Doctor Who: The Empty Child
Doctor Who: The Doctor Dances
(2 episodes, s01e09-10, 2005)
“You’ve never been bored? Never had a long night? Never had a lot of cabinets to put up?”
Rose and the Doctor are chasing a metal cylinder through space and time – they’re under mauve alert, which is apparently misunderstood by humans to be closer to red, complete with “all that dancing and misunderstanding” – before landing in London, 1941. They’re a couple of months behind the crash landing of the cylinder, and as the Doctor jimmies the lock on a door, Rose chases a kid in a gas mask who is calling for his mother.
The Doctor finds himself in a makeshift cabaret, and after the singer finishes her number – It Had to Be You – the Doctor uses the microphone to ask if anything has fallen from the sky recently. All he gets in return is laughter and an air raid siren. It is World War II after all, right in the middle of the London Blitz. Speaking of, Rose finds herself dangling from a rope under a barrage balloon, witness to a flight of bombers coming straight at her.
The Doctor returns to the TARDIS, comically telling a stray cat that one day he’ll find a companion who won’t run away. The phone in the TARDIS door rings, an event that shouldn’t happen because that phone has never worked, and he’s warned by a strange woman not to answer it. When he does, a boy’s voice asks if anyone has seen his mommy. He hangs up and pursues the woman, who he finds raiding a kitchen after the occupants have run for their bomb shelter.
On a balcony, an RAF officer named Jack uses a futuristic set of binoculars to spot Rose as she drifts through the skies of London. He notes her remarkable posterior, flirts with another soldier, and humorously rescues her with a light beam. In the house, the woman invites a group of homeless children to join her for an abandoned but warm dinner. They’re joined by the Doctor who deduces that they are homeless, however they should have been evacuated some time ago. The woman is Nancy, and she finds them food since they were all returned to London under various circumstances. The Doctor remarks that it’s either “Marxism in action or a West End musical.” When he asks about the cylinder, their dinner is interrupted by the creepy child in a gas mask looking for his mommy. Nancy tells him that the child is empty, and anyone he touches ends up just as empty. The voice – “Are you my mommy?” – penetrates the house, and the Doctor notes a scar on the boy’s hand before opening the door to reveal an empty stoop.
Rose awakens to meet Captain Jack Harkness, an American volunteer with the Number 133 Squadron RAF who also has psychic paper, nanogenes to heal Rose’s rope burn, and a cloaked ship. He believes that Rose is a fellow Time Agent and invites her for a drink and Moonlight Serenade on the top of the ship. He offers something that the Time Agency might want to buy if she has the ability to negotiate, and she suggests that they should talk to her “companion.” The item is a fully equipped Chula warship, the last of its kind, but it will be destroyed in two hours by a German bomb. Jack scans for alien tech in order to locate Rose’s companion.
The Doctor pursues Nancy to her hideout and surprises her as she unloads the tins of food she stole from the house. He makes the connection between the cylinder and the empty child: A bomb that wasn’t a bomb landed near Limehouse Green station a month before, and in order for them to bypass the soldiers guarding it, they need to go see “the doctor.” They end up near Albion Hospital, and the Doctor discovers that Nancy’s brother Jamie died in an air raid, driving her to take care of those unable to defend themselves.
The Doctor enters the hospital and finds the wards filled with people in gas masks. The doctor in question, Doctor Constantine, shows the Doctor that each victim has identical injuries to their skulls and chest cavities, and the gas masks are fused to their faces. They all have identical scars, as does Constantine, and they all came from touching the single victim of the bombing. They also are not dead, as Constantine demonstrates by rapping his cane on a pail, causing all of the bodies to sit up for a moment. Constantine offers the Doctor advice: The army plans to destroy the hospital to stop the tide of the infection, and he directs the Doctor to Room 802 before evolving into one of the masked undead.
Ye gods, that was downright creepy. Points to you, Doctor Who.
The Doctor meets Rose and Jack as they arrive at the hospital, and the Doctor finds out that Jack in conning them: He threw the cylinder at them, pursued them to London, and tried to convince them that it was valuable. Quite the cheeky and scurrilous cad, no?
Nancy returns to the abandoned house but is ambushed by the masked child, who is actually her brother Jamie. When he discovers Nancy and advances on her, the bodies in the ward also awaken and converge on the time travelers. The Doctor steps up and scolds the lot, telling them crossly to go to their rooms. He’s surprised when they retreat, glad that they weren’t his last words.
