Sunday, July 24, 2011

Doctor Who Story 025: The Gunfighters


Don't Shoot, I'm The Doctor...

Talk about Cowboys & Aliens.

The four-part story collectively known as The Gunfighters isn't the first time Doctor Who has ventured into the past.  It is, however, the first time the Doctor has ventured onto American soil, specifically into the Old West (and curiously, he would not return to the American West until Day of the Moon Parts 1 & 2, some forty-five years later).  The Gunfighters has the honor of being the last Doctor Who story to have individual titles for each episode within the story (the next story, the now-lost four-part The Savages, had Part 1, Part 2, etc., a tradition that remained throughout the classic series but was abandoned in the revived series with one exception as of the time of this writing: the final David Tennant story being called The End of Time Parts 1 & 2).  It was, as they say, a good try, a good effort for something different, something new.  However, The Gunfighters almost from the get-go is just a bad, bad story altogether that it almost ends up a shame that it has survived while others are now Lost In Time. 

The Doctor (William Hartnell), and his Companions Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane) and Steven Taylor (Peter Purves) have landed in the Wild West right before the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  The Doctor is in desperate need of a dentist owning to a toothache caused by some candy left over from The Celestial Toymaker.  As it so happens, Tombstone does have a dentist, one Doc Holliday (Anthony Jacobs), who treats the Doctor for free (being his first patient and all).  The Doctor, Dodo, and Steven tell the law authorities, one Sheriff Wyatt Earp (Victor Carin) and Marshall Bat Masterson (Richard Beale) that they are travelling performers: cowboy singer Steven Regret with Dodo as the piano player and the Doctor as Doctor Caligari.  The Clanton Brothers/gang, having arrived in Tombstone, mistake The Doctor for Doc Holliday. 

At first Doc uses this as a way out, but his girlfriend, Last Chance Saloon dance-hall girl Kate Fisher (Sheena Marshe) helps the Doctor escape by getting the gang to think he IS Doc Holliday (which affords the Doctor the protection of jail and Doc a chance to escape).  However, the Clantons have Steven as a hostage and Doc has Dodo as a hostage as well.  Enter into the mix the master bandit Johnny Ringo (Laurence Payne), who has joined forces with the Clantons to settle his own score with Holliday.  After nearly lynching Steven and Dodo getting Doc to return her (and himself) to Tombstone, the fabled Gunfight at the O.K. Corral takes place.  Once all the shooting is done, the travellers leave the Wild West for another adventure.

In the four episodes for The Gunfighters (A Holiday for The Doctor, Don't Shoot the Pianist, Johnny Ringo, and The O.K. Corral), we are treated to many things, none of them good.  Let me start with perhaps one of the worst things in The Gunfighters (if not the whole of Doctor Who): The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon.

I figure writer Donald Cotton was inspired by the 1952 film High Noon when he came up with The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon.  Like in the classic Western, the song plays throughout all four episodes of The Gunfighters.  HOWEVER, what neither Cotton or director Rex Tucker (who both co-wrote the lyrics with the music by Tristam Cary) understood is that Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling was used sparingly in High Noon, while The Last Chance Saloon was played incessantly.  I don't know if anyone else has gone through the trouble of counting the number of times The Last Chance Saloon was played in The Gunfighters, but I did.  The number I counted was...drum roll please...THIRTY-FOUR.  That's right: The Last Chance Saloon was sung 34 times over the course of an hour and forty minutes.  Breaking it down, that would mean hearing the song an average of once every THREE MINUTES.  How people with any kind of experience failed to understand that hearing the same song every three minutes would drive audiences crazy I simply don't understand.   I can even break it down for you by episodes:

A Holiday For The Doctor: Ten Times
Don't Shoot The Pianist: Eight
Johnny Ringo: Eight
The O.K. Corral: Eight

In Episode Two, Steven complains to the Clanton Gang, "Come on, we've sung it four times already".  If he thought it was bad having to sing it four times in a row, imagine how dreadful it was having to listen to it thirty-FOUR times over. 

Even if The Last Chance Saloon were as good as Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling (which, sad to say, it is not), the excessive repetition could be forgiven.  What can't be forgiven are the lyrics never being set to the actual story.  Let me explain what I mean by that.  The themes to High Noon and The Gunfighters basically tell the story we're about to see.  The difference is that Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling works both for the film and as a ballad independent of the film.  You can sing the High Noon theme to someone who has never seen the film and understand the story.  With The Last Chance Saloon, lyrics are added to tell you what you've just seen.  Thus, the song grows longer and can only work within The Gunfighters itself.  We see just how wildly wrong this is in Episode Three.  Here, poor Charlie the bartender (David Graham) has been gunned down by villain Johnny Ringo.  As soon as he drops, we hear "So it's curtains for Charlie...", lyrics that had not been heard until now, and which sadly, will only have someone watching start to laugh. 

