The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
|Production Code||Series One Episodes Nine and Ten|
|Dates||May 21 and 28, 2005|
With Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper,
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by James Hawes.
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner, Mal Young.
|Synopsis: It's the Blitz, but there's still dancing to be done.|
Dark Soldiers by Mike Morris 14/6/05
The single-sentence review goes like this; new shorts please, and at least I managed not to cry this time. Now for the longer version.
This wonderful story is probably the most memorable of the series so far. I'm getting heartily sick of praising the series to the high heavens, but dammit, I just have no other option. Think The End of the World is good? Bam, have some Dalek. Think Dalek was emotional? Crunch, have some Father's Day. Think Father's Day had some scary bits? Well here's a lethal four-year old in a gas mask. Enjoy.
My rational head tells me that, in fact, this story isn't the best of the series, although it's clearly Very Good Indeed. The End of the World is more imaginative; Dalek is more primal; Father's Day is more emotionally affecting. Meanwhile this story (which I'm going to title Shell Shock from here on in, just because I can, and I couldn't think of a title that went The [something corny] of [something corny] that didn't sound even shitter) hangs initially from one hook; that lethal kids in gas masks saying "mummy" is shit-scary. And fair's fair, it is. Gas masks are intrinsically frightening; I remember actually trying one on as a kid, and it was a dark, evil thing. It was almost as if it carried the echoes of the war with it; the fear, the hatred, the suffering and the pain. Gas masks make us think of people dying, and really that's the connection.
Still, stories require more than that. There have been the usual moronic comments that this is "real Doctor Who," i.e. Doctor Who that Hinchcliffe might have made, but I don't see this as being particularly similar to any previous story - with the partial exception of the darker McCoy-era stories. However, I think the one factor that will lead to this one lingering in the memory - beyond people growing gas masks, of course - is the two episodes. Having been sceptical about the single-episode format and then won over, this was a salutary lesson that ninety minutes can just hit harder than forty-five. Given how much I bang on about discipline and clarity in my reviews the following may seem like a direct contradiction, but here goes; Shell Shock benefits because it's able to digress, to meander, to thoroughly inhabit its setting (actually that isn't a contradiction, but I'll come to that later). As Lawrence Miles said in his fascinating review of Rose, ninety minutes allows you to live in a world, but forty-five can only give you a view from the window of the bus. We're immersed unapologetically in the Blitz here, and it works; the production values are outstanding, the performances are excellent, and while I'm told that the research is a bit flawed in places I couldn't give a toss. For the first time ever, I actually felt that I understood what the Blitz was like; I recognised that it took place in the world I live in, not some parallel universe that only exists in the memory of old people; I saw how heroic yet banal the resistance to it was (the guy shouting "Don't you eat?" at the German planes was a joy). It did what television can, which is make history come quietly alive. And it was a humbling thing to view.
Steven Moffat's script is excellent, albeit laced with a few flaws that have been evident in most of his work. Unlike the other guest writers, we didn't really know what to expect from Moffat; he's a writer who we instantly associate with Doctor Who, but unlike the others he has no track record of writing it (unless you count the unfunny The Curse of the Fatal Death, that is). In fact, in interviews - or indeed, the Doctor Who references in Coupling - his attitude to the show has seemed cosy and nostalgic, so much so that I was concerned about his contribution. I've been concerned by a few things in this series. I've been consistently wrong.
Anyway, it's still got some of the problems evident in Coupling (and Moffat's previous Cool Show, Press Gang - a kick-ass kid's programme if ever there was one). Moffat's humour tends to be funny at its core but too laboured - as with the mobile phone gag early on, the Doctor talking to a ringing telephone for what seems like ages, and the sonic blaster/screwdriver argument which goes on forever, all of which are one-liners extended beyond their means. We also have the Cool American Rogue as previously seen in Press Gang, and Captain Jack Harkness isn't any less hackneyed than the six million other Cool American Rogues who've made it to screen over the years. John Barrowman initially comes across as the poor man's Tom Cruise, and the scenes between Jack and Rose are a truly cringe-inducing exercise in adolescent fantasising; that Rose should suddenly become such a dizzy cow when faced with someone good-looking is a lamentable drop in characterisation (of course, the women in Coupling were a pretty lame bunch as well, so it's hardly surprising). She actually swoons, for chrissakes.
