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May 29, 2005

"This was their finest hour..."

A joint review of The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances.

There’s a select band of Doctor Who stories often mentioned by fans as being the ones they do or would use to convince sceptical friends and family of just how good this silly little series we know and love so well can really be. The likes of City of Death, The Caves of Androzani and so on and so forth. Now the new series has produced such a story, one that makes you really proud of the programme and must surely remind even the most jaded of fans of what they love about it. Yes, The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances looks set to become that most wonderful of things, a bona fide Doctor Who ‘classic’.

With so much so good about this story, the real question when writing a review is where to start? Well, the thinking has long been that a Doctor Who story can only ever be as good as its script, and there’s no doubting that Steven Moffat has produced what must be one of the most accomplished efforts of the new series to date, and the series as a whole of all time. Anybody familiar with his work on the sitcom Coupling – particularly episodes such as the season two finale The End of the Line – will know just how adept Moffat is at plotting, threading together all the strands of a complex story. The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances is not an overly complex affair, but it is superbly structured.

From the explanation of why the three disparate alien elements – the TARDIS crew, Jack and the Chula ambulance – have all descended upon Blitz-torn 1941 London, to the explanation of what has happened to the eponymous child and its fellow gas mask-laden victims, to the child’s connection with Nancy and the ultimate resolution of the plot, it all works perfectly. Nothing it made too obvious or too subtle, and nothing is left dangling – it’s all wonderfully controlled and laid out at a well-pitched pace, it’s almost like a model of how to construct good television drama and superb Doctor Who.

Plotting is not the only string to Moffat’s bow, however, not by a long shot. The Ninth Doctor has probably never been better than he is here uttering Moffat’s lines – of particular note is the beginning of the second episode, as the Doctor and Jack converse about guns and bananas. “A good source of potassium!” indeed! At times it feels like classic Tom Baker era-stuff, although Eccleston also does things it’s hard to imagine the Fourth Doctor doing, such as his sheer joy at the end when he realises the problem has been solved and “everybody lives!” This Doctor has been through so much that his delight at the way everything has come together is particularly infectious, and once again he’s the brave, happy, heroic adventurer we’d all love to travel with, which it has to be said he hasn’t always been at times this season. Moffat also gives a knowing wink to the suddenly all-purpose sonic screwdriver – “Setting 2428!” – and creates possibly the first instance in the entire history of the series of the time honoured “Doctor who?” gag being used and not being embarrassing or annoying.

Interestingly, this handling of the Doctor leaves Rose at times, particularly in the first episode, slipping back more into the traditional companion role than ever before, although this isn’t a complaint. It’s nice to see her taken down a peg or two, namely by being left dangling from a barrage balloon hanging over London! She does get more into her typical Rose style as the story progresses, however, and her teasing of the Doctor over his dancing abilities. Of course, she also manages to swoon into the arms of the story’s leading guest star, and new companion, Captain Jack Harkness, excellently played by John Barrowman. Having only ever experienced Barrowman before as a presenter of Live & Kicking on Saturday mornings a decade ago I wasn’t really sure quite what to expect from Captain Jack, but I absolutely loved him – charismatic and confident without ever seeming too irritatingly cocky or arrogant. He brings an interesting new dynamic to the TARDIS crew, and I’ll be extremely interested to see if he continues to be handled as well in the next three episodes of the series, with Russell T Davies this time feeding him his lines.

Barrowman may have made an impact as Jack, but if awards were to be handed out for this episode then he’d have a hard fight for ‘best supporting character’ from Nancy, as wonderfully played by Florence Hoath. She’s a real discovery, and I hope that on the strength of her performance here Hoath goes a long way in the future. Nancy is part lovable cockney sparrow braving the Blitz, but there’s a lot more beneath the surface, shades of darkness as well as a world-weary kind of knowledge she seems too young for, and of course the secret eventually revealed by the Doctor at the end of the story. In fact, all of the child actors in the story deserve credit – Doctor Who doesn’t have a fantastic record with the performances of youngsters, but all of Nancy’s urchins were superb, and they never felt false or awkward, as is often the danger with putting young children on screen.

Mention too should go to Richard Wilson as the only other really notable turn in the story – he has a surprisingly small role, but he plays it excellently and gets to deliver one of the laugh-out-loud comedy lines at the end of the second episode, having had one of the most horrific moments in the first.

That blend of humour and darkness is this story in microcosm, really. Moffat’s background in television comedy means that some humour was probably to have been expected, but none of it is overly obvious or ever seems out of place. Indeed, the humour works well to contrast with the darkness present in much of the story. So for every scene of the Doctor becoming an unwitting stand-up comic, Jack wielding a banana or Constantine asking a patient if she’s sure she counted her legs properly, we have the oddness of the TARDIS phone ringing, the blank-faced ranks of the gas-masked zombies, and of course the haunting cries of ‘are you my mummy?’ There’s also a definite Quatermass tinge to proceedings with the influence being caused by a crashed spaceship in the heart of London, although the influence of Nigel Kneale’s serials over British television science-fiction is so great that it’s perhaps hard to tell whether such referencing is conscious or whether its simply bred into the psyche of enthusiasts of the genre in this country.

