It’s May 21st, 2005. Akon remains at number one for the week, though the next week Oasis takes it with “Lyla.” The Black Eyed Peas, The Gorillaz, Jennifer Lopez, and Kelly Osbourne also chart, the latter with the surprisingly non-awful “One Word.” Since the last story George Galloway, recently elected as an MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, testified in front of the US Senate over the Oil-for-Food program. On the 21st itself Arsenal celebrates the Glazer takeover of Manchester United by beating them on penalties in the FA Cup final, the first time that cup was determined by penalties.
Penalties, of course, mean that the final ran long, which nearly led to it crashing into Doctor Who, which had been moved forward half an hour to accommodate Eurovision (it was Greece with “My Number One”), and the result led to The Empty Child getting pummelled in the ratings. Actually, the entire tail end of the first season slumped in the ratings, without even a bump for the season finale. But The Empty Child, though not the series low, bore the brunt of it, becoming the only Doctor Who episode of the first three seasons to fall out of the top twenty.
These days, of course, we know it as a classic and the high point of the first series. Everyone knows that. Even still, there’s something odd about its popularity. The watershed moment for it was probably its winning of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award, although its triumph in the Doctor Who Magazine season poll has to be taken as meaningful. But we should highlight how strange it is that the episodes won the Hugo given that they hadn’t even been screened in the US, which dominates the Hugos (which are presented at Worldcon, an international con that is nevertheless typically held in America). And there’s something indicatively weird about the nominations, where Doctor Who got three nominations, none of them for Russell T Davies’s episodes (which admittedly also, save for the finale, lined the bottom of the Doctor Who Magazine poll).
And, of course, we have the irksome problem of Moffat lurking. Because let’s be honest, this is Doctor Who by the current showrunner, and there’s no way that the gravity of “let’s analyze the series as it is now” can be avoided entirely, especially four days after a season finale. But what’s interesting is less comparing this to Moffat’s future time on the series and more to his past. Because this is in no way the pair of episodes that anyone expected Moffat to turn in. He may be known as the master of horror in Doctor Who, but that’s not at all what his past career pointed to. He was a sitcom writer who’d had a successful children’s show way back (and Press Gang played into him getting Doctor Who as much as Century Falls did for Davies).
More to the point, the reason Davies hired him for these two episodes wasn’t to do creepy horror. It was because Davies, based on his work on Coupling, thought he’d be perfect to introduce Captain Jack. In other words, Moffat got hired because he writes good sex comedies. And that influence shows heavily in this story. The fact that he’s very good at creepiness is in many ways a bonus on this story – it’s not what he was asked for. And while he is very good at it, he also in many ways got terribly lucky here, hitting both “creepy children” and “zombies” right before both trends in horror hit over-saturation. (Compare how much better “are you my mummy” works than the nursery rhyme at the end of Night Terrors).
The other thing to note about the horror within The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is that it extends out of the medial concerns of the episode. “Are you my mummy” is a snatch of sound that worms its way out of physical objects – phones and speakers and typewriters. (This is a phenomenally common trope for Moffat. It’s not, as people usually suggest, a fascination with repeated phrases, but rather with glitchy technology.) In one sense this picks up on a discarded concern of Rose, or, more accurately, of Rose’s invocation of Spearhead From Space, namely the transformation of mundane objects into sources of fear. But there’s a larger issue going on with it – a willingness to craft horror out of the materiality of Doctor Who. The refrain of “are you my mummy” emerges, in theory, from “anything with a speaker grille” (plus a typewriter because Moffat had to write a scene very quickly when the episode was underrunning), which is to say, from anything with the characteristics of a television. “Are you my mummy” is medial – something that comes out of the episode itself.
This ties to another major concern of these episodes – something that does distinguish them from anything that’s come before. More than any other episode of Doctor Who to date, this is one that luxuriates in its structure. There’s a willingness to just spend time enjoying the basic format of Doctor Who throughout this story. This isn’t just true in Moffat’s obvious love of lampshading tropes and slipping in off-handed references to absurdities like the Doctor secretly being Father Christmas, but in a larger sense of the story being willing to spend time enjoying its premises.
In this regard it’s one of the best arguments for the utility of two-parters. Curiously it’s not because of the space for worldbuilding – we’ll eventually get to a two-parter that focuses on worldbuilding, but that’s not The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. This story doesn’t worry about worldbuilding, instead relying on an extremely familiar milieu – World War II. Instead this story needs two episodes so that it can enjoy the space to linger in its dramatic beats. Whether it be the scene where Nancy talks her way out of getting caught by Mr. Lloyd, or the extended sections of fear and dread as the Doctor, Rose, and Jack are chased around the hospital by gas mask people, this is a story that revels in having the time and space to enjoy being Doctor Who. And it does. More than anything else this season, this is a story that just drips with its own love of being Doctor Who. Down to the tiniest details, like Richard Wilson’s delightfully macabre delivery of “don’t touch the flesh,” this is a story that is just giddily thrilled to be a Doctor Who story.
