Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE EMPTY CHILD - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE EMPTY CHILD

Are you my mummy? Asks Tony.
When it was broadcast back in 2005, The Empty Child, and its second part, The Doctor Dances, introduced a new level of philosophical creepiness to the “monster” of the story, that at the time, made old fans and new viewers alike shudder with some proper horror movie tricks. With hindsight, that makes perfect sense, as Steven Moffatt was stepping up to the plate to write his first “official” on-screen Doctor Who (having previously delivered the Comic Relief story, The Curse of the Fatal Death – giving us Rowan Atkinson’s unofficial Ninth Doctor).

What people tend to forget in the memory of their shudders about Jamie, the empty child of the title, is quite how much outright comedy there is in the story. More or less the whole of the pre-titles is the Doctor and Rose delivering a time and space cross-talk act as they follow the “mauve and dangerous” piece of space flotsam that jumps time tracks and is heading for London.

And yet the gags deliver a Classic Who sensibility amped up to the max for the New Who audience – we know there’s something dangerous heading to London, that it’s tricky to get a trace on, and that, while the Tardis clearly has trouble following it directly, it’s going to be central to all the ensuing drama. That, and a couple of small Tardis explosions, gives us all the energy and information and comedy we need before the credits roll and we’re off on a brand new adventure.

We arrive in wartime London, and it’s fair to say that the energy of the opening drains away quicker than an East End fog, to be replaced with two very different tones. While the Doctor pops in to a club and the show adds another neat musical moment to its repertoire, Rose spots a child standing on a rooftop.

A child calling out for his mummy.

One of Steven Moffatt’s strands of genius, it’s fair to say, lies in recognising the potential for terror in things that have always previously seemed anodyne and ordinary. A child in a gas mask is perfectly ordinary given the time and place of the story. A child calling out for its mummy, doubly so.

And yet.

And yet, there’s something intensely creepy in the repetition of that request, often ignoring any answer that’s given to the child.

We’re shuddering almost as soon as we meet the empty child, and while, for instance, the Reapers of Father’s Day gave us a very visceral thrill of monster-fear, Jamie, the empty child, is the first case in the revamped show of encountering something with a Robert Holmesian shiver down the spine, because – with the great storytelling sense of which both Moffatt and Russell T Davies are possessed, we’re not immediately aware why the child makes us shudder, just that he does.

While the Doctor meets Nancy (Florence Hoath) and her young charges, stealing food off the tables of those Londoners who’ve gone to their shelters, there then follows what, in hindsight, and viewed from the 2020s, is one of the most cringey sequences even in a series that includes two full episodes of farting Slitheen.

Rose climbing up a rope to a barrage balloon is the most demented idea, even if she planned to somehow swing her way over to the distressed child in the gas mask. And watching the episode back in 2023, you’ll be surprised by how long and how sloooow that sequence is, seemingly put there entirely to manufacture some companion-peril and the need to be rescued, while the Doctor’s busy elsewhere.

The introduction of Captain Jack Harkness, which in 2005 felt interesting – a human time agent? Was this going to be a feature of the new show, humans with time travel? – in 2023, feels beyond the point of ripe cheesiness, and isn’t helped in the watching by subsequent revelations of John Barrowman’s tendency to commit indecent exposure on set. Watching Jack and Rose flirt reads somehow massively more creepy and heavy-handed now than it did back in 2005, and – in what is potentially a very real sense, 18 years on – it feels like watching your parents make out.

While the scenes do give us a lot of plot information – Jack’s got an alien warship, he’s prepared to make a deal, a bomb’s about to fall on it, and his ship is full of nanogenes that heal people – the flirting sequence is a heavy price to pay for all this information, and it’s a relief when it’s over.

Meanwhile, there’s another controversial observation to make. Many fans took against the Chris Chibnall era because of its habit of heavy exposition to explain the plot, the danger, the solution, etc. But that’s a factor that’s right here in The Empty Child, as Nancy, with a script-necessary level of cryptic misdirection, explains why the boy with the gas mask is something to be feared and run from. He’s her “brother,” he was caught in a bomb blast, and then he started walking about again, crying out for his mummy. Oh, and for no good reason beyond the fact that it’s creepy, he can make anything that produces sound, like phones and wireless sets, come to life and broadcast his request for his mummy.

It's true though that here, the exposition doesn’t lessen the fear – in fact, it helps turn what should be a fairly standard shot, of the boy’s legs and feet moving around the room, into what the episode actually is: the creepification of a playground game of “tag” into something terrifying and potentially deadly.

When the Doctor is advised to meet “the Doctor” before he goes investigating the crash site where the “bomb” landed, there’s a thrill that runs down every fan’s spine, but it turns out to be an “ordinary” Doctor, played by the always-excellent Richard Wilson.

While his scene is relatively short, it uses the same expositionary tricks to devastating effect, and remains one of the creepiest moments in Series 1 – a whole hospital, full of people with exactly the same injuries as Jamie. Injuries that should mean they’re dead – except they’re not. They just refuse to obey the dictates of biology and die. And then there’s the gas mask – it’s not attached in the usual way, it’s fused to the skin. And as we realise that Dr Constantine himself has been infected and is merely fighting the change, he says the line: “Physical injuries – as plague.”

That’s a blood-chilling phrase to this day – in fact, it’s arguably more terrifying at the other end of a worldwide pandemic. But again, cleverly, it ties into the simple central idea of the game of tag. Tag – you’re it, as a later Doctor would eventually say. The rate of infection is that of a plague, and each of the bodies in the hospital are an extension of Jamie’s mind, all begging in their various voices for their mummy. Tag – meet zombie apocalypse.

That’s some pretty impressive storytelling, even in a series that’s an exceptionally bold new beginning for a beloved classic science fantasy show. And it’s crowned with possibly the most horrifying visual effect in Series 1 so far, as Constantine physically transforms into a gas mask zombie in front of us. The effect has a certain 2005 quality watched on repeat in 2023, but just as – even though you know they shouldn’t – things like the Drashigs from Carnival of Monsters and the Skarasen from Terror of the Zygons still work to give you a shudder in the age of slick CGI, the transformation of Constantine too is still absolutely grim, helped along by a bone-cracking sound effect.

As the Doctor meets up with Rose and Jack just in time to be on the wrong end of the tag-apocalypse, and the different gas mask zombies crowd in, The Empty Child adds another laurel to its wreath, delivering the scariest cliff-hanger of the series so far.

Watched again after 18 years, there’s little doubt that The Empty Child is mostly a masterpiece. The Jack and Rose flirting – and in fact, in fairness to her, most of what Rose gets up to throughout the episode, feels redundant in retrospect, but the idea of tag turned into a zombie apocalypse (which, if you think about it, is what all zombie apocalypses really are) is chilling, the gas mask boy searching for his mummy (Albert Valentine in the flesh, Noah Johnson delivering the sing-song voice), and the creepy fundamentals of the story, as explained by Dr Constantine, make it a story that, on broadcast, really pricked up the ears and made us think Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchclife were back among us. In the duo of Steven Moffatt and Russell T Davies together, there’s an impeccable combination of comedy and terror studded throughout The Empty Child – and we’re still here for it in 2023.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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