“THE EMPTY CHILD” – Series 1, Episode 9, Story 165a – Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by James Hawes – Improperly Behaving Companion Theater continues as the Ninth Doctor and Rose chase a metallic cylinder through a time vortex and end up in World War II England, where soon-to-be Companion Captain Jack Harkness takes his first bow. Jack is a former Time Agent and current horndog and con man, and he’s trying to sell Rose a Chula ambulance that he knows will be hit by a German bomb. This means Jack is Adam, except really competent. Also, he’s maybe probably trying to get in her pants. The Doctor starts following around homeless kids who sneak into houses during the German air raids, and the kids get all freaked out by a little kid with a gas mask who asks everyone, “Are you my mummy?” You can’t touch him because then you become just like him. You are more than welcome to touch Jack, though. They’re like opposites. Because This Story Is All About The Dos and Do Nots of Touching.
The eyes are not here / There are no eyes here / In this valley of dying stars / In this hollow valley / This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms / In this last of meeting places / We grope together / And avoid speech / Gathered on this beach of the tumid river / Sightless, unless / The eyes reappear / As the perpetual star / Multifoliate rose / Of death’s twilight kingdom / The hope only / Of empty men.
— T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”
THE EMPTY CHILD is a fantastic episode. At varying turns, it’s creepy, flirty, fun, scary, mysterious, grand, and intimate. EMPTY is the first part of a two-part story (THE DOCTOR DANCES finishes the story because someone in production decided calling part one, Part One, and part two, Part Two, was a silly idea) and Steven Moffat has turned in a powerhouse script that plays to the strengths of every actor in the episode, and James Hawes deftly directs the story through the mystery of the Empty Child, the con of Jack Harkness, and the food-stealing homeless kids of London and their ringleader, Nancy, a girl with more going on than she’s letting on.
The story opens with the Doctor and Rose in the TARDIS, chasing down a metal cylinder through a time vortex that’s been coded with a “mauve alert,” which is the galaxy equivalent of “red alert,” a signifier that, the Doctor tells Rose, the rest of the universe finds a bit camp.” When the TARDIS lands in 1941 London, the Doctor reasons they’ve landed sometime within a month of when the metal cylinder landed.
Hawes sets the mood as the Doctor and Rose exit the TARDIS into a dark London night in a cramped alley between tall buildings. It’s an instantly uneasy feeling, isolated and cramped at the same time. The Doctor and Rose are split as their ears pick up different sounds that demand their attention – for the Doctor, it’s music playing from behind a door that turns out to be a cabaret, and for Rose it’s a child asking for its mummy from atop a roof.
What happens next is a wonderful example of Moffat’s craft – he has the Doctor and Rose jump plot tracks. The Doctor’s path turns out to be an infodump (we get the particulars of where we are, punctuated by an air raid siren), while Rose’s path births the empty child mystery, but when the Doctor exits the cabaret, the empty child mystery switches over to him, while Rose drifts off (literally) to a plot path that puts her in the middle of the air raid, and which will introduce Jack Harkness to the series.
I’m totally stealing that configuration in a future novel.
It’s a clever bit of writing, but more importantly it works to the benefit of the plot – it’s not just showing off, but it naturally flows from their personalities to enhance the overall story.
Rose reaches the roof to get near the kid who’s asking the question – he’s a young boy wearing a gas mask and standing on some kind of cargo container, repeating the same question as he searches for his mummy. The more the young boy asks the question over and over, never acknowledging any questions that come his way, slowly turns the scared into the scarer. There’s a rope hanging down and Rose grabs it to climb up, but its tied to a barrage balloon and she floats off, heading right into the oncoming German air assault.
Rose makes a little quip about how it was the wrong day to try out her new Union Jack t-shirt, which is another trick from Moffat’s bag. He liberally peppers his script with all these quick asides and jabs that helps to nuance the emotional and narrative balance of the episode. By all rights, it’s Rose’s portion of the narrative at this point that should take hold of our dramatic attention, given that she’s hanging from a rope above London in the middle of an air raid, but with the empty child mystery switching over to the Doctor (and with Rose about to run into the light-hearted Jack), Moffat deftly lightens her situation by giving her that little self-deprecating putdown.
Three things about the shirt: 1. It’s Rose’s best look all season. 2. It sets up a gentle contrast with Jack, who’s American (or, pretending to be American – again, as we discussed earlier, here’s where we get into treating this episodes as they come versus folding in what I know to be coming). 3. It’s Rose’s best look all season.
The Canadian flag is the coolest looking flag on the planet (and looks best on a hockey jersey), but the Union Jack looks the best on a t-shirt. It just does. I thank Def Leppard for that. (There’s a Who pun in there somewhere that I totally just let walk on by. You’re welcome.)
