The Good: Charming lines, Creepy mood, Engaging plot
The Bad: Erratic special effects, Light on character development for the primary characters.
The Basics: Steven Moffat and James Hawes bring a creepy adversary and an energetic new hero to the Doctor Who universe with “The Empty Child!”
When my wife (and I) got into Doctor Who one of the things she did not know about the show was how frequently it would play to creepy or outright scary. One of the most instantly creepy episodes of the entire franchise is “The Empty Child.” “The Empty Child” is a time travel episode that puts The Doctor and Rose on Earth during World War II. Anyone who has seen “The Empty Child” is likely to instantly recognize the phrase “Are you my Mummy?” as a source of creepiness.
“The Empty Child” is a significant episode in the Doctor Who mythos and in television history as the first episode that features Captain Jack Harkness. Harkness would go on to be the protagonist of Torchwood. Played by John Barrowman, Harkness is the sexually-fluid, charming character who is able to hold his own against The Doctor and seems like the reasonable subject of a spin-off.
Latching onto an alien object when the TARDIS gets a Mauve Alert (which The Doctor informs Rose is the universal sign for emergencies), the TARDIS arrives in World War II London. Despite Rose begging The Doctor for “some Spock” (scanning for alien tech), The Doctor goes into a nightclub to find if anyone has heard a loud crash and seen an object falling from the sky. Leaving the club, while Rose tries to rescue a gas mask-clad child standing on a nearby rooftop, The Doctor is baffled when the TARDIS actually begins ringing . . . like a police box with a telephone. With Rose climbing on a rope to a German zeppelin and getting carried away, The Doctor follows a woman into another person’s house during an air raid.
Rescued by the enigmatic Captain Jack Harkness, Rose finds herself saved from almost certain death when she falls from the rope. Harkness uses a tractor beam and his computer recognizes Rose’s cell phone so it quickly becomes obvious to both people that neither is native to 1941 London. While The Doctor meets with orphans (and their benefactor) who dine in the homes of those who are forced into their shelters by the bomb sirens, Rose is charmed by Harkness. Harkness uses psychic paper (like The Doctor) and believes that Rose is a Time Agent. After Harkness heals Rose using nanobots that are thick in the air near his invisible ship, The Doctor hunts for the object that fell to Earth about a month before he and Rose arrived. Harkness claims that the object is a fallen Chula warship and he tries to negotiate with Rose for a price of the warship he salvaged. After asking about the object, The Doctor finds himself at the hospital in the presence of Doctor Constantine . . . and dozens of unconscious patients all of whom have identical injuries and gas masks fused to their faces!
“The Empty Child” is very much a British show; set in 1941 London, the episode stops dead long enough for The Doctor to express appreciation to Nancy (the young woman who is looking after the orphans and who tells The Doctor she lost a brother a month prior when the object fell from the sky) about British resilience in the face of Hitler’s advance. There is actually no real reason for The Doctor to praise how the British took a stand against Nazi Germany. While one might want to look at this as a truly revelatory moment (The Doctor is over 900 years old and of all the examples in the galaxy, he praises the British for their capacity for resistance), it is very ethnocentric; while the British have much to be praised for in terms of resilience to the Nazis, the Russians did quite a bit more.
Captain Harkness is a very cool character. In “The Empty Child,” he is characterized as a con man. Harkness admits fairly quickly that he is a con man. He is trying to sell an ambulance as a warship and when he is exposed by The Doctor, he is actually surprisingly honest.
“The Empty Child” is creepy as hell, though. The little child who wears a gas mask and coos “Are you my mummy?” is echoed by the dozens of undead people in Doctor Constantine’s office. The result, which comes after a bit of build-up with the single empty child, is terrifying. This is arguably one of the creepiest antagonists ever produced on Doctor Who.
While “The Empty Child” has wonderful performances all the way around – John Barrowman is a scene stealer as Harkness, Billie Piper has great on-screen chemistry with both him and Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor – it is fairly light on character development. This is a very plot-based episode of Doctor Who and it works very hard to build the premise of the mystery of what is going on in the streets of 1941 London. Like all wonderful mysteries that have two parts (as “The Empty Child” is the first of a two-part episode), this episode actually contains all the clues one needs to discern the cause of the medical mystery it has built. Despite all of the horror aspects to the episode, it is very much a mystery episode. It does not, however, contain any real character revelations to it. In fact, the closest we get to character development in “The Empty Child” is Rose begrudging The Doctor the fact that he never scans for alien technology when they arrive on Earth for one of their adventures.
“The Empty Child” has unfortunately erratic special effects. While the morph with Doctor Contantine near the episode’s climax is creepy and well-executed, the sequence with Rose near the beginning is actually a terrible bluescreen shot.
Ultimately, “The Empty Child” is a wonderfully horrifying episode that gives viewers chills each and every time one watches it. It’s entertaining television, but not flawless.
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete First Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sole season with the Ninth Doctor here!
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© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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