...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, November 23, 2009

Day 3249 (part one): DOCTOR WHO: The Empty Child: Are You My Daddy?


It was the forty-sixth anniversary of Doctor Who first being on the tellybox, so what better way to celebrate the start of a new era than by going back to the first story from the man who'll be at the head of the NEXT start of a new era. We welcome our new Grand Moff with his 2005 Hugo A Go-Go Award Winning "Empty Child".

Rose Tyler, wearing a Union Jack tee-shirt no less, hanging from a barrage balloon over London, the classic skyline of St Pauls surrounded by flames but unbowed, as the Luftwaffe bombers scream towards her. The show has done bigger spectacle since then, for which read "more CGI", but no one has managed to top that image for iconic status or sheer summing up of everything that is Doctor Who: the juxtaposition of the history, the terrifying, the slightly-ironic British pride, and the just plain bonkers.

In its use of London as icon, and history as icon, this is everything that the Twenty-First Century Doctor Who has been about.

But there is a world of difference between the ways Russell Davies and Steven Moffat write: Russell writes for characters, never mind whether the story around them actually makes any sense, the emotional trajectory is always true and very often enough to carry you through with him; Moffat has a natural ear for dialogue, putting witty and occasionally painfully-true sentences into the mouths of characters. The opening banter between Rose and the Doctor, Earth and milk and cows derailing the discussion of the plot, is brilliant. We've seen ("Rose", "The End of the World") how Rose winds the Doctor up and then has to defuse him; intriguingly, Moffat reverses their normal relationship and has the Doctor winding Rose up with his refusal to scan for alien tech and then defuse her with casual remark about her tee-shirt.

But ultimately he writes people as parts in intricate jigsaws of plot. The flag tee-shirt will be referenced repeatedly throughout, and is, of course, putting a marker down on some of the episode's more, er, jingoistic speeches. The "scan for alien tech" is not just to set up the reverse gag with Captain Jack when he appears, but to flag up the plot resolution (it's all down to alien tech) and why Jack (who is using the same alien tech, remember) doesn't detect it. Moffat's stories are carefully strung together so that they appear baffling at the outset until, like Holmes explaining a deduction, he unravels it all at the conclusion; in a way it's a marvellous sleight of hand.

Here, the opening moments present us with "something mauve and dangerous and thirty second from the heart of London". Everything that follows seeks to distract us from that one crucial development – child zombies, barrage balloons, TARDIS telephones ringing, starving street urchins, roguish conmen, invisible spaceships, mysterious hospitals – but the resolution is in fact quite simply that something mauve and dangerous hit the heart of London. In fact almost all of those distractions are, with hindsight, entirely logical consequences, within the scheme of the story, of that first impact.

I'm emphasising this up front because watching "The Empty Child" without having seen "The Doctor Dances" is baffling, it is intriguingly genius-level baffling.

The Doctor talks to a black cat. Telephones that ring when they shouldn't, not to mention toys that play when they shouldn't, appear spooky and eerie. Nancy seemingly demonstrates the ability to appear and disappear at will. So does the Child, vanishing from the Lloyds' front step before the Doctor can open the door, and he'll do it again next episode. (So too, in fact, does the Doctor. Twice: sneaking up on Nancy as she hides provisions in an old train – which is plausible, there is time while she is tucking them away – but also materialising at the dinner table and taking two slices – which ought to be impossible; one of the children really must have seen him come in, and yet they all jump.)

This is a ghost story more than it is science fiction: the little corpse-boy haunting the bombsites and battlefields.

Gothic pile Albion Hospital rises out of the mists – gorgeous crane shot and gleam of gold on the black as the Doctor rattles the chains on the gates and pulls back to reveal the name – and, thanks to it being a re-use from "Aliens of London", succeeds in appearing to haunt its own future. Doctor Constantine – and there's a name with resonance for the supernatural – appears to have stepped straight out of an M R James, the wise old man who just has time to explain the plot before succumbing to the terrible… something. Here he gets to tell and show. Which is nice.

As is typical of the 2005 season, the colour palette plays an important role in the visual. Inside at the Lloyds' house, and in the underground club that the Doctor enters for that matter, all is warm and brown, homely and reassuring, even the hospital is a muted brown magnolia; outside is cold and grey and blue, all adding to the theme of the Empty Child being, as the Doctor puts it, the little boy left out in the cold.

(The artificial mystery of Nancy introducing Constantine as "the Doctor" is a rare bum note for me – the Doctor looks puzzled, even concerned and of course it sets up the possibility of a multi-Doctor crossover, which all evaporates in practically the next scene. Makes you wonder why he did it, other than to tease.)

