This is one of the RTD era who two-parters that everyone talks about. Actress Nicola Walker once said this was amongst her favourite of all New Who. Hers and many others, including best of lists. I hadn’t re-watched this one in years and had forgotten whole chunks. I knew I liked Nancy and the first appearance of Captain Jack, but most of the plot remained ephemeral. After a couple of lack lustre Who episodes in both Ben’s and my books, we were ready for some Santa Moff magic. Luckily, he didn’t disappoint…
The Doctor and Rose chase some space shrapnel to London, only to find themselves caught up in World War Two and the London blitz. A mysterious child in a gas mask repeats horror movie style, ‘are you my Mummy?’ and threatens the future of humanity. What exactly is going on? It’s up to Rose, The Doctor and the mysterious 51st century rogue, Captain Jark Harkness, to find out…
Ben: The Empty Child starts with such excitement from the get go with the Doctor frantically chasing a mysterious mauve object though space and time to the fantastically alien destination of… London.
Maureen: New Who is so earth obsessed, right? Still, this time we have a different time period at least…
Ben: And after the Debbie-downer of an opening last episode, I’m happy for the change of pace. And yes, I’m still longing for the day that River teaches the Doctor how to drive the TARDIS properly.
Maureen: I’d forgotten how badly Nine drives! It’s cropped up in almost every episode of this season. In other news, I was struck in The Empty Child’s opening by how funny the script was. Rose makes a comment about the only time The Doctor careens through space is to get some milk and The Doctor’s reply of ‘all the species in all the universe it has to come out of a cow?’ gave me a grin.
Maureen: We have a lot of ground to cover in this two-parter so I’m going with companion sub-categories.
Ben: I love Rose’s obsession with Spock and the scanning of alien tech this episode. Where did her obsession come from? It’s just so random! And of course, Rose decides to wear a union jack shirt during a German air raid.
Maureen: I found it really noticeable that someone different was writing the script with this two-parter. Rose is still naive and on the flirtatious side, but she does more for the plot.
Ben: Yeah, she gets to have some good fun in The Empty Child, almost falling to her death from a barrage balloon, getting rescued by Jack, getting to flirt with Jack (slow dancing in front of Big Ben while the city burns around you is the height of romance), and pretending to be a time agent! I do appreciate these episodes where Rose gets to do stuff other than be a damsel in distress.
Maureen: I’ve found Rose’s propensity for flirtation with anyone of the male persuasion with a pulse irritating in prior episodes, but Captain Jack is so suave and the situation so outlandish, you can’t help but go along with everything. I felt like Rose got to do more in the second part however.
Ben: Yes, in The Doctor Dances, Rose saves herself, The Doctor and Jack from the ’empty’ child with some quick thinking, and then continues nonchalantly flirting with the Doctor.
Rose: The world doesn’t end when the Doctor dances.
Love it. What a line.
Rose also gets a great scene with Nancy, telling her that ultimately everything is going to be all right, that the German’s won’t win. And finally, after the Doctor saves the day she gets her dance! With both the Doctor and Jack! I thought this was a great pair of episodes for Rose, overall.
Maureen: I never warmed to Rose, and though I agree she does more in this two-parter, I still vastly preferred Captain Jack and Nancy to Rose. Rose comes across often as callous, even if I’m not sure that’s what the scriptwriters were going for. For example:
Nancy: I’d believe anything me. I don’t have a future.
Rose: It’s not the end of the world or anything.
Wow Rose. Don’t you know anything about your own country’s history? It very nearly was. The Doctor, at least, gets that.
Nine: 1941. Right now, not very far from here, the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe. Country after country, falling like dominoes. 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. I don’t know what you did to Hitler, but you frighten the hell out of me, go on, do what you’ve got to do, save the world.
Still, her dance in the TARDIS was lovely, as was her scene with Nancy. I also found it interesting that it was Rose who reminded The Doctor that he needed to save Jack for his maxim that just this once everyone lives to ring true. I have no doubt The Doctor would have forgotten all about Jack without her timely reminder. It’s also interesting that it’s Rose asking the pertinent questions in The Doctor Dances. For example, it’s she who asks why the gas-masked people don’t know that The Doctor and co. aren’t their mummy’s.
Ben: Ahh Jack… the lovable sleazeball. I don’t think any character besides River has had as good an intro as Capn Jack Harkness. From the get go he’s complimenting people’s butts, being dashing and rescuing damsels from certain doom. He practically oozes confidence as he makes Rose an offer for the Chula warship, and openly declares himself an ex-time agent and a criminal! Swoon.
