5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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HUMAN NATURE/THE FAMILY OF BLOOD
“God, you’re rubbish as a human!”
Buy this Dr Who DVD: UK
Far back in the dimmed and dusty vaults of history (i.e. before 2005), it was a long, long time between Doctors. We only had books and stuff to keep the flame alive then, young fan-me-lad, and as a result books really mattered. Thus raged the Rad Versus Trad Wars, which were sort of like the Time War only slightly more vicious. Exciting and fresh departures in storytelling, exploring the Whoniverse from angles undreamt of by Pip and Jane Baker? Or the comfortable, familiar formula of TARDIS wheeze/Doctor solves all extant problems/TARDIS wheeze? We were firmly in the former camp, and so was Paul Cornell.
Now, of course, it’s a whole new age. We get to see the Doctor again, so the books have been shoved back on the shelf. Or not. Because if you’re looking for interesting ideas for your shiny new series, why not use the tested ones people have already come up with back when the Doctor was snoozing?
Bloody good idea, we say. Not only does it draw on the expertise of people who really know what they’re doing in the Whoniverse, it also opens the door for stories told in innovative ways. We’ve had decades of the usual formula: why not take a different tack? That’s been the basis for some of the series’s most successful stories.
And that’s what Paul Cornell does in this adaptation of his novel Human Nature. He did an excellent job in his previous outing Father’s Day, so it was odds on that Human Nature The Episodes were going to score as well. And that’s a bet you’d want to take. None of us have read the novel, so we can’t comment on whether it’s a successful translation, but taken on their own merits the episodes are great.
Primarily it’s all about the Doctor, but there’s other stuff in here too, so let’s have a look at that first. The early 20th century setting is as beautifully realised as you’d expect from the BBC: as a historical, it’s a lot more believable than Jack and Rose switching the lights on during an air raid in The Empty Child. Secondary villains the scarecrows are fantastic: simple, but utterly terrifying. They’re up there on the Auton plane as far as we’re concerned. (A B52, do you think? Or maybe Concorde?) And the primary villains the Family Of Blood are, while somewhat familiar in outline, brilliantly realised: we’re not likely to forget Harry Lloyd’s uber-creepy smile anytime soon. Or the (ugh) sniffing. It’s more effective than a tonne of CGI.
OK, done. Now the Doctor. No matter how dodgily it’s done (of which more anon), the concept of sifting the Doctor out of the Doctor is sheer genius. In essence, it’s the Doctor’s negative: although the episodes are ostensibly about John Smith, it’s really about who the Doctor isn’t.
And isn’t he boring? Yes, he’s a good man and all, but oh dear. Seeing the well-meaning John Smith going about his well-meaning life reminds us forcibly of how special a creation the Doctor is. Talk about lacking that certain je ne sais quoi – although in fact we do know quoi. It’s the Doctor’s brilliance, his charisma, his alienness and the breadth of his grasp. When he returns it’s like someone opened a blind and the sun streamed in.
John Smith’s relationship with Joan is a great showcase for this. Yes, she’s very nice and all, and we’re sure she and John would have been perfectly blissful, but let’s face it, she’s pretty ordinary by Time Lord standards. Great for a teacher. Not so great for a lonely god.
Not only do we get to see a humanified version of the Doctor, the Doctor gets to see what a life more ordinary would have been like. This is of course a favourite theme of Cornell’s: the Doctor in Father’s Day got to wax tearful about how he’d never had a life like that. Same here: John Smith sees his life with Joan and wants to stay. It’s one of those big “what if?” questions that the new series should have been making plenty of room for yet for the most part hasn’t. The formula’s been done, done, and done again: we’ve had enough decades now with the Doctor to get away from that and start exploring his universe in more interesting and thoughtful ways. Human Nature/The Family Of Blood keeps the elements of peril we wouldn’t want to lose, but adds in the Big Questions which contribute fantastic depth and texture. Why can’t they all be like that?
The episodes are a brilliant evocation of how things might have been for the Doctor: touching, elegiac, deeply human. It’s fascinating to see how try how he might the human Doctor is so much lesser - from his unexamined endorsement of the mores of the day with regard to beating children and keeping servants in their place to his dithering and uncertainty. Not that we blame him – it’s easy to sneer with 21st century hindsight – but we’re constantly reminded that the real Doctor would be behaving very differently.
Oh, yes, and could we all get to our feet for a moment and give David Tennant a massive round of applause? The acting’s great throughout in this, from the evil Harry Lloyd to the stiff-upper-lip headmaster to John Smith’s squeeze Jessica Hynes, but Tennant leads the pack by a considerable margin. In portraying John Smith, by some mysterious alchemy Tennant creates a character both utterly different from the Doctor and recognisably a part of him. It’s breathtaking.
