Monday, 12 November 2012

Ballroom Blitz

Doctor Who
The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances
Series One, Episodes Nine and Ten

Doctor Who is one of those shows that could, in theory, be anything.  It can be funny, serious, futuristic, medieval... you name it.  But one thing has been consistent through the years: Doctor Who is scary.

"Act terrifying. For God's sake, swim or something."
Fans still talk in hushed tones about The One With The Yeti In The Underground, or The One With The Giant Maggots.  The One With The Sea Devils left me terrified of going to the beach for quite some time.  And now we have The One With The Gas Mask Zombies.  How good are they?  Run, hide, and stay hidden.  They are terrifying.

What's so scary about them?  Well, gas masks are scary just to look at.  But then there's the utter mindlessness of them, and the fear of losing your own mind.  And fear of disease: one touch and you're like them.  Their leader, the Empty Child himself, is creepy as hell.  As innumerable horror movies have shown, it's surprisingly easy to scare people with children acting just a little bit left of normal, and all that "Muuuuummy" stuff is easily spinechilling.  The best bit, though?  The change.  Nothing can stop it.  The victim's marbles slowly disappear, they start to talk like a six-year-old until they choke, something forces its way up their throat, flesh stretches and bones begin to crunch...  Ohgodohgodohgod.  Sleep well, kiddiewinks!

As a backdrop, we have the London Blitz, where a midnight stroll could get you killed even without the monsters.  It's one of the most fascinating periods in British history, as terrifying as it is weirdly halcyon, and Steven Moffat captures both without getting too wrapped up in either.  There's still a hint of saccharine, particularly in the Doctor's history-fudging "lion vs. mouse" speech, that boils the Second World War down to a cutesy David and Goliath grudge match between Britain and Germany.  (It's not quite that simple, Doc.)  But the plight of Nancy, a scrawny girl looking after a rabble of evacuees, is a poignant and very real one.  Florence Hoath is fantastic, bouncing off Christopher Eccleston with the effortless spark of a travel-weary Doctor Who companion.  It's a shame we won't see her again; the character's steely determination feels hard won and, again, very genuine.

Can we keep her? And Harriet Jones, while you're at it.
Then there's Dr Constantine, pottering around an empty hospital so he can look after the gas mask creatures, despite an obvious danger to himself.  A knockout guest performance from Richard Wilson, he packs so much dignified emotion into his brief scenes that when the inevitable occurs, and brutally, it carries enormous weight.

Good thing Christopher Eccleston's on fine form, or you'd fail to notice him next to these two.  His reaction to Constantine's fate is a moment of silent brilliance, and his empathy with his and Nancy's family losses speaks volumes about the character's history.  Then there's his behaviour with the Child, hopping from genuine sympathy (because it's just a kid) to no-nonsense cynicism (because it's harming people).  Not for the first time, it's a Doctorfest, and Eccleston does it brilliantly.  Definite kudos to Steven Moffat, a lifelong Who fan (and the guy behind the brilliant Comic Relief spoof, The Curse Of Fatal Death), who clearly has a great handle on the character.  By this point, so has Eccleston.

Of course, Rose needs something to do as well, so we have Captain Jack Harkness (ahem), a flashy futuristic con-man who sweeps her off her feet all over again.  It's a little bit rich having her tire of the Doctor's not-especially-sci-fi kookiness already, leaving Jack free to dazzle her with magic nanobots and an invisible spaceship.  Still, it's for a good cause.  Jack, the impossibly perfect anti-hero, is a lot of the things you might expect from a time-travelling adventurer, but don't get in the Doctor.  However, he's noticeably lacking (depending on the scene you're watching) the Doctor's conscience, forethought and common sense.  It's like what Russell T Davies tried to do for companions in Adam: someone getting the business of time travel utterly wrong.  This time, it (mostly) works.

Mind you, Jack's got a long way to go before he resembles a rounded character.  With his effortless tech skills, brilliant lying skills, pansexuality, memory loss, criminal ambition and noble quest for self-discovery and personal justice, he's more a shopping list than a person.  John Barrowman's charming and fun enough to make it work, certainly once he falls in line as part of the Doctor's entourage, but for now it's tough seeing past the forced corniness and finding anything at all underneath.  (I can't get too worked up about it knowing we'll get the same thing later, only much worse, in River Song.  By comparison, Jack is humble and downright likeable.  But that's future-episode-knowledge.  Spoilers!)

