This review covers the Doctor Who episodes The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, which together form a single story.
Mauve Alert! Mauve Alert! This is an important one, and for reasons we had no idea about at the time. It’s the first story written by future showrunner Steven Moffat. Based on his previous writing career nobody was expecting him to be the master of Doctor Who horror, but he tapped in brilliantly to contemporary horror trends here, particularly the influence of the Japanese horror revival. The ghost on the other end of a phone line has been done many times, but is given a brilliant Doctor Who twist with the ringing emanating from the dummy TARDIS telephone. Then we have the child ghost, another Asian horror staple, and the haunting explained as a ‘virus’ that passes from one victim to another.
The wartime setting for The Empty Child is truly magnificent, with a nice emphasis on familiar landmarks such as Big Ben. Doctor Who nowadays makes a virtue of its Britishness and the Doctor’s favourite race of beings is no longer humans, it is the British. His wonderful speech about our place in the war says it all, and is a lovely moment.
1941. Right now, not very far from here the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe. Country after country falling like dominos. Nothing can stop it, nothing. Until one tiny, damp little island says no! No, not here. A mouse in front of a lion. You’re amazing the lot of you. Don’t know what you do to Hitler – you frighten the hell out of me.
Tom Baker gave us his “indomitable” speech and this works in similar ways. It’s Eccleston’s “in-domino-able” speech.
A largely non-critical portrayal of patriotism is actually unusual in Doctor Who but setting a story in WW2 and then being anti-patriotism is always going to fight against the tide. There is a minor subversion in the thematic link between the spreading virus and the spread of extremist patriotism throughout Europe in the shape of Nazism, but this by its very nature can’t really function as a critique of British pride.
This whole series has been packed full of jokes, but The Doctor Dances is surely the funniest episode yet. Best of all is Doctor Constantine’s suggestion, on being told that somebody’s leg has grown back, that she has miscounted because there is a war on. There are also a lot of funny moments between Captain Jack and the Doctor, with the Doctor coming off the worst for much of the episode, acutely embarrassed by his sonic screwdriver, for example. However, the Doctor gets the upper hand in the end, winning a dance with Rose and impressing Jack with the TARDIS.
Jack is a parallel character for the Doctor (he even has his own psychic paper), and if there can be one complaint about this story it is that it is the first point of dilution of one of the 2005 series’ original “selling points”: the Doctor’s uniqueness as the Last of the Time Lords. Jack is also a time traveller, something that is not uncommon as he assumes Rose is a ‘Time Agent’. If you’ve got other people travelling through time by apparently more efficient methods than the TARDIS (and we can’t help but associate miniaturised technology with more advanced technology) then the Last of the Time Lords stuff starts to translate as Last of an Irrelevant Race.
How fitting that a story set amongst the very real horror of the Second World War should turn out to be one in which nobody dies, almost unheard of in Doctor Who at this point (but a characteristic of more than a handful of Moffat episodes since). It is nice to see just how excited the Doctor is by this victory, as he lifts the child up whose life he has saved. But he doesn’t achieve his victory all on his own; like much of this series it is a group effort, with Rose proving as resourceful as ever. Her quick thinking gets them out of a dangerous situation, when she blasts out the floor below them to escape from the zombies. Captain Jack also has his part to play, and his heroic self-sacrifice marks him out as potential companion material, particularly as there is so much mystery concerning his past. Ultimately it is Nancy who is the key to saving the planet in another act of potential self-sacrifice; this is a story where people throw down their lives for the greater good, and survive.
It is also a story where saving the day is dependent on conquering repression. The theme is a strong one, and is one that Moffat will return to again and again. One of his standard Doctor Who formulas is (a) everybody lives, plus (b) overcoming repression, plus (c) self-sacrifice. Nancy is the key to the story, when she has to admit that she has had a child out of wedlock. The slightly clumsy “dancing” metaphor liberates the Doctor from the repression of his asexuality, which was threatening to paint him as a less interesting time traveller than Jack. To put this in perspective, it is all about sending out a clear message to a section of fandom who wanted Doctor Who to always follow John Nathan-Turner’s “no hanky panky in the TARDIS” ethos, and the message is this: we’re not doing that any more. This could be a troublesome standpoint because the rejection of asexuality is in itself discriminatory, and there are few asexual heroes in popular media, so the loss of a significant one is a legitimate concern. But the Doctor was never truly a valid representation of that. A small part of fandom wanted to ret-con Susan into not really being the Doctor’s granddaughter, and considered the Movie non-canonical (whatever that means, i.e. nothing) because the Doctor kisses Grace. He was being pigeon-holed and repressed, and that definitively ends here.
