Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances


Chapter The Twelfth, is all singing, all dancing, all euphemising.

Plot:
In blitz-ravaged 1941 London, a con-man from the 51st Century accidentally creates a plague of gas-mask sporting zombies; luckily, the people he's trying to con are the Doctor and Rose, who are on fine form and work out how to fix things and save everybody, while still finding time for quiet interludes discussing whether or not timelords have sex. To Glenn Miller tunes.

Context:
I haven't had time to do the blog for a few weeks, as I've been busy with the day job and life and such. The new series has started, and I should probably blog about its first two-parter at least, to keep things slightly current; so I knew I had less than two weeks left to watch and write up a Christopher Eccleston story to finish my first dozen. On the Sunday morning after The Magician's Apprentice aired, I sat down with only my youngest child, the three year old girl, to watch The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances - couldn't wait for anyone else to be in the right mood. But, one by one, the whole family, including Mum, gravitated to the sofa to watch. It's that kind of story.

First-time round:
As someone wise almost said: the past is another country; 2005's just the Isle of Wight. It doesn't feel like as much has changed since this story was broadcast, as between - say - William Hartnell and Jon Pertwee's episodes; but 10 years has most definitely passed. There are some give-aways, looking back: when this first aired, I watched live while taping it - taping it! - on my final ever VCR. It was the last full season which I kept on carefully labelled video tapes; we bought a PVR midway through the following year's run at around the time of our first child's birth.

It was a time of transition. On mine and the Better Half's wedding day in 2004, the Eccleston series had just begun filming many miles away, and we watched these two episodes the following year in our newlywed pad in Gillingham. It's odd to think we were watching without far too many kids squeezing onto the sofa with us (this time I got loads of hugs when the gas-mask child scared my youngest two). This was also the last Doctor Who I ever discussed with my Dad, as he died a few short weeks after the 2005 season finished airing. After decades of my inflicting episodes on him, this was the first time he'd chosen to watch it on his own, and he really loved it. Shame he never got to see David Tennant, and never got to share a sofa with too many grandchildren.

Reaction:

I've watched all of Doctor Who, much of it many times over, and the 2005 series is the best. There you go. All the writers, as well as many of the crew, were fans; they knew what had happened with Paul McGann. Many of them might have thought this chance would never come up. Now they had episodes to make that would likely be Who's last roll of the dice. Consequently, we have a series of episodes by talented people, in love with Doctor Who, hungry to make it work and giving it their absolute all. It shows.

These are the two by Steven Moffat, who'd really held back and kept ready. Even Russell T Davies had written a Doctor Who novel; the other writers had penned novels, audios or both. Moffat had been tempted into only but one official short story, many years back. He'd been asked to do more, but had declined. He was saving himself for this moment. Lucky, really, as since the show has subsequently been successful, he's been the one who's had to think of the most story ideas, year after year. But these two episodes are the ones he'd have given us to enjoy, if there'd been no others.


What's striking is how the story is paced. After a frenetic starting scene, throwing the audience into the action, it slows right down, and we have a very traditional first episode of Doctor and companion separated, dark streets and creeping menace, equivalent to episodes 1 and 2 of a four-parter in old money. I sincerely hope, and I'm sure it's true, that to viewers of a certain age "the one with the gas-mask child" resonates in the same way as do "the one with the maggots" or "the one where the mummies hug that bloke to death" to us older coves. Although, for full disclosure, I have to report that - although they were patently gripped - younger boy, six, did say "this is taking ages" towards the end of The Empty Child.

There are very few characters in the piece, which allows everyone space to shine. The new regular, Captain Jack, played by John Barrowman, arrives fully-formed and makes the sort of impression that screams "spin-off show". But even he's eclipsed by Florence Hoath as Nancy, a stellar performance at the emotional centre of the narrative. Richard Wilson as Doctor Constantine has little more than a cameo, just a couple of scenes, but what scenes: one of the scariest (turning into a gas-mask) then one of the funniest ("Is it possible you've miscounted?"). Piper and Eccleston's chemistry is perfect for such a seemingly mismatched pair, and her scenes with Barrowman bristle with humour and fun; for example, there's the confident moment where the series starts to poke fun at its paraphernalia with Rose and Jack spilling their inner monologues onto the psychic paper.

It might be trying a little too hard in places. The Doctor and Rose are uncharacteristically quippy at the start: would a girl of Rose's age in 2005 really have used Mr. Spock as a reference? It settles down after a short while, and then every scene is a cracker and the script zings. There are far too many great lines to list here, but if I have to pick one it would be "Flag Girl was bad enough, but U-Boat Captain?".

Connectivity:
Like Silver Nemesis, this story has Nazis (albeit mostly off-stage); the threats in both are human-machine hybrids (nano-gene enhanced humans, cyber-enhanced Mondassians). The presence of John Barrowman ups the camp factor of anything, but this still can't quite reach the heights of camp displayed at some points in the Slyvester McCoy story. Dolores Grey, I'm looking at you!

Deeper Thoughts:
Sex and the single Timelord. It may not be credited now, but - at the time - early twenty-first century Doctor Who got some people online hot under the collar because of the all the sex references, particularly the same-sex sex references. Russell T Davies' gay agenda, if was called. Even with my encyclopedic knowledge of every minute bit of Who trivia, I can't actually remember any of the lines or moments from the first eight episodes of series 1 that were so offensive, so they can't have been that bad. But it was definitely already being posted about before The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances were shown.

I contend that some fans don't want any outpouring of human emotions involved in their Who, so it's no surprise that they were even more annoyed by the inclusion of the emotional human outpourings that are - you know - 'it'.  Why shouldn't we nerds be bashful about these things? Well, because Doctor Who is at a base a story of life succeeding against death, and life is dependent on, ahem, cough, S-E-X to sustain it. An entire story that had sex as its theme though, was still unexpected. And that's what this is. The plot hinges on a teen pregnancy, of course, but more than that it dares to posit the Doctor as a sexual being, even one that's capable of sexual jealousy. That got a bit old later on, but it's very refreshing here. Even more radically in Captain Jack we have personified the idea that sex can be something fun (like all fun-loving characters in TV shows, he does eventually get tortured and introspective, but that's not for another year and another series).

All in all, this is as mature and thorough a coverage of an adult subject as could be fit into 90 minutes of family TV that also includes a sci-fi plague and WW2. It melds the new emotional take of RTD's Who with one of Moffat's puzzle-box plots, and gives us a very satisfactory happy ending. By accident or design, it also finally sees the Doctor be the sole agent of driving the conclusion. Battle weary, he's influenced other people to save the day in the series up to now, but this is where he takes control again, and finds a little joy as his reward. Dare I say it, the smile on Eccleston's face as a million glowing sprites fly out from him, and everybody lives, is positively... orgasmic.
 
 
In Summary:
Like a good dance, it's very, very satisfying. Anyone got a cigarette?

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