The Doctor Dances
The EmptyChild/The Doctor Dances
The Empty Child
|Production Code||Series One Episode Nine|
|Dates||May 21, 2005|
With Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper,
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by James Hawes
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner, Mal Young.
|Synopsis: Homeless children are being terrorised during the blitz.|
"Muuu-mmmy!" by Joe Ford 5/6/05
There haven't been many episodes this year that I feel would have slotted into the old series very comfortably and this is primarily due to the essential elements that have been crucial to making the new series such a success. The soap opera-ish elements, the fast pace, the kinder budget... had The End of the World been made during JNT's reign I suspect we would be horrified at how embarrassingly cheap and camp it is. The only episode I would happily shift back would be The Unquiet Dead as it was clearly written by a man who wanted to bridge the old and new series with his favourite genre from Doctor Who's heyday, the pseudo-historical. Well now we have a second episode which I feel encapsulates everything I personally love about the old series, strong witty dialogue, good character interaction, a sense of romance about science-fiction, a fascinating setting and scenes that just would not appear in any other series. And despite all this it also includes so much of what makes RTD's Doctor Who so wonderful too, the sexual tension, amazing effects and the sense of realism that sells the story to you.
This has been my favourite episode of the year so far and I'm glad it came along when it did. After feeling disappointed with Dalek, bored by The Long Game and pissed off with Father's Day this was something to really sit back and enjoy. I cheered, I whooped, I laughed and I hide behind a pillow... I haven't enjoyed anything on TV this much since World War Three.
I'd like to get my superficiality out of the way first and talk about Captain Jack. What a babe. Is it just me or is there something extremely attractive about a handsome rogue? John Barrowman plays the right exactly right, charming his way into Rose's good books so he can pull the wool over her eyes and con her out of a lot of money. Whilst I understand there is some controversy over Jack being bisexual (it's the end of civilisation as we know it!) and suggesting that RTD has some kind of agenda (hmm, I believe there are some bisexual people about but we cannot possibly have them in Doctor Who because it's making a statement! Which of course having a straight companion who has a black boyfriend is not! So there!) what I think people should be more worried about is his wedging between the Doctor and Rose. She is clearly head-over-heels infatuated with Jack and I forsee some glorious tension between the three of them ahead. But for now this dashing, quick-witted criminal is a fine innovation for the series, the primary difference between a male lead that does not work (the gorgeous Bruno Langley) and one that does (the gorgeous John Barrowman) is that Barrowman gets to play somebody with an engaging character and a purpose. I know who I feel in love with!
Jack brings out a side in Rose that we have never seen before, that giggling girlie we always try to suppress but unleash when somebody charismatic and charming starts chasing you. And while I can see why the producers would want to make Rose a strong, sensible woman and they have certainly spent enough time dealing with the complexities of being a time traveller AND a daughter/girlfriend but it is now time to let her have some fun. Billie Piper captured my reaction to this episode perfectly in Rose, whipped up in the giddying sights of blitzed out London, swept off her feet by a charming conman, showing a newfound sense of confidence against the Doctor... she really has come into her own. Her scenes outside Big Ben are fantastic, not just because it is audaciously imaginative of itself but because we can see Rose growing up and enjoying her adventures. When Jack lit up Big Ben (probably not the greatest idea in an air raid, mate!) I was clapping but playing Glen Miller whilst negotiating and dancing in front of the clock face with German planes whooshing around was inspirational. Could any other series have the confidence and style to even attempt this?
