21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: Human Nature / The Family Of Blood

Way back in the Wilderness Years of Doctor Who, fans could find some sort of consolation with a range of books called The New Adventures.

The range continued the adventures of Sylvester's Doctor, except that they were now more suited to frustrated, spotty 6th form students rather than kids who would probably frown in puzzlement at tales that purported to be deeper and broader than what they were used to on TV. In other words, there was a higher quota of sex and violence. Whether or not Mary Whitehouse chanced upon a copy of one of these books in her last few years of blue rinse, self-righteous moral cleansing remains an unanswered question. I don't think she would have regarded the series as wholesome Sunday Afternoon escapism somehow.

I must confess again that I've never read any of the New Adventures (studies, work, lack of money – take your pick from the excuse list), so approaching Human Nature/The Family Of Blood is like sitting down to view just another madcap adventure of the Doctor.

A quick peek at Wikipedia does, however, give a bit of background as to the original Human Nature book as penned by Paul Cornell in 1995. For one thing, it's one of the most acclaimed entries in the series, even winning the DWM accolade of Best New Adventure in a 1998 poll. Looking at the basic plots of both, they're pretty much the same, but with a few notable changes. The Seventh Doctor wishes to become human on what's more of a whim, trying to empathise with his companion Benny's grief on a human level. The Tenth Doctor does this through necessity, in order to hide from the Family Of Blood.

On that subject, the baddies of the book are called Aubertides, who have a penchant for cannibalism when eating the bodies of their victims that they later use as disguises. There's no such cannibalism in the TV version – especially in a more sanitised TV climate that quakes at the thought of evil laughter being too damaging for under-fives. God knows what would happen if The Two Doctors showed up again in a chance repeat on prime-time Saturday evening telly.

Anyway, there are probably about a thousand and one differences between the book and the TV adaptation, so much so that I'd probably still be bashing out this latest round of waffling tosh when I'm in my mid-50s. So let's bypass the book and come to the TV two-parter afresh. It's regarded as one of the best stories of the season by the world and his wife, and I can't disagree with that. It's an astounding piece of work in all quarters and after a decidedly bumpy season so far, that's cause for celebration.

Everything gels together: The deep, thought-provoking script. The stellar acting, including a jaw-droppingly awesome turn from David Tennant. The lovely production values. And also the way in which it's not really like any Doctor Who that's gone before.

Take the way in which it constantly plays with traditional story-telling techniques. Rather than a simple beginning, middle and end, Human Family (as I'll call it) regularly interrupts its narrative with flashbacks to what previously happened. The first scene of The Doctor and Martha breathlessly escaping from the unseen menace suddenly cuts to John Smith waking up on a cold November morning in 1913. About halfway through the first part, we then cut back to what happened next, as the Doctor rewrites his DNA with an infernal device called the Chameleon Arch – basically a pair of futuristic headphones that makes its victim scream like a girl (cue another salvo of Tennant screams, which are so high-pitched, the noise shattered the windows in my lounge), while depositing the Time Lord DNA into a handy fob watch. It's expertly filmed, and a relatively novel concept for Doctor Who.

The show had flirted with this technique with its flash-forwards in The Deadly Assassin, but Human Family pushes this envelope to great effect, not only with its narrative structure, but also with the flashbacks to past Doctor Who tales (whenever someone opens the fob watch) or the flash forwards in time to Tim Latimer and Hutchinson in muddy combat or what could have been a happy life for John Smith (basically the “Here's what you could have won” routine from Bullseye).

It's a beautifully filmed and structured piece of work. Charles Palmer surpasses himself with a sensitive but technologically adept handling of Cornell's script. He adds that extra eerie menace to the Family Of Blood with off-kilter camera angles (for example, Baines' sniffing face) and even manages to make a bunch of raggedy looking scarecrows look half threatening. Like the Autons or the Mummies, the scarecrow goons function as scary monsters because of the blank, emotionless faces. The shot where Mr Clark comes to grief at the straw hands of the scarecrows is a memorable one, and the same goes for the striking slow-motion massacre of the straw monsters.

