Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances

"Behind the sofa"
-- old saying about how to hide from scary monsters in Doctor Who

Steven Moffat is an evil wizard from another dimension dedicted to one purpose: to frighten every person on earth so much that they never sleep again.  The "monster" of this film is simply a child.  Wearing a gas mask fused to his face.  Asking for his mother..  It's an idea that sounds more weird than scary, but it's terrifying.  There is no creature in all of Who more terrifying than the Empty Child excepting only the other monsters Moffatt has created.  The sofa won't save you this time, because even the sofa is terrified of the Empty Child.

But underneath that evil exterior, Moffatt is also apparently a good wizard, wanting to spread joy and happiness throughout the world.  So The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances  twosome is one of the darkest, grimmest, scariest Doctor Who stories ever.  But it's also one of the funniest, most moving, and most uplifting tale in the long history of the show.  It's a 90-minute emotional rollarcoaster that jerks you from one emotion to the next with astonishing ease, and somehow lets you have fun watching it, too.

Rose: What’s the emergency?
The Doctor: It’s mauve!
Rose: Mauve?
The Doctor: Universally recognized code for danger!
Rose: What happened to red?
The Doctor: That’s just humans.  By everyone else’s standards, red’s camp.  Oh, the misunderstandings!  All those red alerts, all that dancing.

The Doctor and Rose follow a mysterious ship flying erratically through time until it lands somewhere in London during the Blitz.   While Rose gets distracted, the Doctor is given a tremendous surprise: the telephone on the back of the TARDIS rings.  This is unusual, given that it isn't hooked up to anything and isn't actually a phone.

On the other end is the sound of a child calling for his "mummy."  Eventually, the Doctor runs into this child -- deformed, with a gas mask fused to its face, and unable to ask for anything else.  He also runs into a young woman named Nancy, a kindly girl who helps orphans and abandoned kids by stealing food from families hiding in the cellars during bombing raids... and who turns out to be the Empty Child's sister.
Meanwhile, Rose has been carried far away when she sees the child up on a rooftop, and tries to climb a conveniently hanging rope to help him.  The rope turns out to be attached to a blimp, and she is carried away over London into the air battle.
Pictured: Not one of the Doctor's brightest companions.

Coming from most of the other companions, this would be obnoxiously dumb, but from Rose, who tends to be all heart and no brain, it's actually sort of endearing.  It's also spectacular, imaginative, and leads to her meeting the ridiculously charming Jack Harkness who, like them, is most definitely not from 1941.

He's also a time-traveler, but with a rather different purpose: he's a conman.  Assuming the Doctor and Rose to be Time Agents, he tries to sell them the ship from the beginning, not realizing that it was that ship that somehow created the Child.

And as the Doctor soon discovers, it's not just the one child.  He speaks with one Dr. Constantine, who tells him the depth of the horror.

Constantine is a masterpiece of writing and acting -- he only really gets one scene, but in just a few minutes, Moffat fleshes him out to a vivid character, and Richard Wilson adds even more.

He explains that the disease is spread by touch, and that hundreds of people have it.  Then, he starts coughing, and asking for his mummy, and then a gas mask comes up his throat, out of his mouth, and becomes his face.

Things, in short, are ominous.

For all its literal and thematic darkness, Moffat's script is brimming with humor.  RTD is good with dialogue, but Moffat is brilliant:
The Doctor: One day, just one day, maybe, I’m going to meet somebody who gets the whole “don’t wander off” thing.
The Doctor: I’m looking for a blonde in a Union Jack.  A specific one, mind you, I didn’t just wake up this morning with a craving.

The Doctor: You’re sick.
Dr Constantine: Dying, I should think.  I just haven’t been able to find the time.
Rose: You used to be a time agent, you ‘re some kind of a freelancer?
Jack: Oh, that’s a little harsh.  I like to think of myself as a criminal.
Jack: We’re discussing business.
Rose: This isn’t business.  This is champagne.
Jack: I try never to discuss business with a clear head.
Nancy: How’d you follow me here?
The Doctor: I’m good at followin’, me.  Got the nose for it!
Nancy: People can’t usually follow me if I don’t want them to.
The Doctor: My nose has special powers.
Nancy: Oh?  Is that why it’s so…
The Doctor: What?
Nancy: Nothin.
The Doctor: What?
Nancy: Nothin’.  Do your ears have special powers, too?
Jack: Who looks at a screwdriver and says, ooh, this could be a little more sonic?
Doctor: What, you’ve never been bored?  Never had a long night?  Never had a lot of cabinets to put up?
Rose: Okay, so he vanished into thin air.  Why is it always the great-looking ones who do that?
Doctor: I’m trying my best not to be insulted.
Rose: I mean… “men.”
Doctor: Okay, thanks!  That really helps!
Doctor: Why do you trust him?
Rose: He saved my life.  Bloke-wise, that’s up there with flossing.

Moffat writes the Ninth Doctor better than anyone else.  He has the torment and everything, but on top of that is the humor and the intelligence in far greater quantities than before.  And Eccleston takes what he's given and knocks it clear out of the ballpark.  This is his Doctor at his best.

His Rose is every bit as perfect -- dumb but not obnoxiously so; good-natured; funny; and clever enough to overcome her lack of intelligence; Piper, given a much lighter role than the previous episode, is every bit as good.  Jack is an inspired creation.  He's the Charming Rogue done superbly, and played with tremendous charisma by John Barrowman.  Finally, there's Nancy.  Florance Hoath plays her as vulnerable but very tough, and full of wit and cleverness.  The way she gets out of being caught stealing someone's food is great, but far, far better is her escape from a seemingly inescapable situation near the end.  Every scene adds something more to her.

The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances are beautifully shot and directed.  James Hawes balances the humor, horror, character, and spectacle perfectly.

But the final power comes with the conclusion.  The climax is great; by this point, there seems to be no possible way to stop these creatures; they'll easily consume the entire human race.  But the Doctor truly does come to the rescue; while he prepares for a tragic ending, he, for once in this season, solves the story with intelligence and out of his own character.

It's a deeply emotional sequence, as the Doctor pleads with the universe itself to give him one day that doesn't end in tears.  And with it, the story ends brilliantly.  This isn't just the finest story of the season; it's one of the best stories in the entire 50-year history of Doctor Who, where every element is perfect: character, atmosphere, imagination, intelligence, and emotion.

And don't worry.  Moffat won't come to create new nightmares for, like six episodes.


* * * *


  • "I'm really glad that worked.  Those would have been terrible last words."  The Doctor's solution to the cliffhanger is a piece of brilliance, but he's right, of course.  Almost as bad as "Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice."

No comments:

Post a Comment