Doctor Who: The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances [Episode 1.9 & 1.10]

The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, starring Christopher Eccleston and featuring the debut of semi-regular Captain Jack Harkness, is the first episode of the revival series of Doctor Who to be written by future showrunner Steven Moffat.

Previous Episode:  Coming Soon • Next Episode: Boom Town
(I know these are not consecutive – more will be filled in as I have the opportunity.)

The Empty Child:   The Doctor and Rose encounter a rogue ship as it falls through time, following it to London in 1941, arriving about a month after it has arrived.  There they are separated but both encounter a mysterious young boy in a gas mask who relentlessly asks for his Mummy.  Rose gets in trouble during an air raid and is rescued by Captain Jack Harkness, apparently an American pilot but in reality a time traveling con artist who has lured the Doctor there to sell him the worthless warship (which is actually an ambulance), and then make sure it gets destroyed before it’s discovered that it’s worthless.  The Doctor meets Nancy, a teen-aged girl whose apparent brother, Jamie, was killed the night the warship arrived, and then became the gas-mask wearing boy.  In the wake of her loss, Nancy takes care of other orphan children in the city by helping to steal food for them during air raids.  Nancy points the Doctor to Dr. Constantine, who looks after a ward full of catatonic patients who all have exactly the same injuries as Jamie, down to their gas masks.  Constantine is overcome by the same sickness and horrifyingly develops the same injuries, and has a gas mask grow out of his face.  Jamie finds Nancy at a house while she is trying to steal food, approaching her menacingly, just all the patients at the hospital suddenly wake up and chase after Captain Jack, Rose and the Doctor, chanting for their Mummy.

The Doctor Dances:  The Doctor manages to avoid death by sternly ordering the “gas mask people” to go back to their room, causing them all to return to their hospital rooms.  However, this includes Jamie who begins to pursue the Doctor, Jack and Rose.  The escape the hospital thanks to Jack’s teleportation device.  The three return to the crash site of the original ambulance ship, where the meet up again with Nancy and discover the infection is now airborne.  Opening the ambulance ship, the Doctor reveals that what Jack thought was an empty ambulance ship is actually full of “nanogenes” – alien microscopic robots designed to heal people.  Released when the ship crashed, they found the dead Jamie first, and healed him without understanding human anatomy and physiology, resulting in the confused child whose gas mask is now part of his face, and causing that same model to be multiplied amongst people wherever they encounter them.

Comments:  Steven Moffat’s debut scripts lead to the best episodes of Doctor Who that the revival series has produced, or will produce pretty much for another two years (until Moffat writes Blink).  The story weaves an intriguing mystery, quickly introducing such disparate elements as the out of control time-ship, the spooky child and his ability to speak on disconnected telephones, and the high-tech Captain Jack Harkness.  But as it goes on, these elements are all revealed to not be random at all, but rather part of one cohesive and horrifying series of events.

The horror of the situation is extreme, being extremely grisly without actually being gory at all.  A super-powered child wearing a gas mask crying out for its Mummy is frightening enough, but when you get to scene in the hospital and realize that gas mask is actually made of flesh and bone, it notches up to another level.  But when on top of that you see Dr. Constantine and others actually begin to be overcome by the infection, and watch the gas mask grow out of his mouth, then we’ve really stoked fuel onto our nightmares.

But the episode is not just scary, it’s all full of excellent character work.  Nancy is a very well done guest star, and Captain Jack is of course memorable, and better, in my opinion, than we’ll ever see him after this.  But in spite of all this, the real star of the story is the Doctor himself.  The Gas Mask people are a bit like the Doctor himself – alive after a fashion, but not fully living.  The moment when he finds he is able to heal the afflicted people is a moment where the Doctor comes a bit more back to life himself, following the trauma that’s been hinted at all season with the loss of his people.

