I’m thinking of a Doctor Who DVD box set – the World War II stories. It consists of Let’s Kill Hitler, The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe (the first bit), The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe (the rest of it), Victory of the Daleks and The Curse of Fenric. It could come in a special edition gas mask shaped tin. You could press a button and hear it say, ‘are you my Mummy?’ It would fly off the shelves like a Lancaster bomber or maybe float off gently like a barrage balloon.
Why has World War II proven such fertile ground in which to grow Doctor Who, particularly as conceived by Steven Moffat? On the face of it, it’s subject matter which should be too edgy for the series. Perhaps it’s because the two have long been connected.
When Doctor Who started, it was 18 years since the war had ended. Its influence was still being felt; in the series’ initial conception, you’ll recall, the Doctor was fleeing from a galactic war. The first Dalek story references the Nazis heavily, and the second imagines Britain overrun with fascist invaders. Even The doddery old Sensorites is a story of soldiers left behind, fighting a war long since over.
And when the show returned to 1963 for Remembrance of the Daleks, characters like Ratcliffe and Harry recalled the war; the novelisation has Rachel Jensen remembering surviving the blitz. So the genesis of this show is linked to the war, and to British pride of triumphing against overwhelming odds. In The Empty Child, the Doctor (U-boat captain Christopher Eccleston) gives voice to this pride:
Right now, not very far from here, the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe. Country after country, falling like dominoes. Nothing can stop it. Nothing. Until one, tiny, damp little island says no. No. Not here. A mouse in front of a lion. You’re amazing, the lot of you. Don’t know what you do to Hitler, but you frighten the hell out of me.
William Hartnell’s Doctor never did end up running from that mysterious alien war, but Eccleston’s Doctor did. It’s odd that of all the stories in that first year of rejuvenated Who, this one, set in a war so close to the series’ home, is the one that dwells on the time war the least. Not at all in fact, even though our war veteran Doctor is smack in the middle of events which should feel grimly familiar. But that’s because cosmic angst is not on Moffat’s agenda.
No, he wants to scare children and get the Doctor laid.
The first part of that he does with consummate style. He begins with a haunting image: a five year old boy in a gas mask. This boy terrifies those around him, but his plaintiff cries resonate with any adult who has half a heart: ‘Please let me in, Mummy. I’m scared of the bombs’. Who wouldn’t want to embrace that child, take him in, make him safe?
But touching this boy is the one thing you can’t do. It’s the next of Moffat’s steps towards creating something really creepy. Touch the boy and you don’t quite die, but your life is emptied out of you. The next thing you know a gas mask is forcing its way up your throat and then your face becomes the gas mask. A physical amalgamation of flesh and object. There’s never been anything quite like it in Doctor Who.
His final trick is to set it in the Blitz, where death could fall from the sky at a moment’s notice. The characters we meet are already living under incredible stress. They’re permanently scared and hungry and under siege from an enemy they can’t protect themselves from. The threat represented by the empty child is not that dissimilar from that brought by the Germans, though far more insidious.
From there on in, Moffat pulls the familiar tricks to bring the scares: you’re surrounded by them, don’t let them touch you, you think you’re safe but you’re not, time’s running out and it’s actually in the room with you. Those are standard narrative driven frights, brought to life by James Hawes’ vivid direction. But they are the symptoms, not the cause of this terror. The cause is those bold, unsettling concepts: a boy in a gas mask, a mask that eats your face, death calling at any time and you with no defence.
Moffat ignores the time war. But this first series’ other major obsession, the burgeoning relationship between the Doctor and Rose (Billie Piper), is front and centre. Earlier in the season, wannabe companion Adam Mitchell had been introduced to throw a gooseberry at the Doctor and Rose’s quietly developing romance. But he proved no contest. In the previous episode, Father’s Day, Rose wondered, ‘Why does everyone think we’re a couple?’ Well, because you constantly act like one, I suppose.
Moffat introduces a new competitor for Rose’s affections, and this one’s a contender: tall, dark and handsome, plus he’s got his own spaceship. Captain Jack (John Barrowman) will become very familiar to us in future years and his omnisexual appetite will become one of his defining characteristics. But here he’s the Doctor’s rival and Rose feels an immediate attraction to him. It’s clear the Doctor’s going to have to lift his game.
There can only be one winner. But Jack eventually retreats to his spaceship, shamefully realising his responsibility in bringing the Chula nanogenes to Earth. The Doctor solves the problem at hand, by a combination of luck and smarts, and brings everyone back to life. There’s no contest between these two, in the end. ‘I’m on fire!’ he roars in triumph as the story comes to close.
So of course he gets the girl. And they end up dancing joyously around the console room in celebration. For the first time, we see dancing presented as a metaphor for sex, so it’s hard to see that hop as anything but a hugely enjoyable post-match shag. It’s even in the title: The Doctor Dances. Well, perhaps it would have been a step too far to call it The Doctor Loses his Cherry.
Hey, maybe there’s another potential boxset here: the (ahem) Dancing Stories. It would go The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace… and um, does the Drunk Giraffe count?
LINK TO Planet of the Dead. Both have Captains.
ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: a howler when during the performance of ‘It had to be you’ when the lyrics ‘with all your faults, I love you still’ becomes ‘when I uphold silence still’. Um, what?
NEXT TIME: It’s time to step out on the balcony and wave a tentacle at Terror of the Zygons.