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Recap / Doctor Who S27 E9 "The Empty Child"

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The Empty Child
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by James Hawes
Production code: 1.9
Air date: 21 May 2005
Part 1 of 2

Dr. Constantine: Before this war began, I was a father and a grandfather. Now I'm neither, but I'm still a doctor.
The Doctor: Yeah. I know the feeling.

The one where we meet the all-loving Lothario.

Also the first one to have the Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant extraordinaire in the writer's se- mmm... mum... mum-my...


Are you my mummy?

This two-part episode is the first story Steven Moffat wrote for the revived Doctor Who. In what would become a continuing theme for Steven Moffat, it's very scary, contains tons of Unresolved Sexual Tension, and instantly won a Hugo Award.

It introduces Captain Jack Harkness, who becomes a tremendously important character throughout the next few seasons and gets his own spinoff, Torchwood.

Sixth Doctor Colin Baker has said that in his opinion, this episode (and its second part, "The Doctor Dances") is the best Who story ever filmed. This becomes even more notable when you realize that elements of this story (notably the creepy child in pursuit of his lost parent) share similarities with the Big Finish audio drama "The Holy Terror" — a story that writer Steven Moffat called his favorite Sixth Doctor story, ever.

The Doctor and Rose follow an alien spacecraft's emergency signal through time and space, to London during the Blitz. Since they can't very well leave alien stuff lying around in the past, they decide to retrieve it.

Things quickly get weird, though: the phone on the outside of the TARDIS rings, despite not being a real phone and not being hooked up to anything; a mysterious young woman appears and warns the Doctor not to answer it; when he does, it's a plaintive child's voice asking "Are you my mummy?"

Rose, in the fine old tradition of the Doctor's companions, has wandered off and got herself into trouble. In this case by grabbing a hold of a barrage balloon and accidentally taking to the skies above London while it's being bombed, wearing a T-shirt with a giant British flag on it. She's rescued in the nick of time by a suave spaceship pilot with an American accent, an RAF uniform and a penchant for flirting with his fellow soldiers, who introduces himself as Captain Jack Harkness. Captain Jack deduces that she's also a time traveller and, assuming that she's a Time Agent, tells her of a recently crashed alien ship, whose location he'll reveal for a few quid. Oh, and he (quite successfully) tries to seduce her — by taking her for a slow dance on the roof of his invisible ship, which is anchored to the top of Big Ben.

Elsewhere in London. Nancy, the young woman who warned the Doctor not to answer the phone, sneaks into a house whose inhabitants are in their bomb shelter. They've left the house mid-meal, so Nancy gives a signal and adorable little waifs come rushing in. They're mostly homeless kids and/or escapees from the Blitz Evacuation. Oh, and one extra person — adorable, all right, but unusually tall and deep-voiced, for a kid... it's the Doctor! He fishes for information but doesn't get very far. Then Nancy and the kids hear the approach of a certain kid in a certain gas mask, repeating a certain catch phrase, and flee in terror. Nancy identifies the boy as her brother, Jamie, and claims that he's "empty". The Doctor is left behind to see the kid up close — including a cut on the kid's hand — and is asked over and over, "Are you my mummy?"

Nancy, once tracked down, points the Doctor to "the Doctor". She means Dr. Constantine over at Albion Hospital, who treated Jamie when he first got hit by a mysterious falling object that wasn't a bomb.

Dr. Constantine is there, all right, along with a lot of apparently dead people wearing gas masks and bearing cuts on their hands, and they all got that way by touching Jamie or touching someone who'd touched him. And... they're still alive. Also, the gas masks are made of flesh and bone. As Dr. Constantine finishes mutating into a gas-mask-person, Rose and Jack arrive, in time for the patients to all rise up from their beds and close in on our heroes...


