Tuesday, 18 February 2014

I Don't Want To Go

Doctor Who
Human Nature and The Family Of Blood
Series Three, Episodes Eight and Nine

And now for something completely brilliant.

Series Three is not what I'd call consistent.  I've been sat here cherry-picking the good bits out of otherwise mediocre episodes, and then something like Human Nature comes along and socks me between the eyes.  It's thoughtful, compelling, moving and utterly different.  Is there a reason Doctor Who can't always be this good?

Some of it's love at first sight.  Human Nature begins part-way through, and as you may have noticed, stories like that tend to be my favourites.  The Doctor has transformed into a human, and works in a school in 1913, with Martha as his servant.  They're in hiding from something, and only she knows what.  There's no laborious setup (a snippet of a dream is more than enough), we just get on with it.  Pow!  I wish more episodes could roar to life this quickly.

"We are the Family Of Blood!"
As opposed to all those Families Of Water?
Their pursuers are the Family Of Blood, a sinister, formless group of four with a limited lifespan.  They want the Doctor's near-immortality, and the only way to evade detection is to change species and wait them out.  And they're brilliant villains.  It's about time someone coveted the Doctor's greatest asset – if not his TARDIS, his ability to cheat death.  They have a simple, achievable aim.  (Which means we can skip one of Doctor Who's usual pitfalls, the Circuitous And Illogical Evil Scheme.)  And they've got a good reason to do what they do.  They don't want to die.  It's an impulse we all understand and, taken to extremes, it allows them to act with an over-the-top, murderous disregard.  The actors playing the Family are all inches away from hamming it up, but I think it's a well-judged distinction.  All their mannerisms are not quite usual, including a few subtle things like sniffing and tilting their heads, which makes it quite shocking when they suddenly shout, or laugh manically.  Their simple alienness looms incredibly large over the very stuffy and ordinary 1913 setting.

And speaking of the alien vs. the ordinary, what draws most people to these episodes is the Doctor, and specifically, David Tennant.  The Tenth Doctor has always irked me because he seems a little too human.  Too much pop culture, too much of wearing his heart(s) on his sleeve(s), not enough otherworldliness.  Whether or not that's deliberate, it makes Human Nature the perfect story for this Doctor.  By making him human, it underlines the things about him that are not human, and what it is about him that makes him the Doctor.

Obviously, it's a remarkable performance from Tennant.  I've always preferred his more subtle performances, and that's what we get here: no sonic screwdriver abuse, no running and shouting, just a concentrated dose of acting his socks off.  He does a mesmerising job of seeming dimly aware that he might be someone else, and he does it all with the odd faraway glance.  It's also in the writing: there's a marvelous scene where he instinctively rescues a woman from a falling piano, and a moment at the end where, having panicked and ordered his pupils to fire on an advancing army, he simply can't pull the trigger.  He might not act the same, especially under pressure, but the Doctor is in there, peeking through.

There's clearly a voice somewhere inside the Doctor,
and it whispers:
Bow ties are cool.
But then, even his most human impulses echo the Doctor.  Raging to insist that he's real, and has a right to exist, isn't so different from the Doctor's zest for life.  His ability to cheat death is the source of the story, after all, and John's initial refusal to be swept away, allowing the Doctor back, is deliberately likened to regeneration.  There's a conversation at the end (probably added by Russell T Davies) which mirrors the 2005 Children In Need Special.  "Could you change back?"  "Yes."  "Will you?"  "No."  Given a choice, the Doctor would rather not change: that's consistently him.  It's just brought agonizingly to the fore by John Smith, realising he is nothing more than an aspect of a larger person.  It's a clever, refreshing and well, heartbreaking way to re-examine a familiar character.

Of course, Smith also falls in love, and doesn't want to give that up either.  To this I say: still not too different from the Doctor.  He's able to fall in love, same as anyone, but he's previously explained that it just won't work with humans.  Being John Smith allows him to just not worry about it and enjoy something normal, and real, that his lifestyle doesn't allow.  As myself and others have pointed out, the Doctor's the only one stopping himself from parking the TARDIS and living a life, but as John Smith, with smaller horizons, he can honestly be okay with that.  It makes sense that the Doctor, on some level, wouldn't want to give that up.  Indeed, when he's restored to his brown suit and trainers at the end, he asks Smith's love to come with him.  Ever the alien, the Doctor fails to see how horribly inappropriate this is.  It underscores the difference, but reinforces the similarities.  It's beautifully complex.

