Doctor Who – The Empty Child

Another good’un. I’ll touch wood and say that the series is settling down in terms of tone; darker overall, and with most of the overt silliness gone. This one was genuinely creepy. Also, they didn’t do a spoilery preview for part 2 after the cliffhanger ending of part 1, so they’re learning.

Yet again I’m put in mind of Sapphire and Steel, although more in terms of the imagery than the plot; the historical setting, the feeling of things out of place, and the sinister child-who-isn’t-a-child are strongly reminiscent of that programme. John Wyndham is perhaps another appropriate reference, as swisstone points out. Something strange and insidious has come from the sky, in a tale of very low key, creeping alienness. The central idea, which amounts to a deadly, spreading meme, is unusual and effective.

By this point in the series there’s a great deal that almost goes without saying: The majority of the special effects are appropriately impressive. The production design and period feel is all-but flawless, let down (slightly) by the lack of subtle tones in the videotape. The performances of the two regulars is extremely solid. Although Eccleston continues to be at his most effective when he keeps the whimsy to a minimum, the interplay of his flippant and darker sides is what makes the character so mercurial and interesting.

What’s important is what’s not here, however. The flaws of the series are far less in evidence: no farting aliens or brash surrealism. This makes for a more consistent tone, and an instant reward in terms of realism. It’s not a step change – simply a fine tuning which continues the trend of the last few weeks – but it makes a big difference.

There are two clear threads to this story with the Doctor taking by far the most effective slice, combining kitchen-sink realism and alien horror. The unsettling gas mask imagery of this storyline is the kind that will stay with younger viewers for life, and the acting of the children is never less than convincing. Even the star turn from Richard Wilson feels grim and effective rather than the kind of irritating stunt-casting which plagued the series during the 1980’s.

Rose, meanwhile, finds herself in a much broader SF romance plot which should in theory unbalance the episode, but somehow fails to do so. Having wandered into incredibly implausible peril, and being rescued by an entirely unexpected and rather cool Sky Captain device, she ends up with a caricatured American WW2 pilot, who turns out to be an equally caricatured time agent. What saves this storyline is that it’s played with a lightness of touch but never loses sight of the World War 2 feel or the need to move the plot forward. It also succeeds in being as much about the contrast between Jack and the Doctor as it is about Jack.

(Aside: I loved Rose’s line about “You can’t talk, you’re not even in focus” before fainting, but I know I’ve heard it before. Buffy, perhaps?)

Overall I very much enjoyed this one. It feels closest to The Unquiet Dead in the mood of period horror, but is far more original, and sinister, than that episode. I hope part 2 can match this opener.

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