  • Abandoned Hospital: Albion has all the trademarks of one, even though it isn't really abandoned.
  • Action Prologue: The Doctor and Rose chasing an alien spacecraft in the TARDIS.
  • Almost Dead Guy: Dr. Constantine manages to get the Doctor vital information moments before succumbing to the plague.
    Dr. Constantine: Stay back! Listen to me. Top floor. Room 802. That's where they took the first victim. The one from the crash site. And you must find Nancy again. It was her brother. She knows more than she's saying. She won't tell me, but she mi... mi... Mu... mmy? Are. You. My. Mummy?
  • Anti-Air: The purpose of the barrage balloons is never explained, but they were meant to snag low flying airplanes with their cables.
  • Arc Villain: The Child appears to be this, by seeming to have some influence over the other gas mask zombies and as the one who spread the infection. The second episode will reveal things are more complex.
  • Are You Sure You Want to Do That?: Nancy asks the Doctor if he is sure he wants to know what is going on at the Black Site.
  • Artistic License – Military: “Captain” Jack wears the uniform of an RAF squadron leader. In later episodes the braid on his coat is exchanged for that of a group captain, though this rank is not to be shortened to captain. "Victory of the Daleks" is also guilty of shortening the rank.
  • Ask a Stupid Question...: When speaking of her younger brother, Nancy says he was alone out in an air raid. When the Doctor asks what happened, her response is simple.
    Nancy: In the middle of an air raid? What'cha think happened?
  • Before My Time: Rose gives the Doctor's name to Jack as Mr. Spock. Jack, being from far in the future and unfamiliar with Star Trek, takes it at face value.
  • Black Comedy: The Doctor walks up to the mic at a bar and asks if anything's fallen from the sky recently, not knowing that it's during the Blitz. The audience seems to take the question as this trope and laughs.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: Inverted.
    Rose: And now you're some kind of... freelancer.
    Jack: That's a little harsh. I like to think of myself as a criminal.
  • Black Site: Limehouse Green Station, the place where the "bomb" fell, is sealed off by the army.
  • Blitz Evacuees: The kids Nancy takes care of, who are mostly runaways from evacuation. The Doctor even invokes the trope.
  • Body Horror: We get to see Dr. Constantine's transformation into a mask zombie.
  • Captain Obvious: Jack's starship AI points out that scans indicate Rose is a time-traveler... shortly after he asked her to turn off her cell phone during the London blitz.
  • Celebrity Paradox: Rose's Star Trek reference becomes this when, years later, a comic book crossover was published by IDW between the Eleventh Doctor and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
  • Changed My Jumper: Rose is wearing jeans and a Union Jack T-shirt and the Doctor is in his usual leather jacket — one worn by German U-Boat captains.
    Jack Harkness: Oh, should've known, the way you guys are blending in with the local colour. I mean, Flag Girl was bad enough, but U-Boat Captain?
  • The Chanteuse/Glamorous Wartime Singer: Seen before the Doctor's inadvertent Black Comedy.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The nanogenes on Jack's ship.
  • Children's Covert Coterie: A small group of homeless children have been surviving the worst of the Blitz by breaking into unattended houses during bombing raids and availing themselves to anything they can eat. They are led by Nancy, the eldest girl and something of a surrogate mother to the group in the wake of her brother Jamie's death; thanks to her leadership, they have managed to escape the notice of the police... but unfortunately not the Undead Child that Jamie has become.
  • Con Man: Jack reveals himself to be a time-travelling scam artist.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • Albion Hospital, the same hospital used in "Aliens of London". It has, however, actually moved during the last 60-odd years between the two adventures. According to the commentary, it migrated.
    • Time Agents from the 51st century were first mentioned by 51st-century war criminal Magnus Greel in "The Talons of Weng-Chiang".
    • The Doctor alludes to his granddaughter, Susan Foreman, when he relates to Dr. Constantine's situation as a former father and grandfather.
  • Cool Starship: Jack has two Chula Warships, one for his personal use and one which he tries to sell to Rose. He was planning to con her and actually sell a worthless ambulance, which would then be destroyed before she could get her hands on it.
  • Creepy Child: Jamie is even credited as "The Child". This is the result of being infected by The Virus. Indeed, he is The Virus.
  • Crisis Point Hospital: The Albion Hospital has been struck by an inexplicable plague during the height of the London Blitz. Patient Zero was a four-year-old child with a gas-mask fused to his face and a host of apparently lethal injuries; within a day, doctors and nurses who'd touched him were all manifesting the same wounds; within a week, the entire hospital was overrun with catatonic bodies sporting identically masked faces. The only thing that stops this from being a straight-up example of an Abandoned Hospital is the fact that Dr Constantine is still on duty when the Doctor pays a visit... and the fact that the patients aren't dead.
