This article covers the episodes Human Nature and The Family of Blood, which together form a single Doctor Who story.
When Doctor Who came back to television, Russell T Davies could have made his job a lot easier by plundering the successful books and audio ranges that kept Doctor Who alive for so long. Instead, he showed considerable restraint by choosing only the cream of the crop for adaptation. We had Rob Shearman’s brilliant Jubilee very loosely rewritten as Dalek, the sublime Spare Parts as inspiration for Rise of the Cybermen (although only a superficial connection there) and here it is the turn of Human Nature, one of the best-remembered classics of the New Adventures book range. This is the most clear-cut adaptation so far, staying reasonably closely to the plot of the original, but why mess with a winning formula?
Human Nature is an exploration of the Doctor’s character by his absence. Genre television often does episodes that hold up a dark mirror to the hero – it’s a well-worn idea and is often accomplished with a parallel universe, but this is something much more mature thematically. A mirror is held up to the Doctor by removing all his alien knowledge and experience and exploring how he would behave if he was simply a human being. We have somebody who looks like the Doctor but has no knowledge of him. Although he retains some of the Doctor’s qualities (most noticeable in the flash of brilliance he shows when saving the mother and baby) he is a character in his own right. He has to go through the whole gamut of emotions and his moments of cowardice, weakness and defeatism are shocking because they are so unlike the normal reactions of the Doctor. His bigotry and his acceptance of violent punishment and the use of guns for children are uncomfortable to watch. This is where the title is so apt; we are used to Doctor Who celebrating that special something the Doctor finds in the human mind, the ‘indomitable’ spirit, but here is the other side of the coin: the dark side of humanity. And that makes for great drama, because it challenges us.
But there is more to it than that because we also see the good side of humanity, the bit that the Doctor misses out on by being the Doctor: normal human relationships. Back in Doomsday, the Doctor said this to Rose:
Here you are, living a life day after day. The one adventure I can never have.
It’s a running theme, because the Doctor steps back and looks in awe at our human lives, and here he gets to experience one. When he finally realises what has happened, he doesn’t want to give it up, and the brilliance of the writing is that we have been brought to a point that we are not sure if we want him to give it up either. It is difficult not to side with John Smith in that moment when he is being called upon to give up his life for the sake of the Doctor. But he does a magnificently brave, human thing: puts the greater good first. It’s an inspirational, bittersweet moment. And then the Doctor is back and it all seems fine again, because ultimately we have to be on the side of the Doctor, because he’s our hero:
He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm at the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe… and he’s wonderful.
But is he “wonderful”? When we get him back, we are reminded about the other side of his character: the return of his alien nature comes with the return of that tinge of danger. The Family’s punishments are unusually cruel, particularly the little girl in the mirror. But the story has gone out of its way to establish the Doctor as a fairy tale that is separated from real life and is just out of reach. These are Brothers Grimm endings for his enemies, in a magical version of Doctor Who that simply accepts Tim as a psychic who was born with his abilities. That’s why the family pose such a significant threat to the Doctor, because they come from the world of magic, not science, and that’s a big deal for him. It might seem odd that the Doctor wants to hide from the family in the first place. It is unlike him to run away from his problems, particularly such an apparently minor adversary. The ‘he was being kind’ explanation doesn’t make much sense, because he surely wouldn’t put himself and others through all that torment just to be kind to some villainous aliens who are trying to kill him. But he recognises that they are something quite different to his usual kinds of enemies. They are from a Grimm world, and he has to play by fairy tale rules. What’s more, they have a strength that he doesn’t: they are a family.
And the Doctor doesn’t have one of those. He tries to invent one for himself, using the names of his creators in a glorious lean on the fourth wall. But he can’t have that life because the story needs a hero, and pulls him back out of it. He has to go back to his own reality, his Journal of Impossible Things.
That’s where I wanted to conclude, and feel free to skip past to Mike’s review at this point, but if you are interested in John Smith’s Journal (which is a fascinating piece of work), here are some extracts of the more readable sections that appear on screen, with some brief discussion of them:
There is a big center peice in some kind of ship, it has wires all around it, bright lights. Wires connect the light pieces with the whole room, I feel safe there. It seems to be some kind of control panel console.
Note the incorrect spelling ‘peice’, American spelling ‘center’ and dodgy punctuation. Even if you ignore the Doctor’s obvious massive intelligence and consider that to be buried inside John Smith, it would still be unthinkable that a school teacher of the period would make such elementary mistakes, even in haste. Was this intentional, or a mistake from the production team? Does it suggest something to do with the TARDIS translation circuits, struggling to work with the Doctor’s/John Smith’s muddled brain? After all, it’s not actually his native language.
bigger inside than outside
I have this magical, almost pen like implement, that opens anything, it lights up with a bright white light, when I use it. Its my magic pen
pen of magic
a light of magic
I think it was called sonic although I am sure the name was alot longer yet I cannot remember.
Again, a glaring error: ‘alot’. This is a complete anachronism – a common mistake nowadays but certainly not from a pre-war school teacher. There are more examples in the following quotes. Note the word “magical” and repetition of “magic”. This is Doctor Who with the technobabble stripped away from it.
The central contraption I think controlls the box from in which it is in.
Blue monster with a big head he sat on his throne.
The look on their faces is all the same. I think these faces were plastic. They had eyes that were empty no expressions
What lovely, poetic descriptions of the Moxx of Balhoon and the Autons!
She will not answer me, and she keeps walking away
metal men metal men march march march
It is my home I know it well, but it is huge, bigger on the inside than the outside Box of magic
Maius latra qua extra
It is my magic box. Nothing can harm me here. Unless I get lost inside it.