The latter sequence is a good example of this story's look at the horrors of war. The shot of innocent schoolchildren in tears while uncomfortably handling guns sums up the horror in a nutshell. The story's concerned with innocent people doing the right thing and making sacrifices for the greater good, most notably John Smith, who kills himself in order to allow the Doctor back to defeat the Family. There's also Tim Latimer, a pacifist in the novel, but a boy who realises that he has to fight against the evil, later leading to those shots of him struggling in the trenches and helping his one-time arch enemy Hutchinson, who had previously been bullying him in the classrooms. All of the bravery of the soldiers who fought in the war is seen in the final epitaph when the Doctor and Martha visit an elderly Tom at a remembrance of the dead.

While there's plenty of action and scary moments for the kiddies, there's lots of intelligent discourse on subjects such as sacrifice, love, identity and a look at the nasty underbelly of British life in the early 20th century. For example, the almost casual racism in the treatment of Martha. No sooner do Baines and Hutchinson spot Martha and Jenny scrubbing the school floors, Hutchinson's right in there with a quip that's in such poor taste, even Alf Garnett would flinch. More worrying still is the way in which both Joan and John Smith regard Martha as no more than a skivvy. Joan finds it difficult to take Martha seriously (“Women might train to be doctors, but hardly a skivvy and hardly one of your colour”), and is only proved wrong when Martha points out the bones of the hand (and even then Joan's in strong denial). This is just one of the examples of this thoughtful script, with dialogue that doesn't shirk away from the less tolerant attitudes of yesteryear, but doesn't fall into crass soapboxing.

Talking of Martha, this is one of the best showcases for Freema Agyeman, who anchors the story with a fabulous performance full of charm and pathos. Martha's quiet rage at everyone ignoring her warnings about the alien danger is almost palpable, and Freema also overcomes the limitations of the by-now irritating unrequited love storyline (“He's just everything to me and he doesn't even look at me, but I don't care, 'cos I love him to bits”).

Quite why Martha's still pining for the days of a bit of Doctor Whoo-Hoo is still baffling – especially when this story shows him up to be something of a heartless cad. Basically, if the Doctor hadn't chosen the time and place of 1913 England, countless lives wouldn't have been lost, Joan's heart wouldn't have been broken, and the whole sorry mess could have been avoided. Quite why the Doctor's only just chosen this Chameleon Karma is a bit of a puzzle, considering he's done battle with countless monsters in the past.

We later learn that the Doctor ran away because – in the words of Baines – he was “being kind”. When he finally catches up with the Family Of Blood, he grants their wish of immortality, but in the cruellest fashion possible. Father is trapped in unbreakable chains. Mother is imprisoned in the event horizon of a collapsing galaxy. Lucy is trapped in a mirror while Baines watches over the countryside as a scarecrow (although his enigmatic ghost of a smile suggests that he'd quite like this). This is the No Second Chances Tenth Doctor writ large, and as with previous demonstrations of justice, he does it all with a blank face and little sign of remorse.

There's also little remorse for Joan and John. Even by his arrogant standards, the Tenth Doctor's scraping the bottom of the crass barrel with his insincere invitation to a heartbroken Joan to travel the universe with him. “What must I look like to you Doctor?” she asks. “I must seem so very small”. Like in his previous Father's Day, Cornell's interpretation of the Doctor isn't one that's likely to get you on side. The difference is here is that the Doctor's called out on his less than saintly behaviour by Joan She points out that John was the braver man (“You chose to change. He chose to die”). His no-nonsense “Time to go” in the pouring rain is a sign of a Time Lord who knows he's crossed a line.

Like Father's Day, Cornell's script for Human Family revolves around the ordinary man who's forced to make a terrible sacrifice in order to save the globe. Again, the unsung hero is a likeable chap – maybe not the wheeler dealer, jack the lad type, but a bumbling, innocent schoolteacher. John Smith delights in the ordinary pleasures of life, whether he's awkwardly asking Joan out on a date to the local dance or helping to save a tot's life with the aid of a cricket ball (The Fifth Doctor would have been proud).