This is reflected in part in the fact that this has by far the most complex plot of anything we’ve seen this season. Let’s briefly attempt to summarize the plots of every story, shall we? Aliens invade Earth by controlling plastic, and the Doctor stops them with anti-plastic; someone tries to destroy a space station to make a profit, and the Doctor catches them; evil gas aliens possess corpses, and the Doctor blows them up; aliens take over Britain to run an elaborate con, and the Doctor blows them up; the Doctor discovers a Dalek in an underground bunker, but it blows itself up,; the Doctor overthrows an evil news station; Rose tries to change history to save her father, and her father sacrifices himself to fix the problem. All pretty easy and, dare I say it, movie poster.
But what do we have with The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances? People grow gas mask faces and look for their mothers because an alien spaceship has released little robots that heal people but have misunderstood humanity, and the Doctor saves the day by getting a teen mother to admit that she is patient zero’s mother. It is, as plots go, considerably more complex than anything we’ve yet seen. One of the things The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances luxuriates in, in fact, is its own exposition. It’s a strange thing for Moffat to be good at, but the fact of the matter is, and I suspect even his fiercest critics would have to give him this, he writes the best exposition scenes in the world.
Much of this comes from his sitcom training. Moffat is very good at making exposition scenes where the exposition is just the subject matter of a series of jokes or character moments. Look at the final explanation in The Doctor Dances, where the Doctor explains the plot to us. It starts with the Doctor asking Rose to explain obvious details of the plot, namely that a Chula warship would include nanogenes. Then we get Jack realizing the what’s going on and reacting in horror, then leaving space for the Doctor to fill in an explanation. In every case the audience is carefully prodded to realize what’s happening almost in sync with the characters, so that the explanations are confirmations of what the audience already suspects. From there we go to Nancy obviously understanding more about Jamie than the Doctor does, and the Doctor being a bit dense, so that, again, we start to realize what Nancy knows that the Doctor doesn’t. So again, when we get the explanation that Nancy is Jamie’s mother, it’s something we’ve already started to suspect.
It’s terribly, terribly well done, and is something that Moffat has remained excellent at throughout his career. It’s very much a writerly trick, and I suspect it is largely writers of various stripes who look at scenes like that and are really in awe of them. Because they’re very, very hard to structure. Moffat has always been a bit of a show-off of a TV writer, whether with the nonlinear structure of Joking Apart, the tightly formatted Press Gang episodes like “Monday-Tuesday” and “The Last Word,” or the eccentric Coupling episodes like “Split” and “Nine and a Half Minutes.” He’s always liked baroque structures of storytelling, and he’s always been good at them, taking advantage of them to carefully manage the order in which the audience learns information. But The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is different. It’s not that Moffat has never done “straight” storytelling – it was still the bread and butter of his writing. But he’d never done anything quite so utterly complex and convoluted in its structure that wasn’t based around farce. And in its own way it’s just as show-offy.
Look, for instance, at that opening sequence of Rose on the barrage balloon – a sequence that exists in part because Moffat was pulled aside and reminded that he has a budget now, since he’d only ever worked on sitcoms. And so, laughing the whole way, he decided to test the limits of that. And so what we get is a sequence that exists just out of the pure joy that it can – that Doctor Who can have such an outrageous set piece, and that it can do it for no reason other than the traditional separating the Doctor and Rose and getting Rose to meet up with an important supporting character. It’s indulgent, just like the “sonic screwdriver mends barbed wire” sequence, just like the complex plot. But it’s joyfully so.
But this would be an empty masturbation of an episode if all it had was the successful introduction of exceedingly complex plots to Doctor Who. It’s the fact that this sort of luxuriating in the fact that it can be Doctor Who and have a plot this mad is used for so many other purposes. The first and most obvious of these is what Moffat got the commission for – the introduction of Captain Jack. I don’t want to peek too far ahead, but since this is the only time Moffat writes Captain Jack, I may as well suggest that the nagging problem with the entire remainder of Captain Jack’s story is that Russell T Davies was dead right that Moffat was the best person to write Jack, and, more to the point, that Davies never manages to write him with quite the excessive roguish charm that Moffat brings to it.
In essence Captain Jack, at this stage of the operation, is a square-jawed American action hero who is played to be the campest thing ever. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that it is Moffat, not Davies, who is responsible for introducing a raftload of queer content to Doctor Who. You can scour the first eight episodes to your heart’s content, but save for the off-handed “she’s gay and he’s an alien” joke in Rose there’s nothing. Then Moffat sweeps in suddenly the whole show is as queer as folk. And it’s not just Jack, who was, after all, created by Davies originally. The queerness is reflected throughout the story – in Mr. Lloyd’s secret, in Algy, and, of course, in the Doctor’s bit about how the future of humanity involves going out into the stars, meeting all sorts of new species, and… dancing.
