New Who in conversation: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (S01E09/10)

Watching New Who – in conversation with David McDonald, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Tehani Wessely

David is coming to New Who for the first time, having loved Classic Who as a kid. Tehani is a recent convert, and ploughed through Seasons 1 to 6 (so far) in just a few weeks after becoming addicted thanks to Matt Smith – she’s rewatching to keep up with David! Tansy is the expert in the team, with a history in Doctor Who fandom that goes WAY back, and a passion for Doctor Who that inspires us all. We’re going to work our way through New Who, using season openers and closers, and Hugo shortlisted episodes, as our blogging points. Just for fun! We have already talked about:

“Rose”, S01E01

“Dalek”, S01E06

“Father’s Day”, S01E08

THE EMPTY CHILD/THE DOCTOR DANCES – Season one, episodes nine and ten
The Doctor – Christopher Eccleston
Rose Tyler – Billie Piper
Captain Jack Harkness – John Barrowman

TEHANI:

Okay, so amidst the quite horrifying gasmasks (particularly when we SEE the transformation), the tears at the resolution, and the grins over the dancing doctor, one of my main impressions of this episode is boy howdy, is John Barrowman Tom Cruise’s love child??! I really did NOT like him in this the first time around, but perhaps exposure mellowed me because he didn’t bother me at all this time – I love his completely comfortable pan-sexuality and his innate flirtatiousness. He’s not my pinup, but as a character, he’s a lot of fun, and I think, later, we get to know that he is, as the Doctor says, bigger on the inside.

DAVID:

I feel like I must be missing something here, because I didn’t think this episode was quite as good as “Father’s Day”. It was brilliant in places, but didn’t quite have the sustained excellence of Father’s Day which really only had one problem, the terrible special effects of the Reapers. Speaking of which, the special effects in this episode were great. The standout was the transformations, especially the first one. It was one of the OMG moments, it was absolutely horrifying!

I am not sure what it is, whether it is seeing a child in that monster role, but I found the child in the gas mask incredibly creepy. The looks of terror on the other children’s faces, the way it used the phones and radios, the constant refrain of “Mummy…” – they all combined to create an atmosphere of rising horror. The scene where she is under the table, or when it is at the door and they are sitting around the table and Nancy is warning the Doctor not to go out there, well I can tell you I wouldn’t have opened the door!

TEHANI:

I think I like the two parters because we get more character development and this helps to get emotionally involved with the story. “Father’s Day” was good, but the longer length, for me, gives this the edge.

DAVID:

Jack is an interesting character. In the novels, the Eighth Doctor gets portrayed as a bit of a ladies man but Jack puts him in the shade. It’s a fine line between charming and sleazy though, so I will be interested to see where they go with him. Obviously, he is a massive fan favourite and even after one episode I can see why that might be, there is a lot of charisma there and I loved the dynamic he introduces. But my first impression was to wonder a little what all the fuss was about.

TANSY:

This is my favourite story of this season and probably in my top 5 of all New Who! (though I have to admit, Season 5 gives it a lot of competition) Yes, I am a Moffat fangirl, more than any other New Who writer. I really enjoy the Doctor in this one, as he seems to be relaxing finally and enjoying his adventures, and the script gives us a great combination of history, horror, comedy and banter. Jack Harkness is a character that appeals to me, and while I enjoy him later and the darker path he takes in the Torchwood series, I do like coming back to the introduction of his character, when he was all young and innocent (well, in a smutty con man kind of way).

TEHANI:

I think I’m a Moffat fangirl too – every episode of the early New Who that I’ve loved turned out to be by him I think! I’m definitely with you on Jack, David. I was quite put off by him, first time around!

TANSY:

I think that the Doctor and Rose on their own were in danger of becoming a bit too – well, for shorthand let’s say a bit too Season 2 – as they overcome their initial prickles with each other, and now that they have resolved the blazing row in Father’s Day, we could have ended up with a soppy honeymoon period. Instead we get Jack, who shakes things up between them and allows for some different character dynamics. Rose gets someone she can flirt with, without ever having to do anything about it, and the Doctor gets a younger male to compete with, something he seems to enjoy. Mickey and Adam showed us that the Doctor is competitive with other males, but neither of them were nearly smart or experienced enough to give him a run for his money – Jack isn’t the Doctor’s equal, but he is at least a challenge, and the banter between the two of them (epecially the sonic sequence) is very pleasing to my ears.

