nuWho 1×09: The Empty Child

Great title, huh? The teaser isn’t much on plot, though, as we find the TARDIS chasing a mysterious distress signal–emitting cylinder that is headed for London by way of a mess of time tracks (the space equivalent of the Underground). Rose is wearing a Union Jack shirt for no apparent reason other than this being a very British episode.

Having landed in nighttime London, the Doctor re-introduces the psychic paper, again as a device to let him go around asking people about the weird thing of the week. Structurally, this introduces the idea for when Jack pulls his own paper out later on. But between that and Rose’s dramatic outfit and a few other details, I wonder if TPTB sensed this two-parter would be something special, and made certain it would do the job as a First Episode. As the Doctor breaks into a building to see who’s playing music in it, Rose is distracted by an eerie, childish voice calling for its mother. She then sees an eerie, childish figure in the distance and decides that’s more interesting than asking somebody about big metal cylinders by way of Stravinsky. This is all good dialogue, by the way.

The Doctor finds himself in a nightclub, with a lady in big furs singing “It Had To Be You, Wonderful You”. He waits out the song appreciatively before commandeering the microphone to ask “Has anything fallen from the sky recently?” The audience finally decides this is a funny question, not a stupid one, then shuffles out of the room as sirens sound. It becomes clear that the TARDIS has taken them to WWII London, during the Nazi air raids.

Meanwhile, Rose has tracked the figure down. It’s a child in a suit who’s decided to accessorize with a gas mask. It’s currently looking about from atop a scary-tall building. Rose catches hold of a rope that a stagehand is enthusiastically waving about and begins to climb up to him. Unfortunately, the rope is attached to a blimp of some variety, which lifts Rose off into the thick of an air battle before she’s pulled herself more than a few feet off the ground. The compositing in these wide shots is . . . not impressive. The rest of the effects — and there are many — are good, especially for the time and on a TV budget, but you’d think they could spare a few last dollars for a merely passable composite shot of Rose drifting across the screen.

The Doctor mentions to a cat that after nine hundred years in the TARDIS, the one thing that could still surprise him would be a travelling companion who doesn’t wander off. Then the fake phone on his fake phone booth rings, which understandably confounds him. A girl with a hard expression appears out of nowhere just long enough to warn him not to answer his TARDIS phone, that the call is not for him. Very spooky! Nancy looks . . . fifteen at the oldest, let’s say, but the actress playing her was about twenty-one at the time the episode aired.

The girl having vanished, the Doctor looks the most indecisive we’ve yet seen him, but finally picks up the phone gingerly. The eerie child’s voice, asking for its mummy, turns the Doctor immediately serious. (As comes up later in the series, the Doctor is friend to all children.) He can’t get anything more out of it, however, and the phone goes dead. He follows a clatter to find a family headed into their bomb shelter, the father less scared than he is frustrated that he can’t finish a proper supper these days. The Doctor catches sight of the mysterious girl slipping into the freshly abandoned house. He finds her inside, feeding homeless boys on the family’s dinner.

Meanwhile, a British officer named Jack uses Luke Skywalker binoculars to investigate an object dangling from a blimp. It’s Rose, still trying to avoid the spectacular battle CGIing around her. He compliments her rump, then when another officer suggests he make himself useful, compliments his rump too. When Rose finally loses her grip on the rope, Jack catches her in a tractor beam and pulls her to safety.

The Doctor ingratiates himself with the home crashers and asks why they haven’t been all evacuated from London. Some were, but landed in abusive situations (a sad historical fact) and headed back to the city they knew. He then gets serious with Nancy, who is defensive. He asks about the phone, Rose, and the cylinder from the teaser, with no results.

When nine hundred years you reach, sketch as well you will not, hmm?

Hearing a tapping and the voice asking after its mummy, he finds the eerie child on the other side of a window, looking in, its hand pressed against the pane. It saw several of the boys and followed them here. Nancy hurries around and bolts the door before it can get inside. A wounded hand comes through the mail slot. Under stress, Nancy tells the Doctor that “it isn’t exactly a child.” As she evacuates the house from a child who is evidently worse than a bombing run, Nancy warns the Doctor not to let it touch him, or he will become like it: “empty”.

And then the phone by the Doctor rings. When Nancy takes it from him and puts it back on the cradle, other things start being triggered. The radio starts playing, and a wind-up monkey clashes its cymbals in time with the child’s “Mummy, mummy” chant. It’s basically a twisted inversion of the “toys” plot thread in Close Encounters, with the child still the focal point, but now being the source of the wrongness. (In fact, there’s an ape-with-cymbals toy here, too.)

The Doctor talks to the Child (it’s capitalized now), telling it its mummy isn’t around, but can get no further information except that it’s afraid of the bombs. He tells it he’ll let it in, but when the door is opened, the Child has vanished.

Meanwhile Rose is overtly attracted to her rescuer (and vice versa), who introduces himself as Captain Jack Harkness. He’s got a fancy spaceship with a tractor beam and a cloaking device and psychic paper and healing nanobots and probably even a stash of Oreos somewhere. As we learn later, he also has an infinite lives cheat, and he’s omnisexual and so are his pheromones. Much like Mickey before I started this rewatch, I’ve seen little of him, and like Mickey before this rewatch I can take or leave him. We’ll see if Jack can similarly elevate himself. So far his dialogue delivery has chafed, although it improves once he decides Rose is a Time Agent.