Because this is the underlying metaphor of the story. Underneath all the creepy horror, what we have is Moffat writing a story about sexual freedom. The worst thing in the world – the thing that will absolutely kill each and every one of us – is if we are sexually repressed and dishonest about our sexuality. It’s Nancy’s need to hide the shame of her sexual activity from everyone, Jamie included, that causes all of this. Sexual repression, including, crucially, self-repression as in Mr. Lloyd is shown to be cowardly and destructive. And the futuristic, utopian vision of humanity is as the great sluts of the universe.
And all of this is done with a sense of real, ecstatic joy. Which parallels it nicely with the sense of joy the episode takes in its own structure and Doctor Whoness. This is not an entirely incidental metaphor either. We’ve skirted several times past the intersections of gay culture and Doctor Who fandom in the UK, and why that was the case. We’ll do it again too, but for now let’s just take it as basically axiomatic that “being a Doctor Who fan” and “being gay” are culturally related experiences. And by writing a story about the joyousness of sexual freedom that is simultaneously a giddy love letter to being Doctor Who, Moffat closes the circle.
But there’s more to the story than that. It’s not just a hymn to sexual freedom in which it’s treated as a metaphor for geekiness. It’s also a story that is unabashedly and unhesitatingly patriotic. This is almost necessary given the World War II setting. It’s interesting, in many ways, that the series has so rarely done World War II – it took until 1989 for it to ever do a story set in the World War II era. And yet The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances waltzes in like this is as normal a setting for Doctor Who as Victorian England or the present day. Part of that is that the story creates a viable aesthetic very quickly. The tension of the Battle of Britain, at night, with the gas mask children is a very sharp, compelling visual aesthetic.
But it leaves Moffat in the odd position of doing the definitive version of World War II Doctor Who. And unsurprisingly, he turns on the patriotism, because, well, that’s the national mythology here. The bit about a damp little island saying no is particularly straightforward. But let’s look deeper at that patriotism. Because there are other bits that stand out – the Doctor’s praise of the welfare state, for instance (and as Moffat delights in pointing out on the DVD commentary, watch Richard Wilson’s facial expression at that line as he, in Moffat’s words, takes credit for it), or the episode’s best line, describing Nancy and her gang as between Marxism in action and a West End musical. This is an episode deeply concerned with social justice and with the material.
So to sum up, what we have is a story about sexual freedom and its links to other kinds of joy and pleasure. One in which that – our pleasure and our joy – is treated as the thing that humanity can aspire towards. Towards dancing – a beautiful metaphor for sex that stresses the exuberant joy of it. And one in which the reasons to love Britain are pop music and the welfare state. It’s one of the most unabashedly and beautifully utopian moments in Doctor Who, joined with the heartbreakingly beautiful “everybody lives” moment. For my money, incidentally, the single best moment of Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor is the choked begging, “give me a day like this. Give me this one,” and how it couples with his ecstatic, triumphant joy as “just this once, everybody lives.” It’s one of a handful of moments in Doctor Who that I reliably choke up at. Death is stopped and reversed because we accept ourselves and our desires and just decide to dance.
And, of course, it’s done in a deliciously creepy episode that worms its way into your head. When last we talked about Doctor Who and childhood we noted that the one period it’s really easy to connect them is the Hinchcliffe era. And no surprise, because it’s the era where Doctor Who was reliably good at horror – when it did stories that stuck in your head. Moffat was thirteen for The Ark in Space, and its impact on him is well documented (he wrote the intro for the reissue of the novelization, in fact). And I can relate to that vividly – I adored The Ark in Space (my third Doctor Who story ever), but found it sufficiently disturbing that I never actually rewatched it until adulthood. Because it was just too disturbing. And was, accordingly, the most remembered bit of Doctor Who I ever watched. Because as I’ve said, the best children’s media is the stuff that sits at the edge of what they can handle – that leaves a bit unresolved that the viewer picks at for years and decades later, trying to understand what it was they saw and were entranced by. The Hinchcliffe era was a masterpiece of this. And that is what Moffat brought to the table that nobody, based on his prior work, would have expected: the ability to make Doctor Who that will lodge in the minds of children for decades after. The ability to use horror well.
Maybe it wasn’t watched by as many people as other things this season. It didn’t have to be. This is the story in Series One that is made to be remembered. To lurk in the memories of people who, twenty, thirty, even forty years from now, will make the art of the future. A generation of kids remembering vividly their joyous terror of a story that tells them that love and sex and joy are good, that death can be fought against meaningfully, and that we are sustained by our relationships and kindnesses towards each other.
And this is branded, inexorably, in the psychochronography of a generation – one of the most lasting marks the series has ever or will ever make. And for my money, the single most beautiful. A sublimely well-done story that could only be Doctor Who, with one of the most pristinely beautiful moral centers of any Doctor Who story. It is perhaps not the best Doctor Who story ever. But it is, I think, the best work of alchemy the series has ever produced, and if it never soars to these heights again, that’s fine. That it even approaches these heights is enough to justify it.
But it doesn’t just approach them. Not always.
Because some days are special. Some days are so, so blessed. Now and then, every once in a very long while, every day in a million days, when the wind stands fair, and the Doctor comes to call…