DAVID:

Speaking of banter, I loved the scene with Rose and the Doctor when they are waiting for Jack to teleport them out of the room. Next time I am trying to get out of being forced to dance I may use that “I’m trying to resonate concrete line”! It’s a great little moment amidst all the chaos and danger.

Jack certainly introduces a whole new element to the mix, and I am really looking forward to seeing where that goes. As Tansy says, Jack is on a whole other level to Mickey and Adam, and the Doctor does seem to have a touch of “Captain envy”.

TEHANI:

It’s not quite jealousy, is it? It’s more that he’s got competition for her attention! Quite cute, demonstrating that the Doctor can be fairly socially inept (although not to the extent that Ten is, later on!) :)

TANSY:

Isn’t that jealousy? It doesn’t have to be a romantic or sexual thing, it seems more – CHALLENGE ACCEPTED. He does rather paw the ground when young males are in the vicinity.

TEHANI:

It’s interesting that World War II is a location Doctor Who seems to head back to a bit – is it because it had such an impact on the people of Britain, it lies heavily on their consciousness? As a setting, it has power all of its own I think. It was interesting to note the juxtaposition in these episodes of the grim despair of the Blitz coupled with a heavy dose of humour – the Londoners are almost caricatures, and there’s a lot of poking fun to offset the bleakness.

Nancy was brilliant. What a great character.

DAVID:

I loved the Doctor’s little speech about how they scare the Hell out of him. I was brought up on stories of the Blitz (my grandmother was an ambulance driver and my grandfather was in military intelligence), and as the Doctor says it was an amazing moment in history.

I really enjoyed Nancy as well, she had a mix of vulnerability and strength that moved me deeply. And, the Doctor was right, what little kid wouldn’t tear down the world to find his mummy?

TANSY:

It is interesting how much World War II we’re getting in New Who – not to spoil David or anything! I know we all felt with the recent “Victory of the Daleks” that the whole episode would have been much improved by adding a tiny Rose hanging from a barrage balloon in the longshot we got over wartorn London. But yes, it is absolutely one of the most important “within living memory” parts of British history, and continues to have resonance. I think also the new domestic focus of Doctor Who means that Blitz stories (rather than, say, trench warfare stories) have a particular significance. It’s another suburban horror story really, it just happens to be a much older suburb that we visit this time.

Nancy and her ‘Broadway musical’ host of children were incredibly touching and funny, though there is a wealth of sadness behind the story we actually see. Not only how she ended up a single Mum in wartime Britain, but all those kids who are living on the streets. The entire backstory of one, summed up in the line “I was evacuated. But there was a man…” The real darkness of this story is hidden in dialogue like that, where the kids wouldn’t be aware of it.

TEHANI:

Got goosebumps each time I watched that bit. I actually have a bit of a bug bear that everyone refers to Doctor Who as being for kids. Really? I mean sure, OUR kids watch it, but with us. Would we let them watch it on their own? And surely the airing time in many places puts it squarely targetting an adult audience? (I read somewhere that new episodes are airing at 9pm in the States?). I used to get scared watching it nearly thirty years ago, and I think it’s scarier now, and there’s more adult themes, yeah? Is the “children’s show” tag just to trick people into getting addicted at a young age?! Sorry, off topic a bit!

TANSY:

People say that as a shorthand, and many people are introduced to it as children – but while it was originally produced with a child audience in mind, it was always intended as a ‘family’ show rather than something just for children – something to be watched with parents who could explain the tricky bits, I guess. It feels more adult now than it used to, discounting a couple of years in the 80′s when it was deliberately quite vicious in its violence. Having said that, my two year old loves it, but there you go!

TANSY:

But let’s talk about the title of the second episode, and the dialogue from which is springs: “the Doctor Dances.” This would have to be the first Doctor Who story that overtly discusses sex, though it does so largely through banter, dialogue and heavy metaphor. We don’t just get the discussion about the Doctor’s moves, and Rose using the existence of Jack to start that particular conversation with the Doctor – but also the comments on the sex life of Mr Roast Beef and the butcher down the road, as blackmailed by Nancy, and Nancy’s own situation. Plus Captain Jack Harkness himself, with his chat up lines and the discussion of not only his own sexual orientation, but that of the entire future human race. Trust Steven Moffat to bring the sauce!

