Friday, 27 June 2014

Human Nature/The Family of Blood written by Paul Cornell and directed by Charles Palmer

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor is on the run from the Family of Blood and finds an ingenious way to hide away…

Mockney Dude: As if David Tennant needed any more excuses to display his talent, Human Nature dishes up his most challenging material yet and he rises to the occasion in phenomenal style. Midnight aside, I get the sense that he was never more challenged in the role and embraces it wholeheartedly. He seems perfectly at home in the character of Mr Smith, the prim and proper schoolmaster who dreams of a more exciting life and nervously tip toes around women. Given the last time he faced a bunch of school kids in Doctor Who was in School Reunion when he was playing the hip Doctor about town he carries an enormous amount of authority in a very different role. Joan feels it is like he has left the kettle on, that he knows there is something for him to get back but he doesn’t know what. Tennant looks as though he is really in pain during the transformation sequences, he’s so convincing its almost uncomfortable to watch. As a human he has moments of weakness like allowing Latimer to be beaten by his fellow pupils. Something the Doctor would never sanction. It is pointed out that England can find heroism in smaller deeds as Mr Smith ably proves in the superb sequence when he rescues a mother and child from an accident with a rogue piano by displaying some formidable cricket skills.Cornell showing his affection for Davison's Doctor there. It is this act of bravery that gives him the courage to ask Nurse Redfern out and she can only answer with ‘you extraordinary man!’ You witness the real difference between the Doctor and John Smith – when they are threatened one would stand alone against the monsters and the other would rouse a school full of children to take arms against an enemy that is on their doorstep. Interesting that in the face of the scarecrow army John holds up a weapon but never once fires. Watching John Smith break down and admit that this is the only life he wants is devastating and Tennant breaks your heart in these scenes. Worse, the lovers get a glimpse of the extraordinary life they would have had together if he had remained as John Smith. The worst thing imaginable happens once he finds out who he is, he is given the watch and has to make the choice to become the Doctor again. When Tennant slips between John Smith and the Doctor in a heartbeat you can see the skill of this actor shining through. What sort of man does falling in love not even occur to? When the Doctor returns and dishes out punishments to the Family we have never seen him so cold and menacing. In a story where he is twisted so far out of character it is interesting that once he regains his identity his behaviour is about as dark and uncompromising as it gets. A question that would come back to haunt the Doctor in Journey’s End is how many people that he met in his adventures would die if he had never popped in to visit and that is dealt with head on in The Family of Blood. The fact that he cannot answer that question is what costs him his friendship with Joan. She tells the Doctor that John was the braver man – he chose to change but John chose to die. Tough questions are being asked about the Doctor here and the resulting drama is unforgettable.

Marvellous Martha: Both Tennant and Freema Agyeman give their best performances of the year in this tale simply because the material is so strong for both of them. I was already halfway in love with Martha at this stage but pushing her into such a protective role sealed the deal for me and because our sympathies are naturally with her character you are torn between the two ladies in Mr Smith’s life. Quietly she is devastated that even when the Doctor has turned human he didn’t chose her as his lover. She doesn't make a big splash about this but instead chooses to suffer in the shadows. That's one up on Rose's attitude and pouting. She's funny too, Martha heading back to knock on the door after she interrupts the Doctor's intimate moment with Joan made me chuckle. There's a lovely acknowledgement that she has come to think of the TARDIS as her home when she says 'hello' as she walks in. Martha looks as though she has been physically struck when she catches John and Joan kissing. Probably my favourite Martha scene of the year comes when she interrupts their time at the village ball and apologises to Joan for what she is about to do - hand him his real identity back. It is loaded with feeling and purpose and Agyeman absolutely nails it. Not many companions would be able to hold together as she does when she faces the entire family of blood with a gun, she shows that great strength of the best companions of being brave and frightened at the same time. In the face of Joan’s questions Martha admits that she isn’t a rival in the Doctor’s world even if she wishes she could be. Throughout this season we have seen the Doctor be thoughtless with Martha, selfish even, but it is only as John Smith that he is vicious with her (‘What exactly do you do for him?’). She admits that the Doctor is everything to her and she loves him to bits even if he doesn’t feel as strongly about her as she does about him. Martha holds onto Timothy as the bombs fall close by. I think she would make a great mother. I am pleased that Paul Cornell chose to address the colour of Martha's skin during a period where it genuinely would be an issue (until now it had only been mentioned in a positive sense - in The Shakespeare Code - as it should be). As the first televised black companion (I know, I can’t believe it took this long either and I'm on the fence as to whether I count Mickey as a companion or not) she is a milestone character and I am pleased that they left the commentary for a story set in the past like this one because it really hits home how different acceptance was at the time. For children watching this story who go to school in mixed race classes it must have felt quite unusual to see Martha being judged based purely on her skin colour. The casually racist comments Martha receives about the colour of her hands whilst cleaning really hit home because these are normal boys who just happen to behave disgracefully around black people. Joan’s comment that ‘hardly one of your colour’ could be training to be a Doctor took my breath away, especially since our sympathies are supposed to be with her. All the characters in this piece are flawed in one way or another which is why it is such a fine piece of drama.

