“HUMAN NATURE” and “THE FAMILY OF BLOOD” – Series 3, Episodes 8 & 9, Story 185 – Written by Paul Cornell; Directed by Charles Palmer – The Doctor and Martha are on the run as the Family of Blood is hot on their heels, looking for, well, blood. They’re not the Family of Mucus, after all. This threat is so dire that the Doctor turns himself human and hides himself somewhere in time. He puts all of his Time Lordiness into a fob watch and ends up as a teacher at a British school boy academy, where he goes by the name of John Smith and doesn’t remember anything about being the Doctor, except for the crazy dreams he has every night. Martha remembers everything, and because the Doctor or the TARDIS is a dick, or because the Doctor or the TARDIS decided they needed a location to match the stinking watch, Martha has to endure life as a servant girl in a less-than-racially-awesome time. Things are relatively fine, but then John Smith falls in love, some kid steals the watch, the Family of Blood shows up, and scarecrows start coming to life. Strap yourselves in, kiddies. Because This Two-Parter Is One Of The All-Time Greats.
“Answer me one question, Doctor. If you hadn’t come, how many people would have died here?”
With that damning question, the Doctor is sent on his way by the woman who had fallen in love with the humanized version of himself, capping one of the finest DOCTOR WHO adventures in the history of the program. HUMAN NATURE and THE FAMILY OF BLOOD are nothing short of phenomenal television. Back when I was working through the Seventh Doctor’s stories, I argued that “the rebirth begins with THE CURSE OF FENRIC” and in Paul Cornell’s two-parter we see that proclamation come full circle.
Like FENRIC, NATURE/BLOOD takes it’s time to set an eerie, mysterious mood, and like the Ian Briggs’ penned FENRIC, Paul Cornell script manages to draw on plenty of DOCTOR WHO norms to craft a refreshingly original story.
The start of the episode is the end of an adventure we don’t get to see and it starts the episode out fast and dramatic. The Doctor and Martha burst into the TARDIS as an energy blast fires into the ship over their heads. They take off but the Doctor tells Martha they’re not safe. The Family of Blood is going to track them down because they’ve got his scent but she’s safe because they haven’t seen her face. So the Doctor tells her the best thing for them to do is to hide for the three months the Family has left to live. They want his Time Lord essence so they can extend their lives, so they’re as desperate as they are dangerous.
Using the Chameleon Arch, the Doctor transforms himself into a human and puts his Time Lordness into a fob watch.
Cornell does a bang-up job using disconnected chronology to tell this part of the story. He starts fast, in the present with the Doctor telling Martha his plan, and then before we see the transformation, we’re in England in 1913 and the Doctor is now John Smith, a teacher at the Farrington School for Boys. Martha is a servant at the school, constantly forgetting her “place” in this society. Cornell doubles up on this, too, as Martha is constantly forgetting her place in the narrative, as well. Martha is completely involved in what she sees as a typical DOCTOR WHO adventure, where the Doctor and his Companion might blend into a society, but still operate by their own rules and to their own ends. They blend in, but they are still outside.
In this adventure, however, John Smith has no idea he’s actually the Doctor, so “the Doctor” isn’t having a typical adventure, at all. When Martha breaks into his room to have a Doctor/Companion moment, Smith is just another member of this society wondering why Martha is acting the way she does.
Russell T Davies and Company have learned their lessons from past seasons when they’ve shifted too much of an emphasis onto Rose at the expense of the Doctor. In NATURE/BLOOD, they give us what is essentially a Martha Jones story but they give us a real, unique, interesting manner in which to de-emphasize the Doctor. Compare this to your Rose-centric story of choice where the Doctor was minimized into running around a lot or becoming emotionally withdrawn. Here, the Doctor is present the entire time, he’s just, literally, not himself, which puts the focus on Martha to be the plot’s driving force. (The fact that Martha doesn’t get all weepy or pouty, either, helps considerably.)
Even though the Doctor doesn’t remember who he is, John Smith he dreams of the Doctor’s past every night and writes it all down in a journal. He’s very happy at being a teacher at this school, and is in the midst of falling in love with Nurse Joan Redfern (played by Jessica Hynes, who you’ll remember from SPACED, a series you probably liked a lot more than I did). Through these opening moments, I thought Martha’s memory was hidden, too, because I was probably too occupied tossing the dog bits of dinner, so when she goes to a shed to enter the TARDIS, it comes off as one of the coolest TARDIS reveals I’ve seen. (Though certainly not as cool as Sarah Jane coming face-to-police-box back in SCHOOL REUNION.)
