Sunday, July 3, 2011

Harkness Rising

STORY 168: THE EMPTY CHILD PARTS 1 & 2 (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances) 

One of the big things with The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2 (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances) is the introduction of a character that, somehow, beyond what I think either writer Stephen Moffat or producer Russell T Davies might have imagined, would have a whole mythos built around him.  Said character would spawn his own spin-off, or rather, spin-offs (plural).  So far, I count three series built around our guest star: Torchwood, Torchwood: Children of Earth, and now Torchwood: Miracle Day.

Then again, if I may be allowed to digress, perhaps it isn't a surprise that Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) became a star apart from Doctor Who.  After all, few producers have been as enamored of creating spin-offs and building whole mythologies around guest characters/Companions on Doctor Who than Moffat and Davies.  Davies, for example, toyed with having Companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) get her own series, or at least series of specials (Rose Tyler: Earth Defence).  For his part, Moffat built up future character River Song (Alex Kingston) into a virtual Doctor Who icon...and even managed to make her connection to future Doctors (David Tennant and Matt Smith) into something bordering on Biblical.  He's even thrown in a  a connection to a future COMPANION for good measure.  However, that is for another time.

One gets the feeling if those two had been around in November 1963, we would have seen such shows as Ian & Barbara: The Investigators (where our former schoolteachers become detectives of the paranormal) or maybe later on such endeavours as A Day With Dodo (a program on CBBC--Children's British Broadcasting Corporation--where our dimwitted host learns all sorts of things, chief among them to speak proper English) or Brigadier: The Lost Years (detailing Lethbridge-Stewart's war experiences).  We also could have had Adric's Mad Math Mania and/or Ace's Wild.  And those are the Companions, not the guest stars. Personally, I find it amazing that River Song HASN'T had her own spin-off at this point.

Truth be told, to my memory, the only guest characters in classic Doctor Who who were even considered for their own spin-offs were theater impresario Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjamin) & Professor Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) from The Talons of Weng-Chiang.   Jago & Litefoot have gone on to a successful series of audio stories but have yet to appear on another Doctor Who episode as a team (which is a puzzle to me given how good they and The Talons of Weng-Chiang were).   HOWEVER, we have to take certain things into consideration. 

First, The Talons of Weng-Chiang is six parts long, or three complete episodes if translated to revived series timing.  Therefore, if it were done today, it would have made them virtual Companions.  Second, The Talons of Weng-Chiang is one of the best Doctor Who stories of the Fourth Doctor's era if not the entire series.  A classic story has several elements that elevate it, and in the case of Talons of Weng-Chiang, one of them was the team of Jago & Litefoot.  Third, the sheer length of Talons of Weng-Chiang allowed the audience to build affection and interest in Jago & Litefoot.  In the revived series, the fact that most non-Companions pop in and out so quickly doesn't allow for that...unless the characters pop in again on a more continuous basis.  Fourth and finally, Benjamin and Baxter worked so well together that it seemed almost natural that they continue their association post-Talons of Weng-Chiang

However, I am getting too far ahead of myself for the purposes of The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2, so now let's get back to the episode in hand. 

The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and his Companion Rose are chasing a large object that eventually crashes in London.  It takes a little while for them to realize it has crashed during the Blitz, which explains why people take little note of something dropping from the sky.  The Doctor and Rose are split up when she attempts to rescue a boy wearing a gas mask who is on the roof.  While trying to reach him, she grabs hold of a rope...tied to a barrage balloon.  Now she's hovering over London while the Luftwaffe and the RAF are fighting it out around her.  Her distinct bottom attracts the eyes of Captain Jack, whom we discover is also from the future.  She soon falls (figuratively and literally) for our dashing Captain, who has mistaken her and the Doctor as Time Agents.  A deal is tentatively struck: in exchange for money Captain Jack will lead them to this crashed object, which he says is a Chula warship.

