The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances

TARDISThis was the first piece I ever wrote for a regular issue of DWM (I’d done bits for one of their specials prior to this). It was published in DWM #413’s as part of the Mighty 200 feature in 2009.

DWM #413As Sigmund Freud, once nearly said: sometimes a cigar-shaped crashed Chula ambulance is just a cigar-shaped crashed Chula ambulance. But there’s not much else in 2005’s glorious two-parter – written by Steven Moffat and directed by James Hawes – which doesn’t allude to matters of the flesh.

While The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is undoubtedly a t-shirt industry in arresting images and dialogue (inevitably, a gas mask-wearing child asking “Are you my mummy?”), and represented, at the time, the show’s most expansive and successful evocation of an alien locale (blitzkrieg-ed London), plus, chilled the nation with one of the series’ all-time scariest stories (DWM is reliably informed, nearly five years on, there’s a boarding school in Oxfordshire where pupils are still being counselled for trauma) it’s also – steady!  – Doctor Who’s rudest outing ever.

How so? Let DWM count the ways…

Before 2005, Doctor Who was never about getting the girl. The time traveller was very carefully presented as an intimacy-averse, sexless creature whose only compulsion was to put things right and move on. Romance was that complicated thing humans got het up about. Steer clear.

Despite this precedent, as anticipation grew for Christopher Eccleston’s debut, the press speculated about the Doctor’s relationship with new signing Rose, and made the assumption it would have a romantic lilt… as though this had always been the Doctor-companion dynamic.

“Romance?!” spluttered one commentator. Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, actually, speaking to The Guardian in August 2004. “Well I shouldn’t be surprised, really. They’ll do anything to make people watch.”

Then, in November, came confirmation the papers were actually on the right track. The BBC issued its first piece of new Who merchandise – a postcard featuring the Doctor and Rose standing in front of the TARDIS. On the back: “The Doctor looks and seems human. He’s handsome, sexy and witty and could be mistaken for just another man in the street.” Sexy? Not quite the “never cruel or cowardly” epithet coined by Terrance Dicks. And for those who’d winced when the Eighth Doctor locked lips with Dr Grace Holloway in 1996, a potentially uncomfortable journey into a new dimension – one of love and lust – seemed around the corner.

In the event, our new Doctor’s relationship with Rose was comfortably signalled. A charming bit of hand-holding, a slightly too on-the-nose declaration from the Time Lord in The Unquiet Dead (“I’m so glad I met you”) and some ribbing about Rose’s rubbish new “boyfriend”, Adam, in The Long Game.

The horses remained resolutely unfrightened.

This state of affairs threatened to change when Steven Moffat clambered into the driving seat, giving us a two-part story which wasn’t just romantic, but looked at carnality in all its forms. In truth, a tale that examines the Doctor’s attitude to sex – and whether or not he’s ‘done it’ – should be anti-plastic to the Nestene consciousness of fan consensus. That it’s not, and that it instead ranks as one of the all-time greatest Doctor Whos, is a tribute to Moffat’s (oh God, let’s say it) genius.

Honestly, you don’t have to dig deep to unearth the sexual subtext in this nigh on 90-minutes of TV. From the very off, the Doctor is setting the agenda, declaring it “camp” that humanity has designated the colour red for danger. “Oh the misunderstandings,” he says. “All those red alerts, all that dancing…”

Ah, the dancing. We’ll get back to that.

Then there are the first words spoken by Captain Jack: “Excellent bottom,” he declares, sighting Rose hanging from a barrage balloon. “I say old man, there’s a time and a place,” chirps up discomfited RAF chum Algy. “But you’ve got an excellent bottom too,” smiles Jack, giving it a squeeze as he flips his appreciative gaze from her to him, and then trots off to, well, get the girl.

It’s a bold moment for a frontline Saturday night family show; a subversion of the audience’s romantic expectations but one done with such joie de vivre, flippancy and speed we’re left smiling, almost unaware of the switcheroo that’s been played.

And there’s more. Loads more. Inspiring street urchin Nancy gets in a similar reversal with the perma-perspiring Mr Lloyd: “Half this street reckons your missus must be messing about with Mr Haverstock the butcher. But she’s not, is she? You are!” Jack recalls a brush with near-death: “Woke up in bed with both my executioners. Lovely couple”. And – in moment that, this time, draws real dignity from its brevity – one of Nancy’s gangs hints at the truly ugly side of human relationships, explaining why he’s back in London: “I was evacuated. Sent me to a farm. There was a man there”.

