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With a new spinoff announced for Captain Jack in the form of a Big Finish audio drama (The Lives of Captain Jack), I thought it would be a good idea to look back at the two parter that introduced the character to the Whoniverse - The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. An ongoing debate in fandom is who actually created Captain Jack. Whilst Steven Moffat was the first to write the character, Russell T Davies gave the character to Moffat to introduce in his two parter. Personally, I see Steven Moffat as the character's creator as he is the one who first established the character's personality onscreen. Without Moffat's writing first, Jack may have been a completely different character with a completely different personality. Whilst I'm not as in love with The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances as other members of the Whovian fandom, if it wasn't for this story Captain Jack may not have become arguably the most compelling of the new series' recurring characters to date.
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances finds the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose (Billie Piper) arrive in WW2 London, where a young child called Jamie (Albert Valentine) is terrorising the population by spreading what appears to be a disease that turns everybody he touches into gas mask zombies. Whilst Rose searches for a young boy crying for help and is rescued hanging from a barrage balloon by con man Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), the Doctor meets the young boy's 'sister' Nancy (Florence Hoath). Eventually the Doctor and Rose learn that the gas mask zombies have been created by nanogenes (robots that take on the appearance of glowing specks and are capable of healing wounds) from a Chula ambulance that Jack crashed in the middle of war-torn London. In order to save London from the nanogenes, the Doctor, Rose and Jack must reunite Jamie with his mother.
It's not hard when looking at this story to see why the character of Captain Jack became so popular. John Barrowman as Captain Jack is perfect casting and is extremely fun to watch. There is literally never a dull moment when Jack is around, his cheeky nature balancing nicely off Christopher Eccleston's more serious take on the Doctor. One great scene shows Jack admiring Rose's arse through a pair of binoculars. To me that is the scene in this two parter that sums up Jack's character best; it shows how progressive Doctor Who as a show is and always has been that it introduced its first bisexual character in 2005. That's at least 10 years before other television shows started introducing bisexual characters, maybe even longer than that. The only other bisexual character in a television show I can recall is Marcus Dent in Coronation Street and he wasn't revealed as bisexual until 2012, when he developed feelings for hairdresser Maria Connor.
Christopher Eccleston is much better here than he is in other Series 1 stories as the Doctor too. By this point he feels much more comfortable in the role, especially with the humour that the part requires. Earlier in the series some of Christopher Eccleston's more light-hearted lines felt a little forced but here it sounds somewhat more natural coming from his mouth. The line 'Oh, that's just humans. By everyone else's standards, red's camp.' would have probably felt stiff said by early Eccleston but here the way he says it to Rose works well. He still isn't the best Doctor at the more comedy-orientated elements (hell, he's probably my least favourite Doctor out of all the actors to play the role) but it shows that he might have improved had he stayed on for a second series. This is something that even Christopher Eccleston himself has begun to acknowledge; in recent interviews he has stated he regrets leaving Doctor Who after such a short space of time and could have improved at the comedy had he continued. Here's hoping Big Finish can convince him to record some new audio adventures of the ninth Doctor as it could be a Colin Baker scenario: the audio ninth Doctor being better than the TV ninth Doctor.
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances has possibly one of the best one-off characters in any episode of the show too. Florence Hoath is brilliant as Nancy; an extremely likeable young woman who feeds homeless children in her shelter. She's a woman with a heart of gold, yet she's certainly no Mary Sue. Her weakness is actually pretty dark for Doctor Who, in that she refuses to accept a kid of hers who in her mind is a 'mistake'. You see, Nancy is a mother who gave birth at the age of sixteen. She's the victim of an unfortunate young pregnancy. It can perhaps be argued that in the same way Kill The Moon is a subtext for abortion, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is more the story of a young woman facing her 'mistake' and having to accept him for who he is rather than as someone who wasn't meant to happen than it is about gas mask zombies. Nancy could have made a brilliant companion and it is a wonder that she didn't join the ninth Doctor, Rose and Jack in the TARDIS (although it would have been a bit crowded).
My problem with The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is that I don't find the gas mask zombies that convincing as a threat. The catchphrase 'Are you my mummy?' is creepy in the way it is spoken regardless of the character's age in a childlike voice but it isn't clear enough what the gas mask transformation does to its victims. Do they lose their humanity? Is it like a mental condition such as dementia where they're no longer the same person but merely a reflection of who they used to be? Do they have the same memories or only simplified versions of them (does Jamie only remember Nancy being his mother?)? None of this is made clear enough in the two parter and it would have been nice to have had more clarity by Steven Moffat as to how tragic becoming a gas mask zombie is.
Having said that, the climax of 'everybody lives' still remains one of the most heart-warming moments the show has ever had. You truly feel the Doctor's joy when he says it and it feels like a natural conclusion that makes sense given what has happened earlier in the story. The foreshadowing is all there for a satisfying pay-off and is expertly written by Steven Moffat, in a way that I couldn't possibly imagine this story having any other ending. It's sort-of like if Steven Spielberg directed a Doctor Who episode: the kind of magical conclusion you'd get from a Spielberg film like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Spielberg movies were an inspiration for Moffat when writing this two-parter. Maybe one day the show could even get Steven Spielberg to direct a Steven Moffat episode?
The two parter also features one of the most impressive scenes in the 2005 revival so far: Rose hanging from a barrage balloon. This scene was filmed in front of a green screen at a hangar at RAF St Athan (in the Vale of Glamorgan) and in my view wouldn't look out of place in a blockbuster movie. It's jaw-dropping how convincing it looks and there are no obvious signs that it is green-screened (as can be found in some TV Shows with a higher budget):
The CGI in that scene by The Mill is still incredible ten years' on, the tractor beam Captain Jack uses to beam Rose up being another effect in that scene that feels extremely real. If you showed that to anybody without bias towards Doctor Who and asked them how old the CGI is, I would predict their response would be '2016' rather than '2005'.
Overall, I might not have as much love for The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances as other Whovians (personally I prefer Silence In The Library/Forest of the Dead) but it is still a great two-parter and a successful introduction for Captain Jack Harkness. John Barrowman was perfect casting as Jack and it isn't hard to see why years later many of us are begging for his return in the main show after being absent since 2010. Christopher Eccleston gives one of his best performances as the Doctor and Nancy is one of the show's most likeable one-off characters. The gas mask zombies may not have impressed me as they did other viewers but their catchphrase is certainly creepy, even if what the gas mask transformation even means for its victims isn't explained enough in the two parter for me to really care or find them scary. The CGI is still amazing though (especially the barrage balloon sequence) and it's hard to believe the visual effects here are ten years' old.