Doctor Who episode 719: The Empty Child (21/5/2005)

‘Finally, a professional.’ After a dress rehearsal for Comic Relief, Steven Moffat makes his debut with what were, at the time, hailed as the stand-out episodes of the revival. 16 years later, and with the benefit of seeing where Moffat took the show, it’s interesting to look back and spot some of the emerging themes he kept returning to for the next decade. These include the idea of lonely childhood: ‘It’s never easy being the only child left out in the cold’, which recurs all the way through his work from Reinette, Amelia, River, Grant Gordon, even the Doctor himself in in The Girl in the Fireplace and Listen. Here, it’s employed in the service of 1970s style creeps as Jamie haunts Nancy and her kids, querulously demanding, ‘Are you my mummy?’ via the phone or gramophone and eventually everyone he’s infected. He’s a figure of dread, pointing accusingly, refusing to lie down and die. He’s also a lost little boy, and a lot of the power of this episode comes from this heartbreaking juxtaposition.

EmptyChild

Then there’s the dancing. Alongside the focus on childhood there’s a lot more sexual content to Moffat’s scripts. In the future this will include the Doctor getting a wife who’s explicitly the result of his companions’ shagging in the TARDIS. Whatever happened to the no hanky-panky rule? It’s a bit more coy in this episode, as the Doctor makes a bashful reference to ‘dancing’, and Jack admires everyone’s bottoms, but broadly I think this demolishes any lingering doubt that all those references to the Doctor loving Rose weren’t just meaning platonically. The possibility of a Doctor actually having a relationship with his companion never seemed like a remote possibility in the Old Testament – even when Tom Baker and Lalla Ward were getting engaged offscreen. In the New Testament it’s nearly inevitable: Martha, Amy, Clara and Yaz want it; Rose and River get it; Donna has to constantly deny it. Only Bill couldn’t care less.

Other ideas that crop up here: the Doctor and Rose arriving a month late means the story has been unfolding at two different times. This isn’t that different from Aliens of London, and it’s a long way from the “timey-wimey” complexities of The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink or Silence in the Library, but it’s already an indication that Moffat is interested in structuring his stories in a different way. He’s also less interested in straight-up monsters: Jamie and the gas-mask zombies are scary, but they’re also sad. The real culprit is introduced as a throwaway bit of technobabble here (the medical nanogenes), but it’s the first hint of Moffat’s “broken button” baddies – The Edge of Destruction as the template rather than The Daleks.

The thing is, spotting all these continuities tends to obscure quite how good this is on its own terms. The Doctor and Rose are mostly separated, and Moffat’s take on the Doctor – bravado masking lifetimes of sorrow, awkward in his own skin – is compelling. The two-part format means there’s time for him to investigate, piece together clues, build a relationship with Nancy and follow the trail to Albion Hospital (a nice call-back to Aliens of London). On the other hand, I’m not quite convinced with his take on Rose (I struggle with ‘Gimme some Spock’, which just doesn’t sound like something she would really say), and the way she’s practically written out of The Girl in the Fireplace suggests Moffat wasn’t really that interested. At this stage, Jack just seems like a spoof on what an American Doctor Who might be like: a rogueish, fast-talking time traveller with a murky past.

Set mostly in the dark, making good use of silence, this sounds as good as it looks (very good indeed). It’s got an excellent balance of scares, thrills and character moments. Everything about it (barring a repeated shot of the gas masks fused to flesh, which looks like the same insert is used regardless of man, woman or child victim) screams quality. It’s got all the elements that might appeal to old-school fans while being entirely in keeping with RTD’s new approach. And the cliffhanger is superb.

Next Time: The Doctor Dances

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Doctor Who episode 718: Father’s Day (14/5/2005) | Next Episode...

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