Steven Moffat has gone on record with his admiration for 1975’s The Ark in Space, so it’s unsurprising he alludes to its most famous moment – the Fourth Doctor’s “Homo sapiens” speech – during The Doctor Dances. Although, he does give it a certain spin…

Having established Jack is “a 51st century guy” who’s a bit more “flexible” than the average 21st century model when it comes to personal relationships, the Doctor goes on to tell Rose how, in this time period, “you lot are spread out across half the galaxy”.

“Meaning?” she asks.

“So many species,” smiles the Time Lord wickedly, “so little time.”

Oh yes, those inventive, invincible homo sapiens are certainly going to outsit eternity. Seems like the plan is to spread their seed as far and wide as possible. Indomitable… and maybe a bit domineering.

Even the story’s final reveal – no innuendo intended – draws upon sexual politics. “How old were you five years ago?” the Doctor asks Nancy, the crucial realisation dawning as to the identity of the Empty Child’s ‘mummy’. “Fifteen? 16? Old enough to give birth anyway. A teenage single mother in 1941!”

“People complain about endings a lot,” Moffat said, back in 2006, “but they don’t know really what they’re talking about. They talk about ‘God out of the machine’, but they don’t actually mean that. What they mean is, you can’t win the game with a new piece on the board. You have to have seen already what the downfall of the enemy will be, but not recognised it for what it is. That’s what they mean.”

It’s dizzingly brilliant piece of writing, this story. Moffat carefully unthreading a thematic layer from the tale’s subtext, and using it as a crucial lever to switch the plot up at the end. But his boldness doesn’t stop there. Oh no, much like the Glen Miller track he jigs to at the close of The Doctor Dances, our hero ‘is in the mood’…Erm, for dancing.

Hold on, who let the Nolan Sisters in?

But, of course, the Doctor doesn’t mean dancing. Swap that word for another much more rude one (bet you can think of a couple) and the sense of the script doesn’t alter a jot.

It’s not until the story’s second half it comes clear the Doctor does have some kind of personal interest in… dancing. As it turns out, yes, he’s got the moves. But he’s out of practice (“I’m sure I used to know this stuff”) and still bouncing back from the Time War. It takes not just Rose’s attentions, but the galvanising impetus of the series’ most alpha male to reconnect the Doctor with his latent sense of rhythm.

Having already engaged – and lost – in a metaphorical spot of willy waggling with Captain Jack over the merits of their respective sonic devices, the Doctor’s sense of masculinity receives a further kicking when Rose coos after their new friend. “Okay,” she sighs as Jack teleports up to his ship, “so he’s vanished into thin air. Why is it always the great looking ones who do that?”

“I’m making an effort not to look insulted,” says our cuckolded hero.

“I mean… men,” she clarifies. As far as Rose is concerned, the Doctor doesn’t count, right? Not as a man. By common consensus, he has nothing to do with all that accompanies the gender.

But she’s wrong.

“You just assume I don’t dance,” the Doctor moans. “Nine hundred years old, me! I’ve been around a bit. I think you can assume at some point I’ve danced.”

And there it is. Steven Moffat’s take on sex and the single Time Lord laid out as plainly as possible. Of course the Doctor has danced in the past. Why wouldn’t he have? To deny him that experience would be to limit the character. And in a story which is a little bit about death, but a whole lot more about life, it makes sense our hero has had personal experience of what living is about at its most basic level. If you don’t dance, you’re not really alive.

“You?” says Rose. “Doesn’t the universe implode or something if you dance?”

It really could have done.

Everyone knows that the Chula ambulance so integral to this story is named after an Indian/Bangladeshi fusion restaurant in Hammersmith, London, where the 2005 Doctor Who writers met to celebrate their commissions. Imagine the excitement as they swapped story details.

Mark Gatiss: “Mine’s going to be quite trad. Gothic. Victoriania. Dead bodies coming back to life. Charles Dickens!”

Paul Cornell: “I’ve been given a lovely brief – Rose going back to the Eighties to stop her father dying. Lots of emotion.”

Rob Shearman: “Daleks! Well, one Dalek, actually.”

All eyes turn to Moffat.

Steven Moffat: “I’m doing the one where the Doctor has sex!”

His colleagues are appalled. A bit of onion pepper nan drops out of Shearman’s mouth and snags on his beard.

And then Sigmund Freud passes by, quite forgetting he died in 1939. “Anatomy is destiny!” he says, and nips outside for a cigar.

Destiny! It’s a good Doctor Who-y word. In The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances the Time Lord’s destiny is to embark on a supremely scary adventure, wherein he faces a truly iconic and imaginatively wrought foe. He meets a new friend, saves everyone’s lives and kick-starts the welfare system. With all that going on, if you didn’t want to engage in the dancing stuff, you didn’t have to. There’s about a million other things to enjoy. But whether or not you buy into the subtext, everyone agrees: Doctor Who has never been quite this fanciable.


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