As for the romance, this is not something Doctor Who has had massive success with in the past.  In The Girl In The Fireplace, all of the Doctor's bonding with Reinette happened off-screen; his attraction unfortunately never amounted to much more than a list of her historical accomplishments.  This time it's different, much more ordinary, and consequently more convincing.  John Smith has only known Joan Redfern for two months.  It's not a great love affair so much as a beginning, blossoming thing that might get there eventually.  Joan is a widow, miserable because the world expects her to "stop" rather than be loved again.  John yearns to experience human life, which includes love; perhaps on some level, he knows that he's not meant for anything of the sort.  Their attraction makes sense.  Its brevity, and the fact that we as an audience know it can't possibly pan out (and to poke the fourth wall, they know that we don't want it to), makes it bittersweet.

Joan is not a particularly romanticised figure, just as John isn't entirely likeable.  Both fall into the trap of casual, contemporary racism against Martha, which rings unfortunately true of the time.  This is another way to underscore the difference between John and the Doctor, who as well as generally abhorring racism, might hesitate to love someone with that outlook.  But there is an understandable appeal to her, as Joan is smarter that those casual remarks about Martha suggest: in time, even she understands that the Doctor is real and John must go.

Jessica Hynes plays Joan as prim, frustrated and restrained, fluttering briefly to life when she's with John.  It's a brittle, deliberately pained performance, and it enhances Tennant's bittersweet Smith.  It's no surprise that she ultimately rather hates the Doctor "John Smith is dead, and you look like him" and sticks him with a nasty question: if you hadn't come here, would anyone have died?  That's a little unfair, since the TARDIS chose the location and he didn't, but it does raise an interesting question.

"We wanted to live forever.  So he made sure that we would."
...in the middle of a field, in your case, where you'll be discovered
and be removed from in due course.  I wonder where he'll end up.
The Doctor's consciousness is contained in a fob watch.  A somewhat psychic boy, Lattimer, instinctively picks it up and keeps hold of it for most of the story.  The Doctor's voice urges him to keep it hidden until the time is right – in which time, people are murdered.  Answer in the Comments if anyone out there knows this, but am I missing something here?  What's the hold-up?  What is gained by putting it off, other than making it harder for John Smith to go and giving the Family more time to cause havoc?  It wouldn't have been very nice, but it would certainly have been quicker just to open the thing as soon as the Family showed themselves, and it becomes clear later the Doctor had a way of dealing with the Family if provoked.  I've seen this story many times, and the Doctor's apparent refusal just to sort this mess out is one of the few things I struggle with.  It is his fault really, because he waited too long.  (Of course, he could just be clambering to stay human for a bit longer.  He does say, just before the change, "Never thought I'd use this.  All the times I've wondered...", which suggests he's at least contemplated it before.  So who knows?)

The "official" reason is that he was "being kind", as evidenced by the rather fantastical and horrific punishments he visits on them in the end.  (A shame he isn't "kind" to their victims, really.)  Why do they get such special, nasty treatment?  Well, to underscore once again what a mythic, enormous thing the Doctor really is, I suppose.  But also quite possibly because he's just had all the misery of a regeneration, and didn't take kindly?  It's left a bit ambiguous he's certainly never revenged himself like this before and I think that's okay.  Some things ought to be.

Yes, there's certainly plenty of Doctor-stuff to talk about.  But what about Martha?  As I never tire of saying, Freema Agyeman is a breath of fresh air, and episodes tend to be pretty good if they can just give her something to do.  Human Nature does that with a vengeance.  Martha shoulders a huge responsibility in these episodes, knowing the Doctor is what he is, and that he must stay hidden.  Thanks to the TARDIS's randomly-chosen location, she's not in an ideal position although the job of servant in this time and place is oddly typical and consistent for Martha, as she is rarely appreciated, especially by the Doctor.  And that's never-changing.  When the Doctor offers to bring Joan aboard at the end, he shows no awareness that three might be a bit of a crowd.  Sigh.

