After chasing a mysterious object through the time steam, the Doctor and Rose land in Blitz-Era London, where they get split up and go on separate adventures leading to the same place. Who is Captain Jack Harkness, and who is the empty child?
Heading into the second two-parter of the series so far, we’re thrown a lot of things at once, before the episode settles down into a more straightforward piece. It’s nice to have so much going on. Rose is off falling into the arms of a deliberately campy “American”, which leaves the Ninth Doctor free to go exploring and be himself – and that proves to be incredibly fun.
There’s been this loose idea that the Doctor has put up a wall particularly for Rose, where she gets to see a curated version of him, in a sense. Since their first meeting, for the most part he’s been trying to fit into the traditional role of “Doctor” to her role as “companion”. It’s been useful not just as a way to reset the series and bring in both old and new viewers, but arguably also for the Doctor himself. He’s been able to reset himself.
At the start of the series, he was off to one side from the rest of the universe, doing his own thing and quietly secretly hoping that nobody would notice him, because he wasn’t sure if his character could ever recover from the events of the Time War. As time has gone by he’s been able to open up specifically because of his time spent with Rose, to the extent that now he’s able to function in a more Doctor-y way than before. He can absent mindedly complain to a cat he finds in an alley, or sit down for dinner with a group of homeless kids. He’s not quite aware of it yet in-story, but this marks the point where arguably he’s found out who he is.
He’s a joy throughout the episode, taking each new development in stride. He seems more intelligent here than he has in other episodes (at several points in this series, he’s seemed lost as to what to do, but here he has more of a focus and keeps his insecurity hidden), and his journey unfolds in a straightforward way, moving from one person to the next until he’s got a bunch of loose threads he can start threading together. One of them is the child, another the patients, and in a fantastic scene with the wonderful Richard Wilson we see those two aspects of the story converge. Jack and Rose then show up and the mysterious wreckage from the start of the episode also snaps into place – it’s nice to have a mystery which seems like it’ll have a logical explanation, and that you can piece things together even as they’re happening.
To be honest, Jack is a fairly wooden type of character at the start who noticeably warms up as soon as he decides to be honest about who he is: a conman. At the moment he drops his pretences he makes a lot more sense as a character and as an on-screen persona, and it’s a bit of a relief. His introductory scene is particularly slow and faintly embarrassing, delivering a really interesting character in a formulaic way. His side of the story with Rose moves slowly, which is fine, but it also goes nowhere until he’s able to circle round and meet The Doctor near the end.
Compared to Nancy, who immediately comes across as complex, Jack needs a lot of work. Nancy’s whole “Robin Hood” thing is brilliant from the start, though, playing into necessary amorality where Jack plays into self-centred preservation. Nancy breaks into the homes of people during air raids and takes their food to pass on to local homeless kids, for whom she’s seen as a teacher figure. Particularly a teacher, in fact, as they call her “miss” and are given food only once they display proper table manners for her. She’s giving these children a sense of normalcy during a heightened period in time, and you can see that the Doctor admires it. At the same time, she’s complicated by her connection to the empty child, which makes her frustrating whilst also being on the surface a genuinely good person.
Tying up her personhood inside a mystery creates a tension which otherwise wouldn’t exist, and is the first of many times that Steven Moffat will present a woman as a mystery to solve. In this case I’d argue it works, because she’s there as a counterpoint to Captain Jack, who is also a mystery, although a shallower one. We already know both Rose and The Doctor are unambiguously good, so pairing them each off with a mysterious antihero type gives us a chance to see how their morality is able to shift. The Doctor is stealing food from the table of a family who are rightfully sheltering from an air raid but he does so happily, because he realises how Nancy is helping other people and sharing the table – even though it isn’t hers.
On the other hand, Rose questions Jack the whole time he’s trying to charm her, even though he gets fairly close with his plan. She realises that he’s hiding something, which is what gives her some measure of self-awareness around him. Having dealt with Adam only a few episodes beforehand, she decides early that she needs to introduce Jack and The Doctor. Partly it’s as curiosity over how they’ll deal with each other, but it’s also partly a defensive move: she wants to see if Jack can keep up his persona when he’s not just charming one person at a time. Her life wasn’t really her own at the start of the series, but we’re seeing with each new episode that she’s growing more confident and self-aware in her environment.
It’s a character-study, really, with four main roles and then a few interesting roles around them to set up whatever comes next. Moffat likes winding up a mystery, but here at least he’s already started solving it, which leaves this far less frustrating than some of his later efforts. And with the characters separating, it means that when they reconvene at the end there’s so much information they all now have to share with each other. It’s reassuring to know that everything you need is right in front of you – it’s just a case of not getting murdered by gas mask zombies before you have the chance.
Doctor Who Series 1 Episode 9: The Empty Child
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by James Hawes