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

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE DOCTOR DANCES

Tony two-steps back to 2005. Or is that 1941.
In The Empty Child, Steven Moffatt established a lot of the threat of his two-part story for Series 1 of the revamped Doctor Who. A child named Jamie was crushed beneath a piece of space flotsam, sent to Earth by Captain Jack Harkness as part of a self-cleaning con. Unfortunately, somehow, the boy then got up again, despite having wounds that should have killed him – and ever since, he’s been wandering around war-torn London playing a deadly form of tag with anyone he encounters, turning them into things like himself, with exactly the same injuries as he has, and a gas mask made of their living flesh.

Oh yes – and they all, really badly, want to know if anyone is their mummy.

Part 2 of the story, The Doctor Dances, feels a lot faster, and deals significantly with the thing Doctor Who had more or less avoided, with one or two notable exceptions, for all of its Classic existence – sex. Still being a so-called “family show,” though, Moffatt and showrunner Russell T Davies used “dancing” as a metaphor for sex, but especially in The Doctor Dances, biology and procreation, as well as flirting and fun, are laced all the way through the storyline.

After all, the empty child is searching for its mummy – and there’s a secret to that which has been hidden, involving teenage pre-marital sex (or rape – we never find out who Jamie’s daddy is, or the circumstances of his creation). It’s a secret that drives the story onward, at least as much as the existence of a growing army of gas mask zombies does.

And while we’re on sex and secrets, Nancy is able to blackmail Mr Lloyd (Damian Samuels), the man whose house she and her army of urchins has been raiding, because she knows that the secret to the Lloyds’ full table is that Mr Lloyd has been sexually servicing the butcher, in an age when that would have landed them both in prison. Seriously, sex and secrets, they’re the very backbone of The Doctor Dances.

What makes the second episode feel faster is the notable absence of scenes that exist just to put people in jeopardy, like the barrage balloon sequence in The Empty Child – although there’s still plenty of Classic Doctor Who faffing around, with Jack’s “Squareness Gun” acting as the key to a multi-level run-around for our heroes as they escape the gas mask zombies.

There’s also the undeniable fact that Captain Jack Harkness works very much better in the second episode of his introductory story than he does when he’s trying to be particularly charming and deceptive in The Empty Child. Getting into dialogue and arguments with the Doctor, he begins to feel like a character with a real backstory, and potentially, real legs as a recurring or ongoing character in the series. We learn, for instance, that he’s a former time agent himself, and that – in a development which was to later go precisely nowhere (at least until Big Finish dabbled with it) – two years of his memory were stolen from him by the Time Agency. His whole con was designed as a negotiating tool to help him get those years back, whatever those memories contain.

The ongoing sexual tension between Rose and Jack is played a lot more lightly in this episode, which makes it work significantly better, and when Rose plays it heavy with the Doctor, demanding he “shows her his moves” instead of oscillating concrete, there’s a quality to it that almost drips off the screen. Plus, we get the Doctor’s admission of a history of “dancing” himself – something that shouldn’t come as any surprise, given he originally came into the show with a granddaughter, but which feels like a landmark moment, paving the way for the likes of the Tenth and Eleventh Doctor, for whom such things “do start to happen, yeah,” as Eleven will eventually explain to his War Doctor incarnation – again, written by Moffatt to acknowledge a sexual Doctor in a dazzling, attractive universe.

As the story progresses, there’s some creepiness from the empty child, but by no means as much as there is in the first episode, though a trick borrowed neatly from Stephen King’s The Shining, where a repeated phrase, typed out, shows the state of a mind that’s gone bye-byes is particularly effective.

In a sense, the expansion of the threat from just Jamie, the empty child looking for his mummy, to an army of gas mask zombies, ALL looking for their mummy, lessens the terror of the thing because it stops being individual, and they become more of a “monster of the week” as they shamble quickly after our heroes. But there’s also a decent amount of exposition to explain that they pose a much bigger threat – the child has the power to rip apart the Earth in search of his mummy, and the nanogenes that started all the trouble have become airborne, meaning the zombies no longer need to touch anyone to rewrite them into zombies.

Between that elevated threat and the imminent arrival of a German bomb that’s about to blow them all sky high, the danger should feel more pulse-pounding at the end than it actually does. But the reason the threat doesn’t make us clammy-palmed with breathless terror is that, even though the Doctor himself ultimately no plan to deal with it all, there’s a last-minute piecing together of truths and a little psychology, that serves to offer a solution to all the deadly problems. The Doctor psyches Jack into doing the honourable thing and stopping the German bomb from blowing them all up, and has a compassionate talk with Nancy, who’s not Jamie’s sister but his mummy, forcing her to see that only by unburdening herself of her secret will she at least be able to do right by her child.

It’s also potentially significant that Rose has told Nancy (as another secret) that despite the odds, “Britain” (by which a less jingoistic interpreter would mean “the Allied powers”) doesn’t lose the war – which means that (barring accidents), there will be a world in which Jamie can grow up, and Nancy herself can grow old, rather than being locked into the doomed existence that’s been all she’s known for some time.

What follows on from the Doctor’s talk with Nancy is a particularly Doctor Who piece of magic. It’s always been a show in which people who didn’t stand alongside the Doctor have more or less been Fate’s casualties, and occasionally, adventures have ended with everybody dead except the Tardis crew. Very rarely, even that cadre of time travellers has lost one of its numbers to the evil gittery at large in the universe.

But once in a while – just once in a while – the Doctor deserves a day like this. When Nancy embraces Jamie – when the empty child finally finds its mummy, the nanogenes upgrade their understanding of what human beings should look like, and the empty child becomes Jamie again, alive and well and having found his mummy. And to follow that, the Doctor “emails the upgrade” to all the other gas mask zombies, so the nanogenes reprogram them as perfectly healthy human beings (or at least, as healthy as Nancy is). Regrowing the occasional limb in the process is just a side-benefit of one of the Doctor’s best days in a while.

If you think about it, every story in Series 1 so far has had people killed, from Clive the conspiracist, through Jabe from the Forest of Cheem, to Gwyneth the maid, to Suki Cantrell, to Pete Tyler… but this, as the Doctor freely acknowledges, is a day the like of which he neds to have more – a day when everybody lives!

He’s so energised by it, by the success of a day like this, that not only does he remember how to dance, but he also pulls off a last minute rescue of the eventually resigned Captain Jack, as much to avoid tainting the day with his death as in recognition that the conman did the decent thing, at what he assumed would be the cost of his own life, acknowledging that everything that happened was mostly his fault.

And we leave the three of them, Jack, Rose and the Doctor, dancing around the Tardis console or waiting their turn, meaning that while it’s put us through the horror-tinted wringer most of the way through, it delivers the ultimate vibe of the (at that point non-existent) Doctor Who Christmas Special – it makes us feel all tingly and warm and triumphant right at the end, and like our lives have been significantly enriched and made better by the journey on which we’ve been taken.

Moffatt was always going to be a prodigious talent to have writing for the show, and stories like The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (which went on to win the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)) are the stuff that future showrunners are made of.

Watched again in 2023, while some elements of companion-peril in The Empty Child feel forced and overdone, and the initial flirting between Jack and Rose is cheesy to the point of being creepy, there’s no denying that in its tone, its terror, and its ultimate snatching of triumph from the jaws of defeat, The Empty Child and particularly The Doctor Dances marks a ramping up of engagement, a rebalancing of comedy and action, and a thoroughly enjoyable, eminently rewatchable milestone in Doctor Who history.

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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