'THE COMPLETE FIRST SERIES' COLLECTORS' EDITION DVD BOX SET (BBCDVD1770) RELEASED IN NOVEMBER 2005.
London, 1941, at the height of the Blitz. The army guards a mysterious cylinder and homeless children, living on bombsites, are terrorised by an unearthly child.
21ST MAY 2005
(45-MINUTE EPISODE, PART 1 OF 2)
The Empty Child, the first episode of a two-part historical horror by Steven
Moffat, is already being hailed by many fans as an all-time classic, and here’s why...
The opening scene threw us right into the action, with the TARDIS chasing a Chula ship through the Vortex. I had to laugh at the new Doctor’s now-trademark digs at humanity - “....that’s only humans. By everyone else, red is camp...”, and “…know how long you can knock around space without happening to bump into Earth?” I found the latter comment especially amusing as, by the look of things, we’re not going to get a single episode in
this series set outside our Solar System!
“How can it be ringing? What’s that about, ringing? What I am I supposed to do with a ringing phone?”
When the TARDIS tardily landed in 1941, a month too late, I loved the quick succession of sublime scenes. We had the Doctor wandering into a nightclub and firing off that immortal question, “…has anything fallen from from the sky recently?”, followed by Rose hearing the Empty Child’s voice and following him up onto a rooftop, where she was promptly swept away by a barrage balloon! And when the Doctor comes out of the club to find Rose gone, he picks up and strokes a cat (very sixth Doctor) telling it how he wishes he could find a companion who got the “…‘don’t wander off!’ thing”. Brilliant. The ringing TARDIS phone
was also a nice touch; a wonderful way to introduce us to the mysterious Nancy.
“I'm hanging in the sky, in the middle of a German air raid, with a Union Jack on my chest...”
As for the sequence featuring Rose, Union Jack T-shirt and all, hanging from a barrage balloon in the middle of an air raid… well. What can you say? On a television budget the special effects were not only superb, but cinematic. The Mill should be winning awards for their sterling work this season.
This barrage balloon sequence also introduced us to John Barrowman’s character, 51st century Yankee Time Agent, Captain Jack Harness. If you can forgive him for commenting on Rose’s “excellent bottom” instead of her “nice ass” (that’s if he is actually American...),
his introductory scene was a real work of art. His evident omnisexuality will no doubt have raised an eyebrow or two, but it was alluded to so cheekily and with such innocence that even likes of Mary Whitehouse probably couldn’t help but be charmed by the rogue.
“I like to think of myself as a criminal...”
And for a story that is so dark, both literally and figuratively, Moffat has done a tremendous job of tempering it with flourishes laugh-out-loud comedy, some of which makes his Comic
Relief Doctor Who pastiche The Curse of Fatal Death seem positively stoic in contrast. Take Jack asking Rose to turn off her mobile phone, for instance, because it was interfering with his tractor beam; or the Doctor’s sparkling dialogue as he gatecrashed Nancy’s air raid feeding frenzy.
The Doctor’s dialogue is superbly written in fluent ‘northern’, right from his opening “good ’ere innit” to his line about looking for a blonde in a union jack – well, a “specific blonde”; he “didn’t just wake up with a craving”. I also loved his line about him not being sure whether Nancy’s actions were “…Marxism in action or a West End Musical”, as it mirrored my own thoughts exactly! Only in Doctor Who...
“Good 'ere, innit?”
In fact, the dinner table scene was my favourite of the episode. Somehow Moffat managed
to make it almost sitcom funny, whilst at the same time maintaining a sense of unease and tension that soon grew into full-blown horror as the eponymous Empty Child appeared at the
door. There is something about the look of a gas mask that is fundamentally frightening, and so if you put a child in one, at least so far as horror and creepiness goes, you’re onto a sure-fire winner.
Furthermore, the relationship between Florence Hoath’s Nancy and Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor feels effortless. On the surface, they couldn’t help but to tear into each other - I found Nancy’s jibes about the Doctor’s ears to be absolutely inspired; particularly so, in light of the ‘Spock’ gag that runs throughout the episode - yet they found themselves bound together by their respective losses, and their mutual desire to ‘save the world’, albeit on slightly different scales. The Doctor’s eloquent “...till one tiny, damp, little island says ‘no’...” speech to her is really quite moving.
“Do your ears have special powers too?”
Incidentally, I thought that Moffat’s Spock jokes were a great idea and worked brilliantly. The series has always been about good stories and characters, not “alien tech” as Rose would say. No disrespect to the Star Trek franchise, which I am also a fan of, but they have always had much more money to spend on “alien tech” and so it is inevitable that Rose – a child of the late 20th century – sees the Doctor as being low-tech in contrast. As such, after weeks (or perhaps even months) of ramshackle TARDIS travel with a man who never changes his clothes, when Rose suddenly finds herself being wined and dined by a flash and painfully good-looking alternative, crush!
“Flag girl was bad enough, but U-Boat Captain...!”
The showdown between ‘Doctor Spock’ and Captain Jack was reserved for the episode’s closing moments. The Doctor, of course, takes an instant dislike to the flash Captain, who we learned was not a Time Agent - at least, not anymore - but a conman. He lured them to Earth with the Chula ship which he had hoped to sell them as a ‘warship’, when in fact it was only an ambulance, following which he would destroy it with a German bomb, destroying the evidence of his deception.
The episode’s finale was suitably grim, really whetting my appetite for next week’s climactic instalment. Moffat introduced us to Richard Wilson’s (One Foot in the Grave) Constantine in typically playful fashion, Nancy telling the Doctor that he needed to talk to “the Doctor”, which appeared to cause him as much bewilderment as it did us watching. A multi-Doctor story this early in the run...? Surely they wouldn’t?
Oh; they wouldn’t. Enter Doctor Constantine.
Wilson’s role in the episode was brief, but nonetheless magnificent. He managed to convey a real sense of disparity in keeping with the tone of the story, and his line about before the war being a father and grandfather, and now being neither, but still a Doctor, mirrored the Time Lord’s continuing grief about the loss of his race (and, indeed, his family) perfectly.
However, Constantine was essentially a vehicle for exposition, and he fulfilled that mandate admirably, as for the first time in forty minutes The Empty Child began to make sense. The premise of “physical injuries as plague” was a wonderful backbone for the story, and the big reveal when all the zombies sit up is truly a classic Doctor Who moment.
Doctor Constantine’s horrific transform-ation reminded me of the nightmarish imagery in Pink Floyd’s musical master-piece of a movie, The Wall. As I said earlier, gas masks are somehow inherently disturbing and to see one grow out of a person’s throat and effectively consume their face is really off the page in terms of fear factor. I reckon that scene must have sent many a child scurrying for the back of the sofa. And to think that The Empty Child was broadcast earlier than usual...
“Are you my Mummy? Are you my Mummy…”
And then we get to the second cliffhanger of the season, much more understated than the first, and all the better for it. The zombies advanced on the Doctor, Rose, and Jack, while the
Empty Child closed in on Nancy. Thankfully, this time, we didn’t get an immediate spoiler in trailer form, robbing me of the only possible bone that I could have had to pick with this truly outstanding episode.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006
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