What's great about David Tennant's performance is how he successfully makes Smith so different from his Doctor. The awkward, fumbling mannerisms. The shy, occasionally stumbling speech. Even the blasé attitude to a simple act of violence, when he gives Hutchinson permission to give Latimer a beating. The later scene when Smith looks at the fob watch and momentarily reverts back to the Doctor is a very effective contrast too.

If you're the sort who's prone to blubbing easily at a sci-fi programme, then be warned. You'll probably need to stack up on about six boxes of tissues to get through the second part of this story. Smith himself evidently needs a handy supply of hankies, given that he breaks out the crying towel a lot when he realises his terrible dilemma. “Why can't I be John Smith?” he sobs. “Isn't he a good man?” This is genuinely moving stuff, thanks both to the script and also Tennant's bravura performance. It's ironic: out of all his performances, this is probably one of his very best, but it's for a character who isn't the Doctor. John Smith is one of those ordinary heroes, a man who cannot comprehend how he's forced to kill himself, but does so, in order to save the day. It's a regular theme of the Russell T Davies era: the championing of the ordinary man and woman. It's one of the best examples of its kind.

The Family itself then. Not really the most imaginative of concepts. The shape-shifting aliens are a stock cliché in Doctor Who, joining a long queue of beings such as the Rutans, the Zygons and even Meglos. But this race is just as spikily dangerous, with the clipped alien mannerisms and gleeful taunts. Harry Lloyd steals the show here with his unusually distinctive reading of the possessed Baines. The scene in which he taunts the headmaster is a good example of this with his strange, clipped speech: “Headmaster sir! Good evening sir! Care to give me a caning sir?” Baines is enough of a revolting little tyke before the Family adopt his form anyway, the sort of prissy little mummy's boy who only has to whistle for large sums of financial allowance. But as part of the Family, he's memorably freaky and other-worldly. A memorable addition to the likes of Channing and Marcus Scarman as a creepy humanoid baddie.

Even the other family actors are very good too. Rebekah Staton provides an effective contrast to the happy-go-lucky Jenny, while Gerard Horan also does well as the mocking Mr Clark. Lots of other great actors on display here as well, most notably Thomas Sangster who's a brilliant choice as Tim. Sangster was – up until this point in 2007 – the stock Brit movie kid, who had appeared as the same sort of lovable scamp in the likes of Love Actually and Nanny McPhee. In Human Family, he adds a great deal to the character of Tim. He's got that ethereal, borderline creepy thing going on in the first part with shifty eyes and an almost alien look at times. By the last part, he's become a likeable if unlikely hero of the day, and Sangster pulls the role out of the bag with great skill.

The other acting award goes to Jessica Hynes (formerly Stevenson) who is spot on as Joan. Ms Redfern isn't a particularly likeable or cheery soul, whether she's constantly hectoring Martha or being somewhat prim and proper (well, it was the times), but by the end of the story, it's hard not to feel for her as she breaks down in tears at losing John. That's thanks to well-woven characterisation but in particular, thanks to Hynes' controlled, dignified and sensitive performance. Heck, even Largo from the Blake's 7 episode 'Shadow' (Derek Smith) turns up as a creaky old doorman, shaking his tin of coins.

Altogether, this is a real treat for both casual viewers and dedicated Doctor Who fans alike. The aficionados can revel in a finger buffet of a story, with plenty of clever references to the past – the Baker 'n' Martin running gag of Gallifrey being in Ireland or the tip of the hat to Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert as the parents. Eagle-eyed viewers can also make out the scribbles of past incarnations of the Doctor, as well as drawings of Rose, alien foes and mysterious flying police telephone boxes. Human Family considerably raises the quality bar of this season with a well-crafted, thought-provoking script from Paul Cornell, sumptuous production values and direction, as well as superlative performances from both a well-chosen guest cast and the two regulars.

* More classics put under the microscope in my ebook guides to 1970s and early 1980s Doctor Who!


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