But Moffat's gift is story structure and the way he can expertly build his stories to key moments, and this is no exception. In many ways Coupling was the bastard child of Friends and Spaced and it had an awful lot wrong with it, but its isolated surreal scenes and narrative tricks were bloody magnificent, and once had the sheer gall to do an episode in split-screen for crying out loud. This story is an exercise in crafting tremendous set-pieces, and it does so without them ever seeming parachuted into the plot; whereas someone like, say, Mark Gatiss writes stories, this one seems to be more constructed. It has half-a-dozen brilliant scenes and a phenomenal cliffhanger that all seem to grow organically from the story, and every set piece and every scene has something to do with the storyline. It's a highly structured tale, very self-sufficient, and this comfortably overrides all the predictable jokes about alien tech and Spock. Oh and all that stuff about dancing, which I still don't get.
Okay, and on to the setting. It's the Blitz, you know.
Those of us who read Doctor Who books feel like World War Two is familiar territory at this stage, when the televised series only really went there once - and then in an artificial, confined way (The Curse of Fenric). But this is the Blitz turned up to eleven. The story delights in its setting, not in the pastiche-y way that The Unquiet Dead resorted to, but by genuinely making its story about the period, rather than just being set there. The plot revolves around - spot the irony - a warship being thrown into World War Two, and with this plot device deliberately echoing the setting Shell Shock manages to express war with graceful ease.
It's about the war in most senses, with a sideplot of repression and the moral majority thrown in - although even that's related, really. The entire alien menace here is a simplification of what war is about; take young, damaged children with no hope, get them healthy, give them the tools and technology to fight, and turn them into mindless zombies who kill for reasons even they don't understand. The sight of mute gas-mask clad creatures stalking the shattered streets of London is frightening because, quite simply, it's an elegant vision of what war is. It's the sort of image that Wilfred Owen might write about; it's the sort of image that could make an effective painting. And the revelations about how and why all this came to pass are numbingly perfect and frighteningly apt (not to mention the sheer obviousness of the culprit, flagged at the story's beginning and still being a gradual shocker when it all becomes apparent). The direction here is simply top-notch, and it's a visual treat. For all the places we've seen so far, this is the most alien; dark, dirty, dripping with club singers and homeless children who are told to observe their table-manners. The setting is a character in itself, and it's a complex, fascinating one...
...all the better for the way Shell Shock neatly avoids the cliche of the morally perfect working-class hero. There are some lovely atmospheric scenes about the war; the Doctor's "tiny wet island" speech may be oddly anglophilic for an alien (I'm used to the Doctor being amazed by humans, but not by the English specifically) but it still works, not least because of the way its beautifully shot and the way Nancy reacts to Eccleston's Doctor with tired, miserable confusion. Then there's Nancy's refusal to believe in the future, which brings home the sheer terror of the time in a way that no documentary I've ever seen has before. This is an average anyone who believes that the world is going to end, that evil is inexorably taking over everything. When she's told to have hope, she just tells Rose to look around her. Quite.
But all this could have been hammy if it weren't for the way that the society we see is a picture of tyranny and repression in any case. The good honest family turn out to be black marketers with a repressed homosexual at their head. The victims of the bomb-that-isn't-a-bomb are abandoned without any care, and it's mentioned that everything will be covered up by blowing up the bloody hospital (possibly a subtle dig at the health service, backed up by the Doctor's joke about cutbacks and the welfare state at the end). The evacuated kids return because (it's implied) they're abused. Every good British staple we see is cunningly subverted, to the extent that the fundamental plot element is repression of something similarly unacceptable socially (and still stigmatised today) - and that's another cracking example of an obvious plot twist that I didn't spot until a few minutes before it happened. That's the sign of good drama, where the viewer is misdirected and caught up in the excitement, and simply doesn't think about who's really who (as in The Deadly Assassin - Goth is the only workable suspect, but it's still a surprise when he reveals himself, simply because we haven't been given the time to really think about it).
I should add that, after his woeful start, Cap'n Jack recovers quickly and I suspect he'll prove a welcome addition. The "last drink" scene is tacky, but somehow works because of its tackiness, and the scenes towards the end of Part One are excellently played. The Time Agency sounds intriguing and it's nicely underplayed here.
Of course, whenever I go on about themes and what have you, it might seem like I'm overanalysing. Not really (although I do think there's more going on here than a show produced to frighten kids): it's just that ultimately, a story that has a consistent theme is just more exciting. The themes are there as a backdrop, sucking us in so that we'll really shit our pants for the scary bits, and tying everything together to pack more wallop than the sum of the parts. And by golly there's some genuinely frightening stuff in Shell Shock. Richard Wilson (whose cameo is simply magnificent, and you don't find yourself waiting for him to say "I don't believe it" for a moment) growing a gas mask will probably be remembered in the same way as Jo pulling a face off an Auton or the squirming maggots of The Green Death - the eyes were particularly creepy. But then there are so many other bits; the gorilla, the bit where the kid points at the door, the pictures in his room, "I'm here," Nancy handcuffed to a plague victim, and oh for the love of god the typewriter. There's great care gone into the incidentals, such as one of the children remaining terrified at the table as all the others run off. And any show which has the line "Life's easy, it's just nature's way of keeping meat fresh" is one to watch. They even delayed the "Next week" preview after the cliffhanger! Hurrah!
