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04 December 2010 @ 05:54 pm
random meta!  
I watched “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances” again yesterday: the first-season DVDs were in at the library, and I’d never heard the commentary on these. So first, a couple of days ago, I listened to the commentary on these episodes and “Father’s Day,” and then yesterday I watched, without commentary, “Father’s Day” and “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances.”

And cried, of course. It had been quite a while since I’d seen “Father’s Day,” so that was at least a bit more reasonable, but I’d just watched the two-parter over the summer. But Nancy, looking around at the bleakness and the bombs, saying “What future?”—it always gets me. I continue to be unable to understand the broad categorization that parts of fandom have set up—the one where RTD writes emotion, and Moffat writes intricate but distant plots—because every Moffat episode in S1-S4 makes me cry, or at least tugs hard on my heartstrings. And I have yet to rewatch Moffat’s S5 episodes with a critical eye (DVDs for Christmas though, so excited!), but I remember being moved by certain moments: the death of the cleric in the Angels episodes, for example, or Amy being so brave in the darkness, sending the Doctor away to save the others. And of course the finale was just a parade of emotional flailing. (I still get a little emotional when I think of Eleven saying “Bye-bye, Pond.” Oh, that scene.)

But it’s true that “The Empty Child” two-parter is sort of a perfect storm of Things I Like in stories, too:

--A time travel story that uses time travel to consider or reconsider an episode in history. This is different from history-as-setting, as in “Vampires of Venice” or “The Shakespeare Code” (though I like that, too). It’s why Nancy’s “What future?” is so affecting to me (well, partly; it’s also because it’s brave, clever Nancy saying it, and the way that it means she’s been carrying on in the face of that fear). From our perspective, the Blitz is a story of triumph and resilience, one where the outcome is certain; we know how it ends. And we get that sort of perspective from the Doctor, too, in that wonderful “small, damp little island” speech: the perspective of someone who knows how it all turns out. But Nancy’s comment—and her “But you’re not…German”—turns the narrative on its head for a moment: it’s still happening for her, all that terror and uncertainty. And it’s time travel that allows that perspective shift to take place, by putting those two perspectives against each other in the narrative. (Historical fiction can portray historical events as present happenings rather than finished stories, too, of course—which is why I love it—but the contrast in points of view remains outside the story itself, with us as readers or viewers.)

--It’s important, too, that Nancy’s comments here aren’t about what’s happening with Jamie and the nanogenes, but about the Blitz itself. (“What future?” can, of course, be read as a comment on the episode’s plot, too.) The Doctor and Rose and Jack are all trying to stop this thing that could change history, destroy the human race; their uncertainty in this situation comes from this supernatural occurrence, not the historical circumstances. Again, Nancy doesn’t have the luxury of their knowledge, and so for a moment, the immediate story, for us as knowledgeable viewers who have been worried about “the empty child” plotline but not about the outcome of WWII, takes second place to the historical narrative. This is also what I like about Nancy’s story itself; it’s simultaneously an ordinary human drama and, inadvertently, a supernatural one. At first it’s the story of a girl who’s lost her brother to the bombs and takes care of children to atone for that, and it turns out to be a story of a mother lying to her child because of the ordinary (by which I mean simply “real-world”) social mores and hardships of her day. It’s only a quirk, an accident, that turns this real-world story into an extraterrestrial one—the fact that the bomb that killed Jamie wasn’t a bomb. And it’s an accident that turns horror into grace: Jamie becomes the empty child, but this means that he can also be restored to Nancy instead of simply killed by an ordinary bomb, his loss mended by truth and recognition. (This is a word the Doctor uses, when the nanogenes “recognize” the superior information from Nancy’s DNA; the word does double work, because it’s also a story about a boy trying to recognize his mother.) It’s science fiction as Shakespearean family romance. And it’s the everyday story that provides the solution for the alien one; it’s an integral part of the episode, not just “local color.”

--It also takes place within the shadows of the historical record, which is something I always love (see also: the Company novels); Jack chooses this time and place because the record says that a bomb exploded on that site, making the whole thing “the perfect self-cleaning con.” And the Doctor ultimately preserves that record, even though Jack gets rid of the bomb that was meant to explode on the site, by destroying the Chula ambulance. I love the idea of secret histories that fall neatly into the gaps and silences of the historical record. Some people respond to dystopias and cataclysms—big stories—but I gravitate toward hidden ones and stories of near-misses, disasters averted: stories small enough to fit in those historical spaces.

