In the ninth episode of the first series of Doctor Who, our time traveling friends land in the midst of World War II in London while chasing a mysterious (and dangerous) metal cylinder through time. They discover that the cylinder is slowly transforming residents of London into the most awful creatures imaginable. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
I need to stop making superlative statements about Doctor Who because, frankly, I’ve seen just a sliver of the full story and my thoughts keep changing. Maybe I’ll just preface everything with so far.
SO FAR, I actually think the Empty Children are way creepier than anything we’ve seen yet. I don’t know why children, when utilized correctly, end up being so scary. Here, they’re much like lifeless zombies in the way they amble down corridors, through alleyways, and they are just awful.
Anyway, I suppose I should back up because quite a bit happens of interest before we ever fully get to see these…things. I don’t really know what to call them, so Empty Children will have to do.
Steven Moffat does a fine job of weaving multiple complex, mysterious storylines together in “The Empty Child,” focusing on Nancy, the Doctor, and Rose/Jack Harkness and how the three of them intersect. I like that the episode is also set in a World War, giving a sense of frantic urgency to everything that these people are doing. And what they are doing, for the most part, is trying to figure out how on earth this mysterious cylinder is turning people into this:
I know that the CGI standards and budgets for these episodes isn’t quite what we have in the US for some of our TV and I am perfectly ok with that. I loved the transformation effect because it was so jarring and weird. I figured that the cylinder was alien in origin, but what on earth would cause aliens to look like that?
Moffat spends a few moments with Nancy, an orphan girl who takes care of other homeless children by stealing food from richer people as they hide in air-raid shelters. The Doctor follows Nancy into the home of one of the families hiding in a shelter, and that’s when he learns how she helps keep these children fed. The scene where the Doctor sits down for dinner is probably going to be one of my favorite of season one; the Doctor’s silly humor works well with children and is greatly contrasted with the stoic anger of Nancy. I enjoyed that her anger wasn’t diluted, though, by making her look foolish for reacting the way she does to the Doctor. We know that the Doctor has good intentions, but how can she possibly know, especially after what’s happened in London?
I have to admit that this episode cycles through some of the most-used horror tropes around and somehow, I still liked it. There’s a mysterious knock at the door. A child wearing a gas mask is outside, asking for his mummy. (This is the same child that gets Rose in trouble, but we’ll get to that.) The child can “control” electronic devices. His voice is creepy. Sometimes we only see the child’s legs or his shadow. All familiar imagery and tropes and yet I couldn’t help feeling disturbed by all this.
The Doctor, always quick to do what he needs to in order to figure out these sort of mysteries, follows Nancy to an abandoned train yard and confronts her. He’s figured out that the cylinder and this bizarre affliction are connected to the cylinder that fell a month before, the same cylinder the TARDIS was following. Still reluctant to share everything (I have a feeling Nancy is still hiding something), she does reveal that there’s a man inside a hospital nearby, a Doctor Constantine, who knows what’s going on. That’s when she also admits that she is so caring of the children because she lost her brother in an air raid recently. Just calling it now….her brother is totally that first little boy with the disease. CALLING IT.
Meanwhile, miles away, Rose is getting into trouble! She initially follows the strange boy up to a roof and then uses a rope hanging OUT OF NOWHERE to try and get to him. I don’t think Rose is particularly naive or clueless at all. But I had to giggle at the thought that she would just grab on to a rope hanging from the middle distance. That rope, by the way, is attached to a balloon that continues to move and lift off the roof. And that’s when we’re introduced to a new character: Captain Jack Harkness. Jack feels like the quintessential American male in a lot of ways, though the fact that he’s a Time Agent suggests that perhaps he isn’t human at all. (And what on earth is the Time Agency? We don’t get any information about that whatsoever.) Regardless, “The Empty Child” also explores the relationship between the smooth, arrogant Harkness and Rose, who is impressed with a number of things he says and does. (Honestly, though, it’s the nanogenes that does it for me. John Barrowman, who plays Harkness, is pretty attractive, but his attitude grates on my nerves. But nanogenes that heal any illness? COUNT ME AS A FAN.)