The Doctor talks to Jack about the con, which Jack remarks is a great scam for a time and place like the London Blitz or Pompeii. The Doctor notes that cylinder, which Jack claims was a burned-out medical transport, is the source of this virus. They proceed upstairs to Room 802 – Jack opens the door with his 51st-century sonic blaster, and the site of the factory where it was built is now a banana grove – to find what’s left from the first victim, Jamie.
At the all-clear signal, Nancy is captured by the family who own the house, but she talks her way out of the charges by noting how much food they have in a period of rationing, and demands wire cutters, a torch, food, and a visit to the bathroom before she leaves. She returns to her hideout to find the assembled children. They want to stay with her because she keeps them safe, but she points out that the empty child is coming after her, not them. Nancy leaves them and heads to the bombsite.
As Jamie returns to Room 802, the time traveling trio run from a horde of masked people – the banana and sonic device jokes are a hoot – before ending up in a storeroom. As the Doctor looks for a way out, Jack vanishes. He calls them from his ship using Om-Com technology, a transmission that can communicate over any speaker. The infected also use this technology and jump into the transmission, but Jack jams with Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade. The Doctor starts to work on breaking them out, asking why Rose trusts Jack so much. Rose says that Jack reminds her of the Doctor, but with more “dating and dancing.” The Doctor is offended at the notion that he doesn’t dance, and when Rose offers him the chance, he notes that her hands have been healed. They start to dance when they are transmatted to Jack’s ship, which the Doctor recognizes as a Chula spacecraft. The nanogenes heal his hand, which was burned when the TARDIS console sparked, and he asks to go to the bombsite. Jack reveals that he was once a Time Agent, but he left the Agency when they stole two years of his memories.
The bombsite’s commander, Algy, apprehends Nancy when she infiltrates the area. They lock her up next to an officer named Jenkins, who has been infected, and after they leave Nancy watches in horror as the man painfully transforms. As the time traveling trio approach the site, Jack recognizes Algy and shoots down Rose’s plan to distract the commander since she’s “not his type.” Unfortunately, Algy is in the middle of transformation, and the Doctor recognizes that the virus has gone airborne. They find Nancy, who is singing lullabies to the transformed Jenkins to keep him docile, and free her before examining the cylinder.
Jack tries to open the cylinder but trips an alarm instead. As the masked horde descend on the bombsite, the Doctor sends Rose to reassemble the barbed wire with his sonic screwdriver. Rose comforts Nancy by explaining time travel and the bright future ahead when the Allies win the war. The return as Jack opens the cylinder, and the Doctor reveals that it contained nanogenes. Programmed to heal any wound, the first thing they found was a dead child wearing a gas mask, so they used that as the template to heal everyone they could find. All of them are now hysterical four-year-olds turned powerful Chula warriors awaiting orders, ready to tear the world apart to save their mommys. Jack is suitably chagrined.
The Doctor discovers that Nancy is not Jamie’s brother, but is instead his mother. That’s the reason that he keeps chasing her, and the Doctor implores her to reveal the truth to the boy. She embraces the boy and tells him the truth, and the nanogenes use the moment to analyze her DNA and restore Jamie to his former self.
In the interim, Jack as transmatted to his ship and returns just in time to stop the incoming bomb, the Schlechter Wolf, before rocketing away. After Jack departs, the Doctor forces the nanogenes to fix everyone – “Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once, everybody lives!” – and pins the results on Doctor Constantine’s expert medical knowledge. After everyone leaves the bombsite, he sets the cylinder to self-destruct, and they return to the TARDIS. Sadly, Rose learns the truth about Jack’s fate.
As Jack races through space, he is unable to jettison the bomb before it explodes, so he settles in with a martini to meet his death. He turns to see the open doors of the TARDIS and he scrambles aboard. The Doctor welcomes him aboard, and as the TARDIS head to the next adventure, the Doctor and Rose dance through the cosmos.
This story marks the return of Steven Moffat to the franchise and his trademark pace and tropes are on full display, from the romantic angle between the main characters to his fourth-quarter twists in the story. His script was delightfully creepy and scary, and the direction and production only helped to amplify it. The twist at the end – Nancy is the mother, not the sister – is quite touching.
Captain Jack Harkness is a fan favorite, especially in our household. We’ve seen so much of John Barrowman over the years at Dragon Con – take that as you will, knowing his convention performances – so dialing back a decade or so to his first Doctor Who appearance was fun.
Finally, I simply adore how the Ninth Doctor has evolved. He wants to be analytical about this mystery, and the action pace sets him back on his heels. He virtually explodes as all the pieces come together, and his joy at being able to save everyone is both palpable and exhilarating.
Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Boom Town
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.