The Doctor and Rose encounter a mysterious object in the Time Vortex which they pursue to 1941 London in the midst of the Blitz. While Rose meets Captain Jack Harkness, The Doctor encounters a group of children who are being terrorised by a child wearing a gas mask.
I’m going to go off on a slight tangent before starting my review. I’m writing this on the day that Big Finish announced that Christopher Eccleston would be reprising the role of the Ninth Doctor in four boxsets starting in May 2021! Eccleston returning to the role is something that I never thought would happen, and it’s safe to say that I’m very excited about this happening. As I am approaching the end of his first and only televised series, I was making plans for what I would be doing for this slot next year, which now will be pushed back a little bit, but that’s no problem when we’re getting more of Eccleston!
The Empty Child kicks off a rather strong end to the first series of the revival with a story that doesn’t become less creepy the more it is watched. Those who have read reviews on here of Steven Moffat’s other work will know that I greatly enjoy his writing and his stint as show runner, but I did try and watch this as it would have been seen in 2005. This first part of the story presents us with a Doctor and companion at the peak of their powers, a character who would go on to be a fan-favourite and one of the best one-off villains of all time, coupled with one of the most haunting deliveries of a relatively simple line. Moffat delights in taking the mundane and everyday and making it frightening – here, it is the traditional image of the World War Two gas mask.
This story separates the Doctor and Rose early on and gives the Ninth Doctor some great characterisation. Throughout the first series, we have seen glimpses of just how battle scarred this incarnation is, but here we get clear confirmation of the impact of the Time War on him. We get the exchange between him and Doctor Constantine, a lovely appearance by Richard Wilson, where we appreciate the sheer scale of what the Doctor has lost, making Wilson’s brief cameo particularly effective and memorable. We also get a mention of the Doctor’s childhood on Gallifrey.
What’s this, then? It’s never easy being the only child left out in the cold, you know.
I suppose you’d know.
I do actually, yes.The Ninth Doctor and Nancy
We also get to see the Doctor interacting with children, something I feel that we haven’t seen this incarnation do a lot of – going forward, the Eleventh Doctor in particular spends a lot of time interacting with children. We also get a good moment that feels as though any Doctor could say it – the scene with the cat, which feels as though any Doctor could have said it. In my case, I can especially picture that scene with Peter Davison!
Rose? (A cat meows, the Doctor picks it up) You know, one day, just one day, I’m going to meet someone who gets the whole don’t wander off thing. Nine hundred years of phone box travel, it’s the only thing left to surprise me.The Ninth Doctor
Billie Piper is great here, too, and separating her from the Doctor gives her an opportunity to explore the setting of wartime London and stumble across a renegade Time Agent Jack Harkness, before being reunited with the Doctor shortly before the cliffhanger to tie the plot together. Having begged the Doctor for some more ‘Spock’ as she calls it, she falls quite literally into the hands of John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness, someone who is all about gadgets and showing off and she falls under his spell. She’s particularly good in her moments of outrage, like when Jack tells her to switch her mobile off, pointing out the absurdity of the situation. She also show initiative, trying to imitate a Time Agent whom Captain Jack is trying to con, and obviously does this effectively enough to get Jack and The Doctor to meet.
The story really doesn’t let up, starting with a bombastic and frenetically paced cold open which establishes the basis for the story effectively and economically as the audience is in no doubt as to what is happening and what the problem is. After the opening credits, Steven Moffat uses some horror tropes to create an atmosphere of fear and dread, such as the Child, the sudden appearance and equally sudden disappearance of Nancy and the phone call to a disconnected phone. The script really crackles with some great dialogue, some humour and is recognisable as a Moffat story. In more recent times, I have developed problems with the idea of romanticising World War II, and for the most part this story depicts something close to the grim reality of the Blitz. The Doctor does have a speech that, in the wrong hands could have rubbed me up the wrong way, but it’s a testament to the writing, directing and performance by Eccleston that it doesn’t rankle.
