Doctor Who #719: The Empty Child

"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. Don't know what you do to Hitler, but you frighten the hell out of me."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired May 21 2005.

IN THIS ONE... "Are you my mummy?" And the first appearance of Captain Jack.

REVIEW: Steven Moffat's first official episode shows the same interest in sex that The Curse of Fatal Death and his sitcom Coupling do, though it's mostly on the level of double-entendres here. Just you wait, The Doctor Dances is up next. And for a character ordered by the producer, Captain Jack Harkness is an amazingly Moffaty type, the Patrick to the Doctor's Steve, if you'll allow the comparison. Jack's omni-sexuality is only hinted at here, with the "bottom" comment to an officer even as he races off to find Rose. His interaction with her is a prelude to a business deal/con job, negotiation through flirting. Between Adam and Jack, it sometimes looks like Rose is looking for a prettier version of the Doctor - which is why David Tennant becoming the Doctor is significant - so her behavior isn't out of character, just amped up, maybe by Jack's 40th-century super-pheromones. And can you blame her? It's not just the perfectly-chiseled face, it's the "flash" as well. A bit of dancing and champagne on the roof of an alien spaceship backlit by Big Ben's clock face during a German air raid? Moffat's references to Star Trek (Rose looking for the Doctor to be "Spock" - I can't believe she's asking for less emotion and more technobabble though - and a pretty person being "out of focus") hint at the comparison being made here. Star Trek is the sexier creature, with Captain Kirk as its icon, and generally better effects and production values than Who across the same periods. Doctor Who, by contrast, is about low-tech, amateur solutions, not just in the studio, but in the stories themselves. The Doctor is just "going to ask" rather than scan for alien tech, and so on. Rose is unimpressed with one and attracted to the other, but one turns out to be a con that accidentally infantilized a large number of people. Doctor Who is rather like Britain in the Doctor's poignant speech, small but undaunted, defiant. Draw your own conclusions.

If I started the review talking about sex, it's because The Empty Child really IS about sex. The little boy asking about his mummy, and I guess we'll get to talk more about that in Part 2's review, is searching for his origins. Who his parents are, who went off and had sex and him as a consequence. Sex forms the very thematic underpinnings of the story. But that's not clear yet. For now, Jamie, the so-called empty child, is the first instance of New Who basically turning a catch phrase into a monster. It'll happen frequently from here on out, and not always in Moffat's scripts (though of course, it has its roots in "Exterminate!"). Creepy children are a staple of the horror genre, and this faceless child is entirely in that mold, a sad creature you want to hug and comfort, and yet makes shivers go up your spin. "Are you my mummy?" became the emblematic catch phrase of the season. I still hear it as a pop culture reference 8 years later. Because he's a Doctor Who "monster", little Jamie is of course infectious, and the whole idea of "physical injury as plague" fits in well with the season's various memes and recurring motifs that give you the mindset required to accept the Bad Wolf at the end. Both Moffat and RTD's propensity to hand out cool gags for their own sake sometimes over-egg the creepy pudding in retrospect, so Jamie can somehow activate toys and make the TARDIS phone ring.

And then there's the setting. The blitz is a great idea for a TARDIS destination, iconically British, with jeopardy built in and a justification for now showing a lot of people in period dress hanging about. It's a very well LIT blitz, of course, but this is television, we need to see what's going on. As so often happens in Doctor Who, history is a collection of recognizable "landmarks", not slavish adherence to actual events (see, for a blatant example, The Romans). So German planes flying towards Rose hanging from a barrage balloon in a Union Jack shirt has that fun wow factor a Doctor Who episode requires, spectacle winning over accuracy. I don't have a problem with that. While Rose is doing the flash stuff, the Doctor plays HER role, befriending some low-born character, in this case, Nancy, acting den mother to London's homeless children. HINT. And the Doctor tells her to go off and save the world, by which he means to continue her charity work, but of course, those are loaded words during this season. HINT. The Empty Child drops a lot of hint bombs, in fact, but we won't feel the effects until The Doctor Dances. Stay tuned.

REWATCHABILITY: High - The start of Series 1's top story, with a great creep factor and memorable guest characters.


Craig Oxbrow said...

The TARDIS phone ringing is like the TARDIS becoming a normal police box, something Kim Newman mentioned in his BFI book on the series as something he was surprised hadn't happened before.

ShadowWing Tronix said...

For some reason the gas-mask people are the only monsters that every truly scared me, and I was an adult at the time. I think it was watching the transformation that really did it.

Siskoid said...

Every day thing are scarier than make-believe, and Doctor Who really shines when it tries to do this. I have a friend who swears Blink gave her a new phobia, for example.

Not that gasmasks are "every day", but they are real items.

Anonymous said...

Also, the fact that you can't reason with the gas masks. Same with the weeping angels, the shadow critters in the library, and most of the scarier villains.

It's as soon as you can debate with the bad guys that they lose their scariness; there was no bigger example of this than the Borg in the Trek franchise. Initially they were menacing because they were simply a program executing its function and there's no reasoning with a program; by the time a haughty Borg queen showed up, the Borg ceased to be anything special. (The Borg were even wearing logos by that point, a stylized hand. Because there's nothing a program needs more than a visually-pleasing metaphor for what it does.)


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