Steven Moffat’s first contribution to Doctor Who is hypnotically chilling
Starring Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper and John Barrowman
Any writer can tell you that a story is more than just its beginning. Sure, beginnings are important. Beginnings have their function. Beginnings are designed to hook you: to draw you in. But endings are where a story truly lives or dies. A brilliant ending can more than make up for a middling start, but a fantastic set up only to leave audiences feeling empty and unsatisfied? Almost unforgivable.
While the latter problem could probably be said for Doctor Who‘s latest outing, Flux, which ultimately found itself buckling under the tremendous expectation and stakes that it had set up for itself, the same cannot be said of Steven Moffat’s “The Doctor Dances”. “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” may just be the single best two-parter in Modern Who.
“The Empty Child” is a high tension first episode. Brilliantly chilling and wonderfully paced, “The Empty Child” perfectly balanced anticipation and revelation. By the end of the episode, viewers still only have some inkling of what The Child may be – they are just aware of the danger that comes from touching him, which is to be transformed into a face-masked zombie. Even this revelation is left until the cliffhanger, instead relying upon other character’s reactions to the Child to indicate to the audience that they should find him terrifying.
“The Doctor Dances” is drastically more pacy than the first instalment, with the slow-building tension replaced with the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), Rose (Billie Piper) and Captain Jack (John Barrowman) zipping around the hospital in an attempt to escape from The Child’s small army.
Once again, Davies’ first series toys with the idea of the influence of the Doctor. Firstly, through Captain Jack’s decision to protect the Doctor and Rose from the falling bomb, and then inspiring Nancy into facing up to her role as Jamie’s mother. Nancy is one of Moffat’s best written female characters. She isn’t interesting because she is a mystery, but rather because of the role that we see her take within this story. We see that she is brave, and capable, and caring, and we are certainly intrigued by her, but she is not mysterious to the detriment of other attributes of her character in the same way that Amy and Clara were upon their first introductions.
Just because this episode still concerns itself with the influence of the Doctor doesn’t mean that it doesn’t give the Doctor time to shine, however. For the first time this series, we see him have a proper hero moment. Here, the audience truly sees his jubilation at being able to save everybody – almost as if a weight has been lifted from his shoulders purely by being able to have a positive impact upon the world around him.
“The Doctor Dances”‘s conclusion is abrupt and quite convenient but what makes it so satisfying is how nicely it is foreshadowed. When it is revealed that the plague that the Child has created is because of nanogenes, it doesn’t feel like deus ex machina because it has already been used for its intended purpose in the first part. Nancy actually being Jamie’s mother also makes complete sense. In fact, a huge benefit of this episode is just how beautifully simple it is by the end of it.
This episode also continues the tension between the Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack. The connection between David Tennant’s Doctor and Rose is more commonly associated with romance, but it’s clear from this series that Rose and the Doctor’s connection has always been romantic. Here Jack is presented as a direct rival for Rose’s affection. Here is a character who is rough around the edges, a closer match in edge and far more exciting and dangerous than the Doctor is. He’s young, charming and flashy, while the Doctor is more aloof and mysterious. Ultimately, however, it’s the Doctor who Rose chooses because, for all of Jack’s flash, she does not trust him in the way that she is able to trust the Doctor.
The presentation of Jack in this episode is also interesting. While having an openly omnisexual character within the franchise is a massive step for representation, it could be argued that Jack’s portrayal is damaging to the community in general. It’s an interesting, permissive view of the future, but Jack is presented to be sex-crazed and undiscerning when it comes to his potential mates. Moreover, Rose’s reaction is intriguing, as she seems to be taken aback or repulsed by the concept of the human race expanding to the stars and expanding their sexual horizons, so it’s uncertain whether Jack is meant to represent being a sexual deviant or being uninhibited and free. Its portrayal here is confusing in how it wants the audience to respond to it. Or, more simply, it was just put in there because, hey, men flirting with men is funny, I suppose. 2005 was a different time.
Sure, it isn’t without its faults: the cliffhanger has to be a massive copout, with the Doctor angrily shouting “Go to your room” to resolve a highly tense dead-end moment and, though the reveal of the Child back in his room in the hospital because the tape recorder has run out is successful, a similar moment is repeated soon after with Nancy questioning how the typewriter is writing when one of the boys has stopped touching it. On the whole, however, the episode manages to satisfactorily conclude the setup provided in “The Empty Child”.