Doctor Who: Human Nature / The Family of Blood [Episodes 3.9 & 3.10]

Human Nature and The Family of Blood are written by Paul Cornell, based on his New Adventures novel, also called “Human Nature.”

Previous Episode:  Gridlock • Next Episode: Blink
(I know these are not consecutive – more will be filled in as I have the opportunity.)

Human Nature:  On the run from the non-corporeal but short-lived Family of Blood, the Doctor decides to use special technology to rewrite alter his biology as well as his memory and become a human being.  He hopes this will allow him to hide from the Family until they die.  He becomes John Smith, a teacher at an English public school in 1913, with Martha present as his servant.  During this time, he becomes romantically attached to Joan Redfern, the school nurse.  The Family follow him and take over the bodies of several local villagers in their attempt to find him.  Timothy Latimer, a young student with latent psychic powers, steals John Smith’s pocketwatch which in reality contains his true essence, because he realizes that it is somehow special.  When he opens the watch, the Family become sense the Doctor’s presence.  Suspicious of John Smith, the Family confronts him at a local village dance, and attempt to force him to reveal his true self by threatening the lives of Martha and Joan.

Family of Blood:  Timothy opens the watch, distracting the Family and allowing John Smith, Martha and Joan to escape.  They retreat to the school where the boys and teachers attempt to hold off the Family and their army of animated scarecrows.  However, the Family realize that the Doctor’s essence is in the watch and take over the school, looking for it.  John Smith, Joan, Martha, and Timothy escape to a nearby farmhouse, where John Smith is forced to confront the truth of who he is.  When the Family begin to bombard the village with missiles in an attempt to flush the Doctor out, John agrees to open the watch, essentially sacrificing himself so that the Doctor can return.  The Doctor tricks the Family and is able to destroy their ship.  He then goes on to imprison each member of the Family in a way that allows them to live forever, but always imprisoned.  The Doctor invites Joan to travel with him, but she declines as it would be far too painful, expressing that though she loved John Smith, she has disdain for the Doctor.

Comments:  This is a great story with a strong emotional core, a quality that has been lacking up to this point in this season of Doctor Who.  That core is the relationship between John Smith and Joan Redfern, and both David Tennant and guest star Jessica Hynes are outstanding in this episode, bringing these characters and their romance to life in a simple but delightful way.  Intruding into this is Martha, with her unrequited love for the Doctor, who represents the truth – that John Smith is an unwitting fiction, and that the reality behind that fiction is a man who in some way doesn’t have the capacity to love that either Martha or Joan are looking for.  It’s a tender and heart breaking story that reaches its apex when the couple are granted a brief vision of what their life could have been.

But even more than Martha, the Family of Blood intrudes upon this fantasy.  They are frightening and unsettling villains, who cause more and more pain and destruction as the story continues, thus keeping this from just being romantic melodrama.  Their cold-hearted brutality makes it increasingly apparent that the charade cannot continue, with John Smith, who has the most to lose, being the last one to finally realize this.

The key to this story working is how much we identify with John and Joan’s relationship, and in fact agreeing along with them both that actually John Smith is far more likeable than the Doctor.  The ending, where Joan basically chooses John over the Doctor seals this in a satisfying way.

But the story is also about war, and the thread and threat of war runs throughout everything, revealing each of the characters.  The Family of Blood longs for a Time Lord’s body as the means to wage war against the universe.  The Doctor is trying to avoid war with the Family. Joan is recovering from the effects of war in her husband’s death.  The school thinks they are preparing for war but have no idea what that really are in for.  And Timothy Latimer is experiencing the spectre of the war to come through his special abilities.  And the whole village experiences the nightmare of war in a very real way, with both the assault on the school and the bombardment of the village.  The theme is tied together by the post script with Latimer – first surviving a critical moment in World War I thanks to the Doctor giving him the watch, and then the scene of him much later, at the graveside ceremony.

As I was writing this, I was first thinking of war as a theme, and felt it was a bit conflicted.  Twice the Family could have been taken care of pretty easily if only people had just shot them when they had the chance.  First, it happens with Martha during the opening moments with The Family of Blood (though to be fair, she did get grabbed by scarecrows from behind).  But then it becomes even more deliberate, when John Smith orders the children to retreat rather than shoot the enemy who stand before them.  This choice leads the children of the school, as well as the entire village, into greater danger.  And actually, it also leads to the enemy – the Family of Blood – suffering far more brutal fates at the hands of the Doctor than if they had just been shot and killed.

Also there is the fact that the story seems to be so anti-war, but then at the end, Timothy Latimer, who seemed to understand this sentiment, declares that in the war to come he will fight, because he feels it will be necessary.

But as I’ve reflected on it further I’ve realized that the war is only one element of a bigger picture, and that bigger picture is more about valor, bravery, and courage.  The story makes a deliberate effort to peal back the obvious image of these qualities, looking for a deeper truth beneath – one in which even what appears to be a cowardly choice can be truly courageous.

So I appreciate the fact that things are not so straight-forward as just a “war is bad” message.  These concepts – war, courage, and cowardice – are not one-dimensional, and there is an attempt to portray that.