  • Crosses the Line Twice: In-Universe, the Doctor gets on stage at a nightclub and asks if anything has fallen from the sky recently. There's a long, long pause, then the audience decide he must be joking and start laughing. The Doctor is confused. Then the air raid sirens start blaring and, as everyone heads for the bomb shelters, the Doctor notes the '40s attire and posters for the war effort.
  • Cymbal-Banging Monkey: One is briefly seen as everything in the house becomes possessed by Jamie.
  • Damsel in Distress: Rose hanging from the balloon. Lampshaded when the Doctor tells her, "I've travelled with a number of people, but you're setting new standards for being jeopardy-friendly."
  • Deadpan Snarker: Dr. Constantine:
    The Doctor: You're very sick.
    Dr. Constantine: Dying, I should think, I just haven't been able to find the time.
  • Delirious Misidentification: The titular child, mortally injured by a bomb and brought back wrong by alien nanotechnology, can only say "Are you my mummy?" while transforming anyone he touches into a copy of himself. This case is more than it seems, however — in the next episode it turns out that one of the people he's haunting really is his mother.
  • Distinguishing Mark: Anyone touched by Jamie becomes a copy of him, injuries and all. The first sign that someone is about to become a half human/half gas mask monstrosity is the appearance of Jamie's large V-shaped cut on their hand.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: The closer Jack gets, the harder it is for Rose to hold on to the thread of the conversation.
  • Distress Call: The Doctor and Rose pick this up and chase after it.
  • Eagleland: Riffs on this with the rivalry between the glamorous American womaniser with his expensive gadgets (oversexed, overpaid and over here) vs. the Doctor's amateur "British" approach.
  • Dutch Angle: When the child manages to take over the phone line inside the house after dinner.
  • Eagle Squadron: Captain Jack claims to be a member of 133 Squadron, Royal Air Force, which in Real Life happened to be one of the Trope Namersinvoked.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Jack Harkness' first line is "Excellent bottom" — while staring at Rose Tyler's behind through binoculars, as she dangles thousands of feet in the air from a rope tied to a barrage balloon. His fellow soldier thinks the line is aimed at him, to which Jack responds by patting the guy's bottom before setting out to go rescue Rose.
  • Evil Phone: The Child can even animate the phone in the TARDIS's police box disguise, which isn't connected to anything.
  • Exact Words: When Rose confronts Jack about the fact that the starship he found was not a warship as he had claimed, he defends himself by claiming that there are ambulances in wars, and that a war ambulance is still a warship.
  • Facial Horror: A Painful Transformation into a mindless zombie with a gas mask, with the air-filter forcing its way up through your throat and out your mouth, and your eyes turning into goggles. Ouch. The effect was originally going to be accompanied by a graphic bone-cracking sound, but the staff decided that was a bit too much. They were probably right.
  • Faint in Shock: Rose collapses in relief into Jack's arms after her rescue from the balloon.
  • Falling into His Arms: Doubling as a Meet Cute moment when Rose falls into Jack's arms after he saved her with his Tractor Beam.
  • Feedback Rule: At the nightclub, when the Doctor goes on stage to ask about the fallen object there is a slight feedback coming from the mike, underpinning the awkwardness of the situation.
  • Foil: Captain Jack to the Doctor, in a Noble Male, Roguish Male pairing.
  • Friend to All Children: The Doctor seems perfectly at home among a group of orphans, chatting and joking over dinner while he tries to gather information.
  • Friendless Background: The Doctor knows what it's like, being the only kid left outside in the cold.
  • Fun T-Shirt: Rose's Union Jack shirt fits the trope.
  • Hive Mind: The final moments of the episode show some form of a link between the Child and the other victims when he found Nancy and the ones in the hospital got up and moved toward Jack, Rose, and the Doctor. The subsequent episode states that for all intents and purposes, the Child and the other zombies are one and the same entity distributed across multiple bodies.
  • Hold the Line: The Doctor notes that this is Britain's moment. The nations of Europe fell one-by-one to the German War Machine until this tiny island nation said "No." And would never yield.
    "1941. 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. Off you go, then. Do what you got to do. Save the world."
  • Hologram Projection Imperfection: Towards the end, Jack presents a holographic image of the object they are chasing. The projection goes through some flickering.
  • Humans Are Special: The Doctor notes that, at the least, Britons are special because they refused to fall to the German War Machine. He even admits that they "frighten the hell out of" him, which is saying a lot coming from someone who's faced down Daleks, Slitheen, Cybermen, and a countless number of other horrifying threats.