This is paralleled in the way his response to Rose changes.  He seems a bit insecure, even jealous, of her attraction to Captain Jack, as well as of Captain Jack’s bravado and self-confidence.  Even little moments like his embarrassment about having a sonic screwdriver as opposed to a blaster or lance reflect this.  But partially thanks to Rose’s boldness, he begins to be come out of his self-imposed isolation, and as comes to see, as we all do, that he is ultimately the better man.  It’s capped off with his rescue of Captain Jack while remembering again how to dance with Rose.  The final image of the Doctor dancing confidently with Rose, while Captain Jack watches sums up this fantastic blend of character and plot.

If there’s a weak spot in the story, it’s the contrivance to get Rose hanging from a barrage balloon over London during an air raid.  It makes her look a bit silly.

There is tons of great dialogue in the story.

• I don’t recall if this is the first time, but it certainly isn’t the last, that Doctor Who has been used to speak of the great qualities of the United Kingdom.

Doctor:  1941.  Right now, not very far from here, the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe.  Country after country, falling like dominos.  Nothing can stop it, nothing.  Until one tiny damp little island says, “No.  No.  Not here.”  A mouse in front of a lion.  You’re amazing, the lot of you.  Don’t know what you do to Hitler, you frighten the hell out of me.

• One of many funny conversations between the Doctor and Captain Jack goes like this, starting with the Doctor admiring Jack’s weapon.

Doctor:  Sonic blaster, 51st century.  Weapon factories of Villengard?
Captain jack:  you’ve been to the factories?
Doctor:  Once.
Captain Jack:  Well they’re gone now.  Destroyed.  Main reactor went critical.  Vaporized the lot.
Doctor:  Like I said, once.  There’s a banana grove there now.  I like bananas.   Bananas are good.

• But the really key dialogue comes from the end of the story.  First, at the climax, as the Doctor realizes what he can do, we get probably the scripts’ most memorable line:

Doctor:    You want moves, Rose?  I’ll give you moves!  Everybody lives, Rose!  Just this once!  Everybody lives!

• And then during the resolution at the end, as Jack is welcomed aboard the Tardis:

Doctor:  Close the door, will you?  Your ship’s about to blow up.  There’s going to be a draft.  Welcome to the Tardis.
Captain Jack:  It’s much bigger on the inside.
Doctor:  You’d better be.

• And just a moment later, as the Doctor discovers once again that he knows how to dance and draws Rose to him.

Rose:  Actually Doctor, I thought Jack might like this dance.
Doctor:  I’m sure he would, Rose.  I’m absolutely certain.  But who with?

Things to watch out for (Warning: includes veiled Spoilers for the rest of the season): 

• The Doctor calls himself a chicken at one point, which sort of calls forward to a key moment for the character in the last episode of the season, The Parting of the Ways.

• There are number of ideas and motifs that are used here that Steven Moffat will use again.  They include spooky children making impossible phone calls (The Impossible Astronaut), disturbing hospitals (The Day of the Moon), and replacing a gun with a banana (Let’s Kill Hitler).

• The ongoing “Bad Wolf” arc words for this season makes it appearance in German on the side of the bomb that is about to drop on the warship at the end of the episode.

• There is a lot of talk a lot of talk about Pompeii and “Volcano Day”.  We’ll visit the doomed community in The Fires of Pompeii in a few seasons, which will include reference again to “Volcano Day.”

Making sense of it all (Warning:  blatant spoilers for the rest of the series):  I’m not convinced that the Doctor or Rose would have seen the German “Bad Wolf” on the side of that bomb, so I’m not sure how effective Rose is at seeding the word into history on this occasion.

By the end of the 4th season, the Doctor will talk about how Rose was the one who helped saved him from being lost in his post-traumatic, born-in-war potentially destructive self.  This is one of the episodes where we see this happening, as it is Rose who invites the Doctor to come out of himself again and to “dance”.

Last Word:  In spite of its horror, this two-parter is an incredibly positive and hopeful story, the absolute highlight of the season.

Previous Episode:  Coming Soon • Next Episode: Boom Town
(I know these are not consecutive – more will be filled in as I have the opportunity.)

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