It's very funny too, even if some of the jokes are overextended. The woman's leg growing back is a hoot, and I must admit that "I'm busy resonating concrete" has superseded "I'm washing my hair" for the number one spot in Mike's Deliberately Crap Excuses For Not Attending Social Gatherings Because He Can't Be Arsed. And while it doesn't seem like much, I'm very fond of "I like bananas. Bananas are good." Made me laugh.
The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly the wraith-like Florence Hoath as Nancy, who produces a tour-de-force of honest vulnerability and gorgeous facial expressions. The kids deserve a special mention also, recreating the feel of a group of children without ever seeming stilted - their continual laughing at each other is lovely. The fact that Part Two is called The Doctor Dances is either a ludicrously frivolous title or some sort of theme which I just don't get (although the fact that "dancing" is used as a substitute for "sex" makes me wonder if we're just being told something... and also if I've watched the first ever Doctor Who episode that's actually about shagging). The plot's conclusion is very very moving - I didn't cry, but I certainly felt, em, uncomfortable - and pulls off the old trick of making a story's vast tapestry actually just be about a simple moving drama between two people. The aftermath is played by Eccleston with customary ebullience, and just made me want to shout for joy.
Lessons to be learned: Two-parters are great. Gas masks are scary. Oh, and this is one the best, most beautifully structured and most quietly morally-driven story of what's proving to be the best British series in at least a decade. Any questions? Good.
This story is, without hyperbole, something quite wonderful.
A Review by Finn Clark 22/5/06
I like the two-parter which is comprised of The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances (oh, for a proper title!). It's good. It's fun. I don't adore it above all else and I'm certainly not joining the "best story in the show's history" love-in, but I can appreciate the things it does well.
On the production side, it's almost flawless. Visually it's stunning. I complained that The Unquiet Dead looked dull, but this is magnificent. There's certainly nothing flat or empty about these compositions. I seem to remember hearing its portrayal of 1941 called "romantic" and it is, in that we don't see the horrors of war, mutilations or other gory things like that. It's a chocolate-box picture of wartime London, but that's not to say I don't love it. It's skilful, it's beautiful and even if it's not doing so documentary-style, it still evokes the period so well that you can almost taste it. The music helps enormously. Mmmmmm, Glenn Miller.
Also there's more to the visuals than just the nineteen-forties. The gas mask transformation is horrifying and yet could (perhaps should!) have been laughable, while everyone was probably having palpitations at the prospect of so many child actors. In the end they're great. The interior of Jack's Chula spaceship looks weird, but this is Doctor Who. Weird is good.
On the script side, I love the fact that Steven Moffat is having fun with Doctor Who. (That's another thing I'd have appreciated more of in The Unquiet Dead.) For example, the TARDIS phone rings. Fantastic idea! It's so simple, yet it's never been done before, not even in a book or a comic to the best of my memory. Another example: Captain Jack's sarcastic comments about the sonic screwdriver. A third example: that wonderful cliffhanger resolution. A fourth example: the dancing-as-metaphor discussion. There's a playful element to the writing, thinking completely new thoughts about Doctor Who, which after all these years is a harder trick than it looks. It surely wouldn't surprise anyone to learn that this was from the author of Continuity Errors in Decalog 3.
I like its sense of history. We don't see severed limbs and buckets of blood, but the script doesn't let us forget that people were dying. There are also two big flag-waving speeches, the first from the Doctor in The Empty Child and the second from Rose in The Doctor Dances. I suspect that most viewers will have found one of them absolutely note-perfect and the other a bit overdone, but opinions on which is which will vary greatly. These things are impossibly subjective, but no matter. Personally I love the fact that the speeches were there in the first place.
Most importantly, this story scared people. A lot, apparently. I've read a quote from Steven Moffat in which he hypothesised that this story was scarier for adults because children don't see anything extraordinary in the idea of another child being frightening. Hmmmm. I'd always suspected that I was immature beyond my years.
My only niggle with the story is that at the end of the day this is another simplistic Eccleston-era plot, perhaps even the season's simplest. The Doctor gets to be more active than usual, as is easier to do in two-parters, but even so this is a story without an antagonist. There's no bad guy. There's a monster (the Empty Child), but with him there's nothing you can do but run away. Nancy is a strong character, Captain Jack is vaguely entertaining and Richard Wilson makes the most of his cameo as Doctor Constantine, but had this fallen flat as a horror story then we'd be seeing a lot more criticism of its structure. That's the horror genre for you. It's full of stuff which doesn't advance the plot but is merely there for atmosphere... but fortunately it all works, so we're happy to keep watching.
