The Empty Child

Doctor WhoTracking a space vehicle that’s capable of limited time travel as it plummets toward Earth, the Doctor and Rose are unaware at first that they’ve arrived in Britain during the Blitz. The Doctor begins looking for the crashed spacecraft, while Rose, trying to reach a child she sees dangerously close to the edge of a tall building, puts herself in danger and is rescued by the handsome Captain Jack Harkness. Supposedly an American advisor to the Royal Air Force, Jack reveals himself to be a rogue former “time agent,” and assumes from such things as Rose’s cell phone that she is too. In the meantime, the Doctor has also encountered the mysterious child Rose saw earlier, wandering around London even in the midst of bombing raids and asking for his mother. He seems to be following a group of homeless children led by a young woman named Nancy, who fears the child and tells the Doctor to keep his distance from him. The Doctor discovers that the child isn’t the only person in London asking for his mother. A plague has begun creeping through the population, especially close to the crash site of the spacecraft, disfiguring its victims with wounds identical to the little boy’s and literally molding the flesh of their faces into the shape of a gas mask – just like the one the child wears. The Doctor catches up with Rose and Jack and discovers that Jack is responsible for bringing the alien ship – a Chula combat ambulance vessel – to Earth, and is thus responsible for the spreading plague.

Order the DVDDownload this episodewritten by Steven Moffat
directed by James Hawes
music by Murray Gold

Guest Cast: Albert Valentine (The Child), Kate Harvey (Night Club Singer), Florence Hoath (Nancy), Cheryl Fergison (Mrs. Lloyd), Damian Samuels (Mr. Lloyd), John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Robert Hands (Algy), Joseph Tremain (Jim), Jordan Murphy (Ernie), Brandon Miller (Alf), Richard Wilson (Dr. Constantine), Zoe Thorne (voice of the Empty Child), Dian Perry (Computer voice)

Note: Along with The Doctor Dances, The Empty Child won the Best Dramatic Presentation (Shortform) Hugo Award in 2006.

Reviews by Philip R. Frey & Earl Green
LogBook entry by Earl Green

Earl’s Review: A cracking good two-parter here, something that feels as much like classic Who as it does like new Who. While I may have liked Aliens Of London and World War Three better, it’s hard to argue that The Empty Child and its second part, The Doctor Dances, may be the best written episodes of the season. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself there.

The big development here is the introduction of Captain Jack, the almost impossibly good-looking hero played by stage star John Barrowman. For everyone who was expecting Russell T. Davies to bring a bit of Queer As Folk to Doctor Who, this is about as close as it gets – apparently, in the future, everyone’s bisexual, footloose and fancy free. (If you think about it, this makes about as much sense as everyone being able to copulate with any other humanoid life form, a la Star Trek and its many spinoffs.) While Jack’s relentless flirtation with members of any sex continue for the remainder of the series as a gag, it really only appears as a plot point in The Doctor Dances, and really, at least for me, it fades into the background after a while. Speaking of gags and Star Trek, apparently Trek exists in the Doctor Who universe, if you take Rose’s plea to the Doctor, “Could you give me just a little bit of Spock, just this once? Would it kill you?”, as evidence. (Then again, depending on how you interpreted a throwaway gag from 1988’s Remembrance Of The Daleks, Doctor Who also exists in the Doctor Who universe. See what you can make of that.)

Rose’s barrage balloon vantage point of the Blitz is one of the new show’s flashiest effects sequences yet, though I felt that the more subtle and more horrific effect of a plague victim’s face transforming into a fleshy gas mask was more striking, and certainly more disturbing. Played out only twice on screen, and hinted at by sound effects and reaction shots of other actors elsewhere, this effect is truly disquieting. In terms of hearkening back to the Hinchcliffe era’s use of horror in the series, The Empty Child wins the prize for this season.

Philip’s Review: Quite obviously, The Empty Child, like Aliens of London before it, is difficult to judge completely, given the fact that it’s the first of a two-parter.

Still, there are some things that can be said. For one, Captain Jack is far and away the most irritating character yet introduced on the current Doctor Who (at least the most irritating character we are meant to like in some respect – I haven’t forgotten you, Cassandra). He even outdoes the Doctor by coming off poorly with his first line, and yet still going downhill. And, really, are there no handsome devil-may-care American actors in England? Have they ever actually heard an American talk? If Captain Jack is any indication, the answer to both questions is no. (And before you correct me, yes, I know that although John Barrowman was born in Ireland, he was raised in America. It doesn’t show.)

The thieving little urchins I think we’re meant to feel sorry for are so precious (veiled references to child abuse notwithstanding), I’m surprised there isn’t a line of Hummel-like figurines in stores this Christmas. (And knowing winks to the clichèd nature of the characters don’t make up for actually using them.) The “lead” urchin, Nancy, comes off slightly better due to her connection to the story and a decent performance by Florence Hoath, but not by much.

In sharp contrast is the “empty child” himself, who is quite effective (if his secret is a bit obvious). The look of the child (and his victims) uses the haunting image of the gas mask in much the same way as Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Can’t blame them for going with a classic.

After such a fine outing last episode, it’s sad to see Rose again reduced to her “danger-prone Daphne” tendencies. But one wonders why she’s so upset when hanging from that balloon. The quite obvious CGI effects shouldn’t have scared her, surely? And can she meet a man of viable age without becoming romantically entangled in some way, shape or form? Just once? Please?

The Doctor doesn’t do much in The Empty Child. He seems almost extraneous; just a conduit for plot exposition. Much of what he would normally have done has been split off and given to Jack. Still, he does take time for his own exposition, elaborating on his peculiar view of world history. While it’s certainly true that the Germans never invaded Britain, the Doctor seems to have attributed the fall of the Third Reich entirely to England’s hardiness. Perhaps it’s just the Doctor doing a “rah rah” speech, but even a rudimentary knowledge of what actually caused Germany’s fall makes his words sound like hollow aggrandizing.

As alluded to earlier, the effects are particularly noticeable in The Empty Child. Despite scenes being set at night (notorious for being used to cover inconstancies that would stand out in daylight) the big, boisterous shots of the air raid stick out like a sore thumb. They might as well have shot Billie Piper in front of a rear-projection screen. (Or was that meant as an homage to the films of the 40s?) Something subtler might have proven more effective. But then, this year’s Doctor Who has rarely been able to pull off subtle.

Well, next week we’ll see how this all wraps up and whether, frankly, there is any more story to tell. We seem to be heading straight in a particular direction and if we aren’t going the way The Empty Child (and the preview) are suggesting, I’ll be quite surprised.