The Empty Child

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164a – "The Empty Child"
Doctor Who episode
Empty Child.jpg
Doctor Constantine succumbs to the same symptoms his patients exhibit.
Directed by James Hawes
Written by Steven Moffat
Script editor Elwen Rowlands
Produced by Phil Collinson
Executive producer(s) Russell T Davies
Julie Gardner
Mal Young
Incidental music composer Murray Gold
Production code 1.9
Series Series 1
Length 1st of 2-part story, 45 minutes
Originally broadcast 21 May 2005
← Preceded by Followed by →
"Father's Day" "The Doctor Dances"

"The Empty Child" is the ninth episode of the first series of the British science fiction television programme Doctor Who, which was first broadcast on 21 May 2005. It was the first episode written by Steven Moffat, who later became the showrunner and main writer of the series in 2010 following Russell T Davies' departure, and was directed by James Hawes. "The Empty Child" is the first of a two-part story, which concluded with "The Doctor Dances", on 28 May.

In the episode, alien time traveller the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and his companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) arrive in 1941 during the London Blitz, where they find that the city has been terrorised by a strange child in a gas mask repeatedly asking for his mother.

The episode marks the first appearance of John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, who would become a recurring character in Doctor Who and the lead character of the spin-off series Torchwood. "The Empty Child" was watched by 7.11 million viewers in the UK. The two-part story has been cited by critics amongst the best of the show, and it won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form.


The episode opens with the Doctor and Rose in the TARDIS chasing a mysterious metal cylinder through time and space. The cylinder, marked as dangerous, skips in and out of the time vortex before landing somewhere on Earth. The Doctor lands the TARDIS in London, and he and Rose walk over to a nearby restaurant to ask about the cylinder. The Doctor uses a microphone to ask if anything has fallen from the sky recently, only to hear an air raid siren and realise that they are in London during The Blitz of World War II. Meanwhile, Rose spots a young boy asking for his mummy and follows him to a rooftop, where she becomes entangled in the ropes of a barrage balloon and carried away. The Doctor heads back to the TARDIS looking for Rose but instead is shocked to hear the TARDIS phone on the outside of the box is ringing. As he is about to answer, a young woman named Nancy appears and warns him not to. Answering the phone anyway, the Doctor hears a young boy on the line, asking "Are you my mummy?" before the call ends. Confused, the Doctor follows Nancy down the street.

Meanwhile, Rose is trapped on the balloon as the air raid happens and is spotted by Captain Jack Harkness, who is posing as an RAF officer. Harkness slips out and rescues Rose using the tractor beam from a Chula warship that he is piloting. At the same time, the Doctor catches up to Nancy and a group of children who have broken into a house to eat a dinner that's been left out by the owners who are hiding from the air raid. The Doctor sits down to eat with them and asks if they've seen Rose before asking Nancy about the phone. Nancy asks the Doctor to leave, but before he can the child in the gas mask knocks at the door asking for his mummy. Nancy panics and orders everyone to leave out a separate entrance. She bolts the front door and refuses to let the child in. When the Doctor asks why, she tells him that it's not a real boy, and if he touches it, he will become "empty" like it is. The phone rings in the hall and the boy continues knocking, but disappears as the Doctor opens the door.

On the Chula ship, Captain Jack introduces himself to Rose and flirts openly with her before parking the ship in front of Big Ben and camouflaging it. They stand on top of the ship and open a bottle of champagne. On the streets, the Doctor catches up to Nancy and questions her again about the boy. She tells him that the item that fell from the sky is related to the boy, and that it's under heavy guard nearby. She also admits that she is caring for the other children because she lost her brother to a recent air raid. The Doctor gives her some encouraging words about the future and they set off together for a nearby hospital. Back at Big Ben, Captain Jack plays music and dances with Rose before admitting that he's a former time agent and that he has an item for sale. Rose bluffs him, telling him that he needs to take her to her partner before she can buy it.

At the hospital near where the cylinder crashed, the Doctor encounters Doctor Constantine caring for a room full of patients that all have the same symptoms. They are all seemingly comatose, with the same scar on their hands and with gas masks fused to their face. Doctor Constantine demonstrates that each responds identically and simultaneously to a loud noise. He starts to explain that the first patient with these symptoms was Nancy's brother Jamie, but before he can finish he transforms into another gas mask-clad victim. Rose and Jack arrive at the hospital in time to save the Doctor from the transformed Constantine and patients. Escaping deeper into the building, Jack again attempts to sell the warship to the Doctor who gets Jack to admit that it is only a Chula medical ship. Jack denies that it has anything to do with the current outbreak.

The episode ends as the three are trapped in a room while the transformed patients converge upon them, all asking for their mummy. Nancy, having returned to the house for more food, is similarly cornered by Jamie.