Bearing all that in mind, Freema gives Martha a steely, world-weary determination in this, particularly when people (and especially the Doctor) make casually racist remarks.  She's also smart as ever, particularly in a scene reminiscent of Rose going to dinner with Auton Mickey (Russell T Davies again?), where she immediately susses that her friend is possessed by the Family.  This is unlike Rose, who failed to notice her boyfriend's skin had changed colour.  It's odd that we're using The Doctor Doesn't Notice Martha in plots, especially when they got along famously one episode earlier, but it's slightly gratifying that it's serving a purpose, or a greater one than just mourning for dull old Rose.

The same cannot be said re Martha's feelings for the Doctor.  "You had to go and fall in love with a human.  And it wasn't me."  I'm not convinced she is in love with him, although obviously there have been some mixed signals.  (She got the wrong idea about their first (and only) kiss.)  With a mention of Rose thrown in as well, just to remind us who's boss, it feels like an unnecessary addition to Martha's personality, particularly when she already has good reason to be frustrated that the Doctor has fallen in love and (generally) doesn't seem to register her company.  I hate the tiresome implication that one can't travel with the Doctor unless one also has the hots for him.  Quick reminder: Rose loved him too, and he didn't return it in kind.  We've simply no need to do all that again.

"He's like fire, and ice, and puppies,
and rain, and lollipops, and sandcastles..."
Is anything else not-brilliant about this?  Well, I have mixed feelings about the Family's army of scarecrows.  While they're certainly creepy, and they do a great deal to enhance the tragic boys-going-to-war subtext bubbling behind the action, they don't really achieve anything besides adding some fodder.  It's difficult to avoid the suspicion that they were added to make it all "a bit more like Doctor Who", and dare I say it, sell some toys.  Also, while I'm perfectly happy to see the Doctor made just a little bit mythic, if it means keeping him interesting, I'm never sure if I like Lattimer's flowery description: "He's like the night and the storm at the heart of the sun.  He's ancient and forever, he burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe.  And he's wonderful!"  It's probably the Russelliest-sounding line in here, apart from Davies-esque stuff like "Did you see it, though?", and it attempts poetry by way of sheer, portentous bloat.

On the other hand, is anything else brilliant about this?  Well, I may not fully understand why Lattimer keeps hold of the watch, but Thomas Sangster is astonishingly watchable while he's doing it.  There's something unnervingly intense about his stare, particularly in an oddly electrifying moment where he comes face to face with the youngest member of the Family.  Above-average-child-actor fight!  Murray Gold's music seems to be in a sumptuous world of its own, for once not stomping all over the dialogue and heightening, rather than dictating the emotion.  The whole thing has a whip-crack, not-a-moment-wasted sense of pace.  (It's directed by Charles Palmer, who coincidentally helmed another really good Series Three episode, Smith And Jones.)  And while it's not hard to spot some of Russell's additions, praise must go to Paul Cornell for concocting such a rich novel in the first place, and no doubt writing most of the brilliant script we're seeing here.  I wish he'd write for the series again.

It's tempting just to list the things that make Human Nature great, but what's really special is that it is about something.  This isn't your average defeat-the-baddie plot, with some good bits and bad bits.  It's a real, flesh-and-blood story about mortality, in all its forms, at once applicable to Doctor Who and life in general.  It's dazzling proof that Doctor Who can go beyond its limits.  If we're lucky, it may do so again.


  1. "praise must go to Paul Cornell for concocting such a rich novel in the first place, and no doubt writing most of the brilliant script we're seeing here."

    Interestingly, in The Writer's Tale, Russell notes just how much he rewrote of the script (indicating at least half, but never precisely telling). But as you say, you can at least tell where Russell's written stuff and then where presumably it's Cornell.

