Magic Bullet Productions

Doctor Who: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances

By Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens

Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 329

The second two-parter of the season, "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances", promised much in terms of setting, cast, special effects and dramatic content. The result, however, is a story which is visually very attractive, but, like the first two-parter, is somewhat lacking in terms of narrative and analytical strength.

First of all, it must be said that the two-parter contains some stunning visuals: the German air-raid sequence, with the barrage balloon swooping over London, is brilliant, and the lighting is excellent throughout. There are some nice lines and witty exchanges of banter, particularly the Doctor's remark about not being sure whether the street children's scheme to keep fed is Marxism in action or a West End musical, or the sequence where Rose and Jack exploit the flirtation potential of psychic paper. Finally, the central conceit of the Empty Child and the gas-masked zombies is genuinely creepy, and it's none too surprising that shouting "are you my mummy?" at teachers, parents and passers-by has apparently become something of a playground craze.

There is also some very good acting, from the criminally underused Richard Wilson, through Florence Hoath and the company of child actors, to the cat which the Doctor complains to in Episode 1. The main exception is Eccleston himself, who, as in the previous two-parter, "Aliens of London/World War Three", is a bit hit and miss: the moment when he realises that the craft has come to earth at one of the few times and places where a large object falling from the sky wouldn't excite comment is brilliant, as are his conversations with the cat and the children, but elsewhere, particularly in Episode 2, he is less strong, bickering with Captain Jack without giving much of a sense that he genuinely is jealous of the younger man. Rose also appears to know the basics of swing-dancing, which, although not inconceivable, is a bit of an unusual hobby for a nineteen-year-old council estate girl.

Elsewhere on the characterisation front, the idea that Nancy is pretending to be a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old when being, in fact, at least nineteen or twenty, makes for a nice dramatic revelation, but is slightly unbelievable in light of the fact that a child that is four years old in 1941 must have been born around 1937. It is conceivable that, under those circumstances, Nancy's parents might avoid the potential for scandal of their daughter's unwed pregnancy by concocting the fiction that her illegitimate child was in fact her brother (late pregnancies and unusual timing of children being less uncommon in the days before extensive family planning), but in that case there would be no need for Nancy to pretend to be far younger than she is, as the situation would have been well established. It is possible that there is another, more convoluted, explanation for this state of affairs, but if there is, it is not even hinted at in the story. Similarly, Captain Jack is bright enough to park his ship moored to something visible and in a location where it's not likely to be walked (or flown) into by the locals, but not bright enough to realise that lighting up Big Ben during an air-raid when the ship's camouflage is switched off is asking for trouble-- although this could be argued to be part of the man's characterisation as a negligent show-off, it seems that if he's that careless, he wouldn't have lasted long as either a conman or a Time Agent. However, the idea that Jack was able to catch Rose just as she fell off the balloon rope does make sense, as it suggests that he teleported back to his ship, continued to track her until she let go of the rope, and then staged a daring rescue in order to impress her.

The idea that Captain Jack is a Time Agent from the 51st century is also slightly problematic, in that it makes an obvious link to "The Talons of Weng-Chiang", in which 51st-century criminal Magnus Greel speaks of his belief that he is being pursued by Time Agents. However, in the context of "Talons", this idea forms part of Greel's increasingly paranoid fantasy, as he attempts to delude himself, against all logic, that the Zigma Experiment was successful, the debilitating afflictions he suffered during the experiment are reversible, and that he is regarded as enough of a dangerous threat to the establishment in the future that they would send agents to hunt him down, whereas, as the Doctor informs him, the truth the megalomaniac scientist cannot face is that his experiments were a failure; it is also made clear in the story Greel was the first man of his era to travel in time, which means that he would have no idea what any future temporal police would be named. If there is in fact a temporal organisation called Time Agents in the 51st century, then it must postdate Greel, and thus suggests either a massive coincidence or unusual powers of foreknowledge on Greel's part.

