When we last left our heroes, the Doctor and Rose had landed in 1941 London in search of an alien artifact that had fallen through time and met up with roguish “Captain” Jack Harkness, who had intended to con them into paying for a worthless piece of space junk and making off with the cash while a stray German bomb destroyed the evidence. But Jamie, the brother of Nancy, a young girl caring for a brood of homeless children in London, was found near the crash site, his body battered by bomb blast, his face fused into a gas mask, undead. The Doctor has a hard time believing that Jack’s artifact isn’t responsible when Jamie’s physical injuries start spreading to the wider population as a plague.
I’ve already talked about how much I liked The Empty Child. It was already one of the creepiest stories in the Doctor Who canon, but it was unfinished. Writer Stephen Moffat was setting up one of the most intelligent scripts in the series history. It was at once, funny, deep and deeply frightening, with plenty of meat for the actors to sink their teeth into. The only drawback (if it could be called this) was that it was taking time to set itself up. When the cliffhanger hit, I was sad, because there was so much still to see, and I wanted to see it.
Doctor Who may have always been about the cliffhanger, but in today’s television, there was always a risk that part two would fail to live up to part one. World War Three proved that even Doctor Who wasn’t immune. This isn’t the case with The Doctor Dances. Rather, now that Stephen Moffat took the time in The Empty Child to lay out the players and the plot elements like chess pieces on a table, The Doctor Dances soars.
Jack Harkness, after feeling like the one piece that didn’t fit in The Empty Child is incorporated into the action of The Doctor Dances with tremendous skill. The means with which they escape from the zombie hoard at the beginning of the episode is an amazing combination of action, belly laughs and wit. It’s a delight seeing actors John Barrowman and Christopher Eccleston strike sparks off each other, with dialogue that is laugh-out-loud funny. Consider their exchange comparing the merits of their various sonic devices:
Jack: Who looks at a screwdriver and says “gee, I think that could be more sonic”
Doctor: Haven’t you ever been bored. Haven’t you ever had a long night and needed to put up cabinetry?
And then there is Nancy, played by Florence Hoath, who deserves an Emmy or a BAFTA award or whatever the British equivalent is for best guest spot on television. The actress shines, and the revelation of her secret is the tear-jerking heart of the whole story. We mustn’t forget Albert Valentine as Jamie, either; even though his only part was to stand around and look creepy, he did a very good job of it, but Florence steals the show. The director, James Hawes, deserves note here, able to maintain the creepy look and feel of The Empty Child, including two very creepy scenes involving a tape recorder and a typewriter.
But the best thing about The Doctor Dances is the three way dance between the Doctor, Rose and Jack Harkness. Jack is a fascinating character, and not just because of the two years missing from his memory which is an obvious insertion for a plot device to be followed-up on later. Jack is a dual personality. He is a rogue, but he is at heart a good man (note his sick remorse as he realizes that the whole incident was his fault). He is dangerous and he is kind. Sexually, he bats for both teams. He and the Doctor have plenty of reasons to compete with each other — and in one case the Doctor has a reason not to trust Jack, and he knows it — but at the same time they treat each other with a respect exceeded only between the Doctor and Rose. Not only does the Doctor save Jack from certain death, but he welcomes Jack aboard the TARDIS, and he accepts Jack’s help in dealing with the situation, and reacts to save Jack when the empty child’s curse strikes someone close to him.
Jack also sparks an interesting conversation between the Doctor and Rose about the merits of dancing, which quickly moves from actual dancing into the realm of euphemism. The slight hint that the Doctor is not as sexless as he might seem is well handled, here, and a lot more subtly done than Paul McGann’s kiss from the Fox telemovie. The flirty repartee between the Doctor and Rose is given some context here, and Jack manages to play into this, making it really a good threesome.
I can’t believe I just said that.
But I don’t care: I like the suggestion, through Jack, that the humans of the fifty-first century are as randy as all get out. The Doctor’s line, explaining that the humans are spread out across the galaxy and, “so many species, so little time”, implies a reputation that is an interesting change from pseudo-British imperialists or cold technocrats, or wannabe space westerners that’s tended to mark human-alien relations in science fiction stories set in the future.
The duality or multiplicity of The Empty Child comes together in The Doctor Dances with moments that are funny, scary and sad, and occasionally all three at once. Consider most of all the Doctor’s line: “Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once, everybody lives!” which highlights a Doctor enjoying a rare moment of victory. This realization adds a considerable taint of sadness to the Doctor’s joy. It is clear with these words that this Doctor has seen far too much death for too long, extending the intriguing character arc Eccleston has found himself in, and again adding to the emotional depth of the new series that just wasn’t there in the old. Truly remarkable.
So far this season, I have been well pleased with how things have gone, but I have maintained a separation between old Who and the revival. The two series were just too different, and the best episodes of each succeeded in ways that did not transfer to the other. The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances cross this divide. In terms of its pacing and its creep factor, Stephen Moffat’s script would fare well among classic Who. At the same time, it offers a depth of emotion and theme that has been the hallmark of the new series. It is a classic in every sense of the word and is, finally, the story that united the two programs into one.
Apropos of nothing, I thought I’d mention, at least to Cameron, that my parents decided to watch the network premiere of The Ring a few nights ago.
They didn’t know a thing about it.
I got a call late that evening. My father didn’t expect he would be sleeping that night and he wanted to talk to me.
As good an endorsement as any…