New Who in Conversation: Human Nature/The Family of Blood (S03E08/09)

David is coming to New Who for the first time, having loved Classic Who as a kid. Tehani is a recent convert, and ploughed through Seasons 1 to 6 (so far) in just a few weeks after becoming addicted thanks to Matt Smith – she’s rewatching to keep up with David! Tansy is the expert in the team, with a history in Doctor Who fandom that goes WAY back, and a passion for Doctor Who that inspires us all. We’re going to work our way through New Who, using season openers and closers, and Hugo shortlisted episodes, as our blogging points. Just for fun!

We would like to thank everyone who nominated our “New Who in Conversation” series for the William Atheling Jr Award – it’s a great honour to be on the ballot! Voting for the annual Ditmar Awards (which the Atheling is included in) is open to all members of Swancon 36 (2011 Natcon – Perth) and Craftinomicon (2012 Natcon – Melbourne), and can be done online.

“Human Nature/The Family of Blood” – Season three, episodes eight & nine

The Doctor – David Tennant

Martha Jones – Freema Agyeman

TEHANI:
Before we wriggle on to some of the best eps yet, a quick look at those we’ve skipped…
“Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks” – over the top, quite offensively horrible in some places, and really not at all engaging. Oh, and another “last Daleks eva” storyline, with the Cult of Skaro back again. I pretty much skimmed this on the rewatch and didn’t feel I’d missed anything at all. In fact, I wish I hadn’t bothered at all and never reminded myself of the horrible pig-men. And I REALLY wish this hadn’t been dragged out to two episodes – perhaps in one it would have been a bit better. I think I know what it was aiming to say, but for me, it was definitely a low of New Who.

DAVID:
Wow, you really didn’t like it! I actually quite enjoyed it, and my inner romantic was very happy that Laszlo and Tallulah ended up together at the end. My only real issue, and I am afraid that it really did bug me, was the way that the human hybrid version of Dalek Sec talked, it was atrocious.

TANSY:
I think this is one of my long-term least favourite, and nothing much has changed! The concept of the Daleks in 1930s New York is brilliant, and I liked the idea that they are the only reason the Empire State Building got built, but there isn’t much for me to love here.

TEHANI:
“The Lazarus Experiment” – oh, much better than the last two, although I found the actor playing the scientist (Mark Gatiss) odd. Almost like he didn’t know what to do with the role and over-hammed it. Maybe not quite the right person for the part there. It was good to see some more of Martha’s family, with some heavy foreshadowing for later episodes sneaking in!

DAVID:
I thought this was a pretty strong episode, with all the right ingredients – a mad scientist, scientific hubris, a monster, lots of near death moments. It was good to see more of the dynamics of Martha’s family, though the Doctor seems to rub mothers up the wrong way, doesn’t he? But, did anyone else find it weird how Tish went from being completely creeped out by Lazarus to flirtatious? Talk about bad judgment when it comes to men!

Good to see them carrying on the sci fi tradition of names that are conveniently a summation of a character’s traits or personality lol

TANSY:
I didn’t like this one much either I’m afraid – this is the DVD disc I tend to skip! I am glad we went back to Martha’s family, of which Tish is certainly the most likeable despite her appalling judgement, and I appreciate the strong contrast to Rose’s family. But the only bit I really like in this episode is the very beginning, where the Doctor fulfils his promise to bring Martha home, and she’s so put out about it.

TEHANI:
“42” – just me who wanted this to be cosmic slapstick ala Douglas Adams? Okaaaay then… Actually I quite liked this one – lots of action and tension. And of course, MORE FORESHADOWING!

DAVID:
Yes, 42 has a lot of baggage in sci fi! I really enjoyed this one, it was go go go all the way through. Sort of a slicker, leaner version of Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit – without the Devil!

TANSY:
A good science fiction action story, in a show where we never get enough actual spacey stuff – and yet oddly unmemorable compared to the weirder and more experimental episodes of this season. Speaking of which…

TEHANI:
Onto the main (double) event!

DAVID:
Well, it’s hard to think of a better episode in New Who so far. Big call, but there are only a few episodes I would put at the same level as this two parter. All I can say is “Blink” better be good!

