He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun.
Any review of this episode is going to start from essentially the same premise: it’s perfect.
Yes, a bold claim. But let’s be honest – it is, isn’t it?
Russell T Davies once described this episode as the type of special story they wrote to give David Tennant the opportunity to stretch his acting muscles, and show everyone just how impressive his performances are. It’s absolutely true; Tennant’s work here is magnificent. It takes real skill to portray a character like John Smith, differentiating him so meaningfully from the character Tennant plays each week – somewhat ironically, it’s perhaps a clear candidate for one of Tennant’s best performances during his time during his tenure as the Doctor. Admittedly, it’s perhaps a slight shame that we don’t get to see the moment where John Smith does ultimately choose to die – and yet in positing it as a moment of quiet, private courage, it further sets the two characters apart, a world away from the bombast that here defines Tennant’s Doctor.
It helps, of course, that he’s got a great chemistry with Jessica Hynes, who gives a brilliant performance as Joan Redfern. In many ways, it’s her performance that anchors this piece; without a well-rounded character here, the love between John Smith and Joan Redfern would be entirely false, and the episode couldn’t function at all. But Hynes does a brilliant job of conveying the love that Joan feels for John – and at the same time, emphasising the tragedy that she realises before he does that the Doctor is the real man. It’s a skilled, layered performance, and perhaps the best guest turn of the series so far.
It’d be remiss not to mention Freema Agyeman, though – this is, after all, one of Martha’s best episodes. Removing the Doctor from the narrative gives Martha the space to step up and command the story on her own terms; there’s a certain authority and assertiveness here that the character hasn’t always been given. It really helps Martha to see her this way – her unrequited love for the Doctor feels more earned than it has previously, yet she doesn’t seem dependent in the same way she has in prior episodes. And who doesn’t love the moment when Martha explained the bones of the hand, subtly focusing on her middle finger just to really emphasise the moment? It’s fantastic stuff for the character – it’s just a shame she wasn’t given it earlier.
The spectre of World War One hangs over this episode; not only informing the feel and texture of the episode, but giving it a deeper thematic weight that isn’t always there in other episodes. War comes early to England in this episode – and The Family of Blood does a great job of demonstrating not only the damage, but the damage on a personal and intimate level.
Something that struck me about the scarecrows is that, essentially, they’re a metaphor for the boys – particularly during the attack on the school, which is a wonderfully shot moment from director Charles Palmer. The scarecrows are shot down, as though they’re made of straw (which, of course, they are) and they’re in exactly the same place the boys will be in just a year later. It’s a great way of tying the monsters – which already have a great visual design – into the broader thematic concerns of the episode; indeed, the sequence as a whole is deeply effective, like I’ve already mentioned. The long, lingering shots that explicitly tie together not just the violence, but the boys crying at being thrown into it – it’s a huge departure from last week’s military drills, and indeed a deliberate parallel. It’s a good way to underscore some of the themes of the episode.
But then, interestingly, it does begin to feed into some broader ideas that the episode suggests. The novel, of course – which I’ve admittedly not yet read – is much stauncher in terms of its pacifism and rejection of violence. Timothy was a medic in the war, not a fighter as he’s presented here; you could imagine that final line being “they’ll need a Doctor” rather than commenting on the need to fight, particularly given how often Timothy was paralleled with the Doctor across the episode. But instead, there’s an assertion of the need to fight – perhaps suggesting a need to be monstrous, to fight the monstrous?
It’s an interesting idea; if nothing else, the questions it raises, when linked to both war and the Time War as a wider idea, are intriguing ones for Doctor Who to tackle in its current form. It’s not necessarily a question with an answer, exactly, but it’s looking at a frustration at the heart of the show in this form, and indeed Tennant’s Doctor.
Some interesting questions are raised about the Doctor, though, and his behaviour. Over the course of these reviews I’ve started to change my opinion on the Tenth Doctor somewhat; certainly, series three gradually begins to posit him as cruel, albeit inadvertently, in terms of his treatment of Martha. That’s similarly clear in this episode, but goes beyond that too – the Doctor’s arrogance causes the tragedies of this episode, the violence and the heartbreak.
It’s clear from the beginning that the Family followed him here, of course; I touched upon this last week, remarking on why they’ve all ended up in 1913. But Joan Redfern makes it explicit here, launching a critique that emphasises the Doctor’s culpability in everything that happens here – one that begins to present the Doctor as being just as monstrous as those he fights. Certainly, that’s how it feels with the closing punishments – a condemnation of the Family that feels grossly out of proportion with their crimes, not by virtue of how harsh they are, but in some ways because how petty they are. “You wanted to be immortal? Well, here you go then!”
In a sense, it becomes about what the Doctor is like without his humanity as well – emphasising the other extreme, in comparison against the character of John Smith we’ve seen so far. There’s a cruel streak of arrogance there, and it’s what earns the Doctor that description as “fire and ice and rage”. Brilliantly, though, Paul Cornell does what he always does, and brings this back down to the small and the intimate. The most damning moment isn’t the Doctor’s punishment of the Family – it’s his final conversation with Joan. As he stands there, lying to her about being able to love her again, it’s motivated solely by vanity. (That might be a reflection of my developing feelings on the Doctor here, admittedly; previously I’d always read it more as a kind lie, in the knowledge that Joan wouldn’t take him up on it – now it feels as though it’s simply posturing, a grand display of arrogance once more.) That’s scary in its own way – and in some ways, moreso than the epic grandeur of the punishments of the family.
Ultimately, then, The Family of Blood is a nuanced and subtle piece; it’s a genuinely impressive character piece for the show, and I’m ever so glad it exists.