When a story is such a success, with wonderfully created time and place, issues of real significance pondered and a powerful emotional impact, it seems almost churlish to then pick holes in it. Since that’s never stopped us before, though, we’re not going to let it worry us now. Hey, it’s our job. There are vast chunks of things right with Human Nature/The Family Of Blood – but what’s wrong with it?
First of all, there’s a cruelly missed opportunity in the opening of Human Nature. The Trauma In Tardis™ scene sets up what’s going on, but why oh why didn’t they leave it out? The Doctor as John Smith would have been a really slam-bang opening that would have made the entire audience sit bolt upright on the sofa. Tragic waste.
Then there are some really egregious plot holes that a bit more effort could surely have been stitched over. If you’re going to put your very essence into a watch, why wouldn’t you give it for safekeeping to somebody who actually knows what it is? What was to stop John Smith from opening the bloody thing to, you know, look at the time? Come to that, why didn’t he leave it in the TARDIS where it would have been approximately a squillion times safer?
And while we’re at it, what’s he running away for in the first place? Yes, the Family Of Blood aren’t very nice, but then neither are armies of Daleks. When Daleks tracked the First Doctor through time and space in their very own TARDIS, was that enough to make him get out the bone saw and the catgut? No, it certainly was not. The fate of the universe being at stake is the sole sufficient reason for the Doctor to take the drastic step of running away from an enemy. (Except for corridor-running, of course. That doesn’t count.)
And those scarecrows? Terrifying as they are, what do they actually do? We didn’t see anything more than a menacing straw hand on a shoulder, which isn’t really enough to strike terror into your heart. Despite the scary advance at the school, in fact their only function seems to be budging up, in a rustly kind of way, around someone so the Family can take them over. Less evil nemesis, more sheepdog. And where, exactly, did the Family get them from? One minute they’re landing in a field, the next the landscape is dotted with the things. They must have had a pretty busy night. Were they flatpacked in the hold?
As for the Doctor bumbling about pressing buttons in the Family’s ship, ugh. We didn’t buy it, and neither did you. So why would the Family? Surely they could have thought of a sneakier plan than that.
Then there’s Martha. She knows why they’re there; she knows she has the Doctor’s identity in her hands. (Well, not literally: see above.) She’s smart enough to test out a potential alien with a casual reference to sardines and jam (we love that) and to fearlessly disarm an alien holding a gun that looks like a lethal crustacean. Yet with all that, she can’t stop herself from yapping to her fellow domestic slave about why she’s really there? Oh, suuuure. We believe you.
While we’re on the subject of Martha: “What exactly do you do for him?” Not much, apparently. Can we just say here how annoyed we are that the Doctor can supposedly fall in love with that Pompadour woman, is still mooning over Rose, and seems prepared to countenance the idea that in his Time Lord incarnation he might eventually get round to falling in love with Joan, yet doesn’t so much as glance at poor old Martha? Who’s twice as smart as Rose and Joan wedged together and twice as attractive and could easily hold her own with the French bint too? We suppose John Smith has the excuse of culture-bound attitudes towards class and race, but the Doctor has zero excuse. Not that we’re jonesing to see the Doctor panting over Martha - and please, spare us from the “I love him to bits, but he doesn’t even look at me” speeches. (What is this, True Photo Romances? In terms of character motivation, it’s about as subtle as a pig in a perfume shop.) Nevertheless, credit where credit’s due, and if the Doctor insists on feeling this way about various other women we think Martha deserves it at least twice as much. It makes no sense to us at all, other than forcing in some faked-up angst, that he should be so blind to her obviously excellent qualities when that’s not the case with other women.
And about that alternative human life of the Doctor’s: while it’s beautifully done and an issue well worth contemplating, far from making us reach for our hankies the sentimentality of it all did nothing but annoy us. As we said about Father’s Day, nobody’s forcing the Doctor to zip round the universe righting wrongs: he could settle down in one place – and with one partner - if that’s what he wants to do. Yes, they’d keep dying on him, but let’s face it, somebody always has to go first (it’s very telling that in the alt-Doctor life it’s him who slips away leaving a grieving widow. It would be as rough on her as being the one left behind is for the Doctor, but we’re not supposed to think about that). It seems to us that his fantasies about ordinary life boil down to wanting not to be left alone. Other than that? Yes, we know he has a strong sense of duty, but putting that aside we think he’d go mad with boredom within days. It’s not just his feeling he has to do the right thing that stops him from changing back to John Smith once he’s the Doctor again: his life, drawbacks though there might be, really is what he wants. Anything else is the equivalent of us daydreaming about running off to a Greek island with a bronzed local god and running a squid stall. Nice to imagine on a grey winter’s day, but the reality would get monotonous pretty fast.