  • I'm Mr. [Future Pop Culture Reference]: Rose jokingly refers to the Doctor as "Mr. Spock" when pressed for his name. Captain Jack, who's from the distant future, doesn't recognise the reference, and Hilarity Ensues.
  • Impending Doom P.O.V.: There are several wobbly shots from Jamie's POV under the gas mask.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Dr. Constantine has one.
  • Instantly Proven Wrong: In the opening scene, the Doctor tells Rose that the tracking of the object is perfectly safe. Cue the TARDIS' control panels exploding.
  • Internal Homage: "Are you my mummy?" echoes the "Are you my father?" Madness Mantra from Steven Moffat's favourite Sixth Doctor story, "The Holy Terror" (by Big Finish).
  • Invisibility Cloak: Captain Jack's spaceship has an invisibility cloak, allowing him to park it next to Big Ben.
  • Invincible Boogeymen: The eponymous child. On top of having a host of powers that make him effectively unstoppable, any physical contact with him will only turn any attackers into more gas-masked zombies; plus, he might not be inclined to run after his targets, but once he's gotten interested in something, he will not stop following you. As such, the only sensible move is to either run or hide.
  • Ironic Echo: "You forgot to set your alarm clock. It's Volcano Day."
  • Lampshade Hanging:
    • When the TARDIS lands in London, the Doctor and Rose have an exchange about the fact that, at this point, the new series hadn't yet left the immediate vicinity of Earth.
      The Doctor: Know how long you can knock about space without happening to bump into Earth?
      Rose: Five days? Or is that just when we're out of milk?
      The Doctor: All the species in all the universe, and it has to come out of a cow.
    • Rose lampshades having a name like "the Doctor".
  • Love at First Sight: Seems to be happening to Rose upon meeting Jack. Then it turns out that this is just about everyone's reaction.
  • Madness Mantra: "Are you my mummy?"
  • Mirror Character: Constantine was a father and grandfather before the War; now he's neither, but he's still a doctor. The Doctor quietly replies that he knows the feeling.
  • Mistaken for Disease: Anyone making skin contact with the eponymous Undead Child soon manifest the same injuries as him - right down to the gas mask fused to the face. During his time at the Albion Hospital, doctors believed this was the result of some heretofore unknown disease, especially once his victims began spreading the plague to other patients. It's definitely not a real communicable disease, but it's not until the following episode that the truth is revealed.
  • Mood Dissonance: Rose and Jack sharing a romantic moment during the German air raid. Lampshaded by Rose:
    Rose: Okay, we're standing in midair on an invisible spaceship, during a German air raid. Do you really think now's a good time to be coming on to me?
  • Mr. Exposition: Nancy, Dr. Constantine and the Doctor himself are doing lots of exposition talk for the audience.
  • Mr. Smith: The John Smith alias comes up again.
  • Non-Malicious Monster: The Child honestly just wants to find his mother. The Virus is completely tangential.
  • Non Sequitur, *Thud*: Courtesy of Rose, when she passes out after Jack rescues her:
    Rose: What about you? You're not even in focus... [faints]
  • Noodle Incident: When the Doctor asks why the kids haven't left London yet, one of them mentions that "there was a man" where he was staying and gives no further explanation. The implication seems pretty obvious.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: A rare moment between heroes.
    Dr. Constantine: Before this war began, I was a father and a grandfather. Now I'm neither, but I'm still a doctor.
    The Doctor: Yeah, I know the feeling.
  • Obliviously Evil: The Child is relentlessly looking for his mother, oblivious to The Virus he's spreading.
  • Oh, Crap!: Rose's reaction to being hundreds of feet in midair, dangling from a barrage balloon with a Union Jack plastered across her chest and Luftwaffe bombers incoming.
  • Omnidisciplinary Scientist: The Doctor performs (with his sonic screwdriver) an autopsy (effectively), listing all the possible reasons for the sci-fi zombies' "deaths".
  • Our Zombies Are Different: The gas mask zombies are a mix of Plague Zombie and Artificial Zombie, who can infect anyone they touch before the spread becomes airborne. The zombies exhibit a shambling gait, and due to the A.I. Is a Crapshoot miscalculation which is creating the zombies, everyone who's turned develops the exact same physical injuries as Patient Zero had when he was turned, they all develop a gas mask that's fused to the skull as their face, and the zombies even all exhibit a Hive Mind. It's also noted that the zombies exhibit no heartbeat nor other life-signs, yet still ambulate and respond to stimuli.
    "They just... don't die.'"
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Dr. Constantine — and, by implication, the Doctor himself.
    "Before this war began I was a father and a grandfather; now I am neither."