TEHANI:
It’s apples and oranges!

DAVID:
The central idea was brilliant, and it gave us a chance to see a side of the Doctor we don’t often get to. Take away the burden of saving the Universe every other day and the trauma of the loss of his people and what do we get? A Doctor who is, dare I say, happy or at least content. David Tennant can take a lot of credit for this, with something we don’t normally associate with him, a very understated performance. I have often wondered how much of Ten is simply Tennant being Tennant, whether the manic energy and mannerisms are just him, but in this one he shows once again what a great actor he is. He is surrounded by other strong performances as well, but I am sure we will get to them.

TEHANI:
Agree completely – I think that it’s great we got to see him exhibit range here. John Smith and the Doctor are such different creatures, and you totally believe that.

DAVID:
But, it also helps that he is given such a strong script. It’s amazing how a character who is essentially just a construct is made to matter to us, that we care, that his motivations are convincing and that John Smith isn’t just the Doctor playing a role. It reminds me of Total Recall in a way, actually (the Arnie movie). John Smith is so real that he leaves a hole and people grieving for him. Thinking about it, it is actually a pretty terrible thing the Doctor does here!

TEHANI:
But possibly not as terrible because it’s an unexpected and genuinely unintentional thing?

TANSY:
Unexpected, yes, but unintentional, no – he has the option to go back to being John Smith and doesn’t take it.

It is fascinating to see Tennant playing a Doctor who doesn’t know he is the Doctor and thus … is basically not the Doctor any more. I wrote an essay on this very story recently for Doctor Her, because the issue of the Doctor’s relationship with domesticity (mostly: running away from it) fascinates me, and this story is a perfect example of that. As soon as the Doctor stops running, he’s not the Doctor any more.

John Smith is very human, but not necessarily nicer or better than the Doctor (or vice versa). I liked the little touches that showed he was very much of his time – agreeing to an older boy taking a younger boy away to be beaten, for example, something the Doctor would never let happen on his watch. But he has greater kindnesses and understanding as well.

The Doctor does not … come off overly well in this one! He’s so very starkly realised when he takes over the body again, and dooms John Smith.

DAVID:
The Family were wonderful villains, in fact I am going to commit here and say that I think they are the best villains that have been created for New Who. They could have been another Slitheen, with an over the top performance that seems played for laughs, but instead we get something truly unsettling. The way that they took on some of the characteristics of their “hosts” added another dimension to them, there is always something horrifying about the familiar taken and made alien. The scene with Son of Mine and the Headmaster of the school is as good as gets.

TEHANI:
And I like that some of those characters, particularly Mother of Mine (the maid), get to show range in their acting too – Son of Mine is so creepily over the top that it works marvellously!

TANSY:
I think it’s good that we start in the middle of the story for once, and miss the messing around part of actually knowing how the battle between the Doctor and the Family got started – it doesn’t matter, of course! The important thing is that the Doctor and Martha are running away.

I agree the Family are gorgeously, horribly realised – the idea of a mayfly style villain with a short time frame to conquer the world is a very good one, and adds to the sense of dread and a constant countdown. And the actors portraying each of them are very fine indeed. Son of Mine is a spectacular performance but I particularly love Martha realising her friend is possessed while taking tea and checking out her alienness by saying the wrong thing casually. The little girl joins a pantheon of evil little girls in Doctor Who’s history, one of the best.

DAVID:
I know this will shock you all, but I do think there some things New Who has done better than Classic Who, and a big one is that it hasn’t shied away from tackling issues like gender, sexuality and race. It was fascinating watching not just the treatment of Martha, but just the unconscious attitudes of the society she found herself in. Like watching Mad Men, it’s always both confronting and interesting seeing things that were once considered acceptable or normal and reflecting on how things have changed – or we would like to think so, anyway. Makes you wonder what things people will be watching on TV (or Google Glasses or direct neural feed) in fifty years and saying, “Wow, how could those people in 2012 do/say/think that?!”.