We have a character murdered in cold blood, and then you hear a song?  It all but demands that you laugh.  Putting a cap on the idiocy of this is the scene right after Charlie kicks the bucket (to put in in good American lingo).  The Doctor and Steven walk down from their rooms at the Last Chance Saloon and up to the bar.  Any sensible person would see from the staircase a corpse lying on the bar, but incredibly, both the Doctor and Steven are completely oblivious to poor Charlie even after they get to the bar, until they turn around and...oh, Charlie's dead.  If you aren't still laughing from hearing the new lyrics to The Last Chance Saloon, you'll definitely laugh at how unaware our heroes are to a dead man right next to them.  In short, the song is making the story more funny, as if the story itself didn't do a good enough job of that. 

Let's move on to something else that goes so wrong with this story.  The Gunfighters may be the first Western in history to have Cockney Cowboys.  It is obvious from the first moments we see the Clanton Brothers that they are not American because they sound so British.  An American would quickly pick up that these cowpokes are as authentic as a three-dollar bill and more likely to say "Cherrio" than "Howdy".  I reckon them boys ain't from around these here parts.  I imagine the British could easily tell all the 'Americans' were having an especially hard time sounding like actual Americans.  Accents aren't easy because you are asking someone to shift their natural sound to something foreign, and in The Gunfighters no matter how they try they can't get it right.  I'd qualify David Cole's Billy Clanton as the worst-sounding of the lot.  To slightly digress, Phin Clanton (Maurice Good) had a stutter throughout the story, and I figure it was done for comedic effect, but I never buy it when people have stutters as a way to have us laugh.  Not only does it ridicule people who do struggle with stuttering (paging His Majesty King George VI) but it adds nothing to the story.

I digress to point out that The Gunfighters is not historically accurate in a myriad of ways. mostly dealing with the fact that the actual Fight at the O.K. Corral didn't actually take place at the O.K. Corral but near it.  Granted, The Gunfighters was really more of a lark, a story that mirrored the image of the American West as opposed to the historical American West, but given how in other history stories (The Aztecs or Marco Polo) the production team went to great efforts to make it as historically accurate as possible, it's a puzzle as to why The Gunfighters was not accorded that same honor.  Yet I digress.

The actual performances, barring the weak accents, are not bad.  Special mention should be made of Jacobs' Doc Holliday--he got the Southern gentleman quality to the character (which was historically accurate).  Marshe's Fisher was also in the vein of the "hooker with a heart of gold", and she looked like she was having a good time. 

Unfortunately, the leads suffered the most in The Gunfighters.  Hartnell was oddly not an important factor in The Gunfighters, not having an important role in resolving the situation they were involved in.  Even worse was the 'comedic touch' of having the Doctor mispronounce Wyatt Earp's name as "Mr. Werp".  Maybe they thought it was funny.  It only ended up being annoying.

Lane's Dodo was still a blundering idiot (her running into the gunfight reminiscent of Grace Kelly doing the same in High Noon but with the effect of us questioning her intelligence) and worse, she was still hopelessly chipper despite the danger she faced.  Purves had nothing to do (except sing that awful song) and worse, didn't appear to think to avoid the Clanton Brothers.  Even worse, he was saddled (no pun intended) with one of the worst costumes in the First Doctor franchise: a star-studded ensemble that country performers known for their outfits (a Porter Wagoner or Little Jimmy Dickens) would reject as far too gaudy.  If you don't know what their outfits look like (some of our readers not aware of American country music), as we say in Texas, take a gander at this:

Porter Wagoner: 1927-2007

Now, imagine something even MORE flamboyant and you'll get an idea of what Steven Regret wore (at least now we know how he got his name). 

As it stands, The Gunfighters has the reputation of ending Doctor Who's historical adventures.  This is not entirely true; we had exactly three further adventures in the past after The Gunfighters: the First Doctor story The Smugglers, the Second Doctor story The Highlanders (which introduced Companion Jamie McCrimmon) but then we had a long wait for another purely historic story until the Fifth Doctor story Black Orchid.  After that, no more purely historic stories. 