Yes, this story has the spookiest imagery we’ve seen so far in this series, and just as a generation of 1970s children seems to remember The Green Death as “the one with the giant maggots”, so the children of 2005 will probably grow up to speak nostalgically of “the one with the gas masks”. As well as being scripted as such, a lot of the literal darkness of the episode has to do with the highly accomplished direction of James Hawes, who shoots the thing like a feature film and has some delightfully noir-ish touches. My particular favourite shot was the pull-back from Jack’s cockpit through the open doors of the TARDIS into the console room to reveal that the Doctor and Rose had arrived to save him – a bit of a cheat in having the TARDIS land without the usual sound effect, but I’m more than willing to excuse that for the sake of such a nice piece of camerawork. Certainly, it’s good to know that Hawes will be returning to the series to helm the forthcoming Christmas special, at least.

The only instance where I felt Hawes did mis-step slightly was with the cliffhanger ending to episode one. While it was certainly much tighter and more effective that the conclusion to Aliens of London, it did still linger a little too long on the approaching menace. Similarly, Murray Gold’s incidentals – which fitted the action very well on the whole throughout the story, with some nicely atmospheric, suitably creepy moments – went all Rose on us during the cliffhanger recap in the second episode, for no apparent reason and completely against the mood of the story.

Aside from these very negligible points, however, the entire production team seems to have really pulled together to turn this story into something special. Set design, costume, lighting, and of course the wonderful effects from both Mike Tucker’s model team and the CGI specialists at The Mill… This is a perfect example if ever there was one of a massive group of people pulling together and giving their all to create a really special piece of television, reminding you of just how good this medium can be when it’s at its best.

The whole story is just so brilliantly made, written and acted that it’s impossible for all but the most churlish to find much more to criticise, I would think. And all the more intriguing for being a rare example of a Doctor Who story where there isn’t really a villain to speak of. The ending is uplifting and it really is nice to see the Doctor actually get to save everybody for a change, even the nobly self-sacrificing Jack. It’s so Jolly, the TARDIS team even get time for a nice little happy dance at the end, which despite seeming almost tacked-on and not part of the main story, works perfectly, and I wouldn’t have lost it for the world.

In short, this is wonderful, wonderful stuff. Doctor Who at its very best. If every other episode of the new series had been a complete disaster – which they haven’t been not by a long shot – then it still would have been worth bringing the show back for these two episodes along. I already can’t wait for Moffat’s episode in season two, but for now I shall just have to content myself by going to watch the story again…

Comments

I'm really in two minds about these episodes. I can't make out whether they were really ingenious or watered down, much in the same way most 6 parters were. Gonna watch them back to back tonight and get bakc to you. See you in 90

I think the pacing was just about right. It gave the characters (and story) a chance to breathe, which allowed the story and location an added resonance.

Enjoyed the sly nod to Doctor Strangelove as well.

I agree with Paul about the recap music as well - yeech. For me, the music has been what knocked many episodes down a peg. When it's good you don't notice it. When it's not, it kills scenes. Asides from the aforementioned Rose, I think Father's Day suffered with some of the "minor piano keys - cue audience tears" type writing.

The other thing that's let the show down has been some of the direction. Not so much the mise en scene, but how the actors were led to play the scene (esp. in AoL/WW3, which turned what may have been OK on paper to the misguided tone has bothered people here). That certainly wasn't the case with James Hawes work here. It’s great news that both he and Moffat have been contracted for Series Two.

If I haven't said too much about Paul's review above, it's because I agree with most of it. One of MY highlights has been reading these pages week after week. Even if I’ve only posted a few comments, I’ve read everything that's been written, which has enhanced my enjoyment of the series no end. Thanks Neil!

Great two-parter with some lovely humour and references (the Dr Strangelove one was as welcome as it was unexpected). I particularly enjoyed noticing the hatstand by the Tardis door - I hadn't seen that before in this series. Although it really should have had some of the Doctor's old hats on it as a nod to the old series.

I am looking forward to finding out more about Captain Jack. So he thinks he's had two years of his memory wiped? I can't wait to find out what happened to him in those two years. But if memories can be wiped, can they also be implanted...?

And great news about Hawes helming the Christmas Special. Anyone have any idea of how long the special will be?

Christmas special will be 60 minutes.

I'd agree with most of the comments above - definitely among the best so far, though with some reservations. Some key plot points - the role of the nanogenes, and the real relationship between Nancy and Jamie - were too easily guessed. And the much-praised balloon-dangling sequence in the first part just looked a bit ropey (pun probably intended) - the effects, while technically impressive, just didn't convince. Still, sterling script and performances all round - good to see the Doctor leading the story for once. And yes, it was damn spooky. Richard Wilson's transformation certainly pushed the envelope for teatime, and probably would have crossed the line if the sound effects were retained - though did anyone else notice that the soldier's out-of-shot transformation in the second episode was accompanied by crunching sounds?

It does make me want to watch 'Curse of Fenric' again - have to see if my original-transmission video still works.

The kids were great. ANyone who has seen revenge of the Sith will appreciate how difficult that must have been.

Well gtta admit its much better when viewed in one sitting, but it still isn't the strongest set of stories. As for Capt Jack, the jury is still out about him

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