Captain Jack Harkness gets some backstory (two missing years with the Time Agency, whoever they are), but as with certain BBC Book companions, one tends to judge from the actual character rather than the writers' guidelines. He's not actually a one-joke character... there are two in there, but for now they're both pretty good jokes. (Joke #1: smut, smut and more smut. Joke #2: he's Mr Sci-Fi Hero in a show that's never had much time for such things.) As with much of Eccleston's season, the writers have the luxury of having all these things to say about Doctor Who that the TV show had never previously explored. Now having said them, in subsequent years they'll have to stretch a little further. We've never seen a Captain Jack character aboard the TARDIS, which I suspect is the main reason he's been written and played so broad. He's making these jokes for the first time. I imagine his characterisation will have to get subtler when he's the lead in Torchwood, if only because Joke #2 will no longer apply.
Personally I can't imagine anyone actually disliking this story. I may find it a little slight, but it's lovely television in so many ways. It's witty, atmospheric, touching and gorgeous to look at. Oh, and: "Everyone lives."
A Review by Brian May 1/9/12
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is one of the most iconic stories of Doctor Who's 2005 season, full of images to imprint in the viewer's mind. The gas-masked child wandering around, and the freakish transformation of people as the masks grow out of their faces, are the next in a long line of what the programme does best: scaring the children and possibly some adults. As earlier tales made an impression on even casual viewers, who may simply know them as The One with the Mummies or The One with the Giant Maggots, this will at the very least be remembered as The One with the Boy in the Gas Mask. The repeated "Are you my mummy?" will ensure an indelible soundbite to complement the imagery. It's come in for much critical praise and is the first Doctor Who story to win the esteemed Hugo Award.
Personally, I think it's overrated.
Don't get me wrong. It's great television and good Doctor Who. But among the honour roll of best stories ever, it's hardly top 10. Not even top 20. It's certainly not the pick of 2005 (Aliens of London/World War Three, Dalek and Father's Day are all far superior). No, I have to bring The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances down a few notches.
It marks Steven Moffat's official, canonical writing debut for the programme. His apocryphal spoof The Curse of Fatal Death was clever and funny, and his non-Who body of work is very impressive. It starts off well, with two separate and contrasting strands: the suspense and horror element of the masked child; the sci-fi angled presence of Captain Jack and the mysterious object the Doctor and Rose are following. The horror base provides some unnerving moments: the police box telephone ringing, the toy monkey coming to life and every encounter with the eponymous child, whether visual or aural. But the merging of the two at the end is a little unsatisfying. It's a malaise common to Doctor Who: a sci-fi resolution can sometimes be a fizzer. The atmospheric build-up simply becomes an unseen alien race with convenient technology. Despite some clever ideas (the explanation behind the gas-mask faces) and some good moments (the tape running out, for example), the second episode is largely a runaround.
I have further issues on the scripting front. Jack informing the Doctor and Rose he's really a conman occurs just before the cliffhanger. This is exactly the wrong point; it would have been better to leave it until the second episode, during one of the quieter moments the trio share. It would have left some mystery about him hanging in the air during the week's break. The Doctor's speech to Nancy re the British is incredibly parochial; yes, he's gushed about humanity as a species, but not a single country. Thankfully, it avoids being jingoistic, but it does smack of patriotism a Time Lord shouldn't have (and has never displayed previously). But what I really don't like is the whole Doctor dancing bit. A section of the script so obviously analogises dancing to sex, or at the very least a sexual awakening. I know that, by the rules of 21st century character-based series television, the Doctor will be a more sexualised individual, if only in terms of attraction. No problem, I can accept this. There will be sexual tension, but being the Doctor, it has to remain unfulfilled; that can't and won't change. So why bother with any of this dancing nonsense? Is the Doctor's sexual awakening meant to be metaphorical only? But even if so, what's the point?
(Am I reading too much into this? Do I need to get out more? Probably both. Anyway, I don't like the second episode's title, nor the actual dancing scene.)
