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9 January 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 739: The Empty Child

Dear diary,

Over the past few days, I’ve spoken a lot about the way that the Doctor and Rose have been portrayed since setting out again in Dalek. We’re long past the Time Lord giving the Earth girl her first few steps in to the universe, and far more on a level where the pair of them do this day-in, day-out. This is perhaps shown never better than in this story - where we open with them mid-adventure, chasing something mauve and dangerous through space and then see them get separated and spend much of the story following their own, different, lines of enquiry. Maybe it’s simply because it’s something that I’ve been consciously looking out for this last week, but I’m really impressed with the way that all the character beats have been handled in this season - and I don’t think I really appreciated just how well-done it was on my first watch through a decade ago. It’s very subtle in places, and all the stronger for it.

What stands out for me the most in this episode, though, is the way that the Doctor behaves when he’s off on his own. Last week, I postulated that the Doctor was in a pretty low place when we meet him in Rose - just setting out on a mission to clean up after the events of the Time War - and that he needed Rose to help him find ‘the Doctor’ again. I think we can clearly see in this episode just what kind of effect she’s had on him.

Gone is the man from Rose, who didn’t want some shop girl from London to get caught up in the adventure, and was far more suited to being alone. Here’s a man who connects almost instantly to the human side of the story - hooking on to Nancy and her band of homeless kids, and finding himself just as fascinated by them, and the way they live, as he is the child-that-isn’t-a-child. It feels as though its a logical step from his comments to the bride and groom in Father’s Day, where he’s fascinated by what may seem something ordinary and mundane.

Equally, splitting up our ‘dream team’ allows us to see Rose more ‘honestly’. I’ve said that we’ve seen her grow to be something of a seasoned traveller by the time we touch down in Dalek, but here she’s reminded that she’s barely out of the nursery when it comes to time travel. Meeting Jack is another significant step in her adventures - the fist time she’s met another time traveller. The story uses this to full advantage, comparing and contrasting the Doctor and Jack as they go along (and the use of ‘Spock’ as the comparison is a nice touch… is this the first time that Star Trek has been acknowledged as existing in the Doctor Who universe? I know the Doctor visited Vulcan right back in The Power of the Daleks, but…!)

Of course, there’s a lot more to capture my attention in The Empty Child than just the latest evolution of the Doctor’s relationship with Rose. Chief among them, perhaps, is the direction. Right from the off, we’re absolutely flooded with atmosphere, and it perfectly captures the Tone Meeting’s desire for this story to present a ‘romantic’ view of the wartime period. From the moment that the TARDIS arrives in the alleyway, we’re given some rather beautiful direction - James Hawes makes his Doctor Who debut with this episode, and it’s no surprise that he was later invited back to helm the first of the programme’s modern festive episodes, because he’s got such a way with the camera here. I once heard the direction in this story described as ‘the way Doctor Who was always directed in your head’, and I think that’s probably an accurate summation of it. 

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