The Missus: Jessica Hynes is an actress I have long admired ever since I first saw her in the role of Daisy in Spaced. I was astonished when I watched Human Nature because I had never seen her take on such a mature role, one where she has needed to command the audience’s attention so completely and act so believably straight in the role. You fall in love with Joan immediately as she ask John if he is thinking of going to the dance and humbly admits that nobody has asked her. There is something a little about somebody who has been put back on the shelf due to circumstances and is too chaste to do anything about it. I really like the fact that they don’t make Joan completely likeable, having her remind Martha of her station in life and the rivalry that builds between them keeps her the character grounded in reality rather than setting her up as a holier than thou beau for the Doctor. A widower who is angry with the army that took her husband away from her but is working at a school which is teaching children how to kill, Joan has a fascinating back story. Her modesty when she sees John’s beautiful drawing of her melts the heart, especially when she says she thinks she looks more like a Slitheen (‘You’ve made me far too beautiful’). It's heartbreaking to see Joan seeking facts about John’s childhood so she can dismiss the idea that he is a man from another world when the audience is privy to the inevitable truth. She shows a remarkable strength of character when convincing John to reclaim his life as the Doctor even when she knows that if he makes that choice that she doesn't want him to love her any more. She was married once and never thought she would fall in love again so these few days of happiness are an unexpected bonus. We leave Joan crying because she has lost the man she loved and telling the man he has become to leave. It's not the typical way to end a romantic tale and it is all the more poignant for it. This tale enjoys defying your expectations. I'm pleased that we learn in The End of Time that Joan found love again though and was happy.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘All those images of mud and wire. You spoke of a shadow, a shadow falling over the entire world.’
‘Widows aren’t supposed to be beautiful, I think the world would rather we stopped’ says everything you need to know about Joan to make you fall in love with her.
‘Have you enjoyed it Doctor, being human? Has it taught you wonderful things? Are you better, richer, wiser?’
‘Lets go to school!’
‘We are the Family of Blood…’
‘He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and a storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns in the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And he’s wonderful.’
‘The Time Lord has such adventures but he could never have a life like that.’
‘We wanted to live for ever so the Doctor made sure that we did.’

The Good: Talk about grabbing your attention from the first frame! The opening is immediately arresting with the Doctor and Martha on the run from an unknown menace before cutting unexpectedly to the Doctor apparently very at home in a human life with Martha as his maidservant. The way the story immediately wrong foots you and leaves you with so many questions goes to show how much Davies and Cornell trust their audience. Setting this story just before the First World War is a masterstroke because it automatically gives the material extra depth. The Journal of Impossible Things is enough to make any fan of the show squeal with  delight at it's gorgeous content, scrawling handwriting telling astonishing tales with beautiful drawings and pleasing a whole generation of Doctor Who fans by canonising the 8th Doctor and the TV Movie. This is a tale told through incredible images and my favourite might be the most simple -  the shot of the spotlight running across the English countryside in the evening. Cornell wisely disposes of the irritating villains that appeared in his original book and goes for a far more insidious threat in the Family, disembodied voices seeking bodies to inhabit. A ridiculously cheap idea for a Doctor Who nasty (all it requires is an actor capable of pulling off the wrench from period character to purring villain) but startlingly effective. A massive hand for Harry Lloyd who almost threatens to edge Jessica Hynes out of the position of most accomplished guest star, as Baines he is an obnoxious brat who thinks rather a lot of himself but as Son of Mine he positively spooks me out. The way Lloyd holds himself once he is possessed and switches between calm menace and moments of childish insanity really stresses that alien nature of this unpredictable alien. Given the last time I saw him he was playing a rather precocious youth in Love Actually Thomas Sangster gives a remarkably mature performance and the production team were lucky to find a child actor this strong. Remember Kenny from School Reunion? Or Chloe Webber? Or Angie and Artie (THE HORROR!). The sniffing is a great scare tactic, a natural tic and yet pronounced like this it is perfect for playground mimicry. If the performances of the actors playing the Family aren't enough to creep you out then Cornell has another ace up his sleeve in the form of the scarecrows. With their stitched up mouths, angry faces and drunken walks, they are enough to scare the adults, let alone the children watching. There is something about their lumbering gait and fake faces that sends a chill down the spine. Charles Palmer constantly finds eye catching ways of shooting his scenes, check out the ominous lighting as John and Joan enjoy a stroll across the countryside and the shots of the vertiginous scenery behind them. The Dance scenes are so unlike Doctor Who and they have a unique atmosphere all of their own – here we have the Doctor as a human being, enjoying himself at a dance and two women fighting for his attention. Human Nature features such a modest cliffhanger with an impossible choice for the Doctor, the whole episode has been building to that moment and it easily ranks as one of the finest endings because I could not see which way he was going jump. What a lovely image the little girl with the red balloon is, such a harmless sight in the right light but shot with menacing precision she is a deadly presence. Doctor Who is educating its audience again and it isn't about to paint a pretty picture of the Second World War that is on the horizon. One uncomfortable moment presents itself when Son of Mine asks the Headmaster if he thinks the boys will thank him for teaching them that war is glorious when they head to the battlefield in front of them. Hutchinson is such a fascinating character, all bullyboy tactics when he is safe at school but when the building becomes a battlefield he sheds tears at the reality of having to kill. They're just boys, that's what the episode keeps telling us and a lot of them are going to die. Palmer stages a deeply unpleasant image of the battlefield; mud, wire, rain and explosions ripping up the land. It is shot at night to make it look even more inhospitable. Scenes of children biting back tears and shooting down an advancing army in slow motion are of an emotional intensity that Doctor Who (thank goodness) usually shies away from. The show has never dared to venture into such mature waters since. They are almost unbearably tense. Father of Mine is wrapped in unbreakable chains forged in the heart of a dwarf star, Mother of Mine is imprisoned in the heart of a collapsing galaxy, Sister of Mine is trapped inside a mirror and finally Son of Mine is left standing in a field as a scarecrow, suspended in time. What terrible, unforgettable punishments. Paul Cornell cannot resist a coda and here he includes three and the tribute to those who fought in the War is so beautifully done it is one of the few times that Doctor Who borders on visual poetry (see also Vincent and the Doctor). I always get a lump in my throat during these scenes and it is great to see the Doctor and Martha wearing poppies to show their support. Who cares if it is making a point, it is a point worth making.

