Sunday, 11 August 2013

The Empty Child

During the horrible darkness, before the Doctor returned, I had to make do with the methadone of reading Who. At some point I bought a book that contained a short story called Continuity Errors. I read it and it was utterly brilliant so I read it again and again. It was funny, scary, devilishly clever and completely Doctor Who. I'd never heard of the author, but he was obviously a good thing.

A few years later, I went on holiday for the first time with the woman that I'd eventually marry. We were staying in a cottage in the countryside one cold spring night and Comic Relief was on the telly. And then, weirdly, Doctor Who was on Comic Relief. I don't remember being particularly anxious or excited, but then it was early on in the relationship so I doubt I was making a big deal about the best television show ever. There wouldn't have been any point anyway, because the show was dead and gone and only to be found in the pages of all those old Doctor Who Magazines I had brought with me when I'd moved in. As it started I suppose I might have offered up a silent plea that it not be another Dimensions in Time, but then I saw the writer's name, and I knew it from somewhere... Steven somebody...

That skit was The Curse of Fatal Death and, yes it was funny, no it wasn't another Dimensions in Time and yes it did have some jokes at the show's expense. But it was really very good. When the regenerations began, Jonathan Pryce's Master intoned "Behold, the miracle of the Time Lords!" and I think that's still one of the best moments in Doctor Who ever. Then Hugh Grant turned up and it got even better. It certainly wasn't a spoof - this was authentic Doctor Who, the definite article you might say. Whoever this writer was, he absolutely loved the show and knew how to write it.

By the time The Empty Child came along, Steven Moffat was the guy who wrote Coupling, all those old Doctor Who dots had long since been connected and I had high expectations. It's fair to say that they were exceeded. 

This episode, along with its second part, The Doctor Dances, is one of the best examples of Doctor Who, ever. Sitting here right now, after nine episodes of Series One, it is the best. Dalek was really good, as was Father's Day, but The Empty Child instantly serves up something that's been in short supply recently: mystery. 

What's that crashing into London? Who is that spooky boy? Why are they laughing at the Doctor's question? How did the TARDIS phone just ring? Who's that girl? What's she doing in that house? Who are all these kids? What is wrong with that spooky kid? Who is this American RAF officer with future tech? Did she say 'The Doctor'? What's happened to all these people? Are you my mummy? Are you my mummy? Are you my mummy?

Relentless, breathtaking mystery, pulling the Doctor on, pulling us along behind him, right to the end of the episode. And the gaps between these questions are crammed full, either with jokes ("Give me some Spock!", "I don't know if it's Marxism in action or a West End musical.", "You can talk, you're not even in focus!", "U-boat captain?"), or with scares, shocks and thrills: Rose flying the flag from a barrage balloon, the TARDIS phone ringing, the Child at the front door, Richard Wilson, Richard Wilson's face! 

The emotional moments that this new series has excelled at are on display too, although constrained by a frosty Forties reserve. "Before this war started, I was a father and a grandfather," says Doctor Constantine. "Now I am neither. But I'm still a doctor." It's not the free-flowing tears of Father's Day, but it's all the more heartbreaking because of his apparent sang-froid, because of his sense of duty. Through him, and Nancy and the kids, we get the sense of a whole country, numbed, trying to hold itself together.

Wonderful stuff, practically perfect and the boys were suitably impressed. William didn't hesitate to give it a 10, calling it "really scary", which is very high praise indeed. Chris managed a 9 ("I didn't get all of the jokes..") but was very enthusiastic, the cliffhanger lingering in his mind. When I first saw this, I hadn't been this excited about Doctor Who since Remembrance of the Daleks. I've seen it so often now that it should be boring, total wallpaper. But it's brilliant every time and I just can't fault it.


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