Human Nature

Originally transmitted 26th May 2007

It's a pleasure to be able to say that with Paul Cornell's 'Human Nature' that Series Three has at last given us its benchmark episode despite the fact that we've got another five to go! This was a sublime piece of television drama and a brilliant synthesis of the original novel's theme and plot and the Russell T. Davies game-plan for the new series.

OK. Let's get the wonderful references sorted out. For me, it was a lovely mix of Delderfield's 'To Serve Them All My Days', Lindsay Anderson's 'If?' (particularly the machine-gun training) and Cameron-Menzies 'Invaders From Mars' (invasion by possession seen through the eyes of a young boy) and once again the production team here excelled with the period setting. There was a beautiful, and yet sombre, autumnal feel to the episode that evoked the mood of pre-war England. Like two of the references mentioned above, it thematically explored the nature of Englishness, to quote Michael Bracewell 'where the rebels in England's Arcadia are defending the values that they love, passionately, from what they recognise as abuse at the hands of self-serving tyrants and their occupying armies'. I'm reading H.G Wells' 'War Of The Worlds' at the moment and the parallels in this episode, in both evoking the period and playing out of themes, are also striking.

According to Bracewell, nostalgia is the very fulcrum of the English national and cultural psyche: nostalgia for some kind of lost 'idealised past' - an Arcadian wonderworld. As the Doctor hides out as 'John Smith' in the pastoral confines of that typical symbol of Englishness, the public school, he dreams of and makes notes about his other selves, that time-travelling rebel, that alternative life caught in nostalgic flashbacks and scrapbooks. And to add to this nostalgic riff, the episode name-checks Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert as John Smith's (and by extension the series) parents, Rose (again), and showcases that other English (and the Doctor's) obsession: cricket. That the episode could wind these references so delicately into the story without knocking over the whole house of cards is testament to the care that's gone into crafting this superb story.

The episode cleverly touched on the inevitable tragedy of the First World War, in essence the destruction of Arcadia, with Latimer's flash forwards and the 'great shadow falling across the land' as dialogue represented by the hugely symbolic scene of the piano falling into the street and about to literally crush one of the flowers of England. Fortunately, there was a good bowler nearby.

The three people in the 'marriage' at the heart of 'Human Nature': John Smith, Martha and Joan are all classic symbols of the triad, the three -- spirit, soul and flesh, Father, Mother and Child, purgative, illuminative and unitive. The John Smith/Doctor schism not only touches upon Christ's 'I am way, the truth, the life' but also the reverse of that symbolism in the consequences of the sin and lust of human nature. It's all very beautifully played by the three leads with Tennant managing to completely remove the ticks and affectations of his usual performance of the Doctor to give us a nervous, repressed English school master capable of handing out punishments to young Latimer; Agyeman providing a Martha of great depth, saying much about her feelings through expressions and reactions than through speech and certainly I hope finally silencing the naysayers; and Jessica Hynes' Joan as the perfect foil for John Smith, as a sympathetic, warm and completely 'human' human being. The romance between the two is finely played and doesn't descend into sentimentality.

They were supported quite wonderfully by Harry Lloyd, as Jeremy Baines, whose possession by the Family, (the anti-Father, Mother and Child in the story), was much determined by an eerie performance. For me, it was Thomas Sangster as Tim Latimer who sneaked in and stole the supporting honours. He managed to convey a young man, troubled by his growing abilities, wiser and older than he should be. In effect, he was a younger John Smith, hiding out in the school for fear of being discovered as one of the rebels defending Arcadia.

Charles Palmer, the director, is a real discovery. He captured an England in autumnal fugue with a David Lean touch, framing sterling performances from his cast in long shots of the countryside. And I do hope his first shot of the scarecrow moving its arm was an homage to 'The Singing Detective'. And a word of praise for Murray Gold's score with a stunning passage of music as Martha returns to the TARDIS and recalls the incidents that brought her to 1913 and tries to find some comfort in the Doctor's message. Very beautiful string sections kept underlying her growing fear and frustration in the scene.

Overall, the best episode so far this year and certainly on a par with 'The Empty Child' and 'The Girl In The Fireplace' and we have the second part yet to come. If 'Family Of Blood' is half as good as this then I can confidently say we've got another classic to add to the list.