This episode is the first to feature the character of Captain Jack Harkness as portrayed by John Barrowman, who recurs in the remainder of the episodes of the 2005 series and becomes a recurring character on Doctor Who as well as starring in his own spin-off series Torchwood. According to a police officer in the Torchwood episode "Everything Changes", Captain Jack Harkness failed to report for duty and disappeared on 21 January 1941.[1] This would suggest that this story takes place in January 1941.[original research?] A later episode of Torchwood, "Captain Jack Harkness" is set not long before this episode.[2] The Doctor Who Confidential for this episode describes Jack as a former Time Agent from the 51st century.[3] In The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the villainous Magnus Greel is a time traveller from the 51st century who fears pursuit from Time Agents.[4] The Time Agents appear in the spin-off novels Eater of Wasps by Trevor Baxendale and Trading Futures by Lance Parkin, and their origins in the aftermath of the wars of the 51st century are described in Emotional Chemistry by Simon A. Forward.

As the Chula ship jumps the time track, on the console screen it is shown to be in the time vortex as seen in the credits. The TARDIS jumped a time track in the First Doctor serial The Space Museum (1965), giving the Doctor and his then companions a glimpse into their apparent future.[5] Albion Hospital, in reality the Cardiff Royal Infirmary, also appears in the episode "Aliens of London".[6] Dr Constantine remarks that before the war, he was a father and a grandfather, and now he is neither — but is still a doctor. The Doctor says "I know the feeling", a reference to his granddaughter Susan Foreman (and her unnamed father or mother), who is implied to have died in the Time War along with the rest of the Doctor's family.


This episode had the working title "World War II".[7] Early versions of this script quoted this episode's title as being "An Empty Child".[citation needed] This is a reference to "An Unearthly Child", the very first episode of Doctor Who. The episode's television listings information and the DVD cover also mention that "London is being terrorised by an unearthly child".

Location filming took place at the Barry Tourist Railway.[8] Barry Island and its now-demolished Butlins holiday camp had previously been the filming location of the Seventh Doctor serial, Delta and the Bannermen.[9] The sound of Dr Constantine's skull cracking as his face changes into a gas mask was considered too horrific in its full form by the production team and was cut before broadcast.[10] However, writer Steven Moffat claims on the DVD commentary to this episode that the sound was discussed but never put on.[11] According to the Doctor Who Confidential episode "Fear Factor", the effect was added in the version of the episode presented on The Complete First Series box set.[12]

Unlike previous episodes, the "next episode" trailers were shown after the end credits instead of immediately preceding them, possibly in reaction to comments after "Aliens of London" about having the cliffhanger for that episode spoiled. This trend has continued for most two-part stories in the new series. Captain Jack's line explaining the nanogenes was not audible in either the original or repeat broadcasts on CBC Television in Canada. It was also removed from the UKTV Gold and US Sci Fi Channel broadcasts, although the lines were still present in the subtitles. This adds some confusion to Rose's next line, "Well, tell them thanks!" The cause for this change is unknown.

Outside references[edit]

Frequently in this episode, Rose makes references to the Star Trek character Mr. Spock. This is the first televised Doctor Who story to make a direct reference to Star Trek, although there had been previous references in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip and original novels.[citation needed] Writer Steven Moffat says in the DVD commentary for this episode that the Doctor's reply to Rose asking him what she should call him ("Doctor who?") was originally going to be, "I'd rather have Doctor Who than Star Trek," a metafictional dig at the latter programme.[11] The Chula ships are named after Chula, an Indian/Bangladeshi fusion restaurant in Hammersmith, London where the writers celebrated and discussed their briefs on the scripts they were to write for the season after being commissioned by Russell T Davies.[13] This meeting was videotaped, and is available on the DVD release of Doctor Who — The Complete First Series.

When the Doctor explains the way Nancy operates to feed the children of London he says "I don't know if it's Marxism in action or a west end musical." this is a reference about the musical Oliver! in which Nancy is the name of a character who is the 'big sister' figure to Fagin's gang.[citation needed] The Doctor's praise for Great Britain's wartime resilience concludes with a line similar to a quote attributed to the Duke of Wellington: "I don't know what effect these men will have on the enemy, but by God, they terrify me".[citation needed]

Broadcast and reception[edit]

"The Empty Child" received overnight ratings of 6.6 million viewers, a 34.9% audience share.[14] When final ratings were calculated, the figure rose to 7.11 million viewers.[15]