Meanwhile, a young girl named Nancy (Florence Hoath) has been leading a group of children who've run away from their evacuated safety in the country and returned to London.  Taking advantage of the same air raid that caused Rose to inadvertently take flight, she raids a home for their food, bringing in her charges...only to find the Doctor too has popped up at the dinner table.  However, there is one more guest trying to get in: the little boy with the gas mask who keeps asking, "Are you my mummy?"  Nancy gets all the children out and tells the Doctor not to let him in and especially never to let the child touch him, otherwise he will become like the child--empty.  She knows who the child is, or was: her little brother, Jamie, killed around the same time 'a bomb that wasn't a bomb' crashed.  To get information, Nancy tells him to see the doctor at hospital.

Dr. Constantine (Richard Wilson) tells the Doctor that everyone in the hospital has the same injuries, right down to a scar on the back of the right hand.  After gaining his information, the Doctor watches in shock as Dr. Constantine slowly turns like the empty child, right down to asking, "Are you my mummy?"  Now Captain Jack and Rose have tracked the Doctor down and are stunned to find themselves surrounded by the non-dead, non-living empty humans.

Eventually, we learn that Captain Jack is a shameless con man (as well as being basically an omnisexual...or is it pansexual), and that the Chula ship Jack thought was empty was in reality an ambulance ship, carrying millions of nanogenes: tiny machines that can heal any living thing.  Unfortunately, they had never met a human before, so when they 'healed' someone they changed it into the first person they this case, a dead child wearing a gas mask.  Now there was an entire army of Empty People, and their leader now had tremendous power in his search for his mummy.  Jack appears to have abandoned them, but in truth we see he has taken the bomb about to be dropped on the ambulance spaceship to prevent it from being destroyed and spreading the plague throughout the entire world. 

We then make a shocking discovery about Nancy's true identity, but that secret turns out to heal Jamie and everyone affected by the formerly-Empty Child.  The Doctor gleefully (and maniacally) declares: "Everybody lives, Rose.  Just this once: Everybody Lives".  Now the Doctor and Rose depart, with him telling them to win the war, save the world, and not forget the welfare state.  Jack, however, appears to be doomed: he has no way of escaping from the bomb.  He is resigned to his fate, until the TARDIS comes to take him away, and at last, the Doctor dances.

It should be pointed out, though, that 'dancing' is really a euphimism for 'sex', but mercifully we are not treated to a scene of Eccleston getting it on with either Piper or Barrowman.

There are certainly within The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2 some brilliant moments courtesy of Mofatt's screenplay and James Hawes' direction.  The cliffhanger in Part 1 is one of the best moments in the revived Doctor Who (certainly one of the most terrifying) because there appears to be no way out.  The actual resolution in Part 2 is both clever and more importantly, plausible.   There is also strong patriotic overtones in The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2, such as when the Doctor makes a mini-speech about how the British, this tiny island, said 'no' to the Nazi onslaught.  "A mouse in front of a lion", he states. 

We see a good performance from Piper when she comforts Nancy about the ultimate fate of the War.  Nancy doesn't believe that there will be a future for either her or Britain.  Nancy is told by Rose that she, Rose, was born in London in about fifty years in the future, but Nancy is only perplexed--not by the fact that she's from the future, but in that Rose isn't German.  Rose tells her that in the end, Britain will win.  It is a beautiful scene between them, showing Rose's almost motherly instinct--a remarkable fact given Piper's character is only nineteen and is not a mother or close to being one.  It's a genuine credit to Piper that Rose is both so likable and tender and tough all at once. 

Although he was on screen only briefly, Wilson's Dr. Constantine showed himself as caring about his patients and wise about their predicament.  Hoath's Nancy was also a strong performance of a child herself whose secret makes for a good (though not great) twist.  She is tough but loving to her unofficial brood, courageous when facing down the owner of the house from where she's stealing food but terrified when placed close to anotehr victim of Jamie's. 

For all intents and purposes, this is John Barrowman's show.  The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2 almost appears to be a calling card to Captian Jack Harkness (or as I lovingly call him, The Intergalatic Nymphomaniac).  Barrowman keeps a fine balance between being a smooth operator and a sleazy con man.  Throughout The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2 we can never get a strong fix as to his true motivations: every time he disappears we think he's a terrible person only to find he does have something like a heart (remember, he was going to swindle the Doctor and Rose without any hint of remorse).  He is the third American/American-sounding Companion in Doctor Who (after Peri Brown and Dr. Grace Holloway), but it does lead to a question: are there Americans in the 51st Century?  As an American, that's good to know.  Yet I digress: Barrowman was good, but I would argue not great.  A couple of times in The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2 (specifically Part 2) he appeared a bit flat.  When he says he was not responsible for what happened to the patients, I didn't believe him.  Not that I thought Jack really wanted to do harm, but because Barrowman's delivery was oddly dull and flat. 