  • Plague Zombie: The gas-mask zombies, as the infection is initially transmitted by touch, and Dr. Constantine says it's beginning to become airborne. Since they all have identical physical injuries, Constantine describes it as "physical injuries as plague".
  • Promotion to Parent: Nancy acts as one to her kids.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Occasionally the Child and a few others.
    Dr. Constantine: Are. You. My. Mummy?
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Heavily downplayed so the kids will miss it and only the parents could possibly spot it, but when the Doctor asks the street kids what they're doing in London instead of out in country, one of the kids responds "There was a man there." and points out another boy with the same problem.
  • Red Alert: Played with — according to the Doctor, mauve is the universally-recognized colour for danger, and most aliens consider red to be camp. "Oh, the misunderstandings, all those red alerts, all that dancing."
  • Red Herring: When Nine asks Nancy who knows what's going on her response is... "the doctor", accompanied by an ominous music sting and Nine suddenly looking concerned, indicating that something Time Lord-related is going on here. There isn't, she was referring to Dr. Constantine.
  • Rule #1:
    • Rose breaks the Doctor's rule, don't wander off, within a few minutes of landing.
    • Captain Jack mentions the first rule of active camoflage: park somewhere you'll remember.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Rose just won't give up on things being "very Spock". Guess what name she gives Jack for the Doctor?
    • Rose's costume is similar to Jenny Spark's iconic one from The Authority.
  • So Much for Stealth: When Nancy is hiding from the Creepy Child, one of her apples rolls onto the floor, alerting the boy of her presence.
  • Stealth Hi/Bye:
    • Nancy, when she first meets the Doctor.
    • The Doctor ups this by walking past Nancy and the kids and somehow sitting at the head of the table, with no one noticing his presence until he speaks.
    • The Creepy Child is gone when the Doctor opens the door to him.
  • Street Urchin: Nancy and the other kids.
  • Supernatural Phone: The Child manages to activate the fake telephone on the outside of the police box, much to the Doctor's amazement. Later a normal phone, then a radio, then a cymbal playing wind up monkey.
  • Team Mom: Nancy acts as this for the kids on the streets of London, hunting down a big meal whenever the sirens go off, then making them be polite about their hosts, and handing out punishments for rule-breakers.
  • Thief Bag: Nancy has a looting sack.
  • This Is Gonna Suck: The Doctor snarks at Rose that whatever they were chasing fell on London with a very loud bang; if he wants to find it, all he has to do is ask. Then he learns that they're in the middle of the blitz and lots, and lots of things have fallen on London with a loud bang. The look on his face says it all.
  • Title Drop: From Rose, to the show's name:
    Rose: Don't you ever get tired of "Doctor"? Doctor who?
    The Doctor: Nine centuries in, I'm coping.
  • Tractor Beam: Jack uses one to save our Damsel in Distress.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Downplayed. After the fiasco of "Aliens of London" including a spoiler-filled "Next Time" trailer just two seconds after the cliffhanger, this story began the show's standard practice of having the "Next Time" trailers moved back until after the credits on the first half of a two-parter. The trailer itself is still as spoileriffic as anything, but this time you have no excuse for watching it.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: The Doctor and Rose split up early on, and the plot follows both characters simultaneously during their encounters with Nancy and Jack respectively.
  • Viral Transformation: Anyone who comes into contact with the Empty Child turns into one of the same. This also applies to those who come into physical contact with the victim, and so on.
  • The Virus: That which the child spreads and from his victims onward. Though it may take time to manifest, the result is the same: a gas mask physically forms over the victim's face with the nozzle shoving its way out of the mouth; a lung collapses; the heart stops, and they gain a scar on the back of the right hand. And then they just lie there, apparently dead. Only they aren't — their minds are vacant, and eventually one and only one thought will consume them, and drive them to wander around in a hollow, lucid state: to go after every human they run into — relentlessly asking for their Mummy.
  • Wearing a Flag on Your Head: Rose, wearing a Union Jack T-shirt. She later notes (while hanging from a barrage balloon in front of a wave of incoming Luftwaffe bombers) it's not the best idea during the Blitz.
  • Westminster Chimes: We hear Big Ben when Rose and Jack are having a rendezvous.
  • Wham Line:
    • Dr. Constantine: "They're not dead."
    • Although we know the Time Lords are gone, the page quote is the first confirmation of a disturbing implication of that idea: the revelation that Susan Foreman is dead, despite being left on Earth rather than Gallifrey.

Alternative Title(s): Doctor Who NSS 1 E 9 The Empty Child