1.9 & 1.10 – “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances”

DW Series 1 - The Empty Child

The Doctor and Rose find themselves in the middle of the London Blitz, where falling bombs aren’t the scariest thing happening. A young boy in a gas mask has everyone terrified, simply by asking one little question: “Are you my mummy?” It’s up to The Doctor, Rose and their newfound friend, Captain Jack Harkness, to find out exactly what’s going on.

This is one of my absolute favourite two-parters. I love these episodes. If I go all gushy, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So, why do I love this story so much?

Well firstly, the writing is excellent. We start off with The Doctor and Rose chasing an object through space. This leads to a brilliant bit of comedy when the TARDIS lands and The Doctor steps out to ask some locals whether anything has fallen out of the sky recently. He’s interrupted by an air raid siren and realises exactly where – and when – he is. The writing throughout both episodes is of a consistently high quality and there are some fantastic lines, especially for The Doctor and Captain Jack.

The plot is solid, too. It centres around a little boy called Jamie, who’s scaring the living daylights out of his “sister” Nancy (who – spoiler alert – turns out to be his mum; I know, it’s all a bit EastEnders) and everyone else who meets him, by asking “Are you my mummy?” He has a gas mask fused to his face and anyone who touches him will become “empty” like he is; masked and doomed to wander listlessly, asking the same question over and over. Somehow, a child’s voice calling: “Mummy? Muuuuuummy?” is even scarier than the most deadly of aliens. It’s a fantastic juxtaposition; how can a child be the cause of such fear? The answer is, yet again, that this is a brilliant piece of writing from Steven Moffat, wonderfully acted by the whole cast.

Florence Hoath is brilliant as the terrified young Nancy. She’s taken it upon herself to look after the city’s homeless and orphaned children, having recently lost her brother Jamie in an air raid. Nancy knows that the scary, “empty child” is Jamie, but her terror whenever he comes close is completely believable. Some actors are able to convey enormous amounts of emotion with just a single look and Hoath manages this when Nancy stares at Jamie, just before she runs away in fear; we can tell that there are hundreds of things she wants to say to him, but can’t bring herself to. We can see that she doesn’t want to fear him, but that she’s horrified by what he’s become. We somehow know that she blames herself for it long before the revelation that she is his mummy. That’s a heck of a lot to convey in just a look, but she manages it and she deserves a mention here.

Nancy is torn between wanting to solve what’s happening and loyalty to her family/fear at the truth coming out. She tells The Doctor that the object that fell from the sky is connected to her brother, but that it’s being guarded by soldiers. Again, Hoath plays this conflict of emotions brilliantly; I can’t stress enough how well acted I think both episodes are by everyone involved.

“The Empty Child” is also the first episode in which we encounter Captain Jack Harkness. I’ve always been a fan of Captain Jack and his debut appearance, dressed in RAF uniform, flirting outrageously with Rose (and anyone else who happens to catch his roving eye) immediately caused him to stand out from other guest stars in previous episodes. It was obvious that this was a character with the capacity to stick around. When we meet Jack, he’s flying what he says is a Chula war ship. A ship he tries – unsuccessfully – to sell to The Doctor. The Doctor eyes Jack with not a small amount of suspicion and in return, Captain Jack mocks his screwdriver. There’s some brilliant writing as the pair peacock it out in front of Rose and it’s the start of a relationship I wish we could see more of. And no, I don’t mean in that sense. Although…

Anyway, back to the plot: The Doctor heads to a hospital close to where the object he was chasing crash-landed. Inside, he meets Doctor Constantine, brilliantly played by Richard Wilson. All of Constantine’s patients have exactly the same physical symptoms – a scar on one hand and a gas mask fused to their face – and all seem to be comatose until Constantine shows The Doctor that they all react simultaneously to loud noises. Constantine explains that Nancy’s brother Jamie was the first patient with these symptoms and that others followed after but, as he’s talking, he begins to morph into one of the “empty” people himself. It’s a genuinely frightening scene, which makes me shudder every time I watch it.

Captain Jack and Rose arrive just in time to rescue The Doctor, where Jack finally admits that his “Chula war ship” is not a war ship at all, but a medical ship. He denies that it could have anything to do with the strange goings on in London but The Doctor isn’t convinced. They don’t have much time to argue, however, as it’s time for the cliff-hanger: The Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack are all trapped in a room as the “empty” patients head towards them, arms outstretched, calling for their mummy…

“The Doctor Dances” starts off with another example of the comic writing I love in this two-parter. As the “children” edge closer to the trapped trio, The Doctor yells: “GO TO YOUR ROOM!” It works – if only defeating a Dalek were that easy, eh?! However, as the gang head back to the part of the hospital where Jamie was originally treated, The Doctor realises that they’re in his room. Sure enough, Jamie appears and it’s time to run…

Whilst Jack teleports back to his ship, Rose decides it’s the perfect time to ask The Doctor to dance. Because I don’t know about you, but being chased by a strange, possessed child always unleashes my urge to boogie. The Doctor doesn’t get a chance to break into the Macarena, however, because Jack teleports him and Rose onto his ship. Damn. On board the ship, The Doctor uses Nanogenes to fix a wound he’s picked up along the way.

Back on Terra Firma, Nancy is on her way to where the crashed object is being heavily guarded, having told the children she’s been helping to stay away from her, as it’s her that Jamie wants and they’re no longer safe with her around. Before she gets very far, however, she’s captured by soldiers and it’s not long before we realise that the “empty children” no longer need to touch people to pass on the symptoms; the “virus” is now airborne. Nancy is horrified when she’s left with a soldier who morphs into an empty child, but manages to put him to sleep by singing him a lullaby.

The Doctor, Jack and Rose arrive to rescue Nancy and The Doctor quickly realises that the object he was chasing was in fact the shell of a Chula medical transport. He deduces that the same Nanogenes from Jack’s ship are responsible for the epidemic of “empty children.” When Jamie was killed in the air raid, the Nanogenes tried to repair him. After that, they used him as a template for all humans, hence the gas masks fused to faces and the many people with a sudden mummy-obsession. As the object is opened and the “empty children” converge on the site, The Doctor realises that Jamie’s mind is controlling everyone and that he won’t rest – and therefore the epidemic won’t stop – until Nancy answers his question: “Are you my mummy?” This leads to a poignant scene in which Nancy admits that yes, she is his mummy. The Nanogenes are then able to properly repair Jamie and Nancy can finally remove his gas mask. Once Jamie is “fixed,” The Doctor takes a gamble and sends the Nanogenes to repair everyone else too. And it works, leading to one of Christopher Eccleston’s greatest moments in the role of The Doctor “Everybody lives, Rose. Just this once – everybody lives!”

Jack stops a German bomb from falling on the site, capturing it with his ship with the intention of throwing it out into space. We get a nice Bad Wolf reference here; the bomb has “Schlechter Wolf” written on the side of it. Since there was a historical bomb at the site, The Doctor sets the Chula medical transport to explode once everyone is safely out of the way, ensuring that history is correct and that the Nanogenes can’t do any more damage.

And yes, because it says so in the title, right at the end of the episode, The Doctor dances. All together now: “YMCA!”

Where do I start? The comedy between The Doctor and Jack, the brilliant plot, the superb acting, the fantastic use of something so seemingly un-scary to terrify the pants off the viewer…this two-parter has pretty much everything I could ask for from my favourite show. A classic 9/10.

Written and edited by Emma Tofi


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