However, the best thing about this story is indeed a sexualised one, in the form of Captain Jack Harkness. This charming, suave and sexually ambiguous hustler steals the show, unforgettably brought to life by John Barrowman. I've listed some scripting problems, but now I'm going to mention one of the triumphs: Jack's recollection of his executioners. It's hilarious, and proof that Who can now be risque in its dialogue without compromising itself as family entertainment. It's wonderful to see him join the TARDIS crew at the end. Barrowman is the highlight, but Florence Hoath also deserves a special mention as Nancy, so too Britain's ultimate grumpy old man Victor Meldrew (aka Richard Wilson), a great actor who unfortunately has too little screen time. I haven't mentioned Christopher Eccleston or Billie Piper yet. Normally when I have, I've praised their performances to high heaven, and when I haven't it's been more a condemnation of a dull script than their acting (e.g. The Long Game). I'm going for the middle ground here: they're good, but not spectacular. They put in their usual solid efforts, but nothing stands out. The possible exception is the charming moment as the Doctor chats with the children at the dinner table, but that's about it.
The story looks terrific, but that's a given thanks to the design, the costumes and this era of CGI. The incidental music, in the first episode at least, is wisely kept to a minimum, letting the eerie feel tell the story. It's more prevalent in the second episode, and Murray Gold's tendency for the bombastic returns. However, the use of Glenn Miller tunes makes up for this; they're inspired choices that match their scenes perfectly.
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is by all means enjoyable, but it's nowhere near brilliant. It's not even very good. It's merely quite good. But given some of the year's previous outings, that's almost a disappointment. 7.5/10
Everybody lives, Rose. Just this once, everybody lives! by Evan Weston 12/7/13
When I watched this the first time, I didn't really know what to think. It was at times extremely graceful and poetic, at others clunky and disorganized. I could see why everyone loved it, but I felt a bit chilled. Watching it back a second time, having gone through the entire new series, it's a meta-experience unlike any other watching this show.
You see, in its 84 minute running time, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances manages to pack just about every Steven Moffat cliche into one episode.
It's all here. Every trope Moffat has ever used, every quirk he has ever written. The entirety of the Matt Smith era, the basis for all that is Doctor Who today, is contained right in this two-parter. I just watched Christopher Eccleston deliver Matt Smith dialogue. How easy is it to picture Smith dancing with Karen Gillan's Amy Pond while trapped in a zombie-infested hospital during the Blitz? How easy is it to hear Smith respond with "good source of potassium!" when asked about the banana? You've got the Rory element (on a lesser scale) with Captain Jack Harkness. There's even, for the first time in new Who, the misunderstood villains who aren't really evil - a trope that would quickly become a Moffat staple.
It's so difficult to review this episode because it would fit so perfectly into either Series 5 or 6. Going back, I thought it was the most ambitious story of Series 1 that ran into itself a few too many times along the way. That's still true, but that's true of virtually every good Moffat story in his first two seasons - excepting The Eleventh Hour, A Christmas Carol and The Girl Who Waited. This isn't an Eccleston episode at all. Hell, half the time, Eccleston is playing the Eleventh Doctor. It's actually uncanny.
However, I'm going to do my best to review The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances on its merits - and there are many. For one, the mood of the blitz is achieved brilliantly. Doctor Who doesn't always capture the essence of the time period in its historicals, but the two in Series 1 (this story and The Unquiet Dead) both do a marvelous job bringing their respective eras to life. 1941 London feels like 1941 London, and even if the CGI Luftwaffe isn't totally convincing, the environment still feels like a dark, dangerous city. It also gives the episode a tremendous sense of scale that was fleeting in the early parts of the Davies era. You often forget that the entire episode happens roughly in real time on just a few blocks of London, because it feels like such a monumental story. Moffat's script and the longer running time both do a good job assisting in this, but the production design is the star.
That's not to say everything else is weak. The acting is pretty good throughout, too. This is one of Eccleston's better performances, even if he is playing Matt Smith for solid chunks of the episode. When he gets to be Eccleston, he's on top form - his reaction during the climax is classic Ninth Doctor, and you believe his poor reception of Jack is half-mistrust, half-jealousy, because Eccleston sells the balance so well. Still, there are so many things the character does in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances that are so Smith. The Eleventh Doctor would have popped up at the dinner table and taken two slices of meat. The Ninth would stand disapprovingly in the doorway. The Eleventh Doctor would have awkwardly tried to dance, swearing up and down that he once knew how. The Ninth would have said a curt "no" and we'd move on. Moffat's attempts to inject his own spin on the character end up falling a bit flat, but that might just be due to our familiarity with Matt Smith's version of the Doctor. It's possible other writers change the character, and we don't notice because we haven't seen two-plus seasons of their work.
Oh, right. The acting. Billie Piper is up and down in this episode. She tends to oversell the blushing in her scenes with Jack, coming across as a teenager who just danced with a hot man for the first time. However, her more serious moments work, and her best scene in the episode is her conversation with Nancy while they mend the barbed wire. You can see Rose's transformation from shop girl to savior at work here, as she adopts the responsibility of a time-traveler with a woman who sees no hope.
