Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Family of Blood

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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.

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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.

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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.



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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Human Nature

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I dream I’m this adventurer. This daredevil, a madman. The Doctor.

Here’s another one I remember primarily in terms of my own early viewing experience. Which is convenient, really, because it’s also a difficult episode to write about – the opening episodes of two-part stories often are.

Certainly, I recall – not the twist, because that’s not quite the right way of describing it – the premise, in particular the pre-credits scene, being quite a shock. Even then I was reading as much as I could about the series, albeit in a fairly limited and constrained way – Doctor Who Adventures magazine was pretty much my limit. I don’t think I’d discovered the internet yet. (Don’t you all wish I never had? So do I, sometimes.) In any case, then, the only descriptions I’d read where to the effect of “When John Smith’s dreams start to come true, where is the Doctor?”, or something like that – there was no analysis of how this was probably an adaptation of Paul Cornell’s novel from the 90s or suchlike.

That was nice, actually – I sometimes wonder if, in becoming so plugged in, I’ve lost something of the actual viewing experience. Not just in terms of Doctor Who, but television in general; simply by virtue of how I approach it these days, with the analytical mind and the keen interest and so on, the actual watching isn’t quite the same. I don’t mean this in the way that people sometimes decry critics for – the inability to ‘just switch off and watch it’, because I wouldn’t want to just switch off. I love the analysis, and I do get more from that.

But at the same time, I can’t help but feel I bring a real baggage and weight of expectations to a lot of what I watch these days. Be it Doctor Who, where I’ve been reading the magazine (I’ve graduated to the ‘grown up’ one now, but its counterpart will always hold a special place in my heart) in advance of the episode for months, or indeed any other television show, where I’ve been reading message boards and tumblr and news websites ahead of time. There’s less surprise to television now, I suppose. (On that note: I think perhaps one of the reasons why I’ve been loving The Good Fight so much is because it’s consistently surprising to me in just how good it is.)

I guess that that, then, is what I associate with Human Nature primarily. A real sense of surprise. It’s not fair to say it’s an integral part of the episode, per se – though certainly there are a few moments where it could have swerved off into something unpredictable, it does begin to start feeding us information (very effectively) quite early on.  But for a few moments at the beginning, it does (or did) genuinely shock me, and I’ll always love the episode for that.

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Obviously, as a Paul Cornell episode, it’s really well written – absolutely lovely throughout. That’s something I can comment on, even though this episode is existing just on its own until next week.

The entire piece just sings, really – it’s very well done. From the absolutely lovely development of John and Joan’s relationship, to ensuring that John Smith is a charming character in his own right yet still fundamentally of his time, with all the human faults and foibles we don’t normally see of the Doctor. It’s a quick but deft sketch of two characters, but an entirely necessary one – so much of next week’s episode is going to rely on these two characters working and working well, and the setup here is absolutely fantastic.

While I’m mentioning the character work, a quick word on Jenny and Baines. Minor characters, yet, but never caricatures; in their own way, they both feel real, in such a way that when they are taken over by the Family of Blood, there’s something meaningful about it. Certainly, Jenny’s death is genuinely sad, and it’s difficult not to feel for Baines too – despite his priggish nature, it’s the moment of fear that sells it. Seeing the characters in their element and then taken out of it entirely, undercutting any confidence or defence mechanism they’ve built up. It’s fantastic stuff, and it’s to the episode’s credit that it takes the time to make these characters work as characters first, before they’re possessed.

One moment I’d like to highlight as a personal favourite is the bit with the piano and the cricket ball – you know the one I mean. That’s something else I specifically recall from the first broadcast; it made quite the impact on me. I remember watching Confidential after the episode, and Russell T Davies and Charles Palmer (I assume, I’ve not checked) were discussing how difficult the scene was to achieve – but ultimately also how essential it was, to demonstrate that the Doctor was still in there, beneath the layers of John Smith. That’s exactly why I love it so much – not only is it a wonderful set piece, but it’s such a wonderful example of the ingenuity and panache and indeed, yes, heroism that (to me, at least) defines the Doctor. It’s moments like this that make the character matter, really. That’s something Paul Cornell understands, and has always understood, innately and intuitively.

Got to love a Paul Cornell episode. Been meaning to read the original novel for some time now – I’d hoped to get a review of it to go up some time over the next week, but that’s not going to happen now – and to get into some of his original novels. Chalk looks quite good. Still, though – I know you said you were sticking with your original work from now on, and that’s genuinely quite admirable, but (selfishly speaking)… come back and give us another Doctor Who episode, please? You’re damn good at it.

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I’ve spent quite some time gushing over this episode – which in turn begs the question, was there anything I didn’t like? Well… in some cases, it was almost too good for its own good.