1941. Right now, not very far from here, the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe. Country after country, falling like dominoes. Nothing can stop it. Nothing. Until one, tiny, damp little island says no. No. Not here. A mouse in front of a lion. You’re amazing, the lot of you. Don’t know what you do to Hitler, but you frighten the hell out of me.The Ninth Doctor and Nancy
James Hawes’ direction also adds to this story and the feeling of unease and fear, with scenes like the ones in the hospital towards the end of this episode really well done. The scene with the reveal of Doctor Constantine’s scar on his hand, his subsequent transformation into one of the gas mask creatures is nicely done and all of the other affected patients sitting up in their bed are all creepy.
The Child is one of the creepiest antagonists to the Doctor and this is in no small part down to the performances of Albert Valentine and Noah Johnson who make this character so eerie and iconic. The voice sends shivers down my spine, and the direction and appearance of the Child make simple gestures like pointing effective. Nancy, his sister, is also good and she proves herself to be capable of providing for the gang of children without the Doctor’s help. Unlike Rose, she is utterly blunt with him, rather than hanging off every word. Otherwise, John Barrowman is good as Jack Harkness, coming across as a lovable rogue, even if he is ultimately responsible for the problem that the Doctor and Rose find themselves trying to solve.
Verdict: The Empty Child is one of the best examples of what Doctor Who can do. A creepy child and a sense of dread and fear make this one into an absolute classic. 10/10
Cast: Christopher Eccleston (The Doctor), Billie Piper (Rose Tyler), Kate Harvey (Nightclub Singer), Albert Valentine (The Child), Florence Hoath (Nancy), Cheryl Fergison (Mrs Lloyd), Damian Samuels (Mr Lloyd), John Barrowman (Jack Harkness), Robert Hands (Algy), Joseph Tremain (Jim), Jordan Murphy (Ernie), Brandon Miller (Alf), Richard Wilson (Dr. Constantine), Noah Johnson (Voice of the Empty Child) & Dian Perry (Computer Voice)
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: James Hawes
Behind the Scenes
- Working titles included World War II and An Empty Child, a reference to An Unearthly Child.
- The first contribution to the show by future showrunner Steven Moffat.
- This story introduces the character of Captain Jack Harkness, who would go on to have his own spin-off in the shape of Torchwood and would return on numerous occasions, most recently in Fugitive of the Judoon. Although Barrowman would stay with the show until the end of the first series, his name would not appear in the opening credits until he came back in Utopia in series 3. It was intended in Russell T Davies’ original pitch that the character’s real name would be Captain Jax.
- The first revived story to feature a child as being responsible for the bizarre goings on in the story.
- The name Chula for the warship is a reference to a restaurant in London, where Moffat, Robert Shearman, Mark Gatiss and Paul Cornell went to celebrate being commissioned to write for the first episode since the revival.
- This two-parter won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form in 2006.
There are too many to mention, but I think my favorite might be the conversation between the child and the Doctor in the hallway of the Lloyd’s house.
Mummy? Please let me in, mummy. Please let me in.
Your mummy isn’t here.
Are you my mummy?
No mummies here. Nobody here but us chickens. Well, this chicken anyway.The Child and the Ninth Doctor
Before this war began, I was a father and a grandfather. Now I’m neither, but I’m still a doctor.
Yeah. I know the feeling.Doctor Constantine and the Ninth Doctor
Previous Ninth Doctor Review: Father’s Day
3 thoughts on “The Empty Child”
It’s so great to have Eccleston coming back, I can’t wait! This two-parter and Dalek are my favourite episodes of the first series and they’re still some of the best episodes of Doctor Who across both Classic and New Who, in no small part thanks to the man himself.
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It is great he’s coming back and it was totally unexpected!
Glad you like this one too – it probably is one of the scariest episodes of Doctor Who to date. Who could think that just the one word “Mummy” could be so utterly terrifying!
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