The Evil of the Spoilers

The Empty Child

Greg from Sinister Thoughts has this to say on the Doctor Who episode The Empty Child.

any programme that makes me shout “No!” when the end theme music comes up, is a winner in my book.

Greg’s comment illustrates the perils of being spoiled. I heard the early reviews of this episode. I knew it was creepy as all get-out. I even knew about the catchphrase of “mummy!” I also knew that the episode was a two-parter.

Arriving home late, I heard from my mother who had just seen the episode. “It’s a really creepy one tonight,” she said ruefully. Then, with a grumble, “and it’s a two-parter!”

Doctor Who has not been this unpredictable for almost thirty years. Even before the days of the Internet, the program had settled into the format of splitting 90 minutes of story among four 23-minute episodes, with the occasional 6-part story to break up the monotony. Even during the sixties when the final episode count of a particular story was more flexibile, the unwritten rule was that a Doctor Who episode would end on a cliffhanger far more often than it would end with a resolution.

The new format makes cliffhangers the exception rather than the norm. I know that some fans were leery of the shift to self-contained, 45-minute episodes, but the result has been that the cliffhangers that remain hit with far more impact.

Me, knowing that the cliffhangers were in place, missed out.

As a result, it took two viewings to properly appreciate The Empty Child. On my first viewing, I came away a little disappointed. It was creepy and savvy, but not as creepy and savvy as I’d expected. On my second viewing, however, I came to understand just how subtle the story was. The mystery at the core of this creepy episode hints at a lot of depth and a number of potential resolutions. It’s compelling viewing. And I sure as heck don’t want any plot summaries of The Doctor Dances to tell me how things turn out.

DAN: But in the next episode—
ME: Shht!
DAN: But—
ME: Shht!
DAN: But the Doctor—
ME: Zip it!
DAN: And Rose—
ME: Ziiip it!!
DAN: And Captain Jack—
ME: Zipit! Ziiip it!! Zip it Good! Zip it!!

The story opens with the Doctor chasing down an artefact in the time vortex. It’s sending off a mauve alert and it’s about to crash in London. Losing it just before it lands, the Doctor sets his down TARDIS a month later and he and Rose look around for it (Rose expressing her displeasure that they’re not doing using the common-sense approach of scanning for alien tech). The Doctor figures that, since this thing probably landed with a loud bang, the locals can tell him where to find it. He realizes his mistake when he discovers that they’ve landed in the London of the Blitz.

But strange things quickly catch the Doctor and Rose’s attention. Rose, going after a young boy in a gasmask gets herself into trouble and is rescued by the roguish time traveller Captain Jack. The Doctor, encountering Nancy, finds the young girl and her homeless entourage stalked by the zombie-like remains of her little brother. The search for answers leads to Albion Hospital, where Nancy’s brother was treated, and whose DNA — and the DNA of the doctors, nurses and patients around him — was brutally rewritten to produce gasmask-wearing undead corpses. It all has to do with the strange object the Doctor was chasing, now under guard by the British Army, which Captain Jack assures was just a piece of inert space junk he’d hoped to con them with.

Gasmask Transformation

The first time around, the temptation for me was to say that this was all style without substance, but that would be wrong. Stephen Moffat (the brilliant writer behind Coupling) is carefully setting up this two-parter as a multi-layered mystery with horrible applications. Nancy clearly knows more than she’s telling; Doctor Constantine — before succumbing to the same gasmask-inducing plague — says as much. Why is it that her little brother is constantly calling for his mommy when she strongly implied (with a somewhat furtive look on her face) that she and Jamie were alone? How was it that Captain Jack could take this device, use it to bait the Doctor, and not be caught in its effects?

This carefully built-up mystery is sufficient for the director (Joe Ahearne — clearly the best of this season’s stable of directors) to put together some very subtle and creepy scenes, and for Stephen Moffat to pepper his script with excellent one-liners. There is comedy here, and sexiness (see the scenes where Captain Jack literally sweeps Rose off her feet). The characterization is also subtlely but effectively done, richly textured through some brilliant performances and a rich script.

Dr. Constantine: “Before this war started, I was a father and a grandfather. Now I’m neither… I’m just a doctor.”
Doctor: “Yeah… I know the feeling.”

Empty Child

As well as the scene between the Doctor and Dr. Constantine, the scenes between the Doctor and Nancy are especially good. Florence Hoath brings a lot of depth to her performance. Her character is at once battered and stalwart, frightened and brave, and very, very alone. It’s no wonder the Doctor admires her, even though her inability (unwillingness?) to say all she knows is probably perpetuating the horror.

Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) is interesting and well played, but he feels very foreign to this production. His scenes with Rose are wonderful, sexy and funny — quite apart from the creep that permeates the rest of the story. I think this effect is deliberate and effective, enabling The Empty Child to suckerpunch the audience with expectations of a romp before bringing in the darker elements. His quick coming down to earth when he realizes what his little con may have done serves to hammer home the disaster that’s about to strike.

Counterpointing the confident Captain Jack is the Doctor, who is remarkably unsure of himself throughout this episode. Christopher Eccleston plays his character wonderfully on edge. The Doctor knows that the situation is bad and on the cusp of getting much, much worse. He doesn’t know what’s going on, and he’s bracing for disaster.

Indeed, “on the brink of disaster” sums up The Empty Child nicely. You can feel the situation tipping over the edge. You don’t know when it’s going to fall. You don’t know what’s it’s going to fall into. You only know that it’s going to be very bad. Moffat’s script captures this in a forty-five minute creep-fest that works its way into your brain, and eats you up from the inside. The more that I think about the story, the better I like it. I’d rate other episodes higher, but The Empty Child could well be the deepest, most intelligent script of the season.

Dan: Wait till you see next week when—
Me: Shht! Zip it!

Further Points

Check out Shannon Sullivan’s production summary of The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances. Pay particular attention to the audience appreciation ratings in the top right corner.

The ratings for Doctor Who have been about the best the series could have hoped for. While 6.2-6.6 million is only about the best the series was able to achieve in its last three seasons (when it was dying), a lot has changed since the late 1980s. There’s more competition on British television these days. And with the bank holiday and the improving weather, television viewing figures are dropping. Doctor Who is still in the top 20, and is among the two most popular non-soap dramas of the week — a feat it rarely (if ever) accomplished during the classic series.

But the audience appreciation figures are simply staggering: 84-85%?! Even at the best of the original series, Doctor Who only managed in the high sixties or low seventies. I suspect with the British market being more fragmented, more people are watching what they want to watch, and those who are sticking around to watch Doctor Who are more appreciative. But still: Doctor Who has never been as popular as this.

I thought Rose did a good job in this episode. Yes, she did have the misfortune of being picked up by the barrage balloon, but that struck me as a believable mistake. The way Billie Piper played twitterpated was good, but I also thought Rose came across quite well, pumping Captain Jack for information even while she (ahem) pumped Captain Jack. Though he’s an old hand at the rogue game, I think Rose may well prove to be a match for him.

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