It's the guest stars who are begging to be talked about here. John Barrowman makes his debut as the immortal (quite literally) Captain Jack Harkness, and while I've come to love the character over the years, he's a very rough outline here. Barrowman doesn't seem sure of himself. He isn't quite as comfortable playing a self-assured space captain as he is a desperate con-man on the run, and it's nice to see that the writers chose to go with the latter in the final story of the season. It gives the character a nice redemption arc. But in this story, Barrowman's performance is uneven. The line delivery is flat at times, and he never really steals the show like he's obviously supposed to. I do have to credit both Florence Hoath and Richard Wilson for wonderful supporting turns. Hoath's Nancy is great, both determined to help and utterly terrified of what she's lost. The character's ultimate redemption at the end of the episode is a touching moment, even if the plot twist is predictable. Wilson really only gets one scene, but he's totally captivating in his minor part. Plus, let's face it, the most memorable moment in the entire story is when Dr. Constantine's face turns into a gas mask. "Mummm... meeeee..."
Speaking of, how creepy are those things? Here we are with that oh-so-common Moffat device - the villains who aren't actually villains. Like the clockwork robots, the Vashta Nerada, the star whale and the Androzani trees before them (and those are just the episodes he wrote himself), the gas-mask zombies are pretty scary monsters that are absolved of all responsibility for their crimes by the end of the episode. Still, the kid saying "Please let me in, Mummy" is really unsettling, and this is the scariest episode of Series 1 by a comfortable margin. The way Jack's nanogenes are worked into the plot is really clever, and the main story works nicely as a horror story and as a domestic drama between sister and brother (or mother and son).
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is a fascinating preview of the Moffat era, and a pretty good story in its own right. There are so many stories over Series 5 and 6 that have an insanely similar feel and arc, some written by Moffat and some just edited by him. But Moffat is pretty good at what he does, and while this isn't one of the strongest stories in an exceptionally strong season, it's still a really good exercise in mood and tension with some really nice guest appearances and brilliant production design. Let's just be thankful that Steven Moffat got a chance to write a few more episodes of Doctor Who.
Curse of the Mummy by Kaan Vural 14/5/14
Well, we've reached the end of a third year of Steven Moffat as showrunner. Coincidentally, I just started rewatching the New Series after showing my girlfriend Blink got her interested. So I've found myself gravitating towards Steven Moffat's RTD-era episodes, comparing the man as a writer to the man as a showrunner - especially since I think I liked him a lot more as a writer of one-off episodes than as decider of the show's creative direction. So to kick off a minor retrospective, I'm starting with The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. Or Shell Shock, I suppose - a much less clunky title to work with (copyright Mike Morris).
I'm currently rehearsing for a production of Oliver! in which I play Fagin, coincidentally reprising the role from about a decade ago when I played him as a fifteen-year-old in high school. One thing that struck me upon rereading the script was how twisted and dark much of the story is. Nancy, the former child prostitute; the young thieves who are kept loyal with alcohol; Bill Sikes the alcoholic woman-beater; Fagin the vaguely pedophilic old coward. And yet parents volunteer their children to play roles in it! What shocked me more than any of the content was how efficiently we all process it out of our minds, both as children and as adults exposing our children to the material. Part of it is just that today's parents are, well, rather thick about certain issues, but there's also the fact that much of it is told through implication.
In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Oliver Twist was a substantial influence on this story, down to the moral fulcrum being a conscience-ridden woman named Nancy who committed sexual impropriety at a young age. (And funnily enough, Bart's next musical after Oliver! was a family tale set in the London Blitz and drawing on his own childhood memories.) This is a better Dickens story than the actual Dickens story we got half a season ago!
But the point here is that Moffat, writing this two-parter, understands the same thing Lionel Bart did in composing Oliver!: that good storytelling lies as much in suggestion as it does in explanation. One of Shell Shock's greatest strengths is that so much of it is told through suggestion.
For instance, the way it looks. Something which surprised me about this story is how well it's aged visually. The 2005 season looked bloody brilliant to those of us weaned on Classic Who, but even it's started to look a wee bit dated in the cinematography department when you compare it to the high-definition era. Not so with this two-parter. It's actually a weird trend I can't get my head around: writing aside, the Moffat-penned episodes of the RTD era just look better than all the stuff around them. This story makes great use of contrast between the blue, lightless night and the orange warmth of shelter. The Doctor "e-mailing the upgrade" by spreading the yellow-orange glow of the nanogenes through the air takes on a whole new level of magic with the color scheme.