Maureen: Ah Jack. The Jack Sparrow of the Whoniverse. Or the James Bond (come on: as if Jack’s self destruct module complete with a vodka martini didn’t remind everyone of Brosnan Bond). Plus points for fluid sexuality. I wish Moff had made more in later seasons of Jack and River both being from the 51st century. I’d have loved to watch them flirt and argue their way through an episode. There’s a lot of similarities between Jack and River, even this early in. There’s the sonic blaster. There’s the flirt with everything that moves trope. There’s the rogue trope. In The Doctor Dances, the Jack/Doctor tiff over sonic screwdrivers even mirrors a scene in Day of the Moon between River/Doctor. Compare the two quotes;
Nine(The Doctor Dances): Ever had a cabinet to build?
River(Day of the Moon as she sonic blasts The Silence): Go build a cabinet or something.
Ben: Handsome rogue shtick aside, Jack’s in a bit over his head here.
Maureen: After all, it’s him that sets the episodes in motion. He thinks Rose and The Doctor are Time Agents and that he can lure them to London with some old scrap metal. Unfortunately for him, turns out the metal isn’t from a war ship as he thought, but from a medic ship and that the nanogenes from the ship try to cure humanity of death with disastrous results.
Ben: In The Doctor Dances, Jack thoroughly redeems himself, providing some crucial assistance in the form of his ship’s teleporter, and then almost sacrifices himself by taking the soon to explode bomb onto his ship. Luckily Rose and the Doctor maneuver the TARDIS over to his ship and rescue him from his imminent demise.
Maureen: Good thing too. He’s one companion who never was who deserves multiple come backs!
Ben: These episodes are packed full of great acting, and Nancy is no exception. From the moment she tells the Doctor not to pick up the ringing TARDIS phone you know she’s got a dark and mysterious past™. She holds her own against the Doctor multiple times, berating him for taking more food than is allowed and making fun of his nose and ears. She also coolly blackmails the man she is robbing food from and manages to snag a couple of extra goods without breakin a sweat. With her strong motherly tendencies and her penchant for survival, it’s no surprise the empty child looks to her as his mother.
Maureen: I completely forgot about the Nancy/Jamie plot twist! Moff uses it again in later Smith seasons and doesn’t convince, but this first time around the ‘mother as almost magical strength’ trope works.
Ben: I love that even with the bombs falling on London, and the Doctor investigating the mysterious child, Nancy’s priority remains the well being of her young wards (some of whom have faced child molestation from the very country people whom they were sent to to keep them safe), as she returns to the house she initially broke into in search of food. The Doctor pegs it correctly – she’s lost someone to the raids, so she’s looking after these kids to make up for it.
Maureen: I love Nancy and the actress playing her was on point despite her relatively young age. I was so impressed by Nancy that I immediately looked up the episodes imdb pages to check who played her. Alas for TV lovers, Florence Hoath has retired from acting as far as I can tell, but you can find her living a nice life full of baking on Twitter. Anyway, back to the character. I love Nancy’s dedication to bringing her young wards up right even as she robs from those in bomb shelters by eating their half eaten meals. There is still honour amongst thieves, The Artful Dodger style. Nancy tells the children to eat with their mouths closed and without critiquing the food or the house they steal from. The Doctor says it all really when he says ‘can’t tell if this is Marxism in action or a West End musical.’ Nancy was such a high point, wasn’t she, Ben?
Ben: Yes. She was just such a bad ass. She cares so much about her Oliver Twist-esque gang. She resolves to confront her empty child, Jamie, much as it terrifies her because she knows her wards are in danger as long as that child keeps following her everywhere. It pays off. Nancy gets the best ending of everyone, with her son restored alive to her and armed with the knowledge that the German’s lose the war she gets to face the future with a heart full of hope. She deserves it.
Maureen: What Nancy did next? Has someone written the fan fic?
Maureen: I remember when Season One aired, it wasn’t just the decaying angst The Time War brought to The Doctor’s story line that got the media and the fans talking. It was also the blatant in-story references to a more sexualised Doctor. In Classic Who, sex wasn’t mentioned in relation to The Doctor. In New Who, it’s a given. I’m pretty sure the banana joke in The Doctor Dances is meant to be blatantly phallic (it also echoes Eleven’s ‘bad, bad beans’ food test post regen in The Eleventh Hour, but that’s another story). The Doctor dancing could be see in and of itself as a euphemism for sex. The Doctor is also clearly jealous of Rose flirting with Captain Jack (Rose calls him Captain Envy) and looks put out when Nancy critiques his big ears and nose.