Any other story that takes place in the past now is more in the vein of The Time Meddler (science-fiction elements in a historic setting): going from the Fourth Doctor stories The Masque of Mandragora and The Talons of Weng-Chiang through the Fifth Doctor's The King's Demons, the Sixth Doctor adventure The Mark of the Rani, the Seventh Doctor's The Curse of Fenric right on through the Ninth Doctor's The Unquiet Dead, the Tenth Doctor's Tooth & Claw or The Shakespeare Code and up to the Eleventh Doctor's Victory of the Daleks, The Vampires of Venice, Vincent & The Doctor, and up to The Curse of the Black Spot.  (I know I left out a few, but I wasn't aiming for a catalogue of all pseudo-historic Doctor Who stories.  Rather, I was attempting to show every Doctor had at least one story set in the past but not involving the past).  Now, the Doctor no longer is witness to history or affects it: rather, anytime he is in the past it is because something alien is involved. 

The Gunfighters, in that sense, made history of the historic stories.  This is a terrible shame, and the idea that there can't be good historic stories is a myth plain and simple.  There are many good historic stories that in reality are some of the best First Doctor stories and strong Doctor Who stories overall.  However, because The Gunfighters was such a disaster, purely historic stories have never recovered and now are held in disdain. 

The next story, The Savages, sadly, no longer exists save for a few clips.  Those mostly involve the parting of Companion Steven Taylor, meaning that in the story after that (The War Machines) it's just the Doctor and Dodo when we begin our next adventure.

In the end, The Gunfighters is just a massive misfire and as painful as a root canal.


Next Available Story: The War Machines

Wonder why THIS didn't appear in The Gunfighters. Not a pretty picture, ain't it?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Don't You Forget About Me

STORY 218: DAY OF THE MOON (The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon)
I can't remember a time when Doctor Who opened with a two-parter (certainly in the revived series), so Day of the Moon may be a unique moment.  It already is historic in that it's the first time a Doctor Who story was filmed in the United States (though technically speaking, the First Doctor story The Gunfighters was the first one to actually take place in the U.S.--Tombstone, Arizona to be exact while Doctor Who: The Movie aka The Enemy Within, set in San Francisco, California it was actually filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia).  For the longest time I approached Day of the Moon Parts 1 & 2 with great trepidation.  I can't give a specific reason as to why I was so afraid of this two-part story.  It might be because it is a two-part story.  It might be because now we must contend with River Song (Alex Kingston) becoming a Doctor Who icon (whether I want her to be or think she should be or not).  It might be because of all I've read about what the story is about.  Well, I must now overcome my fear, and face Series/Season Six of Doctor Who.

First, a brief housekeeping detail.  I've opted to name the two-parter Day of the Moon because to call it The Impossible Astronaut Parts 1 & 2 might lead to confusing it with another two-part story: The Impossible Planet Parts 1 & 2 (The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit) emphasis mine.  Since I refer to the former by one title, and that title is The Impossible Planet, having another story called The Impossible This-That-Or-The-Other would be a bit chaotic in my view.  Therefore, Day of the Moon it is.

Amy Pond-Williams (Karen Gillan), her husband Rory (Arthur Danvill) and the Legendary Legend of Legendness, Dr. River Song (Alex Kingston) have all received invitations to meet up with The Doctor (Matt Smith).  They meet up in the American West, where after a lovely picnic a figure dressed as an astronaut rises from the waters.  This figure, recognized by The Doctor, shoots him twice.  The Doctor begins to regenerate, but another shot stops him cold...literally.  The Doctor, the Last of the Time Lords, is dead.  If that isn't enough, another strange figure comes upon them.  This is Canton Delaware III (William Morgan Sheppard).  He too has received an invitation, specifically Invitation #4.  The Williams have Invitation #3, River has #2, so who has Invitation #1?  Wouldn't you know it...Who has Invite #1. 

Actually, a younger version of The Doctor, fully alive and fully jolly to see his old friends again, unaware that his older self (who still looks like his younger self) has just died (and gotten a Viking funeral sans helmet with horns).   The Doctor is reluctant to join them on some mysterious errand by some mysterious figure, but Amy convinces him to trust her.  With that, it's off to 1969.  They arrive in the Oval Office, where President Nixon (Stuart Milligan) and a younger Canton Delaware (Mark Sheppard--William's real-life son).  The President has been receiving strange phone calls on his direct line.  The voice is that of a child, asking for help because 'the space man' is after her.  The group, along with Delaware, go to Cape Kennedy and all make contact with The SilenceThe Silence is an alien group that has lived on Earth for as long as humans have been here, but whom humanity is not aware of because as soon as you turn away from them, you forget they are there.   While being pursued and pursuing The Silence Amy tells the Doctor she is pregnant.  A figure dressed in an astronaut suit appears, and Amy fires, not realizing until she shoots that inside is...a little girl. 