--It’s really good at emphasizing the human elements of the story in an economical way, often by inference (and if there’s a difference between the Moffat and the RTD style of writing emotion, maybe it’s this: RTD is more likely to stop the action for an emotional scene—the scenes between Wilf and Ten in “The End of Time,” for example—and Moffat’s more likely to write the emotion into a scene’s grace notes). We get told about Nancy’s loss, Nancy’s story in large part because it’s relevant to the plot; we need to know that Nancy lost her “brother” because we’ll need that information later. And we’re told this only after we’ve seen her in action, brisk and no-nonsense but also caring and kind—just doing what she can, like so many others.* (Which is why the Doctor’s line there is so perfect—“Go on then, do what you’ve got to do. Save the world”—and it’s why Christopher Eccleston’s delivery is so perfect, too: he says it humorously, amused—and that’s what allows us to hear it as truth, I think, instead of potentially being turned off by sentiment or its being over-the-top. Because Nancy is saving the world; the small things do. Later, of course, she saves the world in a more dramatic way. But she’s been doing it all along.) Similarly, Moffat hints at all these stories going on in the margins that suggest a larger world—the fact that these children have run away from their evacuation homes because the conditions there were apparently worse than living rough in the middle of the Blitz (“there was a man”—what was he doing to those children?), or the little story that earns Nancy the wire cutters. This technique doesn’t always work; sometimes one chooses the wrong details, or leaves it too late—as in S5’s “Victory of the Daleks,” which is a kind of wrong-side-out version of this two-parter, where characters who are supposed to be sympathetic never manage to emerge from stereotype and cliché—but this story gets it exactly right, I think.

*This is not really relevant to this paragraph, but Nancy’s no-nonsense remark to the children as she’s heading into danger—“Lots of greens. And chew your food”—is one of my favorite things about the episode, and it provides the sort of contrast between the supernatural—the typewriter with no operator—and the mundane that I love so much. According to the commentary, this was a last-minute addition to the episode because it ran short, and Moffat had to write a quick scene that didn’t involve the principal cast and had very few props, but I can’t imagine the episode without it.
La Reine Noire: Vergillareinenoire on December 5th, 2010 06:39 am (UTC)
Just commenting to say I agree with everything you say here. It's the interplay between history and the threat of an alternate history that lies at the heart of why I love this two-parter and The Girl in the Fireplace. The fact that the Doctor knows what is meant to happen and is trying to keep that in place while solving whatever problem needs solving in the interim just makes the plot all the more fun for me.

(Which is probably totally evident from the kind of fic I write.)
viomisehuntviomisehunt on December 5th, 2010 06:37 pm (UTC)
Ditto on both comments and entry:

The best episodes of Season Five for me were the Eleventh Hour, The Doctor and Vincent (in which the Doctor behaved at his best as a Time Lord. That is how I envision the Time Lord, dealing with Monsters humanity is not yet ready to confront alone. I loved that Vincent just shut him up when he tried to comment on how Vincent should approach his work.

I don't think Russell knows how to make you cry without tearing out the gut of a character. Moffat gets that the most profound emotion is realizing your own mortality or the limits in the presence of greater things, like Time itself, or the most humbling realization: no matter how much you love or respect someone, the only person you can control is yourself. That is the power in Vincent and The Doctor. Moffat gets the "irony" or the "jest"; the Time Lord really has no control of Time. They can manipulate individual events, but the Universe is no one's servant. That knowledge, that Time Lords are just as vulnerable to the Universe as we other mortals came across in Season One, which to me was Russell's best, even with some of the blatant race/gender fails of the entire DW series. I think the difference here is that Moffat gets that people saw the amiable sexism and ethnic/cultural bias in the early episodes, he acknowledges that people had to grow. It would be just like Moffat to take a poke at Hammer classic like She and still find a way to break our hearts.

Edited at 2010-12-05 06:41 pm (UTC)
tempestsarekind: ten and martha have three hearts betweentempestsarekind on December 5th, 2010 09:59 pm (UTC)
Possibly--I was flipping through The Writer's Tale the other day in the bookstore, and RTD kept going on and on about how he wanted people to weep over what happened to Donna, that he wanted people who were little kids watching it now to still come up to him and go "how could you do that to her?" when they were much older. It's not that Russell hasn't written in positive moments of emotion, but his idea of a showstopper is almost always about watching someone suffer horribly.
tempestsarekind: all the world's a stagetempestsarekind on December 5th, 2010 09:55 pm (UTC)
Yes--and I think that's another part of why I prefer the historical episodes, most of the time: even aside from the fact that I think history is cool, we can share a bit in the Doctor's perspective, and know that history is meant to go one way, so it's a problem if it doesn't. I don't have that sort of external connection to, say, Nine's attempt to figure out what's wrong with the Great and Bountiful Human Empire; the narrative tells me it's important, but I can't know that on my own.