The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances ★★★★★

"Are you my mummy?" Steven Moffat's first Doctor Who script is packed with scalp-crawling scares and grown-up themes

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Story 164 

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Series 1 – Episodes 9 & 10

“All that weapons tech in the hands of an hysterical four-year-old, looking for his mummy. And now there’s an army of them” – the Doctor

Storyline
The Doctor and Rose pursue a cylindrical object to the Blitz-torn London of 1941. While the Doctor finds homeless children terrorised by a boy wearing a gas mask, Rose is saved from certain death by Captain Jack Harkness, a time agent from the 51st century. The Doctor is led to a hospital full of inert patients, all apparently wearing gas masks and with the same injuries as the boy. Is it an infection, and if so, how can it be cured?

First UK transmission
Saturday 21 May 2005
Saturday 28 May 2005

Production
Location: January 2005 at Cardiff Royal Infirmary; Headlands School, Penarth; RAF St Athan aircraft hangar; Vale of Glamorgan Railway Ltd, Barry Island; Bargoed Street, Grangetown. February 2005 at Glamorgan House, Cardiff.
Studio: December 2004–February 2005 at Unit Q2, Newport.

Cast
Doctor Who – Christopher Eccleston
Rose Tyler – Billie Piper
Captain Jack Harkness – John Barrowman
Dr Constantine – Richard Wilson
Nancy – Florence Hoath
Nightclub singer – Kate Harvey
The Empty Child (Jamie) – Albert Valentine
Mrs Lloyd – Cheryl Fergison
Mr Lloyd – Damian Samuels
Algy – Robert Hands
Jim – Joseph Tremain
Ernie – Jordan Murphy
Alf – Brandon Miller
Timothy Lloyd – Luke Perry
Jenkins – Martin Hodgson
Mrs Harcourt – Vilma Hollingbery
The child’s voice – Noah Johnson
Computer voice – Dian Perry

Crew
Writer – Steven Moffat
Director – James Hawes
Designer – Edward Thomas
Incidental music – Murray Gold
Producer – Phil Collinson
Executive producers – Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner, Mal Young

RT review by Mark Braxton
In 2009, this two-part story came fifth in Doctor Who Magazine’s poll of the 200 stories that had been broadcast. Fifth! And the more I think about it, the more deserved that elevated position is.

The mix of elements is alchemical: period setting (brilliantly observed), a big-budget feel and scope, a social conscience, a thoroughly unnerving “monster”, and an unusual, no-one-dies happy ending that feels appropriate and utterly deserved.

Making his debut, lifelong fan Steven Moffat shows his total understanding of the show with a succession of scalp-crawling scares: the hidden human faces, the active typewriter with no one operating it, the tape recorder that “continues” even though the tape has ended. Three cheers, too, for director James Hawes, who maximises their effect.

It’s an elaborate story – originally Moffat made it more complicated – that pans out satisfyingly and with lots of intriguing detours. And it benefits from one of the best bits of casting of the entire season: Florence Hoath, who proved such a natural talent in the 1997 Charles Sturridge film Fairy Tale: a True Story, is outstanding here.

She completely convinces as Nancy, the mother figure to a string of Blitz urchins, and was only 20 at the time. The world-weariness to her young character tips us off that she’s been forced to grow up fast – and not just because of the supernatural/anachronistic events that befall her. As she tells Rose, “Do you think there’s anything left I couldn’t believe?” The big revelation of the Nancy/Jamie relationship is another moving example of how the programme has evolved.

And what Mat Irvine wouldn’t have given for FX technology of this kind. There’s such glee in the show’s new toybox (begone CSO!) in such bravado sequences as Rose’s nocturnal tour of London by barrage balloon. Though if anything the visuals are a little too cartoonish for the opening space chase – it always worries me that with the Tardis jerking around so crazily, its occupants would be turned to slosh.

The gas-mask transformations via seamless CGI are at once compelling and repellant. In particular, the scene where Nancy is handcuffed opposite an infected Jenkins is horribly stressful. I know I would have hated (and loved) that as a child!

The dialogue is unrelentingly good – funny, naturalistic and revealing – as you’d expect from the creator of Coupling and Press Gang. As it turned out Empty/Dances was just the springboard for one Doctor Moffat triumph after another, not to mention the ultimate prize of showrunner. But I still rate it as one of his best. In fact, one of his best pieces of work for television.

Captain Jack gets a brash, sparkly introduction befitting his character, and John Barrowman shares some enjoyably flirty scenes with Billie Piper, but his in-your-faceness is somewhat at odds with the subtlety and artistry of the story. And is the moment he rides a bomb, like Slim Pickens in Dr Strangelove, a bit of showboating too far?

Empty/Dances brims with wonder and wit, and gives Christopher Eccleston the chance to shine as an out-and-out hero, restoring zombies to life and trumping Captain Flash, just as he should. Hurrah! As for the Doctor dancing, as teased by the title of part two… well, it’s a lovely notion, having the Doctor and Rose doing a Fred-and-Ginger, but the reality is what looks like a heavily edited routine!

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Everyone remembers this for the gas masks and “Are you my mummy?” – not since “Exterminate!” has the show introduced such a resounding catchphrase. But underpinning the iconography is simply scintillating storytelling. And as we all know, it wasn’t a one-off…

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