Then there’s the whole question of pacifism. Setting the story just before the senseless slaughter of the First World War is extremely effective, and the scenes of the boys firing their guns with tears in their eyes are immensely powerful. However, it seems to us that there’s some very muddle-headed thinking going on here about the correct response to violence.
The pacifist stance of the episodes is unmistakable, and unsurprising from a modern viewpoint. As 21st century viewers, we’re supposed to watch the scenes of young men shooting at targets as if that’s the normal and right thing to do and shudder. What’s more, we’re meant to make the link between that and some of the other unattractive attitudes of the day: if training boys in waging war is OK, is it any surprise that one boy beating another is sanctioned by the authorities? If treating a human being as less than human so that you can bring yourself to shoot them is OK, is it any surprise that the white characters, including the otherwise sympathetic heroine, treat Martha as less than human? And the First World War warfare scenes show just how futile and pitiless the fighting is.
Then when the targets change from inanimate objects to moving beings, we see the agony on the boys’ faces. They’re doing their duty as good little soldiers of the Empire, but it’s costing them. No wonder John Smith decides that throwing down the guns and retreating is the only moral approach. If everyone had done the same, the carnage of the First World War would never have taken place at all.
Nice story. Shame that life isn’t actually that simple.
Thing is, everything’s set up for the viewer not to question that Guns Are Bad. Change a couple of parameters, though, and it’s not nearly so straightforward. John Smith’s decision to retreat, on principled rather than tactical grounds, could easily have resulted in the wholesale slaughter of the boys. Refusing to shoot living beings is a lovely idea and we’re all for it, but when the living beings shoot you instead the waters get decidedly murkier.
Then there’s the First World War setting. Since that war is practically shorthand for senseless killing, it’s very easy to use it to justify the idea that violence is wrong. But suppose the setting was changed to the Second World War? Looks a bit different then, doesn’t it? The principled refusal to take part in warfare translates instead to passivity in the face of evil: standing by as people are rounded up into the trucks. Refusal to fight isn’t invariably noble: sometimes the label of cowardice, embraced by Tim here and by the Ninth Doctor a little while ago as justification for not killing, really is the morally wrong course of action. And the boys obediently taking up arms and shooting at the scarecrows no matter how much it’s costing them emotionally looks less like unthinking bloodthirsty jingoism and more like simple courage. As Edmund Burke never actually said but is still worth repeating: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
The oversimplification of the violence issue carries on into the Doctor’s treatment of the Family Of Blood. No, he doesn’t kill them, so technically his hands are clean. But the immortality he condemns them to is far, far worse. Cruel, these Time Lords, aren’t they? Rassilon had exactly the same dubious sense of humour in The Five Doctors. We wouldn’t want to cross one. Even the Doctor. Maybe especially not the Doctor.
Perhaps the irony of the Doctor’s behaviour in the face of the pacifist message is apparent to Paul Cornell and it’s in there to underline the complexities of the issue. Maybe he’s blissfully oblivious. We haven’t a clue, and we’re not going to speculate. We will, however, say viewer beware: there’s far more to these issues than their face value.
None of this stuff, however, changes the fact these episodes are just what we hoped contemporary Doctor Who would be. Storytelling that shakes the dust out of the Doctor Who universe? Oh, yeah. We’ll take it. In fact, we’ll have a series or three. Please?
MORAL: Before you throw down your gun, make sure there’s a back door.
We like the small detail of the telescope in John Smith’s office. You can take the man out of the space traveller…
MEET THE PARENTS
Sydney and Verity? Cheap, but we loved it anyway.
The cricket ball thing is a very pretty stunt. But please don’t remind us of the Fifth Doctor.
WE WILL REMEMBER THEM
In the Remembrance Day ending, as with Father’s Day Cornell has our heartstrings and tear ducts firmly in his sights. But that’s OK: he’s earned it and it works.
TURN THAT DOWN
Murray Gold’s music is, needless to say, as obtrusive as ever here, and were anything to wreck these episodes that would be it. Deliver us especially from the choir in the shooting scene. Cliché-tastic.
SHOWER OF STRAW
Charles Palmer’s direction here is in general excellent, but there’s a misstep in the slomo scarecrow shooting scene, which comes across as rather more Peckinpahesque gung-ho than was probably intended. Hey, we said these violence issues were complex.
Buy this Dr Who DVD: UK