Ben: The Doctor has some really great Doctoring moments in these episodes. From the moment he exits the TARDIS he’s a Doctor on a mission, trying to find this mysterious object that’s landed in London. After a briefly embarrassing moment in a bar (gosh Nine can be slow on the uptake. Also, hello first period piece singer in New Who), he’s introduced to Nancy, and then he’s really off to the races. But for me, it wasn’t until he arrived at the hospital and met up with Dr Constantine that the Doctor got to do any heavy lifting. Before then, Rose and Nancy had really been the focus of The Empty Child. You can see him starting to put the pieces together at the end of this episode when Jack and Rose turn up, though. And this is where the real Doctoring starts. I mean, who else would have thought to yell at the gas-masked children to go to their room! That takes nerve. The Doctor gets some cracking lines as he’s trying to solve the mystery of the child, but to me I found the story much more compelling through the perspectives of Rose, Jack and Nancy. The Doctor moves the story forward, but he doesn’t really get to shine until the very end of the episode when he gets the glorious revelation that everyone gets to live and no one has to die. Considering how the results of the Time War haunt him, this was a truly precious moment. And it shows in the rescue of Jack Harkness when he’s happy and free and able to dance without a care. In 900 years of existence, these kinds of wins can’t be common.
Maureen: I’ve always loved the end of The Doctor Dances. I think it sums up Moff’s Who humanism thesis (well, part of it). Variations of the everybody lives lines are echoed in The Girl in the Fireplace and again in the first River Song two parter (through her diary). Matt Smith’s run also reflected this theme. The speech Nine makes is my favourite Nine quotes and one of the best moment’s in all of New Who for me.
Nine: Everybody lives, Rose. Just this once. Everybody lives.
Plus, Chris delivers a truly perfect ‘fantastic.’
Alien of the Week
Maureen: I don’t know about your thoughts on this, Ben, but shit this two-parter’s alien of the week was real hide-behind-your-sofa-crap-your-pants-scary. Horror tropes are used multiple times to great effect. The repeated childish voice of ‘are you my Mummy’ was scary, but the catch phrase got even creepier at the end of The Empty Child when Dr Constantine morphs into a gas-masked empty person still repeating the catch cry. The Doctor Dances ramps up the horror stakes still further with a recording of ‘are you my Mummy?’ ending with a voice still echoing the lines (in other words Doctor and co., get the hell out of the room you’re currently in) and a typewriter typing of its own volition ‘are you my mummy?’ again and again and again. Poor Nancy trying to sing a lullaby to a recently converted soldier was also the stuff of nightmares. Even though this two-parter is now several years old, there were multiple points where I was genuinely afraid and the special effects still hold up. Ben?
Ben: The aliens this week, being nanogenes were just… perfection. Moffat twists something that should be pure and innocent – a child looking for his mother – into something horrifying. ‘This child is empty,’ Nancy says. ‘If he touches you he’ll make you like him.’ Jesus. We as the audience don’t know what that means initially, but the communicating through anything with a speaker is a faithful horror trope, so we know it means Bad Things. And then at the end of The Empty Child we get the real horrific payoff Moffat’s been building up to, as we are introduced to Dr Constantine and his hundreds of patients with the same injuries. The moment when The Doctor lists the scar on the back of the hand and the camera focus changes to Dr Constantine, who has a scar on the back of his hand? Terrifying. And then Dr Constantine drops the bombshell: none of these hundreds of victims with caved in heads and chests and gas masks fused to their faces are dead! Then comes the hide behind your sofa moment – watching Dr Constantine become a victim before our eyes. Honestly, like Maureen, I couldn’t help but appreciate how good the special effects were, especially after how awful they’d been previously.
Maureen: This is also one of the only times that the alien is completely innocent. The Nanogenes are trying to heal. It’s not their fault their first interaction with humanity is a dead child! Normally, you’d think a solution like this might feel like a let down, but it absolutely isn’t. The plot makes perfect sense.
Ben: These episodes were a joy to watch. I don’t know what else to say. Everything was excellently acted, the special effects were top notch, and just this once, everyone lives! Both episodes get a 10/10 from me.
Maureen: It will surprise no one who has followed this blog to read that I agree with Ben 100%. 10/10 inky stars for both episodes.