While Rose goes dangling over London (holding on for a hero, you might say … or not …), the Doctor hears the outer telephone ringing on the TARDIS, which it shouldn’t be able to do. A young girl named Nancy shows up in the alleyway (not at all creepy) and tells him not to answer it. The Doctor does, because he needs something to do for the next two episodes, and now he hears that little boy asking for his mummy a few times before the line goes dead.
Good mystery. It’s simple and effective and turns the war into background noise.
When the Ninth turns around the girl is gone, but he spots her sneaking into a house and follows her in. Nancy is a sort of mother hen for a group of homeless kids around London; when the air raid sirens go off and the home residents go to their shelter, Nancy and the kids sneak into the now empty homes and raid them for food.
The Doctor places himself at the table to take a piece of meat alongside the other kids and they freak out when they see him, but Nancy plays it cool and smart, keeping a level head and asserting her position as head of this group to the Doctor. He’s taken two pieces of meat and she walks down the length of the table to take one of them back. Another Doctor, another serial, you’d have been hoping she climbed aboard the TARDIS because she’s clearly got the backbone to stick up for herself.
The kids’ meal is interrupted by the empty child, who shows up outside the house, still calling for his mummy. The creepiness his voice ushered into the narrative is now grating, getting under your skin the way it much be on the skin of the kids – you just want it to shut up but of course it won’t. The kids split because the empty child’s touch turns you into him, you go empty and searching for mummy, too. The Doctor wants to help, tells Nancy it’s tough being the last boy all alone, but she pleads with him not to touch the boy’s hand (which is poking in through the mail slot).
Nancy points the Doctor to the hospital, where the metal cylinder fell from the sky.
As this is happening, Rose is caught in a tractor beam and then brought into an alien ship, where Captain Jack is ready to charm her. She’s instantly smitten dumb with him, and his reaction to that is like he expected nothing else. He tells her he’s an American volunteer with the RAF and shows her his credentials, which Rose recognizes as psychic paper. Instead of seeing his war credentials, the paper tells Rose that Jack is single and works out. Rose hands the paper back to him and Jack reads her message – she has a boyfriend but she’s available.
Piper and John Barrowman have good chemistry together, but it’s not quite like the romantic comedy routine you’d expect. Smitten as she might be with Jack, Rose is also aware that there’s something else going on – they are in an alien ship, after all – and Jack’s charm towards Rose feels rehearsed. It lacks the spontaneity that comes with an attraction that goes beyond the surface.
Rose’s hands are damaged from hanging onto the rope, so he heals them with nanogenes that are everywhere inside his Chula warship.
The healing serves to get them to come clean; Jack says he knows she’s a Time Agent and that he’s got something to sell her. He invites her onto the roof for drinks and now they start to sparkle; Jack’s attempted seduction is both business and pleasure and Rose is infinitely more interesting sparring with him then she is staring dreamily at him. When she wonders how he’s going to find the Doctor and he pulls out a device and says that he’s going to search for alien tech (which is what Rose suggested the Doctor do back and the start, but didn’t), Rose gets this amazing, smitten smile on her face and sighs, “Finally, a professional.”
Barrowman is superb as Captain Jack, all easy confidence and confident bluster. It would be easy to play Jack as a camp Tom Cruise – heck, maybe that’s what Barrowman is doing, but it comes across as Captain Jack and not a send-up of anyone else. Rose has a lot of fun with Jack being more of the rockstar time traveler that the Doctor isn’t; she likes a little sizzle with her steak and Jack oozes the sizzle, but without sacrificing the steak underneath. (Yeah, somewhere there that analogy went a bridge too far.) Jack is a real guy, with his own set of quirks and issues and you can see it in Barrowman’s performance. That idea comes through strongest when the gig is up and he’s trying to convince the Doctor and Rose that he made certain the cylinder was empty before he set up the con – the only one he wants to hurt are Time Agents because the Time Agency erased two years of his life from his head.
The Doctor goes to the hospital where he finds the doctor-in-charge and a whole lotta kids who look just like the empty child. Then he goes all gas-masky, and you can hear his bones snapping and breaking as his new, gas mask face emerges from inside of him.
Jack and Rose show up, and Jack’s con is revealed. He swears it was just a con and that his ship had nothing to do with turning all these kids into empty shells with gas masks for faces. The Doctor isn’t so sure and wants to know the kind of warship Jack is trying to sell them and Jack says it’s just an ambulance, and that he put it in a place where he knows a bomb will drop. His plan was to make the sale and have the bomb drop on it before they could realize they’d been had.
The Doctor insists it has to have something to do with this physical plague that’s being transferred around because human DNA is being rewritten.
All of the comatose, gas-masked kids come to life and back the Doctor, Rose, and Jack into a corner and we have an honest-to-goodness cliffhanger. You know the Doctor’s not in danger, and you know Rose probably isn’t in danger, but you don’t know about Jack, and even if you figure he’s going to survive, the tension with DOCTOR WHO cliffhangers isn’t WILL they survive, but HOW, and THE EMPTY CHILD sets that question up convincingly.
And it’s only part one.