DAVID:

I don’t consider myself a prude at all, but I think that the fact that they stick to metaphor and banter is a good thing. It’s not something I see a need to have overly explicit in a show like Doctor Who. Adults know it’s there, but children watching shouldn’t be picking that up until they are ready for it (saying that, while I got the “but there was a man reference”, I pretty much assumed that the butcher comment was to do with the black market. I thought for a second maybe she meant something else, then dismissed it. Shows how naïve I am!). That’s been one of the fascinating things about some of the New Adventures and Eight Doctor Adventures, though, there has been a bit more freedom to explore things like that, with some mixed results (Dodo will never seem the same to me).

TEHANI:

And this is the bit that gets the old school fans uptight, right? Sexing up the Doctor? I think it’s great – it’s assists with that humanising aspect, and makes the whole show more relatable. There’s a lot to love about the Doctor, particularly as his incarnations get, um, younger. And there’s a lot to like about his companions too.

TANSY:

Not all old school fans! There are still a (diminishing) faction who still believe firmly that the Doctor should be asexual, and there’s quite a bit of sneering/rumbling at the large number of female fans who adore to ship the Doctor with Rose or whomever, but all in all I think there’s a lot more acceptance of the various kisses, for example, that crop up over the next six seasons, than might have been expected from the outcry about Eight snogging Grace in the 1996 TV movie.  Not that there’s any kissing in this episode! Let’s not go crazy or anything.  Just dancing.

DAVID:

Well, as another old school fan I have to admit that I am a little uncomfortable with sexing up the Doctor too much, which I get the impression I may have to get over! It’s not that I think he has to be asexual, I just would hate to think that all his interactions with his female companions have to have some sort of sexual component. There have been other companions in the past where there has been that sexual tension (Romana springs to mind, but maybe that was just that Tom Baker and Lalla Ward were in an off screen relationship) but I’d hate to see the idea of the Doctor as a father/grandfather figure fall completely by the wayside simply to try and give the show more of an edge. Perhaps I am old fashioned after all, but there was a sweetness about his relationship with some of the companions that I valued.

TEHANI:

You might have to squint and look away a bit, David :)

TANSY:

I don’t think you have to worry too much, while there are definite romantic implications here and there, the show never ignores the fact that he is the age he is, and an alien, and that there are so MANY reasons not to shag his cute young companion, or for him even to want to.  The sheer awkwardness of human romantic expectations getting in the way of, well, resonating concrete and other Doctorish activities, is a great source of humour.  I personally like the idea that the Doctor is perfectly capable of “dancing” but it’s mostly something he doesn’t think of because, well, he’s terribly old, and you get bored with that sort of thing after the first 150 years.

DAVID:

One thing that I thought was done really well was that Jack’s orientation is not what defines him. I remember when if there was an African-American in a TV show he or she was the “Token Black Guy” with that being their defining characteristic. Now, well in a lot of cases anyway, a character’s race is almost incidental which I think is the point we know when we are starting to show true enlightenment. When they have “Captain Jack who is this and this, oh and also has this orientation”, that seems more progressive to me than him simply being one dimensional. In real life people are more than a race or a gender or an orientation, TV characters should reflect that. So, well done to Steven Moffat.

TEHANI:

Agreed! I made a comment on Twitter at one point during my first watch about the fact that there are a lot of multi-race relationships, presented without comment by the show. It’s great to see, at surface value – I know from reading on the internetz (thoughtful blogs by people far smarter and more socially aware than me) that there’s still problems with both race and sexuality as these are shown in Doctor Who, but it’s a good start.

TANSY:

This is something I really like about all of RTD’s (Russell T Davies for newbies) TV – in Casanova, for instance, the series he put out just before Doctor Who, there is a great deal of visible diversity, and I love that he makes a point of doing this with historical pieces in particular. But yes the mixed race relationships without comment (apart from occasional oblique reference when plot requires it) are a great, positive element. I guess this does also reflect UK television as a whole, though?