The characters are painted in colors as well. In this dark time, Rose wears bright Union Flag colors and dyes her hair blonde, suggesting the bubbly naivete of a girl who believes this world has a future. Jack Harkness's dark, shiny hair and clean, gray uniform suggest an officer's detachment from the front lines and the true horrors of war - appropriate enough considering it is Jack's unthinking actions that cause the plot. And of course the Doctor's black, slightly brutal attire suggests the opposite of both: a man robbed of innocence and a man who fights on the front lines. (It's also something of a visual inversion of the Chula warship - the plot is driven by an ambulance that kills, and our male lead is a Doctor who killed.)
There's nuance to their appearances and the way their appearances interact with the world. Jack compares the Doctor to a U-Boat captain - perhaps a better comparison than first meets the eye, when you think about the cynical and war-weary sailors of Das Boot. Not a throwaway comment, but an organic if indirect evaluation of the Doctor's character in the context of the story. Rose's colorful attire makes her a prime target during the Nazi air raid. Jack deduces that the Doctor and Rose are from another time period based on what they wear. The 1940s attire is the first substantial clue we get to the setting of the story before we're told it's the London Blitz. The Doctor notes that Nancy is older than she looks; part of that is the way she braids her hair, more characteristic of a schoolgirl than of an adult woman. Obviously it's the job of a decent costume designer to help bring a script to life, but this is one of the few episodes of Series 1 where I feel like Lucinda Wright actually had the writer on speed-dial. The costumes work with the script and the script references appearance. I love that kind of harmony in storytelling. It does a lot more to make a story feel real than good SFX.
In fact, this is an example of a story that's quite high on effect without being high on special effects. The grainy quality of 1940s audio equipment, the silhouette of the child in the glass of a front door, the synchronized motion of the hospital patients; these are integral to the horror, but none of them take so much effort as they do creativity. Horror is so often at its best when it works with simple tricks of lighting and choreography: the unseen motion of a Weeping Angel, the repeated speech of the entity from Midnight, the boneless march of the scarecrows in Human Nature. Much of the horror here works because it works with simple elements: shadows, repetition, delayed response. These may not be CGI, but they are effects - an important distinction lost in more derivative work like The Lazarus Experiment.
Weirdly, when it comes to the actual dialogue, I'm a bit less enamored of this two-parter.
Steven Moffat's dialogue is still something I struggle to understand from time to time, composed as it is of an odd mix of easy wit and of trying too hard. As Evan Weston pointed out, a lot of the Doctor's dialogue sounds at least as comfortable, if not a lot more so, in the mouth of Matt Smith. Certainly Moffat has certain habits that have become a lot more visible over time. We get repetition of basic observations when the Doctor says the TARDIS phone isn't a real phone three times, we get the first iteration of a decade-spanning running joke about a screwdriver not being cool, we get our rogueish love interest character spouting innuendo, we get the Doctor being awkward about sex. It's all funny and good when it's done here, but I don't think I've met a running joke in Doctor Who that didn't wear out its welcome too long before it was retired and the rewatch suffers a bit when you know you're still going to be hearing half the jokes in six years' time.
We've also got essentially the first seduction in New Who, and... well, I'm not sure what to make of it. John Barrowman not being my type I don't quite connect with Rose's stammering reaction to how gorgeous he is, but then again my girlfriend liked the hell out of him and she's got a good deal more common sense than Rose does, so... um? If nothing else, it's a hell of a lot better than Ace seducing a soldier in the thankfully brief low point of the otherwise excellent Curse of Fenric, and I think we can forgive a bit of ham-handedness in these early days.
There's a degree of patriotism here that confuses me a little: specifically, the Doctor's mini-speech to Nancy about the "little island". Admittedly the Doctor tends to back the underdog, but would the Doctor with his better understanding of the context be so ready to compliment the British? The Soviet defense against Operation Barbarossa was probably a lot more important towards wearing down the Nazi war effort than anything the UK did, but it's not terribly likely that we're going to get the Doctor making the same speech to a widow in Communist Stalingrad, is it? My point is not so much that the Doctor thinks of the British war effort as necessary (which it was), but that the Doctor's sympathy should be with the little man rather than the national spirit largely drummed up by monarchism and government propaganda campaigns. Perhaps he's trying to use language Nancy would be more receptive to, but it still comes across as out-of-character to me, in the way that the Doctor's later relationship with Winston Churchill comes across as too comfortable given their very different ideals on certain issues.
On the other hand, there are some inspired moments. The Doctor joking around with the street children is a wonderful, warm moment, suggestive of Bill Hartnell's remodeling of the paranoid and standoffish First Doctor into a warmer and more caring fun-grandfather role. Nancy is brilliantly written, showing humor, strength, vulnerability and despair - often in the same scene - without ever feeling like a caricature. Doctor Constantine is a wonderful character, straight out of the Bob Holmes book of understated hilarity - casting Richard Wilson was a stroke of genius. "Dying, I should think, I just haven't been able to find the time" instantly reminded me of Organon's "I'm sorry I haven't died yet, my Lady, it was an oversight". I adore dry wit and there's just not enough of it in Doctor Who these days, don't you think?
