Sunday, 25 April 2010

Doctor Who: Human Nature / Family of Blood

“No man should hide himself, don’t you think?”

I distinctly recall the first time I read Paul Cornell’s original novel. It was the autumn of 2002, I was about to start my third year at university, and I was the first to arrive in our new student house for the year. I spent the next forty-eight hours waiting for people to arrive, and had devoured the whole thing by the time they arrived. Being alone in a house with lots of noises from outside doesn’t half make for an atmosphere, and the book made quite an impression on me.

All of which is quite irrelevant, of course. The televised version is quite different, taking place over a much shorter time period, the meaning of the events to the regular characters are entirely different, and the pacifistic subtext has been considerably softened. But it’s just as great.

The pre-titles sequence is extraordinarily pacey and sets us up in the middle of events with skilful economy. It also packs quite a punch. The concept is utterly fantastic; the perfect Doctor-lite story, albeit one featuring David Tennant rather heavily. The Doctor is entirely absent for most of the episode, and yet at all times he’s the centre of attention. The structure of the narrative is also brilliant, with the use of flashbacks telling us all we need to know of the backstory while keeping exposition to the bare minimum.

The setting, a public school in 1913, is very interesting. The story doesn’t dwell on why the Doctor’s plan had to involve this particular setting, but it’s notable (if hardly an original observation) that the Doctor, in all his guises, has always had a particular fondness for the Edwardian era. It’s also singularly appropriate that he should be a history teacher. On the other hand, things are quite appallingly inconvenient for Martha, forced to live a life of drudgery and social restriction as Smith’s maid. This is dealt with well, though, and Martha gets the best character development that she gets all season. The depiction of the racism of the period is extremely well-judged; we get just the one overt moment of nastiness with Hutchinson’s comments, but there’s plenty of more subtle prejudice from the likes of Joan and even Smith, characters whom we find largely sympathetic but who are nevertheless of their time.

And then there’s the English public school setting, of course. To some it’s a formative experience; to a state educated oik like me it’s a part of popular culture, understood through the medium of the Jennings books, Lindsay Anderson’s If… and Stephen Fry’s autobiography; all this gives me an entirely accurate impression, I’m sure. I suppose introducing the building to the strains of To Be a Pilgrim is something of a cliché, but then some clichés are too good to resist.

Jessica Hines is fantastic as Joan, as of course is Tennant as Smith, and combined with one of the finest scripts the programme has ever offered the depiction of their relationship is extraordinary, with more layers revealing themselves with every viewing. There’s not much comedy in these episodes, but I love the early scenes of Joan flirting with a terrified John Smith.

Martha’s jealous of Joan, of course, and in fact this is the only story in the entire season which makes me almost forget that I think this whole infatuation subplot is a mistake. That’s a sign of a very good script.

Also very good is Harry Lloyd as Baines, both before and after he’s possessed. And isn’t invisibility such a wonderfully cost-effective way of realising an alien spaceship?

Only when the status quo is fully established do we get the full backstory and the introduction of the Chameleon Arch, no doubt a one-off McGuffin which will never be heard from again. And the “You are not alone” which we hear as Timothy takes the watch is, I’m sure, of no importance. There’s nothing to see here. Move along.

The baddies are quite effective; the scarecrows are great, of course, and the little girl with the red balloon is quite as sinister as she is in the novel. I love that nice little musical tribute we get to the similar character in Remembrance of the Daleks as she walks along a country lane.

Crikey, there’s so much going on that’s worthy of comment. The scene with Smith supervising the boys at “corps”, as I believe it’s called, is just dripping with meaning and subtext, this being 1913. “I hope, Latimer,” says the headmaster, “that one day you will have a just and proper war in which to prove yourself”. A war which would eventually not in fact be directed against “tribesmen from the Dark Continent”. I have to admit, though- in accepting machine guns the headmaster seems at least to be more forward-thinking than Field Marshal Haig would prove to be…

Oh, and of course there’s “Permission granted”. A brave move, but absolutely the right one in context.

Just before everything blows up, we get some wonderful stuff between Smith and Joan. There’s that sequence, of course (that scene, along with the hat, makes me think of John Smith as a sort of Clark Kent figure), and the nice tribute to the founders of the show with Smith’s parents being named as “Sydney” and “Verity”.

Ahem. A meal and two glasses of wine have been consumed since the last paragraph. Just warning you.

I love the way Joan follows Smith’s claim that his mother was a nurse with “We make such good wives.” Do you reckon she might be insinuating something? Then we have Smith finally asking her out. And the moving speech about widowhood. All of this is quite wonderful. And then we have the “Um, can you actually dance?” bit- nice reference!- and Martha’s rather upsetting dismissal (“Cultural differences…”), and the chat between the two love rivals in the pub. It’s all great, and then we have the cliffhanger…

The Family of Blood

“God, you’re rubbish as a human.”

And the gushing continues. I might as well tell you now that this is going straight to the top of my list…

Martha’s so brave in the early scenes, holding the baddies off with a gun and ensuring everyone is safe. It’s suddenly obvious that Cornell is writing her so much better than she’s been written before.

And the converse of this is Smith’s reaction- to instantly summon all the boys to defend the school with guns. Much as I like to poke fun at the exaggerated impression many fans have that the Doctor never uses guns (just look at Frontier in Space!), all this is so very unDoctorish.

Back to Martha- her “bones of the hand” speech is great. And once again it’s brave yet utterly right of Cornell to allow Joan, one of the characters we’re supposed to like, to express racist views- proto-feminist Joan may be, butte’s still of her time. In trying to make her believe that she’s a doctor-to-be Martha hits a brick wall. All this makes Martha look pretty damn great.

Smith gets some great lines once he has to confront his rather unenviable existential dilemma. “How can you think I’m not real?” he protests. “Am I not a good man?” It is now highlighted that he has no actual memories of his Nottingham childhood, another brilliant touch. Incidentally, I went to uni in Nottingham and I can’t quite recall whether some of the streets he mentions ring a bell…

We get more echoes of the recent past as Tim Latimer, a sort of Doctor substitute in some ways, declares himself “a coward, every time”. And then there’s the chilling juxtaposition of the battles scenes and To Be a Pilgrim. The headmaster is then killed, and Smith at last decides to send the boys away.

And then there’s Tim’s speech in the cottage. It should be corny. It’s not. I’ll quote it in full, cos I love it: “He’s like fire. And ice, and rage. 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.”

The build-up and tension to Smith’s inevitable decision is brilliantly handled, and the implications are fully explored: “And it was your job to execute me?” he says to Martha.

Still- the scenes appear once the watch is opened, so I expect Smith experiences the rest of his whole life, in Life on Mars fashion. Tennant’s acting on the ship is superb- on subsequent viewings it’s more obvious that he’s playing the Doctor pretending to be Smith, but it’s a brilliant and great performance. And it’s great to have the Doctor back. He’s never more seemed like a “lonely god”; his punishments for the Family of Blood are like something out of Greek mythology, or perhaps Morpheus’ behaviour in the early issues of Sandman. This is deep stuff- I mean, the little girl being the thing in the corner of your eye whenever you look into a mirror?!

And then there’s the Doctor’s behaviour with Joan. Seldom has he been more arrogant, insensitive, or unlikeable. Someone would have always died somewhere, of course, but still, Joan is absolutely right: “Answer me this. Just one question, that’s all. If the Doctor had never visited us, never chosen this place- on a whim- would anyone here have died?” (Silence). “You can go.” Genius.

This is wonderful. Forget Doctor Who, this is one of the finest pieces of television drama I’ve ever seen. 5/5, and the best ever.

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