. When the Doctor begs for this one adventure to turn out perfectly, you’re right there with him, because he’s had such a hard time of it. And Eccleston sells it magnificently. Of course, it’s not just the end. It’s his fantastic resolution to the cliffhanger. It’s his embarassment at his sonic screwdriver. His admiration for the British strength in World War II. It’s his attempts to dance.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the season, but I can’t imagine that anything will top these two, because they’re so damn perfect. And I can’t believe how much I’m going to miss the Ninth Doctor when this is all over.

  1. I promise Jackson here and now that the moment The O.C. gains any such element, I’ll begin watching. “Being rich” or “having to deal with being painfully good-looking” doesn’t count.
  2. Especially Jeff. Why couldn’t I have had one more season of Jeff?
  3. I know that sentence appears sleazy. But the previous one made me sound a bit gay. Hopefully a mixture of the two emphasises what a charming, sensitive guy I am.
  4. Why review Aliens of London and World War III seperately and these together? Why, because these are both good, and the other two were great and crummy, respectively. Also, I’m lazy.
  5. The story’s second part was entitled ‘The Doctor Dances’, but oddly, ‘The Empty Child’ is a better title than ‘The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances’. Steven Moffat agrees.
  6. For example: Cathica in The Long Game. Also, in Doctor Who Confidential this week, Russell T. Davies explicitly says that he manipulated her on purpose, which is another subtle hint in that direction.
  7. Or, more accurately, on a computer monitor.
He's not really a captain, Rose. — The Doctor

9 Responses to “The Empty Child”

  1. “When he’s stressed, he likes to insult species,” Rose tells Jack about the Doctor. “Cuts himself shaving: does half an hour on life-forms he’s cleverer than.”

    I totally missed that line the first time around. Watched this again this week. Still awesome.

    I’m more excited about this Christmas than I’ve been about any Christmas in the last five years.

  2. Oh, and there’s another joke not long after I missed also, where Captain Jack has a really nifty sonic gadget that does a gazillion things, like blasting holes in objects and then reversing them to their initial state once you’re through… but all the extra features drain the battery so fast that you only get a few uses out of it. He was going to get the battery replaced by the people who made it but the Doctor (incidentally) blew up the factory.

  3. When’s this back, Thomas? I hate to say, but I rather enjoyed it.

  4. Oooo better yet when is John Barrowman’s spinoff out? And go to telling me to google it, I’m sure asking you is both more efficient and more annoying for you, therefore fun for me.

  5. Bwa ha ha. You’re converted! Partially.

    There’s one episode out on Christmas, and then a new season of the same length starting in March (I think). The Barrowman spin-off, Torchwood, will be out after the Who season. So not for a while.

  6. Hmm somehow “don’t go telling me to google it” came out.. very oddly, up there.

    Does that mean he’s given up on his “Coupling” christmas special idea then? Poor, I think I’d almost rather that.

    And I’m not converted – the new series I like, and probably half of britain agrees with me, but I still don’t see how you could get into the old episodes retrospectively. I’ve seen old Dr Who. There is no pysical way I could be converted to thinking they were any good (to watch today).

  7. The Coupling guy, Moffat, only wrote these two episodes of season one, and episode three of the upcoming season. He’s just an occasional writer, not a show-runner. So he won’t be busy or anything. But I can’t find anything but rumours about a Coupling christmas special.

    The things you mention are the reason I said “partially”. I wouldn’t expect you to like the old stuff, for the same reason I wouldn’t expect you to like any old films or musicals or things either.

  8. Oh come on. Thats a little unfair. Name me one person who doesn’t love Breakfast at Tiffany’s?? How about To Kill a Mockingbird? And do you really think me not liking old musicals is possible? I’m Shannon, remember?? This isn’t Matt you’re talking to. Oklahoma! anyone? Great older TV shows; Happy Days, M*A*S*H, Muppets

    It doesn’t have to be new for me to like it Tom. I didn’t think you were so closed-minded as to think that me not liking your one lame tv-show would evolve into me nothing like anything from the last century! Whats with that??

  9. I was deliberately teasing you because I do in fact know you like those things!

    My point is, there are many in this world, not all of them nerds (but most of them old enough to have watched it when they were kids in the 70s), who would list Doctor Who quite happily in your list of Great Older TV Shows, and I’d say it deserves it.

    Your emphasis that you couldn’t like any of the old Who “today” amused me given that time clearly is not the issue for you, it’s how crap you think it is. Which is fair enough, there’s a lot of people who’d agree with you on that, too!