My main sticking-point in really loving this episode, though, is in how it treats the Doctor's sexuality.
I don't have anything against the idea of the Doctor having a sex life, though I'm not really interested in knowing about it. My issue is that the story sort of withdraws from saying anything definitive or clear about the Doctor on the subject. OK, so the Doctor knows that sex exists; he had a family, so we can assume that he probably did something resembling human sex at one point. Now that's all well and good, but that applies to basically most people on Earth, surely? So why was there this apparent fan reaction to the Doctor telling us he's been around the block? My take is simply that TV Who was usually (not always) so sex-starved that it took on a chaste and bloodless impression in the heads of most fans, so that even the slightest mention of sex around the Doctor caused a disproportionate response. But measured in more objective terms what's on display here is hardly that daring. Really, it doesn't go far enough.
Based on Nancy's story, I assumed we were going to get something from the Doctor grieving over his children - not necessarily in the Time War, but even just from his choice to start traveling. This is a question I almost never see asked: taking on face value that Susan is the Doctor's granddaughter, what's the story with the wife and children he abandoned for a life of exile? Did he love them? Did he resent them? I would think a Doctor who lost his family in the Time War would have profound regret that he abandoned them all those years ago and never really stopped by to say hello. Instead we get an - admittedly very cathartic - expression of joy that "everybody lives". Which is all well and good, but it lacks a certain something.
Others have of course scratched their heads over the title of the second episode, and I have to agree. "The Doctor Dances" - well no, not really. I mean, there's no one in this episode to whom he expresses sexual attraction, no one he even falls in love with. It's a title more suited to Moffat's Series 2 offering. Structurally it works a tiny bit better if you think of dance as a metaphor for having a family rather than just boinking, but who on Earth would think that that was a good and intuitive comparison?
There's also the rather uncomfortable placement of this episode. The previous story, Father's Day, is setting up the Doctor as an alternative father-figure to Rose. Really, most of the season has; Rose is a child without a father, and the Doctor is a father without a child. So what am I supposed to make of a scene in which a father-figure "dances" with our protagonist? Isn't that a bit... well... off? This is something I could see working with a character like Reinette, who loves the Doctor but in a romanticized way; with Rose, the deadbeat teenager, I can't help but feel a bit dirty inside. Imagine the Seventh Doctor having a sexual relationship with Ace. Or, better yet, spare yourself that horrible image and just agree with my point already.
This part of the story bothers me because it's a loose end in a tale that resolves by simplifying. The climactic sequence in which the Doctor tells Nancy to go to her child is all the themes of the story in microcosm: the loss and gain of family, sexual conservatism, the horror of war, the survival of innocence in dark times and the acceptance of consequence. It works because it takes all ninety minutes' worth of characters and subplots, and summarizes them in such a way that the viewer can grasp it all at once. It operates on the same logic that gives the sentence "there are more atoms in a grain of sand than there are stars in the sky" an elegant poetry in its comparison of scales. But it's marred - for me, on later reflection - by the fact that the Doctor is actually one of the less well-developed characters in an episode that bears his name. Eccleston gets some range in this story, but I learned more about his character in the five seconds where Jabe holds his hand than I did in all ninety minutes of this story.
And really, wasn't that moment a better visual shorthand for the Doctor? An alien holds his hand as his eyes fill with tears. Coming from a man who seemed filled to the brim with cynicism and misanthropy, that moment had punch. But when the Doctor dances, I don't really know what to make of it at all. That's the danger with suggestion, of course: keep it too vague and you risk losing track of what you're actually trying to say.
But let's not be churlish. This is not really a story about the Doctor or Rose; it's a self-contained story which happens to give context to their characters. So really these complaints are more about incidental details that aren't vital to what really makes this episode work.
Early on in this review, I called this two-parter a Dickens story, but really it's about as Whoish as a story can get. The conflict at its core is about facing your fears, a theme that goes all the way back to the time when two abducted schoolteachers first stepped out of the doors of the TARDIS and into a harsh, alien world.
Final verdict: nearly a decade on, Shell Shock is still a thing of beauty. The word "classic", to my mind, means two things: a story that impresses even years after it was made, and a story that will reward you for rewatching it. Revisiting Moffat's first TV offering with a new fan was a joy, not just for vicariously recapturing that feeling of absolute wow!, but for throwing up all these little details that missed my conscious brain the first time around. I have no doubt it's a story I'll cherish for years to come.