Day of the Moon: We jump forward to where Delaware is pursing all of the travellers.  He shoots Amy in Utah, River in New York City, and Rory in Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona.  It does look like Delaware is hunting them down, especially since The Doctor is locked up at Area 51, but it's all a rouse.  The Doctor now realizes that The Silence are an occupying force, so there must be a revolution against this enemy that people cannot remember.  The Doctor hits upon a brilliant idea--all tied to the Moon Landing on July 20, 1969 (Happy 42th Anniversary, by the way).  One of The Silence has been captured and taken to the special prison formerly for The Doctor at Area 51, and with Richard Nixon's help (being Commander-In-Chief has its privileges), and the worldwide attention of Neil Armstrong's historic first step, The Silence unwittingly aid in their own destruction.   Now President Nixon is asked to help Agent Delaware by allowing him to marry the...person...he loves (and yes, black), River and The Doctor share an intimate moment (much to his surprise), and the Williams rest sure in their own love.  We end Day of the Moon Parts 1 & 2 with the most extraordinary sight...a little girl in New York City six months after (making it January 1970) begins to regenerate...

Perhaps it's just bad timing, but I had the (mis)fortune to watch Day of the Moon Parts 1 & 2 AFTER watching Transformers: Dark of the Moon even though the latter premiered AFTER the former (Transformers III on June 28, 2011 and Day of the Moon Part 1 on April 23, 2011).  Therefore, the fact that both stories revolve around the Lunar Landing is just bad coincidence.  That, however, can't escape my flashing back to other stories while watching the Steven Moffat-penned two-parter. 

Part 2 involves markings on the Companion's skin that will help them remember when they've encountered The SilenceMemento, anyone?  Actually, in retrospect the strange markings on their bodies was reminiscent of oddly enough, The Impossible Planet Parts 1 & 2 (The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit). The Doctor is sealed in an impregnable (no pun intended) River Song might ask, have we done that yet?  Oh, yes...The Big Bang Part 1 (The Pandorica Opens), which was written by...Steven Moffat.  River Song comments how her timeline and The Doctor's are going in opposite directions--by the time he meets her he knew her less and less.  Has this now turned into The Curious Case of River Song Button?  Finally, a child calls for help.  Empty Child Parts 1 & 2 redux? I leave it up to the viewer as to whether or not these same thoughts entered his/her mind while watching, but I couldn't shake them from mine while watching Day of the Moon Parts 1 & 2.

You may have noticed that I have been particular about how I write the villain's name.  I think this is because there is an attempt to convince me that The Silence is perhaps on an equal level with the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Master, or the Weeping Angels as these giants of Doctor Who monsters.  That would be pretty high billing for any monsters from the revived series, especially on their debut (and apparently farewell) story.  The Silence were good, even possibly great monsters--perfectly capable of sending small children behind the sofa.  However, there's just something within me that rebels against being all but ordered to accept any new character/species as ICONIC from the get-go (which is why I have never warmed up to River Song--however, given that Moffat created her that might account for his push to make her a nearly-mythic Doctor Who character.  Granted, I have yet to see Forest of the Dead Parts 1 & 2.  For reasons too long to go into, I'll just say that between Love & Monsters and The Waters of Mars I boycotted Doctor Who.  To reveal more would be like Song says, "Spoilers", but I digress).  With that in mind, I take a slightly mockingly reverential tone towards The Silence, but that isn't to say they weren't effective.

Far from it: The Silence looked terrifying (a tremendous compliment to the make-up department) and the fact that these villains are forgettable (in a roundabout way) is simply a brilliant idea.  Still, I am at a loss to understand why there's this idea that The Silence are one of if not the most terrifying monsters ever on Doctor Who.  Really?  More terrifying than the Daleks?  The Master?  The Black Guardian?  I beg to differ.  The Silence are yes, a clever idea, and yes, well done.  But the most terrifying?  Of all time?  I don't know if they'd make it high on my list of Doctor Who monsters (or on it at all), but no, they wouldn't make it in the Top Ten.  Sorry.

Another brilliant moment is when our perceptions about Agent Delaware in Part 2 are completely spun around.  How The Doctor is able to defeat The Silence is good, even clever (although again, my mind wandered a bit into the end of the film A Face In the Crowd where the main character's destruction was aided by it being televised).

