"Flag girl was bad enough, but a U-boat captain?"

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Get sofas. Get many sofas. Get all the sofas in the world, line them up behind each other and look at the screen from behind the very last one. It still won't help. The Empty Child is that terrifying.

It's the gasmasks. It's the grubby little child you never quite see clearly enough. It's the ringing phone. It's the incessant refrain of "Mummy...". It's the patients suddenly sitting up in bed with their gasmask heads. It's Dr Constantine, and he's talking to the Doctor in a dimly lit room full of zombies, and he has a scar on his hand, and you know what that means, and then a gasmask comes out of his throat...


There's no doubt about it: when it comes to horror, The Empty Child kicks anything else Doctor Who has ever done to the kerb. It's just that good. It's a shame that the feelgood ending of The Doctor Dances defangs it: the Child converting into an adorable little tyke meant that on repeat viewing the horror elements left us totally un-goosebumped. First time through, though, it's unbeatable.

It's not just the scary Child that works so well, either. These two episodes are incredibly atmospheric. Forget the whizz-bang special effects: what really impresses us is the absolutely stellar lighting. We've rarely seen lighting used that well in film, let alone in television: the first shot of the Child haloed in light sets a standard that never drops. Bravo.


Sadly, there's a lot in these episodes that lets the great stuff down. That's even more obvious the second time through when you don't have your eyes shut and your fingers stuck in your ears (that wasn't just us, was it?)

Shall we start with the worst? The teeth-grinding, nail-scraping, hair-tearing-out bottom of the barrel? Irritation personified in one big shiny plastic gleaming parcel?

It is, of course, Captain Jack. And we have just two words for this character.



It's true, and you know it. Granted, he doesn't have violet eyes. And we don't know whether he has an excellent singing voice. But what about the rest of the checklist? He's unfeasibly good-looking. Everyone around him instantly falls for him. He's an ace at witty banter. He has a mysterious tortured past. He's good at everything. He's level-headed in a crisis. He's a badass action hero with an endless supply of tech. He's magnificently heroic, greeting death with a quip and a display of matchless courage. Even the conman stuff turns out to be for a Noble Purpose. In the whole thing, he has not a single flaw other than the one tiny mistake of assuming the ambulance was empty. And that was entirely accidental; he's deeply sorry; and what's more, it all gets tidied up in the end.

Urgh. We hate him. Of course we do, he's a Mary Sue. Still doubtful? Apparently Russell T Davies has said that when he was a kid he didn't want to be the Doctor, he wanted to be a companion. Case so very closed.

And the bisexuality? Shrug. There's even a futuristic explanation for it, not that we thought one was needed. What we do care about, though, is that they can't stop yapping about it, which is both boring and pointless. It would have been a lot more effective if instead of that laborious exchange about how Rose wasn't Algy's type Jack had just stopped her and gone over to Algy without saying anything. And as for the Doctor's line at the end about who Jack wanted to dance with, we were one giant wince. Not only is it possibly the most out of character line the Doctor's ever spoken, the point would've been ten tons more effective if it was about the showing rather than the telling.

So Jack's rampantly annoying. But at least his sparkly banter lifts the show, right? Gets us all rolling on the floor?

Alas. It's not that the script's not funny: it's excellent. The trouble is, it's a lot funnier than it manages to come across on the screen. And it's not John Barrowman's fault, either, because he makes a pretty creditable stab at getting his jokes over. The humour's not terrible or anything: it's mostly actually quite good. But far too much of it falls flatter than it should, for the simple reason that effective as they are in other areas neither Christopher Eccleston nor Billie Piper can do comedy.

Since most of us are comedy writers, we're embarrassed that it's taken us this long to figure it out. No wonder we feel all squirmy whenever the Doctor makes a joke. No wonder we shift restlessly in our seats as the Doctor and Rose are swapping banter. No wonder the only time Christopher Eccleston's really felt like the Doctor to us was in Father's Day, where the jokes were kept to a minimum.

It's the Doctors' various senses of humour that say who they are more than almost anything else. And when we think about it, we realise that while it's far from being the only reason we like or dislike a Doctor, it's way up there. The Fourth Doctor's still our favourite, and of course Tom's absolutely hilarious. We like the Sixth Doctor more than most people too, and that's because despite his many faults he's extremely funny. And while Peter Davison is an accomplished comedy actor, the Fifth Doctor's character never gave him much of a chance to express that. No wonder he's at the bottom of our list (together with the Eighth, who's hardly a barrel of mirth either). Well, well. Thanks for sharing that epiphany with us. Group hug?

Anyway, where were we before we got sidetracked into life-changing revelations? Oh, yes, things that make these episodes weaker than they should be. Did the Mary Sue. Did the comedy. Everything that's left falls into the category of Stupidity.

We don't want to be too anorakish about history, and we don't mind a bit of poetic licence, but here, they're Pushing Us Too Far. It's London, see? In the Blitz? Doesn't that spell blackout? And we're not talking about Mr Sue taking it into his head to light up Big Ben in the middle of an air raid, either. That's the kind of plonkerish thing we already expect from him. What we do object to are the lights streaming out everywhere you look. That's just plain dumb. And the barrage balloon? With a rope? That Rose grabs without looking to see what it's attached to? We have no words.