There was a wonderful noir-ish sense to the direction of this episode which helped give it another mask and the return of some graphic imagery in Doctor Who is long overdue. The Autons were not as scary as they once were, the corpses in The Unquiet Dead were counterpointed by some ridiculous characters, the Reapers got on my nerves (because they weren't adequately explained)... what we needed was some truly horrific monsters to get those bedsheets soaked again! And the sight of gas-masked victims of the war closing in on the Doctor, Rose and Jack certainly qualifies as some of the freakiest imagery in the series. It is that sense of the unknown again and the loss of any recognisable features, like the mummies and the robots from Tom Baker's era, these blank staring masks contain something evil and mysterious beneath them that sends the shivers up the spine. Plus capitalising on the Poltergeist horror of the scary child was a stroke of genius, and the constant, begging "Muum-mmmy" emanating from the masks was very scary indeed. You should also take into consideration how well filmed these masked people were, shots such as the tilted close up on the gas masked shadow outside the front door or the close up on eyes of the mask at the climax with no features beneath it, and you have the first successfully shit-your-pants-scary monsters in the new series. And I am glad they took the skull cracking sound effect away from Dr Constantine's terrifying morph into a gas mask, thanks to the incredible performance by Richard Wilson and the flawless special effects, it was already disturbing beyond belief. The kids must have been terrified!
Talking of the special effects I have to congratulate the Mill for their excellent work in this episode. I have been reading threads of people moaning about how fake war-torn London looked in this episode but I have to disagree, for the amount of time and money the FX team have they have done an incredible job of realising the Blitz with a sense of scale and spectacle. Because there is such a sense of romance and excitement to the scenes where Rose is hanging from the balloon I could swallow some blurry matte paintings because it was all so ridiculously entertaining and the bangs and flashes, planes shooting past and dizzying sense of height generated by the special effects only heightened the breathlessness of it all. Perhaps the series should not be glamourising the War so much but when a setting is as vivid and rich as this I shan't complain. Thanks to some stunning period detail (including musical numbers which sweep you back to the 1940's effortlessly), convincing performances and excellent dialogue ("Don't you eat!?" one man cries at the German planes as the they soar overhead at tea time!) I was no longer in 2005 watching the telly but afforded a visit into wartime London.
It was how the episode switched tone so invisibly that reminded me of Buffy during at its peak; how one scene can scare the hell out of you (the POV through the gas mask watching the homeless kids on the street) and next can warm your heart (Nancy feeding the children on stolen food and still reminding them of their manners) and the next a gobsmacking visual stomach-flop (Rose standing atop an invisible spaceship in the middle of an air raid). Not only does this keep the episode interesting but it shows what a fascinating mix of genres it can cope with, not just in one series but one episode.
Steven Moffatt should be very proud of this script which is full to bursting with excellent dialogue, the quality of which (ie making me laugh and gasp!) I haven't heard since World War Three. He allows the Doctor much more Doctor-ish lines than ever before I genuinely got the sense that this was the real ninth Doctor, the one who followed all the others. His chat with the cat in the alley was cute (Hasn't every Doctor had one of these moments? Despairing at the ability of his companion to wander off!) and there were numerous wonderful scenes with Nancy (especially his romantic summary of the British resistance to German oppression) and his quick fire dialogue with Rose has rarely been better ("Are you sure about that T-shirt?"). Jack and Nancy are afforded real personalities which engage the sympathies and even Dr Constantine, who is barely in two scenes, emerges a strong, sinister character.
However this is still part one of two which is both a curse and a blessing. Everything is fairly frightening at the moment because all we have is the empty child wandering the streets infecting people without an explanation to spoil the mysteriousness of it. Next week will have to try even harder to give me the willies as I fear there may be some disappointing scientific explanation behind everything. This episode definitely has the "first episode" feel that the old series used to capitalise on, without having to please the viewer with answer it can concentrate on setting the scene and going BOO! And with scenes as in-your-face-scary as the gas masked victim jumping up at Rose and the toy monkey coming to life, it succeeds admirably.
Brilliant direction, writing and performances (isn't Christopher Eccleston's comedian moment at the microphone wonderful?), this is sharp telly and no mistake. It is episodes like this we will be pointing at in the future when we talk about Doctor Who being re-invented with a BANG!
As I told a good friend, almost orgasmically good.
A Review by Michael Hickerson 20/8/05
A couple of weeks ago, I noted that Aliens of London was trying desperately to come up with a indelible, defining, memorable moment that would be forever burned into the hearts and minds of the new fans of Doctor Who. And while the story was full of memorable images such as aliens in Downing Street, a spacecraft hurtling over London and Big Ben destroyed by an alien ship, I'm not sure how successful the story was in creating one single, memorable, defining moment.