The story does have some weaknesses.  The scarecrows aren’t really all that scary, and never seem all that menacing.  There are too many times where danger is averted by Timothy just opening the watch for a second.  And the story doesn’t do itself any favors by tracing a lot of the dramatic problems be caused by Timothy (an obviously positive and sympathetic character) stealing and opening the watch prematurely.

This also begs the obvious question of why Martha isn’t just holding on to this extremely important watch in the first place.  Actually, though it’s a pretty good Martha story, where she has lots of nice moments – but the scene where she tells the John Smith that she “loves the Doctor to bits” isn’t one of them.  And the climax where the Doctor (again) babbles on (and causes the ship to self destruct) while his enemies stand by watching and doing nothing makes them seem like not particularly bright.

But my real challenge with this episode has to do with what is otherwise one of its most memorable moments – when Son-of-Mine concludes during his reflection of his Family’s defeat that the Doctor running away from them at the start was not out of fear, but out of mercy for them.  He says

Son of Mine:  He never raised his voice.  That was the first thing.  The fury of the Time Lord.  And then we discovered why, why this Doctor, who had fought with gods and demons, why he had run away from us and hidden.  He was being kind…

It’s an extremely cool idea, but hugely undermining to the story itself.

It seems to imply that from the start, the Doctor wasn’t scared or concerned by the Family, and in fact could have easily defeated them from the start at any time without any difficulty.  Instead, he chose to risk (and eventually sacrifice) all sorts of innocent lives just so he could avoid being forced to be too mean to the bad guys.  I’m sorry, but that just robs me of my ability to cheer for or indeed care at all for the character.  I like my Doctor a bit alien and aloof, but not so uncaring of people that he just casually lets them die for some unnecessary personal agenda.  If that was the case, it makes Joan’s calling him out at the end far too mild.

So I think it makes a lot more sense to take the Doctor’s actions at face value:  he is worried the Family will catch up to him and cause problems for everyone forever, so he hides.  But unfortunately, it doesn’t work, and people die as a result.  And so Joan is justifiably angry.  And Son-of-Mine’s conclusion as just that – his own exaggerated interpretation of things as he faces the consequences of the Doctor’s fury, which in truth has been born out of the destruction the Family has caused over the course of the story (rather than just being something like what he’d have done anyway.)

With the Doctor “out of the picture” for the most part, there’s not the normal amount of snappy dialog in the story, but there are some great lines, which really reveal character, mostly from Joan Redfern, one of the series best ever guest characters.

• While talking to Martha, and upon realizing the Doctor’s true origins

Joan:  “Alien” means…not from abroad, I take it.

• After the vision that she and John share of the life they might have had.

Joan:  The Time Lord has such adventures, but he could never have a life like that.

• And most powerfully, in talking to the Doctor at the end.

Joan:  I see.  Well then, he was braver than you, in the end, that ordinary man.  You chose to change.  He chose to die.

• And after she is invited to join the Doctor in his travels

Joan:  Answer me this, just one question, that’s all.  If the Doctor had never visited us, if he had never chosen this place, on a whim…would anybody here have died? (The Doctor is silent.)  You can go.

It’s a hugely satisfying moment, perfect for Joan, who is one of the few people to have ever left the Doctor, especially this Doctor, completely without words.

So overall, it’s a great story, with some outstanding direction, editing and music (the scene in the Tardis where Martha remembers the Doctor undergoing the transformation) and excellent character work.

Things to watch out for:
• I don’t recognize all of the voices that we hear from the watch, but one phrase that comes through is “You are not alone,” which is what the Face of Boe said to the Doctor earlier this season in Gridlock.

• The whole idea of cowardice actually being the better option – shown here in Timothy Latimer, and to a degree, in John Smith, reflects back to what the choice the Doctor made in The Parting of the Ways.

• I don’t know for sure, but this might be the series’ first mention of a perception filter, which basically prevents people from noticing something.  This idea will become a major plot point in Season Five’s The Eleventh Hour, and from then on become so common that people often joke about it being a subject of a drinking game.

• There are loads of elements from prior episodes of the series that appear as drawings in John Smith’s journal, including Clockwork Soldiers, Slitheen, and Rose Tyler.  Also, there are images of various previous incarnations of the Doctor, including the little seen 8th Doctor.

Making sense of it all (Warning:  blatant spoilers for the rest of the series):
The very next story, Utopia, will show the significance of the phrase “You are not alone” – referring to the Master, another Time Lord who has survived the destruction of the Time Lords, also thanks to the same Chameleon Arch that the Doctor uses in this story.

Joan Redfern never reappears in the series, but her descendant, Verity Newman (also played by Jessica Hynes), does in End of Time part 2.

Last Word:  An inventive and captivating two-parter, extremely well made, which succeeds in bringing new dimensions to the character and the concept.

Previous Episode:  Smith and Jones • Next Episode: Blink
(I know these are not consecutive – more will be filled in as I have the opportunity.)


One thought on “Doctor Who: Human Nature / The Family of Blood [Episodes 3.9 & 3.10]

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