Sunday, June 03, 2007

Doctor Who - The Family of Blood

The two part stories have, in these new series of Doctor Who, often been the most disappointing. Adventures like Aliens of London/World War III, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways have featured one brilliant episode, and one which was less than brilliant. However we have also had gems like Rise of the Cyberman/Age of Steel and Army of Ghosts/Doomsday where the production team seemed to get it right. And now with Human Nature/The Family of Blood, they get it so right that it seems impossible to ever top it.

As readers will know, I loved the first episode, Human Nature, and now with The Family of Blood, it all seemed to come together and gel into something cinematic in scope and which touched your heart and mind as you watched, making the audience think about what had happened as well as enjoying the scope and spectacle of it all.

We open as we left last week, with the Family threatening the lives of Martha and Joan unless the Doctor changes himself back into a Time Lord. Well Martha well and truly takes the upper hand, gaining control of a gun and getting everyone out of the church hall alive. I loved her off-hand comment to John Smith: 'God, you're rubbish as a human!' Very fitting given the circumstances. Everyone dashes back to the school where John Smith starts to rouse the boys and staff into a fighting force to see of the Family and their ambulatory scarecrows. Before the battle starts, however, the Headmaster and Phillips go out to talk to the attackers. These are great scenes, with the sounds of battle over Baines' foretelling of the War to come. But Phillips is disintegrated by the Family and the Head rushes back as battle commences.

Baines calls for more Soldiers and loads more Scarecrows arrive - all identical. How many do they have in the fields around this village? I counted at least 30 in shot, with more arriving all the time.

We have lots of great character interplay, all switched together here. The boys preparing for the fight with guns, June and John Smith trying to come to terms with what's happening and Martha trying to find the watch to restore the Doctor.

The Family start their attack and the initial phlanx of scarecrows are cut down with bullets as the school hymn plays. I felt this was a moment too far. For a start, why did the bullets affect the scarecrows at all, and the mood of the battle was, I felt, trying too hard to elicit a Blackadder the Fourth moment of poignancy which didn't work as the 'dead' were only scarecrows anyway. But the lead up, with the boys crying with fear, was brilliantly handled, and brought to mind similar moments in the middle Lord of the Rings film, The Two Towers.

It all ends when the little girl appears and disintegrates the Headmaster. Panic ensues and everyone runs again.

The Family now know they just need to get the pocket watch, and they also have the Doctor's TARDIS brought to the school to tempt the Doctor out. However the Doctor is nowhere to be seen and John Smith starts to crack under the strain. He just wants to be John Smith. This is a bravura performance from David Tennant. Absolutely believable and brilliant. Tennant is so watchable as an actor ... pure genius.

Smith, Martha and Joan head off to the Cartwright's cottage (little Lucy Cartwright is the small girl possessed by the Family) where they finally meet up with Tim who passes the watch across. These scenes feature the most poetic description of the Doctor ... 'He is like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He's ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and can see the turn of the Universe. And he's wonderful.'

This is said by Tim to John Smith as he agonises over whether to open the watch or not. Whether to return to being the Doctor or not. These are great scenes, perhaps a little long played, but necessarily so. John Smith must die if the Doctor is to live, and Smith does not want to die. He sees a flash forward of his human life as it might be ... of marriage and children ... happiness ... and then his death. And the make-up on Tennant for his old, dying frame is awesome. These are tear jerking, emotional moments, but also classic Doctor Who, making you care for the people and what's happening ... what decision would you ... could you ... make yourself?

And so it's endgame, and the most brilliant twist by writer Paul Cornell ... the Doctor was not hiding to protect himself and Martha, but to save the Family ... for when he returns (and of course we knew he would) he exacts his wrath on these alien beings in a way which is callous and cold - he gives them exactly what they wanted. This echoes the temptation posed by Rassilon in The Five Doctors, that those who wish immortality would be granted it ... at a price. But the Doctor's price is immense.

I loved the way the narrative suddenly shifted to Baines talking us through the fates of the Family members. Showing the Doctor as an implacable alien being, doing what he has to do. But cruel too, as if he had just waited, then the Family would have all died anyway. With his involvement they live forever in their own private hells.

After this, there's a sequence of endings to rival that of The Lord of the Rings. One at a time the plots and characters are wrapped up: Joan no longer wants the Doctor - her John Smith was the braver as he died to save everyone: the Doctor just had to change. Latimer sees the Doctor and Martha leave in the TARDIS, saves the older bully, Hutchinson, from a shell during the War the following year, and lives to an old age. The final scenes around the War memorial, the elderly Latimer holding his lucky watch and remembering, as the Doctor and Martha look on from a distance is awesome television. It's almost impossible not to be moved by it.

'They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.'

From 'For the Fallen' by Laurence Binyon


Abu Yair said...

A nice story, though somewhat puzzling in the end. After all, if the Doctor could project a false scent, and if the Family were going to die within three months, why did he need to go to all the trouble to wreak havoc on that poor school? he could have just hidden out on some desolate planet and let nature take its course.

Nevertheless, it was an interesting attempt to explore new avenues and, as you say, it contained that beautiful poetic description of the Doctor which implied that he is an awesome figure.

The Christological and other religious overtones were strongly present throughout, in particular the doctrine of incarnation and the concept of the passion. I also spotted hints to the First Book of Enoch (the chaining of the fallen angels who sought eternal life).