I like the way that the whole show is so queer friendly, and it’s one of the things that’s evident right back in Rose with the Doctor flipping through a celeb mag and saying “that’ll never work, he’s gay and she’s an alien.” Classic Who is very white and very – well, BBC conservative, I guess, and it was only starting to shake that off right before it was cancelled. Casual gay references through the first season of New Who made it feel very modern, and more connected to current culture. Plus it’s what Russell T Davies does in everything he writes, and the BBC knew that when they headhunted him (his price was doing Doctor Who). Anything less would have been disappointing.

TEHANI:

The Doctor is almost euphoric at the end, “Everybody lives!” It’s actually really sad in itself, because it means that so many times, not everybody does, and I think this shows how it must weigh heavily on him.

DAVID:

When I got about five minutes from the end, I started thinking, “Surely not! A Doctor Who episode where no one dies?!” The universe may not implode when the Doctor dances, but strange things do happen! I think you are spot on, Tehani, you could see the joy the Doctor felt that for once everyone lived, that the world’s salvation was not bought with human life.

TANSY:

A huge turning point for Eccleston’s Doctor, whose journey so far has mostly been about moments of manic energy linking a whole bunch of tragedies together. And I have to say, it takes a very chilling and scary story, and adds a level of family-friendlyness to it. Which, as the mother of a six-year-old Who fan, I really appreciate. Raeli has informed me that the Empty Child is her least favourite Eccleston story ‘because it’s romancey between Rose and Jack and I am not a romancey child, I am an actiony child,’ but The Doctor Dances is her favourite ‘because everyone lives, Mummy.’

Of course, the ‘everybody lives’ line looks like it’s going to be undercut in the final scene with the disappearance of Jack Harkness and the bomb. When I watch this story now, it’s with a kind of nostalgia for the introduction this TARDIS crew, but at the time I first watched it, I honestly thought Jack was going to die. I love the scene where he screams at his computer, then accepts his impending death and implements the ‘emergency procedure’ (a cocktail), only for the camera to pan back into the TARDIS. Such a gorgeous moment!

DAVID:

I’m afraid I didn’t get all of the impact of that scene, because I assumed he had to survive. But, I will admit, part of me was wondering whether the Jack of Torchwood might have been from the missing two years, and this was ultimate fate of Jack, time travel can have some confusing results!

TEHANI:

Ah yes, the problem with already knowing what comes after, watching it years after airing! It still packed a punch for me though, even with the dodgy CGI of the farewell scene! Loved that final bit when he hears the music.

TANSY:

Something New Who has done quite well is to reclaim the idea of a male companion, which had been dropped for the last few TV Doctors in the ’80s. While the male companions are generally given shorter shrift in the show (and far less media attention, as the image of the Doctor travelling with one girl is so iconic) I do generally like TARDIS trios more than singletons. Apart from anything else, it means the companions can talk *about* the Doctor which can be excellent and necessary therapy. Jack is the only male companion of New Who who is allowed to be really dashing (David Tennant’s Doctor uses up all the dash so no one else can have any), and the Ninth Doctor is very entertaining when he has someone to snark about. Jack is a far better snark-target than Rose, as it starts to look like bullying when the Doctor does it to her. (likewise it seems like bullying when he does it to Mickey, though I feel that Jackie, oddly, is fair game. Just me?).

DAVID:

When I look back on Classic Who and the dynamics of trios (or quartets) it usually seemed that it created a somewhat hierarchal feel. You would have the companions interacting on a fairly equal level, then the Doctor almost as someone they looked up to as an authority figure. You don’t get that sense with Rose and the Doctor, though.

As for the bullying thing, perhaps it is because it seems the Doctor is trying to belittle Mickey out of jealousy, while his banter with Jackie is more verbal jousting, where she is more than happy to try and give as good as she gets?

TANSY:

I think he just doesn’t like Mickey very much! Or humans in general. Rose becomes the exception, and Jack the second (grudging) exception and we see him dancing around the idea of getting to like them again with occasional interactions, leading all the way up to the finale where he is totally soliciting a new companion from a random acquaintance!

TEHANI:

Jackie is more than equal to the snark I think – Mickey is shooting fish in a barrel :) That said, Tennant’s Doctor I thought was played more aloof, and thus he’s even more likely to be hurtful in his snark, intentionally or otherwise. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Sorry David!

TANSY:

Oooh I don’t agree with you at all, Tehani, but let’s save that discussion for the “Christmas Invasion”!

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