Again, the writer has to be commended here, especially in not falling into the trap we see so often, of making the “good characters” unrealistically enlightened for their time and somehow free of the prejudices of everyone else around them. The characters are very much of their time, and that adds to their verisimilitude. In fact, Cornell does a great job throughout of not giving us either a rose tinted or a unfairly condemnatory viewpoint. We see both the best, and the worst, of the England just before WWI.

TANSY:
Yes! I was thinking about this recently, how the new Upstairs Downstairs actually does this better than Downton Abbey, in which the ‘nice’ posh people are unreasonably kind and friendly to their servants. I like that John and Joan, our most sympathetic supporting characters in this story, still display period appropriate casual racism and assumptions, while meaning terribly well. Joan’s flustered response to Martha declaring she is training to be a Doctor tells us so much about this particular time and place, and the options for women.

The story had a lot to say about traditional ideas of masculinity, too, and I thought showed the uncomfortable power dynamics of an upper crust boys school with quite a deft hand.

After the scene in which the pompous boys mock Martha for the colour of her skin, there’s that beautiful quiet line of hers in response to the other maid’s assertion that these boys will end up ruling the world. “1913 – they might not.” There’s a world of knowledge and sadness in those words, and we see that Martha, who has actually only been travelling with the Doctor a short time, is starting to see the world the way he does. She knows what is coming for those boys, and it means she can shrug off their casual cruelty, not letting it touch her.

DAVID:
Freema Agyeman is exceptional throughout this, I thought. You can almost feel her simmering anger as the put upon maid, having to bite her tongue not only at the treatment she receives from her superiors but at the attitudes expressed by the other servants. She has a lot of great lines and moments, from the one Tansy mentioned to when the man on the door makes the mistake of trying to keep her out. But the bit that got to me the most is where we see the true depth of her devotion to the Doctor. Not only has she endured everything that we have seen through the episode, we see what she is willing to sacrifice to get his identity back.

TANSY:
The scene in the pub was a nice moment too – the maids can’t go into the pub to drink, not (just) because of their class or Martha’s colour but because they were women. I remember my Mum talking about how even in the 60’s in Australia, a woman didn’t go into a pub on her own! It’s these little details that make a historical really work. And while I agree heartily with you, David, that New Who has made huge inroads in bringing gender, sexuality and racial issues into the show, there’s another element that I think they don’t get enough credit for – they brought the historical back and then some! Sure, Doctor Who has had a lot of historical-set stories over the years, but there has been a really solid ‘history agenda’ with New Who, with several quality period pieces (with aliens) every season. The best ones really use the setting to say something important, and while a version of this story could have been told in other eras, the choice for this particular time and the social details used to realise that time make the story especially rich.

TEHANI:
Agree with everything you both said here – these elements are a big part of what make these two episodes so very good. The integration of the historical aspects with the story being told is smooth and clever, and works exceptionally well.

DAVID:

My understanding is that originally Doctor Who was going to have much more of a historical focus, but that the space themed episodes proved more popular. I could be wrong, of course!

TANSY:
Very much so, the first few years pretty much alternated between SF and ‘monster’ shows and historicals. The show was intended to be educational for children and the creator, Sydney Newman (a relevant name to understand one of the in jokes of this episode!) was dead set against ‘bug eyed monsters.’ He hated the Daleks. But of course they were the reason the show succeeded so highly. Historicals were phased out in the late 60’s and with only I think one exception, when they turned up again they always had science fictional elements. Which of course the New Who historicals also have – but in the old days you could have several years go by without a story set in Earth’s past, so I love that we get several per season in the new show.

DAVID:
Yes, they really have done a great job with the historical episodes. I can’t think of too many Classic Who ones that have done it better, most of the ones I would list as favourites are space/alien stories. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that they have tried for more historical accuracy (minus the aliens, of course!), some of the Classic Who ones did play pretty fast and loose!

