“The Empty Child” – Review: Redux

Constantine: “Before this war began, I was a father and a grandfather. Now I am neither. But I’m still a doctor.”
Doctor: “Yeah. I know the feeling.”

The Empty Child

With the broadcast of “The Empty Child” fandom welcomed Steven Moffat back to the wacky world of Doctor Who after his brief foray into the arena with 1999’s Comic Relief spectacular “The Curse of Fatal Death”. In that multi-Doctor mini episode you can detect the tiniest little flavour of what this writer would bring to Who. However, despite that, I think it’s safe to say that I had not really heard a great deal about ‘The Moff’ before he was commissioned to write this two-part tale compromising of today’s episode and tomorrow’s “The Doctor Dances”. I’d watched Coupling and Press Gang without really bothering to find out who had  written them, and I’d probably seen some other work of his as well but, after watching the 90 minutes of this World War Two story unfold, I certainly went back to find out as much as I could about his back-catalogue.

Even before taking over the Executive Producer reigns from RTD, he wrote some of the finest episodes, all of which I cannot wait to re-watch during this New Who mini-marathon, and I am especially thinking of the “The Girl In The Fireplace” and “Blink” among my all-time faves. And, before I start eulogising in a moment about the quality of early Moffat episodes, remember, while Paul Cornell got a Hugo nomination for his brilliant last episode, “Father’s Day”, Stephen went on to win that gong outright for this double bill. Perhaps more than any other episode from this first, historic run of thirteen, I think that TEC set the show on a pedestal and secured its place in the schedules for years to come.

Back to the issue in hand, and everything on screen looks quite magnificent. The episode starts right in the middle of an action scene replete with what we’ve come to instantly recognise as classic Moffat dialogue (“It’s mauve and dangerous and about 30 seconds from the centre of London!”). Set over one night in 1941 during the height of the blitz, the atmosphere is pitch perfect from the smoky nightclub and the bomb shelters to the creepy hospital and terraced houses. The set designers managed to recreate an evocative and atmospheric scene throughout. Memorable moment after memorable moment gets played out before us. Sometimes visually, such as Rose’s trip suspended under a barrage balloon, wearing a union flag T-shirt during a German bombing raid. And sometimes, just via the dialogue: “Give me some Spock” Rose pleaded as she wants to see the Doctor scan for some alien tech. A request that finally got fulfilled by an unlikely source.

It may have been a little contrived in its set-up but the execution in this episode was nigh-on faultless.  The chilling “Are you my mummy?” became something of a catchphrase and tee-shirt slogan thanks to the eponymous child’s questioning in a series  of scenes of beautiful creepiness on the top of the building, through the letterbox and ultimately in Doctor Constantine’s hospital at the end. Interspersed with the creepy stuff there were moments of lightness and fun which expertly balanced one another and were a pure distillation of  everything good about Doctor Who: scares, fun, pacifism, intrigue underpinned by a reassurance that the Doctor was going to come through in the end and save the day.

As has been the trend throughout this series, there were another healthy selection of great guest stars who delighted throughout this pair of episodes. First up, Richard Wilson: it is testament to the quality of work on offer in his solitary scene towards the end of the episode, that his character and his quick demise is such a fondly remembered moment from Eccleston’s series at the helm, assuming of course, that a man’s skull being cracked and mutated in to a gas-mask-wearing zombie can be “fondly” remembered. Secondly, kudos must be given to Florence Hoath. She is seen here playing the role of Nancy, and as far as I’m concerned she stole the show. Her cool, calm and collected persona was engaging and understated throughout this half of the overall story, and as the truth of her past was revealed in “The Doctor Dances” there was a hitherto depth and emotion that became apparent. Thirdly and finally, mention should be given to the first appearance of John Barrowman’s Captain Jack, who became a stalwart of the RTD era. More on him tomorrow.

As a final footnote, it’s also worthy of note that the “Next Time” trailer that had so undermined the cliffhanger to the previous two-parter “Aliens of London” / “World War Three” had now been shifted to the end of the credits instead of at the beginning, allowing the more spoilerphobic viewers to reach for the remote control and switch over before being exposed to something ruinous. A good sign that the production team listened to the feedback of the viewers.

Highlight: Be-gasmasked children asking, “Are you my mummy?”

Lowlight: It’s nit-picky on my part but the OTT flirting between Jack and Rose was a bit much.

Talking Point: Steven Moffat’s arrival

Demon’s Run Rating: 18 out of 20

Original BBC1 Broadcast: 21st May 2005

Marathon Status: Still going strong, like Mo Farah on the first bend of a 10,000m run

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