“Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once, everybody lives!”
The appeal of “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” can be summed up by its climactic line, and so SPOILERS lay ahead. It takes place during the Blitz, a time when innocent people were being bombed to hell and would end with them at best taking solace in the things they managed to keep; these people are represented in the story by the least powerful and most victimised, orphaned children lead around by a teenage girl. The scifi element introduced is a time travelling conman, looking to squeeze a few bucks in the middle of this horror. The monster of the week – a boy in a gas mask wandering around, asking everyone if they’re his mummy – is completely inexplicable and slowly warping everyone it comes into contact with into gas-mask wearing mummy-searchers like itself. This was my first Doctor Who episode, the ninth and tenth episodes of the first season of the revival, and it lays out a bleak situation that keeps getting worse. The Doctor responds to each turn in the plot with a methodical calm, even as he’s completely in over his head (one of my favourite moments is when he manages to trick the monster out of trapping them by yelling at it to go to its room, remarking “I’m really glad that worked. Those would have been terrible last words.”). But it’s not just unrelenting bleakness; there’s a moment of sweetness when the Doctor discovers the girl leads the children around homes during air raids to steal food that’s been left on the table, going to the trouble of observing table manners, and he marvels at how they’ve found a way to be human in an inhuman situation. This is the story of people making the best of the worst situation.
Which is what makes the final twist land so hard. This show is structured around mysteries, and the mystery of “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” is effortlessly played out, a relentless rush of revelations that include not just time travelling conmen and nanobots but also the personal history of the entirely ordinary people floating through it; this is not the episode where the Doctor remarks “Who says you’re not important?” in a way that’s strangely rhetorically angry, but that attitude underlies his view of the people he meets here, and the small and personal and ordinary details of the girl is what ultimately powers the big, bombastic scifi solution. The show has sold us so well on the brutal tone of the plot and the way that an already bad situation just kept getting worse that we don’t need the history implied by the line, so it simply pushes the emotion even further over the top. This is a man (er, Time Lord) who is resigned to the fact that bad things happen and simply focuses himself on cleaning them up the best he can. Here, he has a situation where there are no bad guys, everybody gets ahead, and he walks away from the situation have added to the world as opposed to taken something away from it, and he’s so happy about that fact that he could cry.
When Russel T Davies launched the Doctor Who revival, he set out with a simple goal: sacrifice character, plot, theme, and everything else at the foot of spectacle. This is not a goal that worked for everyone, and it didn’t always work for people who were into that, but this episode locked me into his morality and sense of purpose so strongly that it propelled me through the rest of his tenure; I get why people don’t like the near-self-parody of “Journey’s End”, but it felt like everything I loved about the show pushed to its logical endpoint, and it was “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” that got me there. For me, the fact that the show was also rooted in a genuine love for human beings and a fascination for all the different ways people can be people that kept the spectacle from roaming off up its own ass; however big the emotions and the situations got, they were always applied to people I cared about, and where possible these people were always the simplest and smallest. It showed that to its full potential in this episode, and that’s when I fell in love.
What’s the episode of a show that made you fall in love with it?