The Family Of Blood

Originally transmitted 2nd June 2007

'We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved, and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields.'
-- John McCrae

It's really quite difficult to sum this episode up without laying on the superlatives. As with the first part of this story, 'Family' is beautifully written, acted and shot with meticulous period detail and again comes with a fantastic score from Murray Gold. It is a fine piece of television whether it is 'Doctor Who' or not.

The writer, Paul Cornell, should be applauded for his very dark and complex discussion of the Doctor's essential nature and character and one that questions his moral choices, his singular raison d'etre and his humanity. Whilst doing this, the episode also seeks to deal with sin and redemption, masculinity and madness that connects us to Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress', Elliot's 'The Waste Land', Scorsese's 'Last Temptation Of Christ' and some of the themes in Pat Barker's 'Regeneration'.

The engine that keeps this lot moving along and prevents it all from becoming overly sentimental is David Tennant. These two episodes have allowed us to see a version of the Doctor that has, temporarily at least, stripped away the Time Lord's god-like powers. He has become John Smith, the everyman schoolteacher whose encounter with aliens is richly symbolic of the dilemma many men were faced with at the outbreak of war in 1914. He's seen what violence can do and he recognises that he's preparing children for a conflict they can never hope to survive. Realising this, he is the only one who doesn't fire in that encounter with the scarecrows as the boys wipe away their tears of terror and fear. John Smith is the human the Doctor aspires to be.

But Cornell's John Smith is faced with a choice between suicide or the subjugation of the Earth and countless other worlds by the Family. Tennant stunningly and completely captures the poor man's fear, exasperation and denial as he wrestles with his conscience. And knowing he must make this choice, he joins the sleep of the dead both physically and spiritually as played out in the trenches and the epilogue's Remembrance service.

Hammering this home is the final encounter between Joan and the restored Doctor. The Doctor is so 'alien' here in thinking he can simply carry on where Smith left off in the relationship. Joan can read him like a book, like the very journal she weeps over in the conclusion. She understands the dark nature of the Doctor and throws it back in his face. The allusion is to the sexual wounding of the Fisher King in Arthurian legend and the sympathetic sterility of his lands that is caused. Wherever the Doctor goes, as the lonely God he is, death follows, lives are shattered. She knows that the Doctor can never have what John Smith would have had with her and she rejects him, denies him as Peter denied Christ in the garden of Gethsemane.

Jessica Hynes and Tennant are quite amazing in those scenes, adding a heart tugging depth to the dilemma. And I loved Joan's questioning of Martha's role in the Doctor's life. Freema was again on great form and she captured that 'Martha's had the rug pulled our from under her' moment with great skill. How can you sum up what being with the Doctor is like when he's become this totally deniable alien figure to Joan?

Cornell's brave questioning of the true purpose of the Doctor; his capacity for cold revenge whilst also setting in motion the long game of Tim Latimer's survival is at the heart of the episode too. He's a mass of contradictions, at once horribly, cruelly dangerous and then quietly saving Latimer's life and remembering that generation's sacrifice in the trenches. Where the poppy is symbolic of the sleep of forgetfulness, then perhaps the Doctor is seeking the salve for his literal interpretation of the Family's desire for longevity and the death of John Smith.

And also at the centre of the narrative is time itself with the various flash forwards from the possession of that watch. The watch narrates both human time, as in Smith's vision of marriage, birth and death and Latimer's fate, and divine time where we have the summation of Time Lord experience and the visions of destruction and evil. Both the finite and the infinite described by that one object. Time is seen as 'the watchful deadly foe, the enemy that gnaws at our hearts' to paraphrase Baudelaire. Certainly, time comes full circle for the Family as they all end up suspended in their own personal and endless hell. It is also ironic that Son Of Mine is reduced to becoming one of his own scarecrow soldiers.

Praise must also go to Harry Lloyd as the serpentine Baines/Son Of Mine and Rebekah Staten as the equally repellent Mother Of Mine both of whom brought such a vivid wickedness to the presentation of the Family. And once again Thomas Sangster was great as Latimer, a proto-Doctor figure if ever there was one.

A sublime achievement from director Charles Palmer too, despite the pacing being slightly off for the opening ten minutes, and who evoked the bittersweet nature of sacrifice and redemption to which Latimer and Smith were irrevocably married. His use of slow motion and cross fades added a further visual dimension to an already lovely looking episode.


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