THE EMPTY CHILD21st May
Written by Stephen Moffat.
Review and Commetary by Andrew Panero
Pity the poor schedulers on the ITV network- for the last nine weeks their schedules have been trashed by the new series of Doctor Who. This week they broadcast the first of a succession of Star Wars films and Doctor Who had been rescheduled because of the Eurovision song contest. Even so it still pulled in twice as many viewers as the British terrestrial premier of ‘The Phantom Menace.’ Testimony indeed to the staying power of the shows popularity.
More personal confirmation of this came to me yesterday as I overheard some children discussing the show whilst out shopping.
This is interesting because this particular show featured an awful lot of children in it, one of who was playing the monster this week. The themes and the horror content of this episode were definitely not childish though, some of the scariest ideas this season were to be found here, including that familiar trademark ‘body horror’ that we know so well from Who in the past.
The story begins with the Doctor and Rose in the TARDIS, pursuing a strange cylindrical object through the vortex. The object comes to land in central London during the Blitz in 1941. The Doctor believes they will probably land within a month of its crash, as the object was swaying backwards and forwards in time as it came into land.
Whilst the Doctor goes off to investigate Rose is distracted by a child calling out for its mummy. As she gets closer she can see it is a small boy whose face is obscured by a gas mask. He is standing on a bridge, on a higher level than Rose, who tries to clamber up to no avail. A rope helpfully appears and so she grabs hold and starts to climb up; what Rose fails to realise is that the rope is attached to a barrage balloon, which the child causes to take her over London in the middle of a German air raid.
Meanwhile the Doctor has discovered what era they are in and has returned to the TARDIS looking for Rose. Then the phone on the outside of the Police Box rings, something that puzzles the Doctor, for it is not a working phone. Before he can answer a strange girl appears and warns him not to answer it. When he does answer he hears the same voice that Rose heard when the child distracted her. Mystified the Doctor turns to the strange girl for an explanation, but she has already left to puzzle it out for himself.
Meanwhile Rose is continuing her dramatic aerial tour of war-torn London, she has been noticed by another time-traveller calling himself Captain Jack. Using a tractor beam he is able to rescue Rose and bring her into his cloaked space ship that is parked near Big Ben.
Rose is grateful to be rescued and bowled over by the charming Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), who it turns out is a human time-traveller from the future, masquerading as an American volunteer in the RAF. He has a variety of gizmos at his disposal, including an invisible space ship with time travel ability, tractor beams and helpful little robots called nanogenes. These last appear as a golden shower of sparks that repair Roses hand, which was sore and bruised from clinging onto the rope. He assumes Rose, who he recognises instantly as a fellow time-traveller is a Time Agent whom and he tries to barter a deal with her. He has a ‘Chula Warship’ that he would like to sell her. Rose says that she will have to consult with her ‘assistant’ i.e. the Doctor.
The Doctor has been following Nancy (Florence Hoath), the strange girl who appeared when the phone rang in the TARDIS. She acts as a big sister to a group of younger children who are homeless as a result of the war. She leads them into a family home whilst its occupants are taking shelter in a dug out in the garden, leaving their supper on the table. As the ravenous youngsters tuck into a roast dinner, Nancy keeps them under tight discipline, making sure they share the portions out equally. The Doctor suddenly appears at the head of the table, takes a couple of portions of roast pork for himself and says ‘it’s good here init, can you pass the vegetables.’
At first the children are terrified that he is a policeman, but the Doctor is soon able to win them around. He discovers they are children who were mostly evacuated at the beginning of the war, but who returned to London mostly because they failed to get on with the farmers they’d been placed with. Now they roam in gangs in London’s streets, stealing food at the risk of being hit by a bomb, with Nancy as their self-appointed big sister. The Doctor asks them about the cylinder, but before he can get an answer there is a knock at the door. The same little boy in a gas mask from earlier on has returned and is asking for his mummy. Nancy becomes very afraid at this and orders the other children to leave quickly out the back way.
The Doctor feels sorry for the child left out in the cold, to which Nancy tersely responds: “It’s not exactly a child.”
Warning the Doctor that he mustn’t let him touch her because he will ‘make you like him’ she also tells him that the child is ‘empty.’
The phone rings and just as with the TARDIS phone it turns out to be the little boy again, Nancy explains that he can do things like that. Moreover he is able to project his voice over the radio as well and a mechanical toy monkey. The Doctor is intrigued and we notice that when the child pokes its right hand into the door that it has a scar along the surface of the skin. However when he opens the front door the child is nowhere to be seen.
Nancy has likewise disappeared but the Doctor manages to find her again, stashing food in the boiler of an abandoned steam engine. She asks the Doctor how he found her, to which he tells her it’s that he has a nose for such things. Then comes the possible bad wolf reference (or some fans think) with Nancy chiding the Doctor about the size of his nose. The Doctor persuades her to take him to where the alien spaceship crashed, she reluctantly agrees. Soldiers are guarding the spaceship and many patients who’d been affected by the craft were being cared for at a nearby hospital. The Doctor is curious about why Nancy has taken it upon herself to care for all the street kids. He guesses that she must have lost someone; she tells him she lost her brother- Jamie-one night while they were out foraging for food. She blames herself for his death, which is why she has become substitute mother to all the other children.
Meanwhile Captain Jack is putting the pressure on Rose to contact her ‘partner’ about the Chula Warship. She agrees but does not know how to contact the Doctor, Jack does a ‘scan for alien tech’.
The Doctor has arrived at Albion Hospital (which you may remember from ‘The Aliens of London’). There he meets Doctor Constantine (Richard Wilson), who is in charge of a ward full of people wearing gas masks. The Doctor is astounded to find all the bodies have the same wounds on the right hand and the same ‘fusing’ of the gas mask to the skin. Doctor Constantine explains that all of these people were in contact with one patient who was the first to exhibit these symptoms and that the injuries seemed to be transmitted like a plague. Just as the Doctor is taking this in he witness such a transformation himself as Constantine suddenly asks for his mummy. As he succumbs to the ‘plague’ Constantine asks the Doctor to find Nancy, because she knows more then she is letting on. Then a gas mask grows out of his face and he slumps into the chair.
Meanwhile Nancy has returned to the house where she and the other children were earlier on. Just as she is rummaging around for more stuff to steal a small child coming into the house- it is the boy with the gasmask from earlier on, again looking for his mummy interrupts her.
Rose and Captain Jack arrive to find the Doctor pondering over the mysterious plague. Rose introduces Jack, who realises pretty quickly that the Doctor and she aren’t time-agents but freelancers like himself. He admits that the ‘Chula Warship’ is in fact an ambulance and was part of a con he was setting up.
Meanwhile Nancy has been cornered by her ‘brother’ in the house with the roast dinner, setting up the first part of a double-cliff-hanger.
The Doctor tells Rose and Jack that ‘human DNA is being rewritten by an idiot’-something is turning people into the gas mask creatures and he doesn’t know why. Just as this is sinking in the people on the beds wake up and start to come towards them, chanting ‘are you my mummy.’