The romantic spark these two feel for each other is palpable and believable, at least for me. There’d been a few moments earlier where Rose sort of complained about the weird ways and methods that the Doctor has and here, she gets to see another time traveler who is much more consistent and apparently modern than the Doctor. I think there’s more to this than what we see, and I’m basing that off the conversation they have while hanging out in front of Big Ben. (That’s the second spaceship show with Big Ben in the series, by the way.) Harkness feels a bit slimy and I don’t really trust him. He’s a “freelance” Time Agent who is looking to sell something he’s come into contact with, thereby treating Rose as if she’s an agent as well. Well, he treats her like she can actually act in this capacity, and then he hits on her. What a swell guy.
That “thing” he wants to sell is his ship, a fully equipped Chula warship. Why on earth would you want to sell that amazing thing that has a tractor beam and nongenes on board? Unless nanogenes aren’t that expensive and you can buy more with the selling of the ship…in that case, SELL THE SHIP. [AUTHOR'S NOTE: Ok, I got confused watching this. Clearly, he is trying to sell the CYLINDER, not the ship. Once he said "Chula warship," I guess my brain assumed he meant his own ship.]
I’m easily pleased if you can’t tell yet.
Let’s go back to the Doctor, who finds Dr. Constantine inside this spooky hospital with nothing but a bunch of the Empty Children. Only I guess I should stop calling them that because we see that children are not the only ones affected by this: there are plenty of full grown adults in the hospital. Dr. Constantine confirms the Doctor’s suspicions that the cylinder caused the first victim to spread this bizarre disease upon touch. My hunch proved to be correct; that first victim was Nancy’s younger brother.
So what on earth is this thing? We don’t get an answer from Dr. Constantine because he succumbs to the effects of the infection right before the Doctor’s eyes. I have no problem admitting that I wanted to turn away at the site of the gas mask forming on Constantine’s face. It’s seriously a ghoulish, haunting image. WAY TO GO, DOCTOR WHO.
Even worse, when Jack and Rose finally show up, the tension grows significantly in addition to the horror of not knowing what all this is or what’s causing it. Jack is dismissive of the Doctor’s concerns about the cylinder that fell to earth, but we get to see Eccleston rage a bit at Jack as they argue. Jack finally says that the cylinder was actually an ambulance. WHAT. An ambulance? How does that make any sense?
I didn’t look up in advance which episodes were arcs and I was so engrossed in this eerie story that I never looked at what time it is. So when the corpses, clad in gas masks, all rise and begin asking for their mummy, when Nancy realizes she is not home alone because her brother has returned to find her, I groaned loudly when it became clear this was going to end on a cliffhanger.
DAMN IT. I don’t have a single goddamn theory as to what any of this is! Why would an ambulance do this to people? Or, better yet, what was in the ambulance that would kill people and turn them into….whatever those things are?
GAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. I’m stumped.
- “One day, just one day, maybe, I’m going to meet somebody who gets the whole “Don’t wander off” thing.
- “Oh, and could you switch off your cell phone? No, seriously, it interferes with my instruments.” “You know, no one ever believes that.”
- “And I’m looking for a blonde in a Union Jack. A specific one, mind you, I didn’t just wake up this morning with a craving.”
- I think the best dialogue was when Nancy asked if The Doctor’s ears had special powers too. LOVE.
- “Mister Spock???” “What what I supposed to say? You don’t have a name! Don’t you ever get tired of “Doctor”? Doctor Who?”
- “Is it safe?” “Perfectly.” [EXPLOSION] “Okay, reasonably. Should have said reasonably there.”
- Best line of the episode? “1941. Right now, not very far from here the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe. Country after country, falling like dominoes. Nothing can stop it, nothing until one tiny, damp little island says, “No.” No, not here. A mouse in front of a lion. You’re amazing. The lot of you. Don’t know what you do to Hitler, but you frighten the hell out of me. Off you go, then. Do what you got to do. Save the world.”