Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances

By Jon de Burgh Miller on 28 May 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

The first two-part story in this series of Doctor Who was called ‘World War Three’, but for the second one we go back to World War Two, for a tale of terrifying children, dashing space captains and the intolerances of wartime society. When science fiction shows attempt two part stories they usually suffer from the first part being stronger than the second, however Doctor Who isn’t like that. Like ‘World War Three’ before it, ‘The Doctor Dances’ takes a previous very good episode and finishes the tale with an absolutely stunning one.

Steven Moffat is primarily known for being one of Britain’s comedy masters, with a talent at pulling off farce rarely matched by his peers. Long time fans of his work, however, will remember that what made his classic kids TV serial ‘Press Gang’ so great and fondly remembered was the drama, able to reel you in emotionally, relax you with genuinely funny wit, then spin you off in a completely different direction. Indeed, even all these years later there are shades of ‘Press Gang’ at work; Rose and Captain Jack’s relationship has quite a Spike and Linda feel to it (Julia Sawahla, of course, played the companion role in the last Doctor Who story Moffatt wrote), and the gang of kids clustered around a typewriter also had a visual echo of ‘Press Gang’. But Moffat’s work is more than the sum of his past. These are two episodes from someone who knows exactly how to write drama for children that doesn’t talk down to them, that works for all ages and contains jokes that don’t patronise. This isn’t drama for kids specifically, nor is it drama for adults. It’s drama for human beings.

Moffat’s dialogue absolutely sparkles. As would be expected from Britain’s foremost comedy writer there are jokes a plenty. There are also, however, many brilliant sections of dialogue which are moving, clever and most of all have a subtlety and respect for the audience’s intelligence that is admirable. From the jovial implication of the Doctor blowing up a gun factory and replacing it with a banana grove (itself a metaphor for World War Two, during which bananas were in short supply), to the starving kid saying all he needs to in the response ‘there was a man’, to the Doctor explaining Nancy’s secret in merely a few words which nevertheless conjure up a heart-wrenching sequence of images. It’s something the old Doctor Who series tried occasionally in the likes of ‘Ghost Light’ and ‘The Curse of Fenric’ (which – mainly due to the setting and exploring the role of children in the war – these two episodes most closely resemble), but for the most part stuff like this has been thin on the ground before.

This has been widely touted as the scariest Doctor Who episode yet and on the horror front it certainly delivers. There’s little creepier than spookily voiced small children, gas masks and eternally ringing phones, so to combine the three was a stroke of genius. The action sequences never come across as contrived due to so much else going on at the time and the dark and misty atmosphere means there’s a level of high drama, tension and genuine fear that previously ’scary’ episodes like ‘The Unquiet Dead’ definitely lacked. Hopefully there’ll be a repeat season in the Winter – the sun was shining over London while this story was being broadcast for the first time, but how much more powerful would it be when going out on a cold dark night in November?

The production quality absolutely shines on both these episodes. This being a BBC period drama, attention to detail is superb and never for a moment do the episodes come across as being filmed anywhere else than London, due to the claustrophobic camera angles and heavy use of dry ice to obscure the wider landscapes of Wales. There haven’t been many television dramas that have shown the cold reality of the Blitz, mainly due to the budgetary difficulties of showing much more than people crowded into an air raid shelter, but in these two episodes the Blitz is brought to life in a blaze of colour, smoke and confusion. We get the full effect of the sky swarming with German planes, bombs dropping in all directions and people dying every time the sirens sound.

It’s easy to imagine that many viewers watching this might not have truly appreciated before quite what London went through and what made the ‘Blitz spirit’. It’s good that around the world people might understand a bit better the experiences that led to the city as it stands today, a wonderful, vibrant place represented by Rose (the girl of today), and one existing only in the dreams of Nancy (the girl of yesterday). Indeed, It’s refreshing to see such open patriotism as these two episodes show. The Doctor’s expression of respect and awe at the way the British deal with the experience of war, the comments about the ‘little wet island’, makes it all the more apparent why he keeps coming back. One of the first lines in ‘The Empty Child’ questions why the TARDIS more often than not lands in Britain, and the following two episodes make a powerful case to explain it.

The effects work is superb. A lot of self-congratulatory praise filled Doctor Who Confidential regarding the amount of money spent on the effects in ‘The End of the World’, but compared to the desperately ropey spiders and dodgy compositing in that episode, the effects in ‘The Empty Child’ are of a far higher quality, perhaps showing that by this stage The Mill is really understanding how to pull off top quality visuals on a small budget. Richard Wilson’s transformation into a gas mask patient ranks as the single best effects shot integrated with an actor that we’ve seen, really putting the likes of the Slitheen zips to shame. As for the scenes of skies of London filled with fire, zeppelins, bombers and Captain Jack’s spaceship, The Mill has done a wonderful job, especially when paying attention to what is going on below the action, with bomb-damaged buildings and familiar landmarks subtly making their presence known and giving a strong sense of perspective and reality to the shots.

There are one or two sequences that don’t quite hit the mark. The sequence where Rose climbs a rope that just turns out to be attached to a balloon, without seeing said balloon, comes across as confusing and unconvincing – indeed watching the read through on Doctor Who Confidential it seems even the production crew were a bit thrown by it, but this is a minor flaw in what is generally very well directed piece. Credit must also go to the actors who pull off challenging and harrowing situations convincingly. John Barrowman deserves great applause for bringing Captain Jack to life and into the nation’s affections so quickly, absolutely shining as the larger than life dashing space rogue. It’s a testament to Barrowman’s charm and acting talent that Jack sweeping Rose off her feet comes across as believable and convincing, despite large dollops of cheesy Richard Curtis-esque dialogue in the process. Jack fits in perfectly with the Doctor and Rose providing a nice middle-man who will no doubt go down as well with the viewers as he does with Rose.

Once again the Doctor is a bit of a bumbler who can’t save a cereal token, let alone the world, but once again he does at least provide enough information to let the humans work out a solution. There’s a stark contrast between the Doctor wandering into a cabaret bar in the middle of what’s obviously the Blitz and still not understanding why quips about objects from the sky aren’t working, letting the child into the house when the rest have made it quite obvious he’s not a normal boy, and Rose on the other hand, who instantly clocks where she is and what’s going on from the moment the barrage balloons take off and she sees the planes coming towards her. In many ways, these things reinforce the main underlying message this series puts across. Humanity is a wonderful thing, the human race can do anything if we put our minds to it, but perhaps we sometimes just need a little nudge in the right direction . The Doctor isn’t always a hero, but he is the one who teaches us how to become heroes ourselves, and that perhaps is a far more special thing than an alien saving the day all by himself.

And just when you think it can’t get any better, if the preview is anything to go by then next week ‘it’s the slugeen!’ again (and no doubt fireworks between Mickey and Jack). Fantastic.

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By Jon de Burgh Miller

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