Another plus is the Space Man rising from the waters and going down again.  Toby Haynes not only got the visuals down so well (the terror in the NASA warehouse to the open spaces of Utah) but directed some wonderful performances out of both regulars and guests.  Gillan's heartbreak at seeing the Death of Doctor Who (does that sound familiar to Whovians, I wonder) is so beautiful.  The younger Sheppard was spot-on as the strict and efficient FBI agent (I'm going to throw in some debatable points--since he travelled with the Doctor in the TARDIS, does that make Agent Delaware a Companion?  Discuss among yourselves). 

It was good to have moments of humor (when Amy, Rory and River appear in the Oval Office, the Doctor introduces them as The Legs, The Nose, and Mrs. Robinson respectively), but there were moments of bad humor (the entire opening sequence from the Restoration period to a song-and-dance with Laurel and Hardy). 

Now, however, on the whole the things that I disliked about Day of the Moon Parts 1 & 2 outweigh the things I liked.  I wasn't convinced that Milligan was Richard Nixon.  Granted, doing a successful version of President Nixon is difficult (I've always suspected that when people think of Nixon, they think of a Rich Little impersonation of Richard Nixon), but Milligan didn't sound anything like the President and barely looked like him.  Truth be told, I though Stuart Milligan looked more like Steven Moffat than Richard Nixon. 

Also, I think the entire subplot as to whom Agent Delaware wants to marry is downright bizarre.  I'm going on a limb to say that it may have to do with Moffat and Haynes and everyone else being British.  Let's put some things in perspective.  The Stonewall Riots were only a month old when Apollo 11 took off, so while it is highly likely that Agent Delaware would have been fired for "the love that dare not speak its name", not even the most progressive politician at that time would have even imagined allowing a same-sex wedding,  or even a civil ceremony.  It is highly probable that Nixon would have restored Agent Delaware to his position (maybe even allowed a secret ceremony--if any modern-day President revelled in secrecy...) but to my mind, I didn't understand why this subplot was thrown in.  Was it make a point to Moffat's American 'cousins'?

You also have some other odds and ends.  For example, there's a quick appearance by a woman with an eye-patch saying to someone off-screen something about Amy still dreaming.  Not a fan of having things barely introduced just to put them in for future reference.  Same goes for mysterious little girls (both in the space suit and pictured with Amy).  Granted, it's a nice twist, but I prefer stories that stand on their own and not just serve as trailers for future stories.  This thing about every season having to be about ONE thing (from Bad Wolf in Series One to The Crack in Time in Series Five) is off-putting to me.  Finally, the little girl at the end regenerating.  Given the dialogue, she knows how to regenerate.  How would she know that...unless she's done it before.  Again, Doctor Who is going to have to have a giant pay-off when all is revealed (not that My Mysterious Doctor portrait didn't do a good enough job of revealing too much already).

Day of the Moon Parts 1 & 2 is suppose to be about a world post-The Doctor.  He got a Viking funeral, after all.  Think of it: the Doctor...dies!  He actually dies, only to come back minutes later.  Sorry, but another movie came to mind: Back to The Future, when Doc Brown doesn't want to know his future, but somehow still manages to change it.  Wonder if the same holds true for our Gallifreyan hero.  The Doctor obviously knows who has killed him since he recognizes the face, but frankly it is too early to speculate about anything: the regenerating child, the Doctor's killer, anything involving River Song. 

Finally, I had issues with both the pre-and-post-credits in Episode One.  We start with Amy narrating an introduction as to how she and Rory ended up with The Doctor.  Was that necessary?  Have we had a Companion introduce us to how he/she ended up with the Doctor before (at least on television).  Again, was it necessary?  I also thought the tribute to Elisabeth Sladen could have been better.  Granted, I am aware they were pressed for time, but couldn't you have at least given us a full-screen in color? 

Again and again, there is goofy and there is downright idiotic.  So far Smith has kept a good balance, but now he's starting to lose it (in more ways than one).  When you hear characters ask, "Doctor who?" at least twice one wonders if the people behind the scenes are taking things seriously.   

On the whole, Day of the Moon Parts 1 & 2 was a good way to open Season/Series Six, but to my mind, it doesn't have the legendary qualities it so nakedly (pun intended) aspires to.  I have found two-part stories to be uneven: the first part is fast, exciting, and the second becomes a bit of a let-down.  Day of the Moon didn't suffer the sophomore slump (to its credit).  It isn't up there among the greats, but I thought it a good story.  However, it didn't send me over the moon.   


Next Story: The Curse of the Black Spot 

Yes, one CAN see the resemblance...

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!