However, I thought that these were better integrated into the story than the heavy handed religious allusions in The Satan's Pit. Cornell has drawn upon the compelling aspects of the Christian narrative and integrated them into the mythical framework of Doctor Who as a daring hypothesis - what if the eternal Time Lord were to take human form (reflecting the "Jesus as incarnation" doctorine of orthodox Christianity). Nonetheless, I was relieved to see that the hints provided in the previous episode that the Doctor would really settle down and have a human family proved to be playfully misleading.

I was also pleased to see that the concepts of heroism faired in this weeks installment. Less moral huffing and more credit given to genuine bravery in the face of adversity.

As you rightly noted both this and last week, David Tennant's performance was outstanding. His transition between the two characters as he took hold of the watch (nice touch that - a Time Lord held in a watch) was perfectly executed. I hope that we shall have the opportunity to witness his versatility in other well-written roles. Christopher Eccleston proved that with a strong actor in the part, the old Doctor still had a lot of life left in him. I felt that Tennant took slightly longer to develop his character, but is now at a peak. I am looking forward to his confrontation with the mysterious Mr Dixon...20

Kopic said...

Mr Howe, sir, I beg to differ on one point... :)

"trying too hard to elicit a Blackadder the Fourth moment of poignancy which didn't work as the 'dead' were only scarecrows anyway."

I think that actually we were supposed to be lamenting the loss of the boys' innocence rather than the death of the scarecrows. At least, that's how it came across to me.

I need to watch both episodes again, but at the moment I believe this story will go down in history as "the best ever". As you say, David Tennant's perfomances as The Doctor and as John Smith were pitch perfect - for the first time in ages I really, really felt for The Doctor/Smith when he was desperately trying to cling to the human life that he truly wanted. There's only been two other occassions I've felt that way - at the end of Parting of the Ways with the 9th Doctor's parting words and at the end of Logopolis with the 4th Doctor's last words.

"It's the end...but the moment has been prepared for..."

David said...

Ah yes, I'd sort of skimmed over the boys losing their innocence angle and I think you're right. However I still think that the whole effect was a little heavy handed when they were just scarecrows ... and why did the bullets affect them anyway when earlier one had its arm pulled off with no apparent ill effect ...

And on the Christian imagery angle ... brought to mind the way that the 'Son' was hung on a 'cross' at the end ... or maybe we're just reading too much into it ...

Abu Yair said...

The Son on the cross - very nice. I'm sure it wasn't coincidental, though of course the Family were four, not a trinity.

Incidentally, I looked at some reports on the novel of Human Nature, and there the christological aspect seems to be even stronger, since the Doctor becomes human with the sole purpose of understanding human suffering.

Anonymous said...

I loved that episode! I'll admit I cried at the end during the memorial scene. Haven't dne that since the end of FATHER'S DAY. Beautiful stuff!

-Erik Engman

TimeWarden said...

Martha's carelessness through not taking better care of the watch, after specifically being told of its importance by the Doctor in the teaser, directly leads to the Doctor having to choose between his friend and lover at the climax of "Human Nature". Had Martha kept it about her person, Tim wouldn't have picked it up, opened it, and led the Family of Blood to the dancehall.

Paul Cornell should've found another way to reach the same cliff-hanger such as losing the watch. As it stands, it makes Martha look stupid when she must be anything but, considering her medical training! The negligence over something so vital is contradictory to her character and therefore poor writing. The plot collapses because of it, despite the subtext remaining intact. Remember how important it was to retain the time ring in "Genesis"!!

The narrative is also carelessly undermined at the end of "The Family of Blood" when Tim reminds Hutchinson, in the trenches, of the promise he made "all those years ago"! This scene is set in 1914, reaffirmed immediately afterwards by the Producer in "Confidential", while the bulk of the story takes place the previous year!! Now, if Tim had said "all those months ago"… but it just doesn't have the same dramatic punch!!! I'm of the firm opinion that this story is no better or worse than any other this season.

Anonymous said...

Moral observations:

1. Latimer causes all of the deaths at the school when he steals the watch. If the watch had been available when Martha recognized the emergency, the Doctor would have been restored in time to prevent mayhem.

It's implied that Latimer was 'listening' to the watch and following instructions, which implies that the Doctor himself conspired to delay the restoration...for what reason? What was gained? What stood to be gained?

2. The episode spends a lot of time decrying the meanness and lack of reason in the authoritarian system represented by the school (WWI, all that), but when reckoning with the family the Doctor effected punishments that were cruel and unnecessary. He had no reason to make examples of the Family of didn't bring back the dead, and wouldn't have deterred future 'families of blood' from killing.

3. John Smith is a coward. He hides behind armed schoolboys rather than turn himself over. He watches the village bombed and burning rather than lay down his life to stop the killing. Nobody wants to die, but every character in the episode showed greater courage than he did facing death.

4. The Doctor put thousands of people at risk rather than confront and/or imprison the Family of Blood...which, the episode demonstrated, would have been simple short work. Joan was correct in her final assessment...yet the denouement suggests the viewer should write her off. She has failed to appreciate how 'wonderful' he is.

The Doctor has made several outright errors and exhibited paradoxical moral behavior in the course of the new series. It's especially frustrating in these episodes since there are glimpses here of thematic maturity, but the writers keep falling back on childish genre conventions and black hat/white hat didacticism. And what would the show be if it wasn't campy, goofy and pointless fun most of the time? But if you're going to pose questions, especially over fields of poppies, be prepared to answer them.