Doctor Who Discussions: Season 1 – The Empty Child

Captain Jack Harkness, One Three Three Squadron, Royal Air Force. American volunteer.

The Empty Child
The Empty Child

It’s a real pleasure to meet you, Mr Spock.

If you’d been around in 2005 to tell me that there would be scarier episodes of Doctor Who than The Empty Child, I wouldn’t have heard you from underneath the cushion I was hiding behind. You could have been telling me all about the Blinks and the Midnights and I probably wouldn’t believe you. For me, The Empty Child was a formative Doctor Who experience; we all heard the stories of how kids would hide behind the sofa in the 70s and 80s, terrified of the Daleks. I guess I didn’t really believe any of that until I watched this episode for the first time and realised that actually, yes, this space show could indeed be kind of scary.

Watching it back now, of course, knowing what is coming, the whole experience is less frightening – although I still elected to watch it during the daytime, just in case. That little kid just freaks me out, and I suppose he always will, as long as I have the memory of that first, scary watch. What a powerful piece of television this episode was, and remains.

It helps, of course, that the whole feel of the episode is so atmospheric and dramatic. It all takes place over the course of one evening, in blackout London, and the almost constant soundtrack of bombs exploding, and planes swooping overhead really add to the claustrophobic darkness. A darkness that could be hiding anything, and often is. With the countdown clock set when Jack tells Rose that a bomb is going to hit the warship he’s crashed, the anticipation coupled with the Empty Child’s ability to be seemingly everywhere at once keeps the energy high even in scenes with a lot of talking (and there are a lot of talking scenes).

Rose and the Doctor are apart for most of the episode, and it gives the characters a little bit of room to breathe, always welcome in an ongoing partnership. Rose is off doing what she does best; being compassionate and getting into scrapes, then making a new friend. Her finest moment is of course hanging off a barrage balloon in the middle of an air raid while wearing a Union Jack t-shirt. Name me one other companion who could pull that off. I’ll wait.

And what of the Doctor? At this point in the series, it’s been a little while since we stopped to delve into his past. Nine can’t forget the atrocities he has so recently committed. Every decision he makes is driven by those memories, and it’s good to see the season dedicated to that characterisation, and that it keeps reminding the audience about why he behaves like he does.

Not to say that he hasn’t begun to grow as a character. We are nine episodes in, and he’s definitely starting to chill out just a little bit; his scene with the homeless kids at the dinner table is upbeat and actually reminded me a lot of what is to come with the Tenth Doctor, when he can’t get his words out quickly enough or crack the joke too soon. It’s a good look for Nine, and shows how far he has come. But then, committed to the characterisation, the episode takes the time to remind us again. Dr Constantine says, “Before this war began, I was a father and a grandfather. Now I am neither. But I’m still a doctor.” Our Doctor simply replies, “Yeah. I know the feeling.” Later on, with the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors, this was a recurring idea; Be A Doctor. It probably isn’t a coincidence that Stephen Moffatt wrote that line and then was showrunner for Eleven and Twelve. One of the joys of rewatching these episodes is seeing the start of such narrative threads, themes before the writers even knew they were going to be themes.

And I can’t write about The Empty Child and not celebrate the introduction of the man himself, Captain Jack Harkness. His first scenes are a really cracking piece of characterisation; in less than five minutes we feel we know him. In hindsight, it should have seemed obvious that he was a man that the writers had a plan for. His introduction just feels like we are settling in for the long haul.

Of course, it’s impossible to watch him now, even in this very first appearance, without a sort of sadness underplaying the whole thing. The Doctor really did do Jack dirty in a lot of ways, and this fresh-faced intergalactic conman has no idea what’s coming. I am one of the people who greatly enjoyed Torchwood, for the most part, and most of that was because of Jack, so despite the melancholy I feel looking at him, I’m still so glad that he’s finally joined us for the ride.

And, like the episode’s cliff-hanger ending, I’m going to leave it there for now.

READ NEXT: Doctor Who Discussions: Season 1 – Father’s Day

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