This week with The Empty Child the new Doctor Who created its first defining, memorable moment. If you saw the episode, you know what I'm talking about - the image of Doctor Constantine's face being transformed into a gas mask. It was dark, it was scary and it was exactly the type of moment that defines Doctor Who as Doctor Who. It's an image that could come right out of a 70s Robert Holmes serial in which the things that we perceive as safe and every day become horrifying, scary and potentially lethal.
It was just one of those great Doctor Who moments.
And the best part is - it was in one heck of a great Doctor Who episode.
As I said back with Aliens of London it's hard to judge the overall impact of the story here because it's part one of two. We have yet to see where all these events will go and how they will play out. But based on the strength of the first half, I think we're in for a treat with part two.
The Empty Child is probably the most slowly unfolding of any of the new Who stories to date. It's slow to unfold, keeping its secrets guarded. It doesn't sacrifice story for atmosphere but it does create atmosphere in droves. It's interesting that the story takes place at night. In many ways, it's like a nightmare slowly unfolding on screen. Taken against the backdrop of London in World War II, the story slowly reveals its secrets, taking time to allow the Doctor piece things together himself. We also get to have some time to get to develop Rose a bit and learn some of the background of Captain Jack. And yet, there was never a moment where I wanted the story to speed up. The tension built well over the 41 minutes of screen time, building to a cliffhanger that left me wanting to know how they got out of it and to wonder just where the story would go next.
In short, The Empty Child felt solidly like some of the classic stories of the original Doctor Who in all the right ways. Those stories were built on creating characters and a strong sense of atmosphere. The Empty Child felt the most Robert Holmes-like of any of the new Who stories to date - even Rose which was little more than an homage to Holmes' great Spearhead from Space.
The story had an almost mesmerizing-like quality to it. It had the quality of a bad dream, slowly developing a sense of tension and dread, yet the feeling that you just couldn't look away from the screen.
It's easily the best episode since Dalek and it's in the running for the best of the season in my mind. After Dalek I thought there was no way the new Doctor Who could top itself. But with The Empty Child it may have done that - not by being new-fangled, but by dwelling on what it was that made the original Who so great. Of course, I am reserving my final judgment on this until I see the second half of the story. It could all be great set-up without the payoff we all want or deserve. But based on the strength of what we got here, I'm hopeful for how part two will unfold.
Part of what made it successful was the worldbuilding. Again, I think that being two parts helped because it allowed the story to slow down and set up the environment and the historical setting. Seeing the Doctor slowly figure out when he and Rose have landed was nicely done. To see Rose hanging by a thread over the German blitz was nice and to establish the character and backstory for Captain Jack was a nice touch. It's a story that dolls out information in unexpected ways - such as the revelation that it was the girl who was getting food for all the street children in London's brother who had died right after the crash of the alien spacecraft to the establishing of the idea that everyone infected by whatever turned our face into a gas mask had the same cut on their hand and the same symptoms. The phones ringing at various places - including the TARDIS phone - was also a nice touch. It helped create the feeling that you could run but you couldn't hide. At first, it was a mystery that slowly built into a scary, tension-filled point, leading to the Doctor and Rose surrounded by the infected and the Doctor admonishing everyone to not let them be touched.
Certainly by having it be two parts, we get a chance for the story to take a breath, take its time and create something unique. And the cliffhanger did what a good one should do - left us wanting more and eager to see how the story continued to unfold. The build up to it felt natural and it was a well-place one. It never felt like it was out of left field or forced onto the story by time constraints as can be the case in some of the classic Who serials.
In short, The Empty Child is the most Robert Holmes-like story of the new series. It's dark, it's atmospheric, it's scary and it's damn entertaining. I can't wait to see how things conclude with The Doctor Dances.
And kudos to the BBC for not airing the scenes from next week until after the closing credits and with a SPOILER warning.