They go out on top of the spaceship and have a drink, right in front of Big Ben, in the middle of an air raid. As they dance, Jack offers her a Chula warship for sale — if she’s authorized. Rose isn’t sure she likes pretending to be an Agent, but she likes the whole flirting thing. Deciding that he won’t get any money from her, Jack searches for her companion, by doing “a scan for alien tech” — which is what Rose wanted to see the Doctor do earlier. “Finally, a professional,” she declares, beaming.

The Doctor catches up with Nancy, and amid the commentary on his protuberant facial features finally gets the location of the cylinder out of her. The armed forces have it quarantined. Nancy, ever reluctant to give any direct information herself, urges the Doctor to talk to a doctor in a nearby hospital first. The Doctor reflects on the bravery of Great Britain in stopping the Nazis, then sends Nancy on her way to “save the world”.

Inside the hospital, the Doctor finds rooms lined with patients in their beds. All of them wear a gas mask. The doctor, Constantine, is not in the best of health. Constantine tells him there are hundreds of such patients. At his invitation, the Doctor examines a patient and finds head trauma, a collapsed chest cavity, and a hand wound. (Remember, the Child had a prominent gash in its hand as well.) Also the gas mask has inexplicably become fused to the face. The Doctor checks other patients, and all of them have those same features.

Over the Doctor’s protests that this is all impossible, Constantine relates that the cylinder killed only one person initially, but his injuries spread rapidly throughout the hospital like a plague. Stranger still, despite the absence of life signs, none of these patients are dead. To demonstrate, he raps a refuse can, and the patients all sit to attention. This is all slowly paced, with dialogue leading the viewer along, to draw out the suspense and horror. Constantine says he expects that the hospital will be exploded to eliminate the plague, but adds that it has spread around London.

As his coughing worsens, Constantine tells the Doctor where to find Patient Zero, then says it’s Nancy’s brother and that Nancy knows more than she lets on. (The latter is obvious to anyone, especially given that Nancy let on that her brother died from a more normal bomb.) As the Doctor watches in horror, Constantine strains to say “Mummy . . .” and a gas mask grows out of his mouth to cover his face. Gross. Imagine something that size forcing itself out between your jaws.

At this point Jack and Rose arrive to join in the fun. The Doctor takes the news that he’s a Time Agent without the slightest twitch, but being called Mr. Spock, after Rose got on his case for not “Spocking it up” earlier, annoys him. The Doctor demands to know what kind of Chula warship Jack has, at which point Jack drops the rakish air and admits that there’s no such thing, the cylinder is just a space ambulance with nothing useful in it, and he was hoping to sell it to the Agency and then destroy it before they could find out they’d been had. Also, the fabled Oreo stash is just store-brand oatmeal raisin. Also, he threw the cylinder in their way in the first place, in order to get their attention, and you people aren’t actually Time Agents are you?

The Doctor explains the mechanism behind the plague: the victims’ DNA are being rewritten. But the results seem pointless. It isn’t killing them, it isn’t healing them, it isn’t enhancing them, it isn’t mind-controlling them to any useful purpose. Why would anyone invent such a virus?

Meanwhile, Nancy has gone back to the banquet house for more food, but is trapped in the dining room by the Child. She makes a break for the door, but the Child uses its Force powers to slam the door shut. As it advances on her, ignoring her attempts to identify herself as its sister, the patients around our other heroes come to life and entrap them with the same haunting question.

“Mummy?”

The dark, often creepy atmosphere lifts this episode immensely. Cramped alleyways, the small nightclub, muted colors, and the bewildering turns of events combine for a story that encloses our heroes tightly even though the action, in principle, ranges across London. Even when Rose is first lifted into the sky, her view is blocked by walls of balloons and aeroplanes. It goes without saying that the use of gas masks to remove the main humanizing feature, the face, while making the enemy/victim instantly recognizable as such was a smart move. And the soundtrack has been on-point as well. The odd thumping when the Doctor is deciding to let the Child in, after Nancy and the children have fled, or the “finally reaching the source” music when the Doctor unlocks the hospital gates and heads inside, for example.

This episode shows the inhabitants of London finding ways to maintain a sense of order in their lives. People visit nightclubs; the father’s irritation reflects the loss of horror at being bombed; Nancy insists on good manners from her boys. Jack feels out of place in this regard, at least until it turns out he started the whole plot. He’s an intrusion, like the Doctor and Rose, but in mood as well as time. All this stuff about time agencies and used warship salesmen and ropey spaceship innards works well enough, but it feels thematically at odds with the Doctor’s half of the story, and I think that is what ultimately rubs me wrong about Jack’s part of the episode. It’s not nearly enough of a blemish to lower the rating, though.

Rating: 4 creepy children in gas masks

Favorite dialogue: Doctor: So that’s what you do is it Nancy? Soon as the sirens go, you find a big fat family meal still warm on the table, with everyone down in the air raid shelter, and bingo! Feeding frenzy for the homeless kids of London Town. Puddings for all, as long as the bombs don’t get you.
Nancy: Something wrong with that?
Doctor: Wrong with that? It’s brilliant. I’m not sure if it’s Marxism in action or a West End musical.

I’m not heading straight on to “The Doctor Dances” because: I got Close Encounters for Christmas and I’m gonna watch it.

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