    1. I've read The Writer's Tale, that's probably what got me looking out for the more noticeable "Russell" bits. I wish I'd read Paul's novel, so I knew where to give him the plaudits! It's tough to praise the writing in something as script-edited as Doctor Who, as you never know who deserves it. Especially after Russell's book!

  2. This is hands-down my favourite RTD-era story, and possibly the reason I find so much of the rest of Series 3 a bit forgettable. I like this infinitely more than I like Blink, or even Smith and Jones.

    Why? Well, in no small part because an effort is made here to genuinely capture a historical setting, and not in some schmaltzy, Christmas Card way as with the numerous Victorian-era stories or the haphazard - nay, dismissive - portrayal of Elizabethan society earlier in the season. These two episodes don't shy away from the ugliness of ordinary people, the realities of social class and race, the darkness and arrogance of Britain's imperial past. In a series that too often glosses over or ignores the material realities of life, this story holds up a historical moment and takes the time to examine it, turning it over to expose the ugly, unfair workings of society. And it still manages to be sympathetic and tell an engaging story as well.

    Joan is a good, complex character - she's undeniably a good person, warm and maternal inside, frustrated by the strictures placed upon her by her status as a widow and a woman, and yet she gets to be a little selfish as well, and is utterly a product of her time - accepting the gender, class and racial ideologies of the day. She refuses to believe what Martha is telling her until it can no longer be denied, and then she wrestles with the conflict between her own desires and what is right - and ultimately makes the selfless choice. She then puts the Doctor in his place when he saunters back to offer her a place in the TARDIS, and she's sort of right - but her own hurt is palpable behind her words. Terrific script, terrific acting.

    Martha is magnificent again here, the true hero of the story, protecting her friend, speaking with conscience, making decisions and refusing to be victimised, she carries the whole weight of the story. She demonstrates again her competence, intelligence and compassion, her willfulness and strength, and Freema Agyeman does a brilliant job of it. Her race was always going to come up at some point, but I'm glad they held it back this late in the series so that she isn't defined by it - and when the bigotry of the privileged upper-class school boys manifests itself in baiting comments about the colour of her hands, she rises above it. She is SOOO good. Ugh... I love her!

    And as for Tennant - I love how you've described his performance above. He is, as you say, far better when given this sort of complex, dramatic material to work with. He's charming while slightly infuriating, and utterly mesmerising as John Smith as he comes to realise that he has to die to bring an end to the terror going on around him. I think you really answered your own question about why the Doctor's consciousness told Timothy not to open the fob watch - the Doctor wanted to experience a human life, regardless of what it might cost others (even Martha - I mean really, would you be happy knowing your friend who's selflessly protecting you by maintaining your cover is being subjected to the sort of casual abuse Martha is here? What a jerk).

    The direction's great, the score is lovely - and unnerving in all the right ways and all the right places - and the plot is pretty solid and straightforward. The Family are great bad guys - deliciously creepy - especially Harry Lloyd as Baines (did you know he's a direct descendant of Charles Dickens?). It's not the least bit surprising to me that he and the young chap who plays Timothy both ended up in Game of Thrones - they're both really good here.

    I don't know what else to say except yeah, this is very nearly my favourite Doctor Who story ever, certainly one of my favourites from the new series - it manages to evoke the feel of certain parts of the classic series while still being utterly unique in its own right. It's one of the very few that I only have to think about it and I want to watch it right away.

    Great review, dude, I think you did it justice :)

  3. Thanks, as usual!

    I must confess that, like you, I do prefer this to Blink. I like Blink a lot, but it hasn't got the emotional kick you find here. Human Nature's definitely one of my all time favourites, next to Father's Day, Empty Child, Parting Of The Ways and School Reunion.

    You're right about the unflinching depiction of 1913 - I didn't feel I had much time to go into that, but it's spot on. And yes, The Shakespeare Code by comparison is very Horrible Histories. I didn't mind all *that* much because it's so obviously a Whimsical With A Capital W episode, realism being less important to them than reminding the viewer of That Bloke They Studied In School. You can feel the desperate attempt to make it as accessible as possible. (Hence dreadful lines like "Elizabethan England. Not so different from your time!" Oh, sod off! Yes it is!)