TANSY:
Heh well history was much younger in those days…

I love many, many of the Classic historicals, actually, with or without aliens. Stories like “The Aztecs”, or “The Highlanders”, and later historicals-with-aliens like “Masque of Mandragora” or “Curse of Fenric”. Sadly most of the best historical Doctor Whos are among the lost stories and we can only listen to them. But I suspect that our expectations of what a historical story does have dated quite drastically over the years, maybe more than science fiction (which is a big maybe considering the changing special effects) – you only have to look at the 60s adaptation of “The Forsyte Saga” in comparison to the one made 40 years later to see how much TV as a whole has changed. And the writers know they have a more nitpicky audience with access to Wikipedia. But there are actually quite a few clangers in modern historical episodes too! I believe small wars were started over “The Shakespeare Code”…

TEHANI:
The romance between John Smith and Joan Redfern (Jessica Stevenson / Hynes – did you know she co-wrote and starred in SPACED?) is sweet, sad and so believable. The actress is utterly awesome (and I particularly liked the way she appeared to be sans makeup throughout the episodes – possibly there’s a lot of stage makeup goes into that very natural look, but it seemed realistic to me!). And of the many tear-jerker scenes in this duology, the “flash forward” of what John Smith’s life could have been is heartbreaking.

TANSY:
I adore SPACED! Can’t get used to her new name, but I think she’s an amazing actress who I don’t see on my screens nearly enough. I am very happy she was given such an iconic role in the show, and she committed so thoroughly to being ‘dowdy’ for the role but was nevertheless utterly gorgeous.

I like the flash forward except (and this is a HUGE except) that they basically used that as the ‘next episode’ preview, which is a) a colossal cheat, suggesting that this is what the second episode will be all about John and Joan getting a lifetime together, and b) spoils the moment when it does appear, because we’ve seen it already. There have been a few ‘next episode’ clangers in Doctor Who, and they learned from many of their mistakes, such as showing the preview seconds after the cliffhanger of a two parter instead of after the credits, thereby taking away all tension, but this is one of the worst I can remember.

DAVID:
Joan Redfern is amazing in this. How powerful is the moment when she rejects the Doctor’s offer to become a companion? She portrays so much strength and dignity in the midst of her grief. I have said it before, and I am sure I will say it again, we are constantly seeing brilliant performances from the supporting cast and it is a big part of what has made New Who what it is.

I think I must have got something in my eye during that flash forward sequence…

TANSY:
I think one of the things that most clearly demonstrates the success of the new version of the show is absolutely the guest cast. Sure, there are always people who will agree to be in Doctor Who because their kids love it, or nostalgia (the actress playing the new companion has been telling everyone that her grandmother is a super fan of the show which I think is adorable) but it’s clear now that the show has risen in status and you can see that from the actors who take roles.

Having said that, they had some amazing guest performances in Season One where no one knew if it was going to fail or not, so kudos to their casting director! I think it would be hard to argue against “Human Nature/Family of Blood” having the best ensemble cast of the season, maybe of the show so far. Some really hard stuff to get across, and many multiple parts. Even the kids were good!

Speaking of which, the boy from Love Actually – what’s his name? A ripper of a performance considering how young and slight he was, and that he needs to not only be all metaphysical and weedy and mysterious, but also has to act the soldier in that other flash forward scene. Chilling stuff!

TEHANI:
So overall, we think this was a pretty darn good double episode, it seems! But not, according to Hugo voters, the best viewing of the season – shall we move on?

“Rose”, S01E01

“Dalek”, S01E06

“Father’s Day”, S01E08

“The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances”, S01E09/10

“Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways”, S01E12/13

Season One Report Card – David, Tansy, Tehani

“The Christmas Invasion”, 2005 Christmas Special

“New Earth”, S02E01

“School Reunion”, S02E03

“The Girl in the Fireplace”, S02E04

“Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel”, S02E05/06

“Army of Ghosts/Doomsday”, S02E12/13

Season Two Report Card – David, Tansy, Tehani

“The Runaway Bride”, 2006 Christmas Special

“Smith and Jones”, S03E01

“The Shakespeare Code/Gridlock”, S03E02/E03

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “New Who in Conversation: Human Nature/The Family of Blood (S03E08/09)

  1. seantheblogonaut

    The Family was one of my favourites. If I am recalling it right, made me cry at the end.

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