Who Blitz! by Ron Mallett 15/9/05
This Saturday Australian audiences saw at least the partial return of Doctor Who to our screens. The Empty Child by Steven Moffat (of Coupling fame and The Curse of Fatal Death infamy) saw the Doctor and Rose visit London during the Blitz in 1941. A good supporting cast lead by Richard Wilson as Doctor Constantine, saw the Doctor in good company. Unfortunately Billie Piper's Rose continued her sexcapades running into the convoluted character of Captain Jack... a Sabalom Glitz rip off for the Buffy generation. They managed to share some champange and soak in some of that Blitz atmosphere... hmmmmmm...
I was surprised that this episode was a serious and thought provoking as it was, considering the writer is on public record as saying that Doctor Who was never a seriously-intentioned program. The situation with the orphaned/homeless children was very well written and original. Although the situation is rather ridiculous and convoluted (ie the plague), this is clearly a perfect setting for Doctor Who. The Blitz featured as a backdrop to the Doctor Who novel, Illegal Alien.
Eccleston's performance as the Doctor continues to improve. His exchange with the children at the dinner table was magical. In many ways he is in the mould of the 5th Doctor, always appearing out of his depth. The embarassing scene in the nightclub is an excellent example of this. Florence Hoath's Nancy also needs to be singled out as a great performance.
The fact that this is a two-parter has helped this story. The pacing is far more relaxed and it is possible to "get inside" the characters more and understand their motivations. Furthermore we were allowed to enjoy a cliffhanger for only the second time this season, a much more satisfying one than that seen at the end of Aliens of London.
The special effects, music, direction and so forth were of course all first class. The entire season has been very cinematic and a credit to the BBC in general.
The best thing about the story was that it was just damn spooky and provoked my son to freak his mother out the next day by chanting "Mommmmmy! Are you my Mommy?" I didn't feel embarrassed watching the show at all, until of course Bille Piper and John Barrowman's characters started salivating over each other. Come on, admit it, when she fell from that rope there was something deep inside you wishing she'd hit something hard. Come to think of it... I think she did.
Physical Injuries as plague... Can you explain that? by Steve Cassidy 11/4/06
Words cannot explain my admiration for Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor. There is a scene in the last ten minutes of The Empty Child that stuns me every time I see it. Doctor Constantine has just revealed his thoughts on the transmorgification of those who have come into contact with 'the plague'. In a very creepy scene, helped by moody music and lighting, he reveals what happened to those lying in the beds at the hospital. Those people who have been changed out of recognition. The acting between the two old thesps - Wilson and Eccles - is top notch. But it is what happens when Captain Jack and Rose arrive brimming with excitement that caught my attention. For the first ten seconds - Ecclestons face is a picture of disbelief. He keeps in character as the revelations of what he has just heard from Constantine are still swimming around his brain. His face actually shows that his mind is elsewhere digesting the information whilst Piper and Barrowman witter on. It proves that the actor has the range to carry scene and that he has seriously thought about the Doctor's reaction. Now that, boys and girls, is world-class acting.
But everything in The Empty Child is at the top of its game - script, direction, production design, casting, music and SFX. It won the Outpost Gallifrey poll for best story of the season and occasionally gets mentioned in the same prestigious breath as Talons or Androzani. I have to concur with this and maybe it doesn't reach the heights of those other two mentioned but along with its partner, The Doctor Dances, generally wipes the floor with the rest of the season (although I do think Dalek is just as good, and The End of the World deserves its plaudits). There are three reasons for this: a strong story of cause and effect, interesting characters and a prevalent sense of time and place. These are all woven together for a tale which keeps the viewer hooked. Why did that capsule fall on London? Why is that child following Nancy around? Why are she and the other kids so scared of him? What is the link with the gasmasks? It has what most great stories have a iconography that stays in the mind and instantly springs back when the story title is recalled. This time it is a child in a gasmask, an image mixing innocence and menace. The spine-tingler returns to Doctor Who...
