Tuesday, 12 January 2010
Series one #8: "Life; nature’s way of keeping meat fresh"
Review: THE EMPTY CHILD/THE DOCTOR DANCES
Written by Steven Moffat, directed by James Hawes, 2005
It goes without saying that this is a highpoint of series one, but it really is excellent. The Ninth Doctor particularly comes alive for me in this story. He’s charismatic and confident, and fits the somewhat bleak period, while his rapport with the homeless kids (how often can you say that?) and sympathy for the Child takes the edge off.
The homeless kids are a good example of how well Steven Moffat can make things work that might otherwise be easy to fumble. They could be obnoxiously irritating and twee, but instead come across as a pleasingly unique focus within a relatively familiar (though always potent) milieu.
The production design makes the most of this setting, resulting in a rare example of a Doctor Who that looks beautiful: all the dark wood, and the noirish, canted angles and expressionist shadows, the lighting on location shining on damped-down surfaces, and the candlelight in the kids’ hideout. It has a very hyper-real aesthetic, which I think suits the series (with its adventure/family slant), and I like the balance of a visually dark but vibrant palette, which stops short of becoming as garish as some other stories in this series. I love the CG air raid, too – it’s wildly unrealistic (yes, it’s ‘well done,’ but you couldn’t say it is any more ‘real’-looking than the old series’ modelwork), but with its composited feel, it looks quite gorgeous (and reminiscent of the thirties aesthetic of the otherwise rubbish Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow). The use of the grainy, wavering, distorted gasmask viewpoint also works well in destabilising the image.
Jack is great here, pre loss of humour, though interestingly he doesn’t come across as a companion in his first story, in the way many do (say, Adric, Martha). He is more dashing, ambiguous and devious than we’re used to, and seems much younger than he does only a few years down the line. Ironically, he’s also more Doctorish than when he effectively takes up that role in Torchwood, and manages to match the Doctor’s charisma here, while being equally capable of gravitas when necessary.
Where, in some ways, Father’s Day feels like a ‘teenage’ story, with an emphasis on relationship and emotionalism, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, though one of the darkest and most adult stories of this season, still feels like a full-blooded adventure. Possibly the reason it works so well is in its balance of various archetypal Doctor Who elements; an atmospheric setting, scares, humour, adventure. That there are silly moments (the barrage balloon), sitcom-y writing (recurring phrases and gags; a slightly mannered style), but also many genuinely funny lines (“And in a pinch you could put up some shelves”) alongside its creepiness works very much in its favour. The conceit of the Child and the ‘physical injuries as plague’ is simple and economically creepy; one catchphrase and some gasmasks. The combination of these elements creates a good balance within the tone of the story, and overall it’s the closest this run comes to flawless.
However, it does loose something through rewatching in a way, say, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead doesn’t seem to, because that has a greater emotional core which remains even after you’re familiar with the mysteries within the plot. Whereas here, there seems to be less going on once you know who the Child is and are familiar with the situation at large.
I’m an unashamed fan of the complexity and relative sophistication of season twenty-six, and, though the storytelling there could sometimes be muddled, this comes across almost as a more mainstream take on that style. What appeals to me about stories like Ghost Light and Fenric, though, is their density and unconventional narratives – so, seeing this as a neater, more mainstream-friendly take on that approach, I’m not sure it is actually a good thing. In a way, Moffat’s writing is almost too proficient, whereas I enjoy a slightly more oblique or idiosyncratic approach. Nevertheless – let’s not get carried away; to my mind, this is the ultimate Ninth Doctor story.