The Bad: There has only been about a hundred times when the chameleon arch would have come in handy in the past and we only hear about it now? Rebekah Staton does a wonderful job as Jenny and has a very cute friendship with Martha so it’s a pity when she is possessed by Mother of Mine and becomes a CBBC villain. Its no where near bad enough to sink the show but she fails to play menacing playfully with the same skill as Lloyd.

Musical Cues: I don’t usually have a section for the music although I do mention it fairly often but the score for Human Nature is so good it deserves it. Murray Gold’s music for Doctor Who has been an absolute triumph since the series returned and some of his musical cues (Rose, Donna and Martha’s themes) will be long remembered. On the series three soundtrack there is a version of the piece when Martha heads to the TARDIS on her bicycle which is whistled in its entirety but it would appear that the producers vetoed this version in favour what was broadcast. Both versions are uplifting and gorgeous but I think I prefer the whistling because it is so unusual. The way this piece becomes darker and more menacing is sublime. Great, heart-warming music for the waltz. This is the first instance of a genuinely beautiful violin score when two characters kiss, usually it is mushy as hell but this is wonderfully understated. Sharp violin stings at the cliffhanger mark it as a special moment. The scarecrows marching to war is accompanied by a cross between a military march tune and a nursery rhyme and it makes their approach all the more exciting.

The Shallow Bit: Harry Lloyd carries a certain appeal as a villain. Freema Agyeman somehow gets more gorgeous with each passing episode.

Result: Breathtakingly good throughout, there isn’t one part of this story that isn’t firing on all cylinders. Over the course of two episodes we experience a charming and ultimately heartbreaking love story, an affirmation of Martha’s love for the Doctor, a tear jerking character study of the John Smith, an exciting action adventure, some delicious scares and a touching commentary on the First World War. The production values are to die for with Charles Palmer proving a stand out director and his handling of the material is first rate, pushing the actors to the fore and giving them plenty of room to express their talent but also providing some striking set pieces and splendid location work. Whether it is moments of romance or terror the tone of the piece is absolutely convincing and helped immeasurably by one of Murray Gold’s finest scores. I have watched this story several times since its first transmission and my admiration and enjoyment has only increased over time. Showcasing the talents of David Tennant, Jessica Hynes, Freema Agyeman and Harry Lloyd, it is also one of the finest acted stories with the central romance in particular proving a masterpiece of character drama of the kind the show simply doesn't deliver any more. A story that proudly stands in my top ten Doctor Who stories; truly a visceral, emotional experience: 10/10


Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

RTD saves the day again!

Tyrionhalfman said...

Amazing story. My friends hate Series 3 and every time they do I bring up this story, Blink as well as the finale (except Angel Doctor), to prove them otherwise.

David Pirtle said...

This is one of those rare gems, a Doctor Who story that stands on its own as just good television drama, one that anybody could watch, knowing absolutely nothing about the series' storied history, and fall in love with it anyway. That Tennant gets two of these (Girl in the Fireplace is the other) is just unfair!