Friday, January 21, 2011

Postclassical Who - "The Empty Child"

There's something about this season that I find vaguely depressing. Maybe it's the fact that every episode is set either on Earth or on a space station orbiting the Earth. Maybe it's because the stories are so unambitious and the Ninth Doctor is so post-traumatic and world weary that you can't help but share in his languor. There's just something so unspectacular about this series of adventures that I feel as if all the reasons for joining the Doctor, all the extravagant sights, occur offscreen and we get left with the boring bits. That's obviously to say the cheap bits, and some people think they never strayed far from Earth this series to avoid alienating new viewers. If that's true it's another frustrating example of how much the show panders to a lowest common denominator herd-mentality audience who are so unadventurous it's a wonder that the alien with the time machine isn't too much for them. So here begins a two parter in grey, gloomy 1941 London at the height of the Blitz from the mind of Mr Steven Moffat, which is probably one of the highlights of the series but in this way tends to reinforce the mediocrity of the show's early revival even more.
Now we ought to give some time to Mr Moffat, because in a few series' time I will be going on about him quite a lot and the tone of these reviews will probably change significantly. He's good at a bit of Horror, I'll admit. This two-parter is a good example of the kind of spookiness he can accomplish. The problem is it doesn't work so well on rewatches, and without that initial sense of anticipation and dread it's actually a little dull. There's a lot of time spent just looking at the child in the gas mask and the repetition of "Are you my mummy?" ceases to be creepy and ends up just being monotonous. The Doctor spends absolutely ages chasing Nancy around asking her about the kid and her being all mysterious and offering dark hints. Rose clings to a rope hanging from a barrage balloon miles above London for an unfeasibly long amount of time both in storytelling terms and in realism terms, and Captain Jack stares unspeaking at her forever.
Speaking of Rose and Captain Jack, this may seem like heresy but their bits are probably the most interesting in the entire episode. It's of course helped by the fact that his spaceship is cool and his smooth, reassuring American voice is easy to listen to but the simple fact is that time traveller in spaceship is cooler than urchin children eating stolen food in a London house. Captain Jack as written by Moffat is generally good compared to the rather strange ways his character develops in Torchwood and later Who stories and the image of the square jawed American hero being subverted into a somewhat ineffective and honest con man who is a little on the incompetent side provides him with sufficient depth to keep him from being a dull action figure type. Rose's flirting with Jack is, perhaps, a tad heavy handed and a rather obvious tack for the episode to take but I suppose in some ways it's better than long meaningful looks between her and Eccly, who I become more and more convinced don't have a great deal of onscreen chemistry, even though I don't really believe in the concept of chemistry. The romance or whatever their weird relationship is just seems a bit forced.
To be honest I'm not entirely sure what else I can say about "The Empty Child". Richard Wilson is very good as Doctor Constantine and it is nice to have a world and war weary old scientist for the Doctor to empathise with but he probably could have used a little more screen time. There are some rather awkward references to child sexual abuse from some of the urchins, such as how "There was a man" where they were sent which I'm not sure is entirely appropriate or relevant if it's not going to be taken any further and Captain Jack's claim of "Excellent bottom" has to be one of the most unrealistic and clunkily delivered lines in the history of the show. Eccly feels a bit like he's starting to phone it in by this stage; his Doctor is suitably eccentric and a little dark but in some ways it comes across as a tad soulless and you can tell it's just a job to him. All in all it's a pretty decent opener, while being a little slow, but I think it loses a good deal of its shock value upon rewatch and without that I'm not sure it has a great deal more to offer.

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