Note the Latin translation of ‘bigger inside than outside’, the reference to Rose, and the mention of getting lost in the TARDIS. As this is based on the Doctor’s real life, we can safely assume that this has happened to the Doctor at some point!
I have changed so many times different faces
I am the last for some reason
I am terribly affraid that my watch is broken
pocket watch it is significant
The pictures that appear through the book include: the Empty Child, a Dalek, the Moxx of Balhoon, Autons, K9, a Clockwork Droid, Rose (accompanied by scribbly writing, reflecting the Doctor’s emotions), Cybermen, the TARDIS interior and exterior, the Doctor’s previous incarnations, the Doctor’s watch. Interestingly, the Eighth Doctor’s face is central in the picture, perhaps because he fought in the Time War?
This is such a big important story that it deserves a bit more exploration than most, so I will take a look at some of the symbolism on display tomorrow. RP
The view from across the pond:
How can we talk about Human Nature/Family of Blood in a single page? Beyond being a genuinely good story, there’s just so much worthy of mention. I guess I can start by saying I loved the book with the 7th Doctor so when I heard it was going to be an episode with the 10th, I was both happy and confused. Knowing those New Adventures books might not be “canon”, I went into the episode with a teaspoon and an open mind.
As villains go, the Family is fantastic. Harry Lloyd plays Baines, the leader of the family; he is a marvelous villain. The one bad thing is that by being so good as Baines, I am tainted when I see him in anything else. He’s always Baines to me, with that lopsided smile and cold, dark, staring eyes. In fact, the whole family is dark, creepy, and they exude evil better than most. Joan Redfern, played by Jessica Hynes, offers a rare glimpse into the Doctor’s softer side. And that leads us to an interesting thing about this story, because there’s a lot of alternate perspectives in this two part story. Joan offers us a “what if the Doctor were human?” story. What if he stayed in one place, settled down, found happiness? What happens if he were a regular guy?
Tim Latimer adds an even more interesting “what if”. In an episode that looks at “the Doctor as a human”, Tim is a child who is very much “a human as the Doctor”. It’s a bit of a role reversal for what we may be taking for granted with the Doctor in that we know the Doctor will be coming back as himself at the end of the story; we don’t know what the Doctor’s personality does to the human boy. And it turns out, it gives him a brief insight into something that saves his life and makes him a hero in the future. That parallel between the two characters is further illustrated when Latimer makes a comment about being a coward “every time” like it’s a badge of honor; the same thing Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor told the Dalek emperor in The Parting of the Ways.
Doctor Who is never afraid of tackling some tricky subjects, but addressing the issue of Martha’s skin color and how it would affect her during a less enlightened time is still very unusual. It makes sense that it should be addressed to some extent, though. In fact, not doing more of that is strange since the show deals with time travel. I think some shows miss a good opportunity because they are afraid of offending people. (I was certain Star Trek Voyager missed some glorious opportunities with 7 of 9 because the character lent itself to stories of prejudice and considering 7 is made out to be one of the good guys, it could have illustrated just how wrong prejudging is! I digress…) If nothing more, the Doctor has finally reached a point with Martha that he is willing to genuinely trust her and that speaks volumes. He literally puts his life in her hands. And it’s the Doctor we want to emulate so that’s a good message for the viewer! But let’s not ignore the “what if” presented by Martha herself: what if she were left behind? Stuck in another time? What happens to the companion when they are left in a time that is not their own? While the Doctor is still physically there, in all the ways that matter, he’s actually not there for her at all. And that’s a bit scary…
Another thing Doctor Who often does very well is ramping up the fear factor and what a job with those scarecrows! Those scarecrows are works of genius with their lumbering gait and those sightless eyes. What if things we take for granted come to life and kill us? Sister of Mine is also a source of terror because of the incongruity of seeing a cute little girl with a red balloon wandering around causing death and mayhem. What if that cute little girl is actually a lethal killer? Lots of “what ifs” with this story.
We also get a look at the Doctor from an alternate perspective. The Valeyard gave us an 80s take on it but this is done better. It asks “what if the Doctor really used all his great power? What if he were not guided by moral principles?” The olfactory trick that leads the Doctor to defeat the family is chilling. What he does to these people for the death and destruction they brought to a little town, and moreover, to a woman he fell in love with, is a subject for many a thesis! Was he right to do it? Was this attack any worse than some others we’ve seen with far greater death tolls? It seems to me that the number of deceased is far lower than in many other stories, yet the Doctor does not offer the Family a chance to surrender. No! He basically casts them into eternal damnation, all doomed to life forever in some form of pain. One is trapped in every mirror, one in an event horizon, one in unbreakable chains and then there’s Baines…
What happens to Baines? Let’s talk about that. One day, that field is sold. The new owner goes onto the property to remove the scarecrow and finds, to his horror, a young man! A young man who does not move, age, hunger, blink… just a young man left in a field for all eternity. Does the Doctor go back for him? Does Baines get dissected? Is there an end for this poor unfortunate wretch? You talk about horror! This is a dark story but told with such a great cast and intense writing that you’ve simply got to love it!
Lastly, there’s the lore that we love to uncover. The Doctor’s journal of impossible things and all its artwork is a wonder to behold. This was clearly produced by people who love the show. And the reference to the Doctor’s parents, Verity and Syndey… brilliantly acknowledging the shows history.
It is very hard to do this story justice with just a page of writing. I like to think of this one as a Favorite of Mine… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Symbolism in Human Nature