Quickie review: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances

I’ve mentioned before that watching this story when it first aired, aged 10, is my most vivid memory of Doctor Who as a child. It was my childhood “hiding-behind-the-sofa” moment, those terrifying gasmask-wearing zombie people having seriously frightened 10-year-old me, although, unsurprisingly, I could barely tear my eyes away from the screen. I was terrified then, but I’m glad now that I got to experience the sensation of being terrified by Doctor Who as a child — the way Doctor Who is supposed to be experienced. This story did exceptionally and perfectly what Doctor Who has traditionally done best — scaring children. It was claustrophobic, and suspenseful, and skin-crawling, and apprehensive and… how many ways can I say really effing scary?

It’s less scary for mature viewers than for a 10 year old, of course, but many elements of the production are still highly effective to induce fright and uneasiness even in an adult: the creepy, nagging “mummy…” motif, the gasmask people themselves, with their zombie-like animation (and those vacant, ghoulish eye-sockets, which I remember particularly vividly from when I was a child), and those freaky “pop-up” moments such as when we get our first look at Jamie, an eerie, gasmask-clad figure in the distance atop a rooftop, when the gasmask people in the hospital suddenly spring up at Dr Constantine’s beckon, and the scene in Jamie’s “room”. Also, do I need to mention the absolutely horrifying moment when Dr Constantine morphs into one of the creatures? I think it was that particular moment that scarred me as a 10 year-old, both scaring me off Doctor Who for years (yes, I know, but it’s true) and causing me to contract an irrational phobia of gas masks from that day forth (I’m still not totally okay around them). What can I say? Moffat really knows how to scare kids.

This was an exceptionally well-written script. The scare factor alone propels this story into the company of the greats, but the sheer incomparable quality of the writing entrenches it there. Nancy was a really well-constructed character, played admirably by Florence Hoath, who truly endeared herself to us as her character. Nancy is ample evidence that Steven Moffat can write female characters, and write them superbly. The story was also interspersed with a couple of wonderful little scenes, like Rose and Jack atop his spaceship, dancing while the bombs fell all around, and the Doctor and Rose together in the hospital storage room. The latter, in particular, represented well-written character insight for the Doctor, an adorable little scene where the Doctor shows his vulnerability re Rose and “dancing”. These moments really show the strengths of the two-part format — you wouldn’t get that in a single episode story.

The script also shone in the emotive sequences, its addressing the mother-and-child relationship. “There isn’t a little boy born who wouldn’t tear the world apart to save his mummy,” was wonderful. In particular, the resolution scene where Nancy reveals to Jamie that she is his mother was perfect: “I am your mummy. I will always be your mummy. I’m so sorry. I am so, so sorry… *hug*” was just beautiful. I’ll happily admit to tearing up slightly at that point, even upon a rewatch. The Doctor’s triumphant, jubilant reaction to the nanogenes’ curing everybody — “Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once, everybody lives!” — was truly joyous to watch, and was an absolute stroke of screenwriting genius, the soaring coda resolving the rousing final movement. Perfect.  I also think I should mention that “Go to your room!” is possibly the most awesome thing Nine ever did.

This story is, without question, a masterpiece. In my opinion, it is easily the best story New Who has ever done, and undoubtedly deserves its place amongst the most esteemed annals of the Doctor Who corpus.

Rating: 10/10.

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