Human Nature / The Family of BloodBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 5 June 2007 - Reviewed by Tony Whitehead

Come back John Smith we miss you already! One of the strongest images from this outstanding two-parter is of the Doctor slouching by the door asking Joan nonchalantly if she might like to go travelling with him - this in contrast to his former alter-ego John Smith's kaleidoscopic imagined life in which as he faces his maker on his deathbed he remembers to enquire solicitously about his children/grand children. Is Paul Cornell having a sly dig at the cyber punk generation? Despite the moral dilemma of the First World War and the racial and class hypocrisies we see displayed before us - the undeniable values and courage of 1913 England are played pretty straight. John Smith's straightforwardness and selflessness make a nice counterpoint to the Doctor's damaging wilfulness.

Family of Blood managed to do what the concluding finale of few Who two-parters have succeeded in doing -- in ferociously cranking up the volume without exploding the plot. Whilst a poignant theme of Human Condition was intimacy -- an intimacy torn asunder through the greed of the Family -- part two Family of Blood brings to life the contrasts and moral ambiguities of a long-lost England juxtaposed with a rather scruffy and superficial here-today. Sure: we know that the Doctor is (at least maybe) the last of the Time Lords -- and Martha (as she points out to Joan) is actually a Doctor -- but the two of them also reflect the values and lifestyle of their noughties audience -- a contrast nicely undercut by Cornell when the two of them saunter along poppies in lapels to Latymer's Remembrance Day celebration.

Not only do we miss John Smith -- we even more desperately miss Joan. What would we have given to have had her grace the Tardis and accept the Doctor's causal offer and up sticks and travel through space and time with him -- knowing in our heart of hearts -- that this could never happen. What was remarkable about these episodes was not just the way that the characters got seriously under our skin -- but the way the gulf between quite different value systems was being represented for our entertainment -- through a love story -- in the main characters. Joan movingly acknowledges this gulf when she rejects the Doctor's invitation.

Whist the Doctor can be seen as wilful -- his casual actions result as Joan candidly points out in the avoidable deaths caused as a direct result of his presence in 1913 -- he is also portrayed as a stern revengeful judge. Cornell's Doctor is moving perilously close to a godlike figure -- at one point he is taken to a great height and shown the delights of being human -- the human condition -- at another he becomes a 'Christus Pantocrator' figure replete with those intense angry dark eyes. The justice he meters out to the unfortunate Family members -- part Biblical Judgement Day -- part Lord of the Rings fantasy -- is so wonderfully unexpected. Most viewers like me I am sure expected the exploding spaceship to be followed by a safe plot-fix recovery of the original owners of the bodies taken over by the Family. What refreshing courage and skill to serve a much darker dish -- the original owners of the bodies are dead and gone -- we've already been told that -- and now in addition the Doctor delights us by serving up the harshest of just punishments.

Human Condition and Family of Blood is exactly what excellent Who is all about -- dark -- entertaining -- moving -- and not short changing an expectant audience. At its core is writing that works on many levels -- with villains that are scary and evil -- and also like the best of Who villains frequently and perceptively close to the moral truth -- as with Baines as he questions the Headmaster who is shortly going to send his boys to war. Great writing and direction -- bolstered by fine acting -- and a believable 'human' love story that managed to kick even the excellent Girl in the Fireplace into touch. With this two-part episode we've been spoilt good and rotten. The Human Condition and Family of Blood easily establish a new dramatic high for a wonderful series.