Number Seven: ‘Human Nature’ / ‘The Family of Blood’ (2007)
Welcome to screenwriting 101. Today’s tip: don’t be afraid to screw with your protagonist once in a while. They’re supposed to be dependable and consistent (up to a point, anyway) but history shows that if you want to spice up a dull TV show, an easy way to do it is to give your lead character a beard and have him kill people. It gets the fanzines / office conversation / internet buzzing. Anyone can do a parallel universe story; that’s easy. But stories where protagonists are playing against type are award magnets, for writers and actors alike.
‘Human Nature’ takes its cue from the Paul Cornell novel of the same name, in which the Seventh Doctor becomes human in order to forge an emotional connection with a grieving Bernice Summerfield. He takes up residence in a boys’ school shortly before the Great War. Fagging and flogging are abundant. A group of shapeshifting aliens (possessed humans in the TV adaptation) arrive in order to wreak havoc, but complicating things is the fact that the humanised Doctor has fallen in love.
Crucially, the TV version sees the Doctor actively retreating from the Family of Blood in its opening moments, establishing a symbiotic relationship between the two parties that plays out rather like a surreal witness protection programme. The central tenet of the Doctor’s amnesia and parallel life echoes both Total Recall and, indeed, a storyline in a later series of Miami Vice in which Sonny Crockett genuinely believed himself to be his drug-dealing alter ego; similarly here, John Smith is registered as a separate entity who experiences death when he opens the fob watch. His past is murky (when Joan asks him if Gallifrey is in Ireland, he says “Yes, it must be”) but his consciousness makes him real, and makes his ultimate sacrifice all the more poignant.
This story is basically an opportunity for Tennant to do a Mr. Chips, except Smith doesn’t live long enough to collapse on his classroom floor. Indeed, we’re given hints that the marriage would have ended after many long and happy years, in the form of a fleeting set of images that show Smith and Joan tying the knot and raising a family. It borders on mawkish, but the fact that this is a facet of the Doctor himself lends the moment a degree of pathos it would otherwise be denied. Indeed, Tennant is astonishing throughout the entire two-parter, adopting an entirely new body language when under the guise of Smith, and managing a genuine chemistry with the equally compelling Jessica Hynes.
But while it’s Smith’s story, it’s the Doctor who pronounces judgement, in a closing montage – wordless, save Harry Lloyd’s voiceover – in which the fury of the Time Lord is finally unleashed. Some people hate it. I don’t. There is something awful about the sight of a Doctor pushed beyond the limits of his patience; something grand and terrible and infinitely more believable, in the final analysis, than what we would see two years later in ‘Waters of Mars’. The idea that you should be careful what you wish for is borne out in a series of dreadful, fate-worse-than-death punishments, plus a nice little aside from Cornell about mirrors – “If ever you look at your reflection and see something move behind you, just for a second, that’s her. That’s always her”. For an episode that has had a real world grounding for over eighty minutes of its runtime, it’s a startling contrast, but it works.
Elsewhere: the period detail is decently realised, Murray Gold’s score is (for a change) warm and moving, and the supporting cast – particularly Lloyd – are uniformly excellent. Basically, this is a story that gets more or less everything right – that it isn’t placed higher probably isn’t fair, but I’m constructing this list partly on a whim, and I suspect that in a different week the order might have been quite different (put another way, the closer you get to the top, the smaller the gaps between episodes become). It’s a story that exposes the futility of war without ever really pronouncing judgement upon it: when Martha assures Timothy Latimer that “you don’t have to fight”, his response is simply “I think we do”. At the same time it is a bittersweet love story that works precisely because of its anachronisms. About the only off thing in it is the ever-irritating Martha, but you can’t have everything.
I wonder if, looking back, Davies ever wished he’d resequenced stories when the pacing was clearly off. It seems to matter far less in Classic Who, when we’d get twenty-four weeks of four-part stories that had (with certain rare exceptions) little or no connection between them. For better or worse it gathers new significance when you’re dealing with story arcs, and I’ve always found it interesting that three of the worst episodes in the New Who canon (the Dalek Manhatten two-parter, and ‘The Lazarus Experiment’) are immediately followed by three of the very best – these two, and a certain other one. But we’ll deal with that another day…
Cameron’s Episode: ‘The Eleventh Hour‘