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Friday, May 27, 2005
Doctor Who: The Empty Child
A couple of weeks ago, I noted that "Aliens of London" was trying desperately to come up with a indelible, defining, memorable moment that would be forever burned into the hearts and minds of the new fans of Doctor Who. And while the story was full of memorable images such as aliens in Downing Street, a spacecraft hurtling over London and Big Ben destroyed by an alien ship, I'm not sure how successful the story was in creating one single, memorable, defining moment.

This week with "The Empty Child" the new Doctor Who created its first defining, memorable moment. If you saw the episode, you know what I’m talking about—the image of Doctor Constantine's face being transformed into a gas mask. It was dark, it was scary and it was exactly the type of moment that defines Doctor Who as Doctor Who. It's an image that could come right out of a 70s Robert Holmes serial in which the things that we perceive as safe and every day become horrifying, scary and potentially lethal.

It was just one of those great Doctor Who moments.

And the best part is—it was in one heck of a great Doctor Who episode.

As I said back with "Aliens of London" it's hard to judge the overall impact of the story here because it's part one of two. We have yet to see where all these events will go and how they will play out. But based on the strength of the first half, I think we're in for a treat with part two.

"The Empty Child" is probably the most slowly unfolding of any of the new Who stories to date. It's slow to unfold, keeping its secrets guarded. It doesn't sacrifice story for atmosphere but it does create atmosphere in droves. It's interesting that the story takes place at night. In many ways, it's like a nightmare slowly unfolding on screen. Taken against the backdrop of London in World War II, the story slowly reveals its secrets, taking time to allow the Doctor piece things together himself. We also get to have some time to get to develop Rose a bit and learn some of the background of Captain Jack. And yet, there was never a moment where I wanted the story to speed up. The tension built well over the 41 minutes of screen time, building to a cliffhanger that left me wanting to know how they got out of it and to wonder just where the story would go next.

In short, "The Empty Child" felt solidly like some of the classic stories of the original Doctor Who in all the right ways. Those stories were built on creating characters and a strong sense of atmosphere. "The Empty Child" felt the most Robert Holmes-like of any of the new Who stories to date—even "Rose" which was little more than an homage to Holmes’ great "Spearhead from Space."

The story had an almost mesmerizing like quality to it. It had the quality of a bad dream, slowly developing a sense of tension and dread, yet the feeling that you just couldn’t look away from the screen.

It's easily the best episode since "Dalek" and it's in the running for the best of the season in my mind. After "Dalek" I thought there was no way the new Doctor Who could top itself. But with "The Empty Child" it may have done that—not by being new-fangled, but by dwelling on what it was that made the original Who so great. Of course, I am reserving my final judgment on this until I see the second half of the story. It could all be great set-up without the payoff we all want or deserve. But based on the strength of what we got here, I'm hopeful for how part two will unfold.

Part of what made it successful was the world building. Again, I think that being two parts helped because it allowed the story to slow down and set up the environment and the historical setting. Seeing the Doctor slowly figure out when he and Rose have landed was nicely done. To see Rose hanging by a thread over the German blitz was nice and to establish the character and back story for Captain Jack was a nice touch. It's a story that dolls out information in unexpected ways—such as the revelation that it was the girl who was getting food for all the street children in London's brother who had died right after the crash of the alien spacecraft to the establishing of the idea that everyone infected by whatever turned our face into a gas mask had the same cut on their hand and the same symptoms. The phones ringing at various places—including the TARDIS phone—was also a nice touch. It helped create the feeling that you could run but you couldn't hide. At first, it was a mystery that slowly built into a scary, tension filled point, leading to the Doctor and Rose surrounded by the infected and the Doctor admonishing everyone to not let them be touched.

Certainly by having it be two parts, we get a chance for the story to take a breath, take its time and create something unique. And the cliffhanger did what a good one should do—left us wanting more and eager to see how the story continued to unfold. The build up to it felt natural and it was a well-place one. It never felt like it was out of left field or forced onto the story by time constraints as can be the case in some of the classic Who serials.

In short, "The Empty Child" is the most Robert Holmes-like story of the new series. It’s dark, it’s atmospheric, it’s scary and it’s damn entertaining. I can't wait to see how things conclude with "The Doctor Dances."

And kudos to the BBC for not airing the scenes from next week until after the closing credits and with a SPOILER warning.

posted by Michael Hickerson at 5/27/2005 09:33:00 AM | |
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