The first time we see Martha enter the TARDIS in 1913, Cornell jumps the chronology back to show us the Doctor using the Chameleon Arch and we see video instructions he left Martha on what she should do given certain situations.
He doesn’t, of course, mention what Martha should do if John Smith falls in love.
Cornell’s script (which, I should add, got a big helping rewrite from Davies, according to the Never Wrong) deftly traps Martha twice – once by being in the past and again by not having the Doctor there to bail her out. Though Martha does wonder aloud multiple times “What should I do?” and calls for the Doctor to snap out of his Smithiness, the script forces her to take charge of the situation by denying her the Doctor’s standard rescue.
It serves as a great follow-up to 42, where she was trapped in an escape pod and couldn’t do anything but wait for the Doctor to rescue her. Here, it’s up to Martha to do the running around and problem-solving, and when the Family of Blood realizes that the Doctor is around, it’s Martha who grabs a gun and makes a stand, not the Doctor.
The Family of Blood is a great new addition to the Doctor’s Rogues’ Gallery. The family takes over a host body and they have a distinct and creepy way of talking, throwing common words or phrases back at people with a new rhythm and intent behind them, such as when Baines verbally battles the school’s headmaster. They refer to each other as “Mother of Mine” and “Brother of Mine” and the like, and there’s just something decidedly creepy about seeing total strangers interacting as family.
David Tennant is at his best from start-to-finish here, instantly winning me over to the John Smith character. Halfway through the first episode I’d have been happy to watch a whole series of this character dealing with the increasing vividness of his strange dreams. Tennant pulls off his widest range of emotions in the two-parter; he’s completely convincing as an awkward professor, nearly hapless with his growing affection for Nurse Joan and flummoxed by Martha’s continued refusal to adhere to cultural norms.
There’s a kid named Timothy who ends up stealing the watch. Tim’s got some kind of low level ESP abilities, which generally makes the older students at school think he’s a spying weirdo. He keeps opening the watch and getting glimpses of the Doctor, but every time he opens the watch the Family gets a sniff of the Doctor’s Time Lordy energy essence cloud.
The Family constructs an army of scarecrows who move slowly and creepily (not unlike the Haemovores from FENRIC in this regard). It’s a fantastic “second level” threat, with their visual style adding a bit of punch to the otherwise very human-centric look of the serial.
The Family and the Scarecrows attack the school and John Smith, Martha, and Nurse Joan end up escaping to an abandoned house where Timothy shows up with the watch. Martha pleads with John Smith to open the watch and become the Doctor, but Smith is a total wimp in this regard. He doesn’t want to die, doesn’t want to leave Joan, and wants to live out the fantasy that they share in a forward dream sequence.
He ends up giving in, of course, though smartly we don’t see it. Instead, we see a frightened John Smith entering the alien craft and handing over the fob watch. It’s the Doctor pretending (using some kind of scent-driven ventriloquism), of course, and he turns the tables on the Family. Instead of the Family dying as their ship blows up, we see the Doctor as his unmerciful best (or worst), trapping each of them in some unending horror so they can suffer for eternity. It’s a completely hardcore move, which is again reminiscent of FENRIC, the Seventh Doctor, and the whole long-term planning of the Andrew Cartmel regime. It’s also a scene we needed to see after all the proclamations he’s been making about what he’d do to anyone who harms Rose and Martha over the past few years.
(After the fact note – apparently, Cornell originally wrote this story as a novel and starring the Seventh Doctor.)
The Doctor goes to Joan, asking her to join him in the TARDIS and imploring her to understand that the John Smith she loved is inside of him, meaning he’s capable of becoming that person. She won’t have it; the man she loves is dead and the Doctor is walking around in his skin – making it a wicked comparison to what the Family of Blood was doing. When Joan asks him how many people would have died if the Doctor hadn’t come, it’s a thunderclap of an accusation, making the Doctor’s victory ring sour.
Perhaps to save the story from ending on the negative, if thoughtful question, we see Timothy fighting in World War I and saving his friend, and then we see the Doctor and Martha arrive at a Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the end of Timothy’s life to give old man, wheelchair-bound Timothy a smiling nod. This ending provides a more upbeat, if still thoughtful, ending to the best two-parter of the Tennant portion of the relaunch. (It’s not quite as good as THE EMPTY CHILD / THE DOCTOR DANCES two-parter.) HUMAN NATURE and THE FAMILY OF BLOOD is that rare DOCTOR WHO story that stands out not just as a fantastic DOCTOR WHO story, but a fantastic ANYTHING story.