Contrasting all this is the ultra sci-fi world of Captain Jack Harkness, (and doesn't John Barrowman just look so dashing!): his space-ship (invisible on the outside, Millennium Falcon on the inside), his tractor beam, his nanogenes, his wrist-thingie (later revealed as a Votrex manipulator), and note the contrast between the Doctor's high tech opera glasses and Jack's higher tech binoculars… it's all terribly, and quite deliberately, Star Trek; hence Rose suddenly going all "Spock" on us, presumably. And it's another sleight of hand, all this chrome and tech makes us overlook Jack's connection to the main plot. (Not to mention the actual explanation, but I'll not get ahead of myself.) He seems like another intruder into the ghost world, the way the Doctor and Rose are. And it's terribly clever, making the sci-fi elements seem out of place; like Jack's spaceship hanging in front of Big Ben with the cloaking device off, it's hiding in plain sight. Only in the climax do we discover Jack's connection: he is the one who set all these events in motion.

Eccleston is really rather good in this, delivering the deadpan comedy of the Doctor's realisation of just where and when he is as easily as he handles the mix of badinage and seriousness with the starving children.

"I don't know whether it's Marxism in action or a West End musical, but it's brilliant." Is this a timey-wimey continuity error in the universe itself, somehow taking the rise out of Barrowman's "I'd Do Anything" career before it happened? Interesting to see how the kids' reaction shots show them as baffled by this joke for the grown-ups too.

And Chris takes one on the chin – or rather nose and ears – in service of a child's pleasingly simple joke about his appearance.

Billie Piper delivers the goods as Rose again, though she is – possibly – at her most dizzy blonde of the year, first distracted about her tee-shirt, later literally swooning in Captain Jack's arms. "I fink you were just speaking there," is either Rose totally losing all the intelligence that made the Doctor interested in her to begin with or… she's being very clever indeed, because she knows she has nothing with which she can pay Captain Jack so she's stalling him until he can get her to the Doctor. Or am I overdoing on retcon?

Hand-in-hand with the episode's intricate clockwork – yes, I realise that's much more Moffat's next story – comes an ease with continuity links.

Talking to that cat, early on, the Doctor casually refers to "nine-hundred years of phone-box travel". Superficially agreeing with the "nine-hundred years old" that Russell has been using since "Aliens of London", this may actually be Moffat slyly correcting that with the addition to the Doctor's age of the however-many years he lived before taking off in the TARDIS.

On the other hand, placing Captain Jack as a Time Agent from the Fifty-First Century is clearly a cock-up if it's meant to be a reference to "The Talons of Weng-Chiang". Magnus Greel – masquerading as Weng-Chiang, as if you didn't know – refers to Time Agents, and fears that the Doctor may be one. But he is (a) paranoid and (b) under the insane delusion that his time cabinet – the one that has shredded his own DNA – will be the basis for human time-travel built on his work. Yes, a century is a very long time and so someone else could coincidentally come up with real working time travel inside a hundred years, but the Doctor refers to Greel's time as a scientific Dark Age which surely militates against that.

I much prefer Alex's solution: the Time Agency does not originate from the Fifty-First Century, but instead they are using the very Dark Age of Greel and his contemporaries as camouflage. Where would you look for time travellers? Certainly not in a century where they're using the cerebral cortexes of pigs to power their toys and they think double nexus particles are still really neat.

Finally, in the brief but excellently played exchanges with Richard Wilson as Doctor Constantine, Constantine refers to himself as having been, before the war, a father and a grand-father and that now he's only a doctor; and the Doctor concurs. It's particularly good because, this late in the season, we're now familiar with the Doctor's trauma from losing all his family, but he's able to play it relatively evenly as though it is now, perhaps thanks to Rose, no longer such a torment to him.

So… by the end of the episode, we think we've solved several of the initial mysteries: what was that thing that the Doctor was chasing in the pre-titles, why is everyone afraid of being touched by the plague child, who is Captain Jack… But we're fooled again! Actually we know nothing and there's a crowd of gas-mask zombies closing in on our heroes, mirroring the Child himself closing in on that nice Nancy that the Doctor met, and the world of science and explanations looks like it's more in danger of caving in than ever.

And, for bonus brilliance, Moffat has got them to not step on his cliff-hanger and move the "Next Time" trailer to after the end titles – something that they will do for every two-parter going forwards.

Next Time…Well, I feel I ought to wait until after the titles, but… Squareness guns, lullabies, distracting the guard, Glenn Miller, and one galloping great euphemism: the pieces may look unexpected but they all fit into place when "The Doctor Dances".


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