Doctor Who Series 1 Retrospective: The Empty Child Review

Steven Moffat’s first contribution to Doctor Who is hypnotically chilling

Starring Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper and John Barrowman

What is it about a gas mask that is so unsettling? Just the sight alone sends a shiver down the spine. It probably comes from the same place that makes a clown, or any form of mask disturbing. It’s less about what is seen and more about what isn’t? What lurks beneath? In wearing a gas mask, an element of humanity is removed. Emotionless and blank, there’s something sinister about an enemy who is so unfeeling.

In his first contribution in what would turn out to be many for the Revived Series of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat delights in unsettling the audience through playing on the fear of the unknown. He relies upon the creepy repeated utterance “Are you my mummy?” and the unnerving sight of the Child alone to maintain the suspense and tension throughout this episode and, even when more information is given leading up to the cliffhanger, this merely raises more questions and intrigue in the audience instead of erasing it. This is a far cry from the structure of “Aliens of London / World War Three” where audiences had far more clarity leaving the first part and going into the second.

How Moffat creates fear is hardly revolutionary. They are all tropes that the audience have seen before. The juxtaposition of taking something ordinarily nonthreatening: a scared child, and making everybody else terrified of it. The audience doesn’t know exactly what threat the child poses, but everybody else’s reactions to it convince the viewers that the danger is real regardless. Throughout, Moffat toys with the idea of not knowing when danger is coming, the child suddenly appearing unannounced, even when the characters are safe, ultimately leading the Doctor and his companions into a trap where they are entirely surrounded with seemingly no hope of escape.

“The Empty Child” consistently ranks highly on polls of favourite Doctor Who stories and it’s not hard to see why. Consistently tense and unnerving, the plot divides our two protagonists and maintains intrigue without boring the audience. There is enough curiosity peppered with minor revelations which do not reveal the full answers but enough for the audience to want to know more.

Following a crashing cylinder through space and time, the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose (Billie Piper) find themselves in the height of the London Blitz at the same time that London is finding itself terrorised, not just by bombs, but also by a small child wearing a gas mask repeatedly seeking his mother. While Rose is set adrift on a barrage balloon and finds herself saved by a dashing, debonair time agent by the name of Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), the Doctor takes the more domestic approach, following young woman Nancy (Florence Hoath) who seems to know far more about the strange child than anybody else.

It is perhaps a strange inclusion here for Jack Harkness, the omnisexual rogue agent from the future to make his debut in a story predominantly concerning children. Tonally, Harkness stands at odds with the rest of the programme that Davies has created which, while camp and tongue in cheek at times has typically drawn the line at bawdy. This reviewer is of the opinion that Harkness is actually portrayed quite conservatively here, but when viewed within the grand context of Steven Moffat’s work for Doctor Who is merely another example of Moffat inserting sexual innuendo where it doesn’t necessarily have a business to be there. However, Jack’s inclusion here provides an interesting wrinkle in the Doctor and Rose’s relationship, as Jack is a solid rival for Rose’s affection and challenges the Doctor to examine just how much he enjoys Rose’s approval.

“The Empty Child” is enhanced by the time period choice, with the World War backdrop adding to the sense of impending danger and mortal peril lurking within every shadow. The narrative builds by creating more mystery as it journeys on. While initially the audience questions who the Child is, what it wants and why everybody is terrified of it, the revelations as to the threat that it poses (that it transfers its physical symptoms as a plague) only deepens the mystery. The child remains a silent, unfathomable and unreasonable force to reckon with, which continues to add to the palm sweating tension.

Rocketing on through the mystery and dreaded fear of the unknown makes “The Empty Child” utterly captivating. Culminating in a genuinely harrowing cliffhanger, Steven Moffat’s first episodes for the series is one of the all-time greatest episodes.

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