Stephen Moffat has been much acclaimed for this tale and rightly so. He states that the production team did not tinker with it too much and there does seems of lack of RTD touches to this one (although the "red is camp" at the beginning has the whiff of the Welshman). The script is very strong, beginning with a real hook: Rose dangling over a blazing London in the middle of a Nazi air-raid. It was also a very good idea to split the Piper/Eccles team up. Ms Tyler can do all the work introducing Captain Jack while the Doctor can concentrate on the detective work of "the empty child". There is also real cause and effect: clues point to Albion hospital via Nancy, the Doctor's suspicions of the girl lead him on further... It's a script based on character and purpose rather than "set pieces" or "moments". And the whole thing builds to the most effective cliffhanger of the series.
And it is the characters who push this along. Many people remember Florence Hogarth as Nancy. I'm not a fan of this character as other people (due to one scene in The Doctor Dances) but both character and actress are perfect for this adventure. We immediately get her: a girl, not as tough as everyone thinks she is, living on her wits in the middle of a London slowly being bombed to pieces. From her reaction to the child tapping on her window we know that she knows more then she lets on. The bossing of the kids during the dinner scene (surely one of the best scenes of the series) hides a painful recent past. And this is drawn slowly and subtley from the script; we aren't beaten over the head with it as we are with other characters and other adventures. Everything flows naturally. The same goes for Richard Wilson as Dr Constantine. It's actually a very small part and only exists in this episode for one scene. But Wilson is a veteran and every syllable is acted well. He has a lot to impart and does so with such foreboding that a chill tingles along your spine.
And that leads me onto Captain Jack Harkness.
I liked him straight away. The other male companion we had in season 1/27 was Adam Mitchell, a character the script loaded down with so many faults that audience was instantly swayed against him. During this season Rose Tyler has been the spotlighted companion but as soon as Captain Jack was introduced... she disappeared into the background. An intergalactic James Bond? A Han Solo for the new millennium? However you want to describe him he is a breath of fresh air. From his opening scene in the officers' club to his self delusion that it really isn't his fault that all this has happened, the character is a tour-de-force. So successful that he is getting his own spin-off series in the autumn. Why is this? Well, I think a lot of it has to do with verve. We are presented with a very self-confident character. A character who enjoys his sexuality and is not ashamed to admit it. The character's main motivation is pleasure, self-gratification... and I don't think we have ever had anything like that aboard the TARDIS before. Life is to be enjoyed and every moment is to be savoured. Russell T Davies is right: he is a 21st century hero. He is as contemporary as you can get.
And finally with The Empty Child there is the sense of time and place. Setting the story in 1941 at the height of the Blitz is a work of genius. Not only do you have the menace of the creepy child but death comes from the skies as well. London folklore has turned that period in its history, that ran from September 1940 to May 1941, into a legendary time. The bombers came over every night and there was nothing anyone could do to stop them. The city was defended by ack-ack guns, barrage balloons and whatever fighter planes could get scrambled in time. Into the midst of this they put a set piece that had me gaping at my television: Billie Piper dangling from a barrage balloon as the city is pulverised around her. The use of CGI, blue screen and good old fashioned 'dangle the actress' creates one of the series' most memorable images. The shots of the searchlights, explosians and screaming Luftwaffe planes are superb and the evocation of wartime London with its black market, rationing, tired people, sirens, dreary clothing and smokey nightclubs is wonderful. All helped by the music of the time; never has Glenn Miller been used so well. Say what you like about this city; if you want a story with atmosphere, set it here...
So in conclusion is The Empy Child/The Doctor Dances worthy of its status as best of the season? I certainly think so. The great classics like Talons or Androzani had a sense of place, a sense of identity all of their own. This one has this in abundance and matched with James Hawes' direction it is a very special adventure. Stephen Moffat has really been the darling of the new series for those fans who like their Who straight and horrific. And I must add my voice to the chorus. People will be looking in the new season to see if an adventure reaches the heights this one reaches. Scary horror returns to Who.
Stephen Moffat has set the barrier high and the production team reached it with aplomb. The campaign to have him as the next series producer starts here.