Review: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances

Last Alteration: Monday 19 September 2005

This is kind of story that stopped being made on British television years ago. A family drama that has genuine appeal to generations of a family rather than one supporting another. The fact that it also had the kind of production values that stand up to comparison with modern movies, is the cherry on the top of the cake. Kids, (even creepy ones) can go to school, their parents can go to work and neither has to fear being laughed at for liking this.

The first part contained much that was genuinely chilling, with (for once) the genuine horror of the Blitz taking a back seat to the more traditional Who fare of isolated body horror threatening to get out of hand. From Rose's barrage balloon excursion onwards (which was a great exposition of the setting) we were in no doubt that London was under threat. And yet at the same time, we the audience had no doubt that the real threat came from a lot further away than Germany.

The use of children as the primary focus of the threat as well as the effective head of the threat was handled in a way that managed to quickly put to rest any nightmares of a return to the acting level of Children's Film Foundation special features of my youth. On many occasions, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rising. Jamie especially, was used in a clever way, POV shots (seemingly this seasons "in" camera shot) and (in the tilted head) his slightly canine body language, he gave me the impression he was a hunter (and not only because he was looking for his Mummy). His muffled voice and its continual questioning was very eerie in its delivery, on top of which, the dehumanising effect of the gas mask meant you couldn't see where the voice was coming from.

With a little tweaking, it is easy to see how these episodes in particular have especially satisfied us fans of earlier series. I have to say that this was part of the programme that gave me the most cause for thought. If you follow that the Borg of Star Trek are a more human progression from Cybermen, the use of nanotechnology to remould a body to a new pattern is familiar, and when the gas mask people acted as a collective (and more importantly not shambling along like zombies), it was a genuine chiller!

The nanogenes were also left a little open ended. Bearing in mind how easy it was for the Doctor to tell them to do their job and then de-activate, how easy a job would it be for this to be reversed by someone with sufficient technology? Or telepathic ability? Maybe someone who was raised on a temporal rift? Or someone with the knowledge of the future? All they would need is a new blueprint to get themselves an army. It is almost reminiscent of Buffy, where throughout a season atefats would be discovered and discarded only to be vitally useful in defeating the big bad in the season finale.

However, despite the superb use of horror ideas, the Alien stylings of the direction and the general setting, the gift from this episode were the characters. I have long been a fan of Moffat's work on Coupling (and years ago I seemed to be the only person I knew watching Joking Apart). He has an ear for dialogue that is second to none in my opinion and there were some superb examples in these episodes. Dr Constantine's Father/Grandfather speech, his one liner at the close with the lady with two legs, the fizzing sonic envy and putting up shelves exchanges between Jack and the Doctor. All these bits of dialogue came over as very natural in their settings.

But without a doubt the highpoint for me of the whole story was the Doctor's unbridled joy at being able to save everyone from the threat of the nano-genes. Ignoring the fact that the Blitz is raging around them, he managed to make sure that no one who shouldn't have died, died. I have found it hard at times to respond positively to the Doctor's fun and enjoyment of his travels but here Christopher Ecclestone's portrayal of such passionate happiness will stay with me as one of the touchstone's of his Doctor.

All in all, I loved this story. Everything about it sang of the joy it is to live, which (after Father's Day had shown us the effects of death on a personal level) was important to the balance of the series.

Neil Underwood

  • Read Neil's review of Father's Day.