Sunday, May 22, 2005

Doctor Who - The Empty Child

After the intense emotional wrangling of Father's Day, The Empty Child had a lot riding on it. As each episode of this new Doctor Who series seems to top the earlier ones, so the pressure is mounting for the series to deliver, and with this week's episode, the terror factor was turned up to the fore. If earlier, the series seemed to be playing to a childish denominator with farting aliens, burping wheelie bins and jokes about Michael Jackson, this now seems to be well behind us as the show ventures into a story which touches on a number of common horror elements. There's the horror of War of course, in this case the Second World War as we are in 1941, in the middle of the blitzing of London by the Germans. Then we have a spooky child who seems to be everywhere, watching through his gas mask and plaintively calling for his mummy ... finally there's the terror of infection and the body-horror of losing ones own individuality through a virus which, well, according to the Doctor is rewriting human DNA and turning them into gasmasked zombies ... literally. As to why - well this is the first part of the story and so I suspect we have to wait for the answers. The story so far follows two main threads. First the Doctor meets up with a girl called Nancy who is using the air raids as a means of feeding the homeless children. When a family hurries to their rather ramshackle and flimsy air raid shelter (although these were usually underground in the back garden, as far from the house as possible and not a tin shed), so Nancy and the kids enter the house to feast on their uneaten meals. The Doctor joins them and starts to get a sense of what is happening. However the gas-masked child comes a-calling and Nancy warns the Doctor away, not to let the child touch him, and also reveals that it can make phones ring. When the Doctor answers all that is heard is the child calling for his mummy. This is all very eerie and unsettling stuff, especially as there are no answers forthcoming at this time. Nancy tells the Doctor about the capsule that fell a month earlier and its location - they go there to investigate and the Doctor breaks into Albion Hospital and meets the sick and aged Doctor Constantine who is able to add some more clues into the mix - that all the 'patients' are not dead, and that they all have the same injuries and gas masks fused to their faces - this is physical injury as plague ... The cameo by Richard Wilson as Constantine is brilliant and although he's not on screen for long, adds a lot of presence to the character. The other plot thread is Rose's. She is distracted in the opening moments by seeing a gas-masked child calling for his mummy and leaves the Doctor to investigate herself. Before long she is hanging from a rope under a barrage balloon in the middle of a German attack. These scenes are very impressive, with Rose swinging there over London as planes fly past, searchlights roam and explosions go off all over. However this is so totally at odds with the truth that it's dramatic license taken to the extreme. Barrage balloons were tethered with steel hawsers to the ground so that planes could not fly below them. This forced any attacking aircraft too high to be able to accurately target their bombs. The balloons themselves also acted as a distraction and a physical barrier to seeing what was below them - and as there was a blackout as well, this meant that the pilots were taking pot shots rather than anything properly targetted. However here we have rope tethers and formations of planes flying under the balloons ... Rose is rescued by hi-tek Captain Jack Harkness (through total coincidence) whom she instantly takes a shine to (although to be honest he is far more likable and fun than Mickey or Adam) He seems to think she's a time agent and he has a deal on the table to sell her a Tula Warship he has hidden on Earth at this time. But after enjoying some Champagne and flirting on top of his space craft (which is invisible and tethered to the Big Ben clock tower), they go off searching for the Doctor as Rose claims he needs to give is okay to the deal. Bizarrely Rose seems to have developed something of an obsession with 'Spock' here, and mentions him on several occasions, as well as telling Jack that this is the Doctor's name - Mr Spock - I have no idea what that is all about or whether has been secretly watching old Star Trek episodes on board the TARDIS. Rose and Jack eventually meet up with the Doctor at Albion Hospital where, unnervingly, Constantine has just morphed into a gas-masked zombie (I would have loved to have seen the extended version of this, complete with cracking bone sounds which the BBC felt too graphic for the timeslot ... roll on the DVD extras) as he finally succombed to the same infection. Because this is now nearly the end of the episode (there seems to be no other reason for it to happen), all the zombies come alive and start shambling towards the Doctor, Rose and Jack calling for their mummy ... At the same time, Nancy is trapped in the house by the gas-masked boy who approaches her ... And the credits run ... and there is no 'Next Episode' preview. At least not crashing in and ruining the effectiveness of the cliffhanger. I have no idea whether this was changed due to the adverse reaction the 'Next Week' trailer had after the end of Aliens of London, but I'd like to think that in some way the Doctor Who Production Office had listened to the concerns expressed and took appropriate action. Bravo whichever way it was because this way we get the great cliff hanger, there is also a preview of next week, but before it an announcer warning to look away ... best of all worlds. The Empty Child was a brilliant episode. A terrifying slice of Doctor Who which touched on many fears, and which was in places genuinely unnerving and spooky. Captain Jack Harkness seems an interesting new character and the interplay between him and Rose was well done. Likewise the relationship between the Doctor and Nancy was nicely drawn, and the understanding/realisation that the child is/was her young brother added much to understanding her actions. On the negative side, there do seem to be a lot of plot coincidences - getting Rose flying from a barrage balloon being one, Jack seeing and rescuing her, Nancy finding the Doctor early on (and vanishing afterwards), and the Doctor being able to follow her anywhere ... also some of the wartime trappings - there would have been a lights out ban, so Jack would not have been at a lit window to see Rose in the first place, the clock tower's time did not change while Jack and Rose were talking (and they seemed to be there for some time) but the clock was not turned off during the War, only the lights were extinguished ... lots of small things, none of which detract from the overall impressive nature of the piece, but which in part niggle slightly. Maybe some of these will be covered off next week ... The Empty Child scores very high again for me both as a good and engaging piece of drama and of course as an episode of this incredible smorgasboard of treats which the 2005 series of Doctor Who is turning out to be. And of course, as luck would have it, I'm going to miss next week's episode as I'm away on a much needed break!! So I won't get to see it until mid-week after - you'll have to wait until then before I can share my thoughts on the episode.

1 comment:

The Co-ordinator said...

Whilst agreeing with most of what you say David, I did find the whole Cptain Jack thing both tedious and annoying.

As he's with us till the end of the series, I just hope that "The Doctor Dances" will develop and integrate the character further!