Then there's the heartbreaking tale of Nancy and her clutch of grubby yet adorable little orphaned waifs. And they're even more tragic than they first appear: there are Dark Hints of Evil Deeds perpetrated by the evacuatoparents. Well, OK. There's no doubt that some evacuees underwent horrible experiences including physical and sexual abuse, so so far, so historically accurate. And it's possible that the homeless children's parents have been killed in air raids, leaving the kids no choice but to run away and live on the street. But wait a minute: the whole point of evacuation is that the kids were taken far, far away, and what's more, travel was severely restricted during the war. So how did so many kids manage to get themselves from darkest Devon to London, with no money and without anyone noticing they were unaccompanied?

Selfless little Nancy, meanwhile, takes the kids under her wing, robbing from the rich to feed them, and the Doctor goes out of his way to applaud this. Hang on, though: while Nancy is undoubtedly a great character, she works best if you don't look too closely at her, as the underpinnings are just a little murky. Although Nancy points out she's been watching the Lloyds' house for a while, so we know she knows they're buying on the black market, what about all the other people she's been stealing from? Nicking food that's rationed, even for lovely tiny little children, strikes us as pretty evil. (And weren't air raids in 1941 mostly late at night, not conveniently at dinnertime?) Despite Lloyd's patent lack of charm, we're not particularly thrilled by Nancy blackmailing him, either. You'd think that after suffering from being outside sanctioned morality herself, she'd think twice before threatening to put somebody else in the same boat.

There's more. Oh, there's so much more. (For evidence, see the Outtakes section, which is overstuffed.) And that's the problem with these episodes. Lots of things happen that don't make any sense, and the science is just dumb. The basic story is so fantastic that it's a crying shame it's undermined by stuff that just hasn't been thought through.

And the, er, love triangle? Well, apart from the badly delivered banter (the honourable exception being "Rose, I'm trying to resonate concrete"), it's a pretty good story for the Doctor. There are lots of wonderfully Doctorly moments: his chat with the cat, his "Go to your room!" solution, and the profound compassion he shows when instead of running away from the Child like everyone else he opens the door to it. He says he doesn't have a plan (this has happened so often Russell T Davies is clearly trying to make some point, although damned if we know what it is), but he does at least figure out what's going on when nobody else has and is the catalyst for Nancy making everything all right. As for the conversations about dancing, no objection, Your Honour. It could have been horrendous, but it was actually quite poignant, and the Doctor came out of it with a lot of dignity. (Apart, of course, from the bit where he actually danced.)

Rose, unfortunately, doesn't fare as well. These are the weakest episodes for her in this series, by a long shot. She starts off by idiotically grabbing some random rope, then goes completely goopy over a guy so slick that when she danced with him we were surprised she didn't slide straight out of his greasy grasp and off the roof. While, as we said, the dancing conversations worked out okay, we're still a bit tired of her thinking she can tell the Doctor how to live. As for Jack, well, you know that already. If they'd toned him down a bit, he might have been quite an interesting character. As it is, we can't see his smug grin without hurling cushions at the screen.

The one character who's perfect is Dr Constantine. Richard Wilson gives a stonking performance that makes his character noble, touching and sinister, all at the same time. None of the big-name guest stars in the series have disappointed, and Wilson is no exception.

It really is great. Don't get us wrong. But with just a little more thinking through, plus some plastic surgery to remove Captain Jack, it would have been that much better.

MORAL: It takes three to tango.



The TARDIS phone ringing, after all these years, is without doubt one of the great Doctor Who moments. And the voice of the Child goes on to up that gazillion-fold. Brrr.


There don't seem to be that many Lloyds. There are, however, an awful lot of orphans. So how come there are enough chairs and plates and cutlery for all of them when they sit down?


Nancy doesn't mention anything about her parents, and we get the impression she's been looking after Jamie for a long time. But if that's the case, how come the thing-who-used-to-be-Jamie is suddenly looking for his Mummy?


The Doctor's "tiny damp little island" speech might be soppy, but it worked. We were dabbing away the tears.


If the nanogenes are subatomic, how come we can see them?


It's a wonderful moment when after Dr Constantine says "Before the war I was a father and grandfather. Now I'm neither, but I'm still a doctor", the Doctor replies: "I know the feeling". It's a good few decades since we were reminded that the Doctor is a grandfather, and it's jolting to realise that Susan would have died in the Time War with all the other Time Lords. Not that we're exactly Susan fans, but still.


The Child-cam's very scary. It's a shame, though, about all those atmospheric Darth Vaderesque breathing noises when it's clear from the hospital scenes that none of the converted people have any life signs.


Nancy tells Lloyd that she wants to use his bathroom. Not only is it a very unnatural sounding phrase for the period, it's also pretty unlikely he would have had one. Not indoors, at any rate.


The typewriter clunking on all by itself is a delightfully creepy moment. But didn't they say the Child can only use things with speaker grilles? So how's it working the typewriter?


Jack's heard all the zombies moaning " Mummy..." at the hospital, in spades. So why doesn't he catch on when Algy calls him Mummy?


When Algy gets zombiefied, the Doctor says the effect's becoming airborne. How does he know Algy didn't touch someone already affected?


We know Russell T Davies has said that using the sonic screwdriver avoids mundane stuff like opening doors. But a setting for reattaching barbed wire? That's really taking the piss.


Isn't the whole nanogene technology just a little... moronic? A medical technology that can't tell organic from inorganic, plus a strategy that bases every repair on a single sample? And that you can't control once it's released? Okay, it's possible that they were designed never to leave the ambulance capsule. But if that's the case, how are you supposed to stop the little buggers getting out when you open the lid?


What's with the Dr Strangelove parody? It's a daring combination of stupid and pointless.


Everything about Captain Jack is appalling, but that Martini scene is so criminally cheesy it deserves singling out. Hypervodkas? Oh, dear God.

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