So how does this stack up against the previous two-parter?  The action seems more evenly paced than in Aliens Of London / World War III, and these two episodes have a marked difference in tone.  The Empty Child is dark, intriguing and terrifying.  The Doctor Dances is... well, take a look at that title.  Despite some brilliantly chilling Empty Childy goodness, and more of Nancy just being brilliant, things get decidedly fluffier as they go on.  Still really good, but going noticeably downhill, a bit.

The rivalry between the Doctor and Jack reaches a slightly crude nadir, as Moffat brandishes that cumbersome euphemism, "dancing" to distinguish and define them.  Eccleston seethes hilariously at this – a simple dismissive head shake and the way he says "He's not really a Captain, Rose" go a long way to repairing this Doctor's sense of humour – but the script can't quite let it go, flogging said euphemism until it whimpers.

"Are you my daddy?"
The effect this has on Rose, and come to think of it Rose's behaviour in general, is not exactly flattering.  Her affections dilly-dally rather too easily between the two men; it doesn't do wonders for her as a character.  What's with the alien-tech obsession, and the need for the Doctor to prove himself all of a sudden?  (You could see this as a consequence of finally meeting her dad in the previous episode.  Now the father-figure complex has worked itself out, she's open to a better offer.  But as there's no reference to this, it could just be inference on my part.  And if it is the case, it doesn't exactly tip the sympathy scales in her favour.  Perhaps Rose isn't the one who should be on the lookout for better offers...)

Soon enough Jack realises his place, and the penny finally drops.  His bargaining chip, an empty Chula warship he's put in the path of a Luftwaffe bomb, is really an ambulance full of nanogenes.  They're happily repairing people in the image of Nancy's little brother Jamie, only they're too stupid to tell the difference between gas masks and flesh.  Still, they're clever enough to install an intercom that lets him talk through anything with a speaker grille, so radios, typewriters and toy monkeys.  (I don't know either.)  They also let him command all the other empty people (gas-maskies?) in preparation for battle, because it's a battle ambulance, yet they defer to his childlike need for his mummy instead of doing any actual battling.  So, which is he: a tiny Chula warrior or a super-powered human child?  There's quite a bit of handwaving here, and it's a bit of a letdown finding out there is a rationale behind these creatures, but that it's just as mindless as they are.

All this talk of handwaving brings us neatly to the finale, when the other penny drops: Nancy is Jamie's mummy, not his sister.  The two embrace and, as the Doctor looks on rather gleefully, the nanogenes figure it out and repair everybody.  Probably intended as a calming answer to all that terror in the first episode, not to mention the cynicism that has come to define this Doctor, things end on the stickiest, literally cuddliest note possible.  It's so toothless, particularly as you realise the gask-maskies have at no point actually hurt anyone, it threatens to undermine how scary it all was in the first place.  Not the most satisfying way it could have gone, quite frankly.

Meanwhile, Jack teleports the bomb to his ship, where it can explode with just one casualty.  All very heroic, offsetting the guilt he must have been feeling for, oh, ten minutes or so, but given how little we know about Jack (besides the shopping list), it doesn't mean much emotionally.  No matter: before he can make his noble sacrifice effectively one-upping the Doctor, who needs Nancy to make the heroic choice that'll save everybody while he acts as middle-man – the Doctor rescues him, presumably winning that little contest once and for all, and dancing to celebrate.  The dancing's a tad cringeable, but it's a seriously lovely tracking shot from Jack's ship into the TARDIS, and it's cute seeing the TARDIS's answer to mood lighting.

The first episode's practically perfect: scary, clever, dazzling to look at and a riproaring good story.  It's stood up to a dozen rewatches over the years, and I still get chills from the best bits.  Part Two gets a little stuck in the Glenn Miller side of things, and before you know it you're using words like "cute" to describe something that started out as "terrifying".  This seems to imply that Doctor Who, a mad old show that can be anything, can be both.  We may have to agree to disagree on that one.

1 comment:

  1. Re that picture of the sea devils - surely just walking out of the sea is what is scary - because wtf, they're walking? Where did they come from? That's not NORMAL.

    Shame that the Blitz is the backdrop for more alien monster stuff. Would be more interesting just to have a story about the Blitz on its own - the time travel is enough SF on its own. Okay, I'm going to stop complaining about Doctor Who always having monsters now. It's not Quantum Leap - let it go.

    Don't compliment Moffat - you don't know where it'll lead!

    You said 'spoilers' - I have to vomit now.

    How STUPID are these nanogenes? Even if they're adding gas-masks, there's no reason they'd come out of your face - unless the kid is welded to his with no skin.