The sheer amount of dramatic potential afforded by the Blitz makes it a prime setting for a Doctor Who story, and it is good to see the series finally exploiting this. However, historical settings seem usually to lead to historical inaccuracies, such as the idea that an officer's club in the 1940s, when everyone was maintaining blackout conditions and air-raids were a random occurrence, would have had the lights on and the windows open. Nancy at one point refers to using the "bathroom" (arguably excusable in light of modern audiences not knowing that most houses in the 1940s had outdoor loos, but still problematic), and reel-to-reel magnetic audio tape was introduced to Britain after 1945. The Doctor's "plucky little Britain" speech in Episode 1, as well as rather cloying, is also historically inaccurate. In the first place, Britain did not stand alone against the Nazis, as all of the British colonies were also involved in the war (meaning that she was bolstered by the far-from-negligible efforts of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India, among others). Secondly, by 1941, the countries of Europe were not "dropping like dominoes," but had, for the most part, already fallen, bar the Soviet Union and Greece, and, far from being fended off by British resistance, the Nazi war machine simply decided that it made better strategic sense to concentrate on the East; the significance of Britain's efforts during the Blitz had less to do with a mouse standing up to a lion, and more to do with keeping the country in the war long enough for the tide to turn against the Germans in the East and for the Americans to join the war effort-- treading water, rather than striking out. Finally, in light of the fact that there was a good deal of sympathy for Hitler in Britain in the 1930s (with the Daily Mail in particular being pro-Nazi), and that a quick read of The Oxford Companion to the Second World War reveals that Britain's foreign policy during this period was focused less on opposing Nazism than on disarmament and anti-Communist policies (even tacitly supporting the Fascist side during the Spanish Civil War), it is problematic to characterise Britain as a bastion of anti-Nazi sentiment. Effectively, all the Doctor's speech does is perpetuate a national myth, rather than explore the political complexities of the real situation.

There are also aspects of the story's central conceit which are doubtful. While it is not necessary for a story to obey the known laws of science for it to make good science fiction, "pseudoscience" does have to maintain a certain internal logic for the narrative to work. In this case, the premise (drawing heavily on Star Trek's "The Cage") is perfectly acceptable: that the nanogenes, having never encountered a human before, assume that the dead boy they find is the template for all humans, and reconstruct the others they find along those lines. However, the consequences raise all sorts of questions in the viewer's mind. Leaving aside the discrepancy between the implication in Episode 1 that the "plague" victims all have the same injuries the child does and the Doctor's remark in Episode 2 that there wouldn't have been much of the child left for the nanogenes to reconstruct, if the nanogenes assume the gas mask to be a physical part of the child, why don't they assume the same about his clothing? Why don't they also assume that being blonde and three feet tall are part of the normal human makeup? Why is one of the adult zombies visibly pregnant-- a state so different from the natural physical condition of a four-year-old boy that one would expect a spontaneous miscarriage? Why do the nanogenes apparently remove the insides of people's heads, such that looking into the gasmask simply reveals an empty space? Why are the masks on the plague victims made out of flesh and bone, as the nanogenes should be able to tell the difference between that and rubber? If, at the end of the story, the nanogenes then take Nancy as a normal healthy specimen, why don't more Nancy-like traits emerge in the repaired plague victims? Essentially, if the nanogenes are intelligent enough to read the child's DNA and realise that there are some differences between him and the other humans which should be left unchanged, the question becomes how they get the other things so badly wrong. In a story such as "Father's Day", in which the exact scientific details of the time paradox are less important than the working-out of the relationship between Rose and her parents, this could be excused; in a story where the technical details of the child's conversion are central to the plot, more care should be taken with the logic.

The antecedents of the story, aside from "The Cage", include Quatermass II (plague of zombies with gas-masks and scars), Quatermass and the Pit (alien ship being treated as a German bomb), Doctor Strangelove (albeit not to any real effect), The Battle of Britain, Star Wars: A New Hope (a cute but dodgy intergalactic conman with a ship that's a bit heavy on the wires and buttons), Battle Beyond the Stars (Captain Jack's blasé attitude to his impending demise as he sits aboard his spaceship), any number of sci-fi stories with creepy masked figures, from Blake's 7 through to Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich (allegedly inspired by a childhood memory of Dick's WWI-veteran father wearing a gasmask), and the recent spate of books and documentaries about crime and sexual mores in Britain during WWII. Within Doctor Who itself, as with "Father's Day", the key antecedent is "The Curse of Fenric" (specifically the novelisation, with the backstory about Mrs Hardaker's love-child); here, also, we have references to "The Face of Evil" (the child-voice of Xoanon crying out "who am I?" over and over), and there have been a handful of previous Doctor Who serials in which none of the characters dies.

When writing "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances", Moffat, according to a recent interview in DWM, was given a list of elements to include and told to build a story around them. In light of this, it is thus perhaps not surprising that what we have is a serial which contains a number of exciting dramatic elements, but also contains a number of gaps which would need to be filled before the two-parter could really be said to work on a narrative, rather than a visual, level.