SFX stated that the two-part story had "everything", particularly praising Moffat's script.[16] In 2012, Dave Golder of the magazine labelled "The Empty Child" as a good example of the science fiction "Creepy Kid Episode".[17] Dek Hogan of Digital Spy disliked Barrowman as Captain Jack, but called it a "particularly creepy episode of the series" despite Jack and "the brevity of Richard Wilson's neat and spooky little cameo".[18] He later called "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances" the best episodes of the series.[19] Now Playing magazine reviewer Arnold T. Blumburg gave the episode a grade of a B, describing it as "solid" with elements of the original series, though he noted a lot was thrown at the audience and he was not impressed with Barrowman's Jack yet.[20]

In a poll conducted by Doctor Who Magazine in 2009, the two-part story was ranked the fifth best episode of Doctor Who.[21] In a similar poll conducted in 2014, readers ranked the two-part story the seventh best Doctor Who story of all time.[22] The Daily Telegraph named the story the fourth best of the show in 2008.[23] In 2011 before the second half of the sixth series, The Huffington Post labelled "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances" as one of five essential episodes for new viewers to watch.[24]

"The Empty Child", along with its conclusion "The Doctor Dances", won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form).[25]


  1. ^ Russell T Davies (writer), Brian Kelly (director), Richard Stokes, Chris Chibnall (producers) (22 October 2006). "Everything Changes". Torchwood. BBC. BBC Three. 
  2. ^ Catherine Tregenna (writer), Ashley Way (director), Richard Stokes, Chris Chibnall (producers) (1 January 2007). "Captain Jack Harkness". Torchwood. BBC. BBC Three. 
  3. ^ "Special Effects". Doctor Who Confidential. Series 1. Episode 9. 21 May 2005. BBC. BBC Three. 
  4. ^ Writer Robert Holmes, from an idea by Robert Banks Stewart (uncredited), Director David Maloney, Producer Philip Hinchcliffe (26 February – 2 April 1977). The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Doctor Who. London. BBC. BBC1. 
  5. ^ Writer Glyn Jones, Director Mervyn Pinfield, Producers Verity Lambert (24 April – 15 May 1965). The Space Museum. Doctor Who. London. BBC. BBC1. 
  6. ^ Russell T Davies (writer), Keith Boak (director), Phil Collinson (producer) (16 April 2005). "Aliens of London". Doctor Who. Series 1. Episode 4. BBC. BBC One. 
  7. ^ A Brief History Of Time (Travel): The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances
  8. ^ "Walesarts, Barry Island Railway". BBC. Retrieved 2010-05-30. 
  9. ^ "Weird Science". Doctor Who Confidential. Series 1. Episode 10. 28 May 2005. BBC. BBC Three. 
  10. ^ "'Horrible' Doctor Who toned down". BBC. 18 May 2005. Retrieved 25 August 2013. 
  11. ^ a b Steven Moffat (2005). Commentary for Doctor Who episode "The Empty Child" (DVD (Region 2)). United Kingdom: BBC. 
  12. ^ "Fear Factor". Doctor Who Confidential. Series 2. Episode 2. 22 April 2006. BBC. BBC Three. 
  13. ^ London Restaurants | Chula
  14. ^ "This Week's TV News Coverage". Outpost Gallifrey. 28 May 2005. Archived from the original on 29 May 2005. Retrieved 7 December 2013. 
  15. ^ Russell, Gary (2006). Doctor Who: The Inside Story. London: BBC Books. p. 139. ISBN 978-0-563-48649-7. 
  16. ^ "Doctor Who: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances". SFX. 28 May 2005. Archived from the original on 27 May 2006. Retrieved 28 April 2012. 
  17. ^ Golder, Dave (12 December 2012). "10 More Episodes That Every Sci-Fi Show Must Have". SFX. Retrieved 15 December 2012. 
  18. ^ Hogan, Dek (22 May 2005). "No love for the Island". Digital Spy. Retrieved 28 April 2012. 
  19. ^ Hogan, Dek (19 June 2005). "The Global Jukebox". Digital Spy. Retrieved 28 April 2012. 
  20. ^ Blumburg, Arnold T (25 May 2005). "Doctor Who — The Empty Child". Now Playing. Archived from the original on 29 May 2005. Retrieved 21 January 2013. 
  21. ^ Haines, Lester (17 September 2009). "Doctor Who fans name best episode ever". The Register. Retrieved 9 August 2011. 
  22. ^ "The Top 10 Doctor Who stories of all time". Doctor Who Magazine. 21 June 2014. Retrieved 21 August 2014. 
  23. ^ "The 10 greatest episodes of Doctor Who ever". The Daily Telegraph. 2 July 2008. Retrieved 2012-02-11. 
  24. ^ Lawson, Catherine (9 August 2011). "Catch Up With 'Doctor Who': 5 Essential Episodes". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 12 February 2012. 
  25. ^ "Hugo and Campbell Awards Winners". Locus Online. 26 August 2006. Retrieved 2006-08-27. 

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