Thursday, 3 April 2014

'The Empty Child'

What Happens if They Touch Us?

Can the best Doctor Who stories be summed up in a question?
When a mysterious ship crash lands on Earth and there’s a seeping, creeping thing that infects the human population and turns them into zombies, is it always because someone’s got an evil plan, or have they just made an awful mistake?

Best moment for Old School Who?
We’re getting a reprise of the old Hinchcliffe Gothic horrors here, I think. He was keen on possessed folk marching around like zombies… There’s a Pyramids of Mars vibe here, with Eccleston’s Doctor prowling around, looking quite magnificent – that great, bony face illuminated by the Blitzy night. He investigates and swoops into scenes like Tom Baker at his best.

Best new thing?
This is the first episode to put a child or children at the centre of the story. Here it works very well – with the classic ‘Are you my mummy?’ motif, and the story of Nancy feeding the waifs, and the secret she’s been hiding. Pretty soon though, it will become a New Who cliché to have a spooky and / or endangered child at the centre of the story. Other elements in this story – new and shiny now – will, with repetition become stale.

They’d never have got away with that in the 20th century…
The general sexiness that’s going on throughout this story: from Rose and Cap’n Jack dancing on top of his invisible space ship high above London to the (perhaps overdone?) dancing conceit in the second part. Here’s where the omnisexual Jack Harkness gets his debut, and soon a Dr Who episode hardly goes by without a mention of threesomes with extraterrestrial executioners or bunk-ups with a compliant companions. The best of this new wordliness when it comes to adult material will result in episodes such as ‘Love and Monsters’ – the worst will end up in ‘Torchwood’s’ parade of deadly space lesbians and Cyberladies.

Hurray for Jackie Tyler – best guest moment?
It has to be Captain Jack. He’s amusingly written, and probably at his best here in his debut story. His novelty hasn’t yet been rubbed off (oo-er.)

The ‘I love me Nan…’ moment
With this story it isn’t so much to do with sentimentality as the opposite. Moffat’s characterisation very often seems chilly to me and his scripts lack empathy. It’s like being at work with people who are very good at their jobs and okay to get along with during office hours, but you don’t really know what they do when they’re at home, or in secret: you don’t really know what makes them tick. The ticking that we do hear is the spooky, mechanical tick of human beings hollowed out and refilled with bogus, alien personalities. He often uses the image of a dead human voice emerging from an inanimate object – it’s here in the rather chilling tape recorder scene. But some of his supposedly ‘living’ characters often feel the same to me (Algy, Doctor Constantine, etc) – they’re like chess pieces being marched efficiently, skilfully around the board.

When his characters display personality it’s often in glib and flashy conversation – trading quips and catch-phrases like Rose and Jack do here, as soon as they first meet. The lines they’re trading seem not so much directed at each other as they are at the audience: dialogue that practically shouts – listen to this! How funny and clever! It’s not how many people talk in real life, even if they do go about in time and space. The banter over guns, screwdrivers and bananas in the hospital seems particularly glaring in this regard. It’s like the funny lines come first, before the predicament and the danger.

There are Time Agents. Others can travel in time beside Doctor Who. But what are they? There’s something spiv-like about Captain Jack here. Have the Time Lords been replaced by free market racketeers?

I love the fact that the Doctor tells Rose that by the 51st Century human beings have spread themselves throughout the galaxy – in more ways than one.

Also, is the Doctor feeling a bit sexy about Rose? As soon as saucy Cap’n Jack is on the scene, the Doctor’s getting a bit envious, it seems. He’s keen to prove that he ‘dances’ and that he’s got ‘the moves.’  I would love to see William Hartnell trying this one on with Barbara Wright.

The Nanogenes are mindlessly rewriting the DNA of the human race, one at a time, to make them the same as the child they have innocently ‘repaired.’ The ‘infection’ is spread first of all by contact and then, some time in episode two, it becomes airborne. But our heroes – in the thick of it the whole time – aren’t affected at all. What’s happened here? Are the rules of the thing changing about in order to convenience the story..?

Where was I?
At the time I loved the fact that we were going back to Doctor Who’s more macabre stories. It was a reminder of when ‘The Curse of Fenric’ – also set during WW2 – seemed like a return to the Hinchcliffe / Holmesian days – when ordinary people are menaced and possessed by alien menaces that somehow evoke classic Gothic monsters of the past. This was properly macabre, as all the best Who stories were.

I was also intrigued by the ‘Everybody lives!’ business, and the Doctor as this champion of the Welfare State and pop music. Lots of things here seemed to ring the changes boldly, while reminding us of great Doctor Who’s of the past.

Singlemost fabulous thing
The Doctor is earnest, glib, silly, compassionate, brilliant and brave in this story. My favourite moment is when Nancy tells him that the child behind the front door is dangerous. And still the Doctor talks to him and opens the door. Also, when he figures out that the child is Nancy’s own. This Doctor is more concerned with and clued up about human life than any of the earlier Doctors.

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