Some of the scenes were filmed with an intensity that would make it a fine feature.  Almost every appearance of the empty child is creepy (although at times the angles and speed of the film did make it a little too much to bear, but a minor flaw). 

Here is where I'm going to take some issues with The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2.  First, while the truth about Nancy's identity is a good twist, why would Jamie suspect she wasn't his sister but his mother?  It does provide the answer to his question, "Are you my mummy?" but given that I figure for all his life he either had a mother-figure or Nancy-as-sister why would he ask now if she was in fact, his mother?  That's perhaps one of my biggest beefs with The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2: why now, what would have prompted him to see someone (or someone else) as his mother whom he'd I figure never suspect to be his mother? 

True: I wasn't thrilled with all the 'dancing' talk being a substitute for 'sex'--I really don't care about the Doctor's romps...or Captain Jack's for that matter.  Yes, Barrowman is handsome in a taller Tom Cruise-clone way, but the idea that nearly every being was powerless to resist his advances is a bit hard to believe.  All this sex talk, specifically in regards to homosexuality, got a bit silly--what purpose was there to suggest that it was Mr. Lloyd rather than Mrs. Lloyd who was 'messing around' with the butcher (and thus, giving the Lloyds more meat than rations would allow)?  Same goes for suggesting that Captain Jack and a British army captain were also "more than friends". Maybe it was for shock value, maybe it was to show us that there were gays before Stonewall, maybe it was to hammer a subtle point about gay equality.  Point is, I don't know and frankly don't care about people's sex lives and don't see how any of it is relevant to the plot.

I also wasn't so thrilled when the Doctor advised the British to "don't forget the welfare state".  Again and again, I am distressed whenever political views are injected into Doctor Who.  I really can't recall such stories as The Tomb of the Cybermen, The Sea Devils, The Talons of Weng-Chiang or The Caves of Androzani being so blatantly political.  Yes, some great stories (Doctor Who and the Silurians for example) could have social undertones, but there's the operative word--undertones (emphasis mine).  A great science-fiction story which is also an allegory works when you can see the story in two levels.  When it is nakedly before us (as with Aliens of London Parts 1 & 2) it doesn't work because it takes me out of the fantasy element of the story and just serves to remind me of the author/producer's viewpoint.  He/she is perfectly free to have whatever views one wishes--just don't throw them at me and expect me to be pleased.  This is a personal thing with me: I hate being lectured when watching a film/story (even when I agree with their views). 

Overall, I found Part 2 (The Doctor Dances) to be a bit slow, like the action grinding down, a bit sluggish in the middle of the story.  I found the same with Part 2 of Aliens of London (World War III), so I think that it is a bit hard to keep the momentum for a two-part story in the revived series.  However, I could be proven wrong, so we shall see. 

There are certain Doctor Who stories that you can watch again and again and still find thrilling (The Aztecs, The Five Doctors, The Curse of Fenric, The Unquiet Dead).  There are some that you watch once and you simply don't want to see again (Timelash, Time-Flight, The Leasure Hive).  And then there are some that the first time you see them, you think they are brilliant, but when you see them again the enthusiasm drops.  The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2 falls in this category.  When I saw them premiere, I was wildly enthusiastic about them.  Seeing them again, I wasn't as excited as I'd been the first time: Part 2 especially seemed a bit slow and the twist not as convincing (while it can be argued that it's because I already knew the twist, my counter-argument is that I already knew the twist in The Curse of Fenric but I still end up so surprised because I am so caught up in the story). 

If I gave individual episodes grades, The Empty Child would get a 7 and The Doctor Dances a 4.  Since I count it as one story, my decision is...


Next Story: Boom Town

Bet it's not the first time he's had something big between his legs!

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