“A mouse in front of a lion”

TV It’s probably quite difficult for those of us already in thrall to the spin-off fictions, to Edwardian Adventuresses and amnesiac Doctors living through a century of Earth’s history, to really appreciate how much of a departure an episode like The Empty Child must have been to an audience with memories of the earlier series, especially if they departed not long after The Twin Dilemma broadcast. The show had often steeped itself in period detail, albeit on a tight budget, but for all the alien technology, this is indistinguishable from the so-called more mainstream drama and with only slightly different content could happily exist in a nine o’clock slot on BBC Four.

But even for those of us who know our Faction Paradox from our divergent universe, Moffat brings something fresh to the series and by the end of this first episode I knew two things: (a) that he was clearly so busy with other things that we should enjoy this single story he’s giving to us while we can and (2) it’s so good that it falls into the category of story that is near impossible to review because there’s nothing to be funny about. Which was rather the pattern that weaved through all of the later Moffat episodes. Imagine my mix of elation and fear when we discovered that he turning down Spielberg and more Tin Tin so that he could to produce his favourite series.

I’ve heard The Empty Child is still being used in some schools to help teach kids about conditions during the blitz. When I was at juniors, we enjoyed ITV's How We Used To Live, which shows somewhat how Doctor Who has moved on because I can’t believe Mark of the Rani educated anyone much about the industrial revolution. There’s something especially nu-Who, which prides itself on providing a twist on expected formulas, about Moffat focusing not on the evacuees, but the experiences of the kids left behind or who returned because it was probably safer to risk being hit by a bomb than exist in the home they’d been sent to.

With the best will in the world and accepting the work of Ian Briggs and Ben Aaronovitch in the very later years, children were an overlooked "group" in the first thirty. For a show with a family audience the Cbeebies to BBC Three demographic made only infrequent appearances, generally as extras (cf, the Kinda) or annoyances (cf, The Twin Dillema). Across the years fairly stringent character types developed, scientists, army men, industrial workers, henchmen but very rarely young citizens simply getting by with what they have, never homeless and certainly not on screen for long enough not to be killed.

The Confidential which was broadcast after this episode went some way to demonstrating why that was the case with kids only allowed a limited time in front of the camera and difficult to direct in groups - so not ideal for the old rehearse/record production methods. Yet it’s not until we see so many of them crowded around that table (“Good eer init?”) that we notice what a huge omission they were. The only time even schools seemed to feature was in order to introduce companions of ambiguous ages played by older actors (Coal Hill from An Unearthly Child and Brendon in Mawdryn Undead) almost as though Who wanted to distinguish itself from Grange Hill (which is odd considered the many appearances from Michael Sheard).

"All" they would have needed was a figure like Florence Hoath’s Nancy, someone for the Doctor to communicate directly with rather than having to deal with the group dynamic. She's a figure head slash matriarch for these non-evacuees, a civilising influence, the kids keen to accept the parental order that she brings or at the very least her keen ability to sniff out a decent roast. But the faceting of Moffat’s writing doesn’t allow for her to simply doing it out of the goodness of her heart as a two dimensional character might; she’s fulfilling a psychological need in herself to fill the vacuum left by as we later discover her son. On second viewing can also we see how expertly Hoath is playing parental grief from the start.

The Doctor’s attitude to Nancy is important too. He doesn’t patronise her and perhaps even sees within her a kindred spirit having experienced such a loss too. When he talks about this “tiny, damp little island” saying no to Hitler, “A mouse in front of a lion” he could equally be talking about himself on oh so many other desperate situations, presumably even the one he’s just lived through, in which as we discover much later he wasn’t only fighting the Daleks but his own people as well. Sometimes Eccleston looks as though he’s glossing a bit, still getting a feel for the character. This isn’t one of those occasions.

[To be continued.]

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