I criticised The Shakespeare Code some time ago for its historical treatment of race, and recently celebrated Thin Ice for much the opposite. Human Nature occupies a rather lovely middle ground in that respect – it’s a deft and subtle handling of how Martha’s race would impact on her experiences in 1913, leaving it implicit yet at the same time very direct. There’s something really impressive here; in some ways, I’d argue that it paved the way for Thin Ice’s success later on, demonstrating acutely that Doctor Who can handle historical racism in a nuanced and sensitive way.

But like I said – it’s almost too good. Because it’s so, so damning of the Tenth Doctor in a way that’s almost staggering to behold. There’s the moment where Martha laments the fact that he didn’t consider what would happen to her if he fell in love with someone, and like, yeah, sure – but did he not also consider the months of racism, abuse, and servitude? Damn. There’s an implicit cruelty here that’s difficult not to lay at the Doctor’s feet, which I was struggling to come to terms with. Why 1913? It’s a lovely setting and Paul Cornell does some great work within that, so I’m not inclined to argue it particularly – but from a Watsonian perspective, as it were, what on Earth was the Doctor thinking? Why not go to 2007, and stay with Martha’s family, Lodger style? It almost feels like there’s a need to throw in a line about sending the TARDIS to a random location in Earth’s history, just to absolve the character of some of the responsibility he’s putting on Martha.

It’s not a huge dent on the episode. It’s a lovely episode. In some regards, it’s a good thing – I almost feel like that questionable discomfort is part of the point, particularly given what I recall of next week’s episode. But still, it’s a bit of a sticking point.

Ultimately, though, this is a really good episode – one that proves why Paul Cornell is so good, and why we should be praying for his return. Thankfully, though, even if he doesn’t come back – we’ve still got next week’s!



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Celebrating Father’s Day with Doctor Who

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Brilliantly, but perhaps also obviously, Pete isn’t anything like Rose expected. He’s not the wonderful man in the perfect marriage that Rose was always told about; Pete is fallible. More than that, he’s already failing. His marriage is strained, his business non-existent. Rose gets to know her father as he is, not as he was remembered. It’s really compelling drama; we’re seeing Rose build a relationship with a person, not with an idea, all while having to confront her preconceptions about her father.

Today’s Yahoo article is about Father’s Day – not just the day, but the Doctor Who episode! I’m quite fond of this episode; it’s one of the highlights of Christopher Eccleston’s first season.

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Nine Years of the Ninth Doctor: Father’s Day

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Rose, there’s a man alive in the world who wasn’t alive before. An ordinary man: that’s the most important thing in creation. The whole world’s different because he’s alive!

I have a book. In fact, I have several. (Did you guess?)

The particular book in question, though, is called Doctor Who: The Shooting Scripts (2005). It’s a fantastic book, and it’s definitely worth picking up a copy. It’s a big, hardback book containing the shooting scripts for Christopher Eccleston’s series as the Doctor.

And as part of each script, there’s a little introduction by each of the writers. In his introduction, Paul Cornell writes that, for him, Doctor Who has always been about “big emotions”.

Well, he certainly managed that here.

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This episode revolves around Rose and her family; she asks the Doctor to take her back to 1987, so she can be with her father when he dies. Already that’s a brilliant idea, and you can see all the different possibilities – it’s just begging to go wrong.

And, of course, go wrong it does.

Rather than just be with her father Pete as he dies, Rose averts his death. She changes her personal timeline in a big way. Her father lives – and she gets to know him. There’s no Back to the Future style fading away here – Rose stays, and deals with the immediate consequences, rather than ramifications further down the line.

Brilliantly, but perhaps also obviously, Pete isn’t anything like Rose expected. He’s not the idealised man in the idealised marriage that Jackie always told her about; Pete is fallible. More than that, he’s already failing. His marriage is strained, his business non-existent. Rose gets to know her father as he is, not as he was remembered. And that’s absolutely brilliant – it makes the whole thing feel a lot more real.

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Shaun Dingwall, who plays Pete, gives an absolutely brilliant performance. He probably rivals Simon Pegg as best guest actor of the series; the relationship between him and Billie Piper is absolutely pitch perfect. Everything about it is absolutely right. The best scenes of the entire episode – and I’m sure this has been said again, but I’ll say it again – are those where Rose and Pete properly talk. Talk about the picnics and the bedtime stories, or about being bald… they’re very poignant moments, which are brilliantly written and performed.

The Doctor and the Reapers have a pretty interesting part of the story, though they’re not really the point of it all. Still, what’s Doctor Who without monsters? Christopher Eccleston gives another great performance here – I really liked his scenes with the soon-to-be-married couple. Very Doctor-y. His anger at Rose was also very well done.

So, in all, another great episode. The season is shaping up pretty well, isn’t it?



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