Friday, September 07, 2007

“God, you’re rubbish as a human!” – Doctor Who

I’ve actually agonized quite a bit over whether it’s really suitable to have a light-hearted title quote accompanying a recap of Doctor Who’s most heartbreaking episode ever. With ‘The Family of Blood’, writer Paul Cornell pulls one of those favourite writer tricks – after investing the audience in your universe, rip it all apart in the most tragic fashion possible. The difference here, of course, is that we knew from the beginning the norm would end up restored (although not 100% - see below). So instead what Cornell has done is invest us so completely in this new environment that we actually feel sadness when everything is more or less ‘put right again’. Which, considering it’s the usual template of Who which has made it so successful, is a very impressive feat.

What became apparent to me, when watching this episode, is that through all of my desperate attempts to get a grip on what was going on in ‘Human Nature’ I had actually completely missed the point. Where ‘Human Nature’ was more about how the Doctor ended up becoming John Smith, ‘The Family of Blood’ is about the repercussions this decision brings. The thing is, it never occurred to the Doctor that people might get hurt – or if it did, it didn’t put him off his plan. Nor did it ever occur to him that he might fall in love. The Doctor gave no consideration at all to his human counterpart, and throughout ‘Human Nature’ neither did I – my thinking was more along the lines of, ‘When and how is the Doctor coming back?’ Yet as we are shown throughout ‘The Family of Blood’, John Smith is his own man, with his own feeling and emotions completely separate from the Doctor. Basically Smith is an entirely separate character who deserves as much of the viewer’s affection as the Doctor, if not more.

In fact, ‘The Family of Blood’ is something of a condemnation of the Doctor. He saw Martha’s job as simply keeping an eye on John Smith for three months before opening the watch and bringing the Doctor back again. John himself puts it to Martha quite differently: “So your job was to execute me?” Martha herself can be forgiven for not being more sympathetic to John’s plight; after all, she is in love with the Doctor, and with the Family beginning to destroy the village she ranks his immediate return above John’s opinions on the subject. It was the Doctor, however, who first set the whole thing in motion, and who is not so easily forgiven. It is explained late on in the episode that the Doctor chose to hide from the family not out of fear, but because “he was being kind” in trying to spare them punishment. Cornell appreciates how important it is that this be stated, as it casts all of his actions in an entirely different light. In some ways it is heartening to see this proof of the Doctor’s essentially compassionate nature, but as the events of this two-parter show, he may have made the wrong decision. Not only does his presence cause many deaths, but it takes a strong emotional toll on characters we have grown to love: Martha, Timothy and most of all Joan.

Guest stars on Who have gotten the rough end of the stick before, but Joan’s story is the most tragic of all – having already lost one husband, she has to talk her second love into leaving her as well. Once Joan comes to appreciate the reality of the situation she selflessly lets go of her own desires and helps the Doctor return, even after seeing a glimpse of the happy life she might have with John. This makes for one of the episode’s most powerful scenes, as the couple grasp together at the fob watch and are treated to an imagining of what their happy married life might look like. As the images flash by and blissful smiles come to both of their faces, you can’t help feel a tear come to your eye. Well, one certainly came to mine, and not just then either. I felt the waterworks coming again in Joan’s final scene, where she meets the Doctor. Her pain at being forced to see this other man who looks just like John is heartbreaking, and is only intensified by the Doctor asking her to come with him as his “companion”, an offer she must reject. We leave Joan on a hauntingly beautiful image – tears running down her cheeks as she clutches the Journal of Impossible Things to her chest.

While in retrospect it seems obvious that Joan’s role was not going to extend beyond this two-parter, before ‘The Family of Blood’ aired I was genuinely uncertain of what role she might take. It seemed a legitimate possibility that she could join the Doctor as a new companion, or even that they might get married (thanks to misleading ‘Next week’ promo). I now understand Cornell was never going in this direction, but it’s a testament to Jessica Hynes’ performance that Joan comes across this strongly. Though Joan is occasionally a little too good to be true, Hynes overcomes any moments of weak characterisation and is just magnificent.

So too is David Tennant. He plays John’s realisation of who he really is with an emotional honesty that is entirely shocking – even if he’s technically a different character, it’s incredibly jarring to see him crying and full-on breaking down. Tennant’s extraordinary abilities can be summed up by a split-second moment when he holds the watch, momentarily becomes the Doctor and then just as quickly reverts back to being John. What still gets to me about this moment is how much you don't want it to happen; the Doctor’s sudden presence feels entirely unwelcome.

The episode’s final coda, revolving around the character of Timothy, redeems the Doctor somewhat. Timothy paints a deliberate contrast to Joan in that the Doctor’s intrusion into his life has proven a good thing (the fob watch made him previously aware of a moment in battle when he would otherwise have died). It’s a coincidence, sure, but it shows that wherever the Doctor is responsible for death, he is also responsible for death being averted. The difference in ‘Human Nature/The Family of Blood’ is that he sets off all these events for the sake of mercy to a villain who evidently deserves none, and not with any consideration towards humans who might be caught in the crossfire. As Joan puts it in her final scene, “John was braver than you, in the end. You chose to hide, he chose to die.” Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the Doctor should have killed himself, and I don’t believe Cornell is saying this either. But once again this revived Who has tapped into a new, disturbing facet of the Doctor’s character which proves difficult to shake off.


Dan Owen said...

Sorry, but NO comments on this blog was ridiculous, so I had to add one. This was one of the best episodes of any sci-fi series in 2007. I pity all Americans who still haven't given DW a chance. When it's on its game, it takes some beating. Superb stuff.

Carrie said...

I finally got a chance to watch this episode and WOW. Incredible. Whenever I hear people put down sci fi programming as a whole I just shake my head, because they obviously don't understand that great sci fi isn't all about aliens and gadgets and time travel. It's about emotions and consequences and the human condition, as perfectly exemplified here.

I'm trying to remember the previous episodes where they showed some of the Doctor's dark side, and for some reason my brain is failing me. Was it from the first season with Christopher Eccleston? Can anyone remember what happened? I think learning about the negative aspects of being the Doctor are so interesting, and I was really impressed with how David Tennant played it.

Bravo, Doctor Who! I can't wait for Blink next week, I've heard great things.