It is a message that will be returned to again and again: repression = bad; liberation = good. Is this a good message for Doctor Who? There are wider implications that are beyond the scope of this article, but I will say this: in a series that so often centres on the overturning of unequal societies, it is a more consistent one. RP
The view from across the pond:
It’s reasonable safe to say that I wear Rose-tinted glasses when watching classic Doctor Who. It has an element of nostalgia from those happy Saturday mornings of my childhood when I’d have some scary movie on. Those classic Doctor Who stories changed my TV viewing because, while they were often quite scary, they were also safer than those other movies. Then, with the return of the series in 2005, those glasses were no longer needed. The Doctor had regenerated and was ready for a modern audience.
I think Doctor Who is at its best when there is a strong fear-factor. I’m not talking about “jump scares” which can startle anyone but are quickly forgotten; I’m talking the stuff that gets in your head and doesn’t let go. That fear-factor was thrown into high gear with Stephen Moffat’s The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. From the ringing of a disconnected phone, to odd camera angles, a tape that plays even when the reel runs out, some chilling music, a creepy kid (voiced superbly by Noah Johnson) asking for his “mummy” and, potentially the most frightening of all, watching the transformation of doctor Constantine into one of the gas-masked zombies, this story is utterly captivating.
It’s important to remember that by this point in 2005, the show was run by Russell T. Davies. It’s not Moffat’s show yet, nor will it be for another 5 years. And while I’m not knocking Russell at all, by this point, all RTD had given us so far were hints about the Time War; very little about the Doctor himself. Moffat, by comparison, gives us a lot more in just one story. Look at the evidence: The Doctor tells Nancy that he knows what it’s like being a child left out in the cold. When Dr. Constantine mentions having been a father and grandfather but is now neither due to the war, our Doctor replies, “I know the feeling!” And when talking to Nancy, he asks who she lost that she takes care of so many now. This last is very telling based on how many people the Doctor takes care of both now and even before the Time War. It seems clear that Moffat knows how he wants to develop the Doctor as a character. And it’s not just the Doctor; it’s the overall writing of the show he wants to elevate. He works hard to do that too; look at this example:
Nancy: All right, you’ve got a time travel machine. I believe you. Believe anything, me. But what future?
Rose: Nancy, this isn’t the end. I know how it looks, but it’s not the end of the world or anything.
Nancy: How can you say that?? Look at it.
Rose: Listen to me. I was born in this city. I’m from here, in like, fifty years’ time.
Nancy: From here?
Rose: I’m a Londoner. From your future.
Nancy: But… but you’re not…
Rose: Nancy, the Germans don’t come here. They don’t win. Don’t tell anyone I told you so, but you know what? You win.
Nancy: We win?
Just taking a moment to think about that, it’s an incredibly adept approach to addressing the terror people were undoubtedly feeling at the time, and the expectation that they had no future. This is a heavy topic and Moffat navigates it well. It does help that he also laces the story with humor. While I felt Jack’s “Excellent bottom” comment was unnecessary and more than a little sophomoric, almost every other humorous comment was delivered spectacularly, without taking anything away from the episode. Done well, humor could be throughout a horror story without spoiling the effect and that is illustrated beautifully here. Look at some of these various lines of dialog:
“What am I supposed to do with a ringing phone?”
“I’m not sure if it’s Marxism in action or a west end musical”
“Go to your room… I’m really glad that worked. Those would have been terrible last words!”
“Who looks at a screwdriver and thinks: ‘ooh, this could be a little more sonic!'”
Rose and the Doctor (and Jack):
The Doctor: “Mr. Spock?”
Rose: “Doesn’t it bother you not having a name? Doctor who?”
The Doctor: “Nine centuries in, I’m coping!”
The Doctor: “We were talking about dancing.”
Jack: “It didn’t look like talking.”
Rose: “It didn’t feel like dancing!”
Rose: Okay, so he’s vanished into thin air. Why is it always the great looking ones who do that?
The Doctor: I’m making an effort not to be insulted.
Rose: I mean, men.
The Doctor: Okay, thanks. That really helped.
Humor should not distract, but can be used to ease the tension on what is otherwise a very deep, scary episode. Looking forward, we know Moffat’s approach to Doctor Who was as a fairy tale and even here, he does surreal things frequently enough, like replacing Jack’s gun with a banana. Considering that, by The Witch’s Familiar, the Doctor produces a teacup while on Skaro from Davros’ chair, this almost seems commonplace by comparison. Then he goes on to do one more thing that children’s fairy tales do: the happily ever after. As the Doctor pronounces with such infectious glee, “Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once, everybody lives!” It’s not the only time Moffat writes the Doctor this way either, as we see again in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. It’s just that this is our first experience with him and the results are very good. So good in fact, that the mantra “in Moffat we trust” was easy to establish and believe in.
By this point, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is old news, but worthy of watching again. It makes me extremely happy to know it was part of what relaunched Doctor Who and made it a household name; a far cry from what I grew up with here in the states some 40 years ago. It’s enough to make any fan dance… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Boom Town