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?
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.
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 "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..."
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.