Human Nature / The Family of BloodBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 5 June 2007 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

I didn't want to see 'Human Nature' adapted for television: it's one of my favourite of the New Adventures, and I had a horrible feeling that the trappings of the new series would ruin it. It turns out I was wrong, since 'Human Nature'/'The Family of Blood' is easily the best Doctor Who television story since the Welsh revival began.

In fact, 'Human Nature'/'The Family of Blood' benefits the series enormously. Cornell's tale of a Doctor who becomes human is stripped down to the basics here, with much cut from the novel, including much of the rather hellish interaction between the pupils at the school and the headmaster. Everything focuses on John Smith, and by transforming the Doctor into a human, Cornell emphasises the fact that the Doctor isn't human: as such, the Doctor feels truly alien here for the first time since the new series started. The ending is startling: since the Family of Blood are different from the antagonists of the novel, I didn't know quite how they'd be defeated, and the voice-over from Son of Mine revealing how the Doctor trapped them all for eternity, gives the story -- and the Doctor -- a sense of the epic. The revelation that the Doctor chose to hide from them until they died not because he feared them but because he was being kind is utterly unexpected, and his revenge his terrible, Son-of-Mine noting "We wanted to live for ever, so he made sure we did". This all makes him seem genuinely dangerous in a way that he hasn't since, well, the New Adventures, with Tim's fear of the Doctor causing him to hold off on returning the watch, and Tim's speech about the nature of the Doctor, which could easily have been dreadful, is scripted just right, so it makes him seem mythic. His failure to leave Martha instructions as to what to do if he falls in love simply because it doesn't even occur to him is a nice touch, and one I didn't expect to see in this series. And the moment when Joan asks him he'll change back into John Smith and he firmly states "No" is great.

All of this is helped by the fact that John Smith also works as a character in his own right. As he falls in love with Joan, it's utterly believable, such that his anguish when faced with the difficult decision to sacrifice his life -- and everything that he could have as a human -- to restore the Doctor is heartbreaking. That he has "Doctorish" moments (the journal, and the magnificent cricket ball scene) only serves to make him seem extraordinary, so when he effectively dies, it has real impact. And David Tennant is key to this: there have been times in the series when he's been almost hammy, with some cringe-worthy moments as he has to handle self-consciously "wacky" dialogue, but 'Human Nature'/'The Family of Blood' demonstrates just how good an actor he can be, as John tearfully and angrily realises that Martha is expecting him to throw his life away so that she can have her friend back. Especially notable is the moment of realisation when he insists, "I'm John Smith! That's all I want to be! With his life and his job!"

Martha also gets a great story, as she loyally takes care of the Doctor whilst he's John Smith. Wisely, Cornell doesn't just give her Benny's role from the novel, but instead tailors it to the character. For all that her declarations of love for the Doctor and anguish that he falls in love with a human other than her are bound to irritate some, Cornell handles it well: Martha comes out this looking not like someone with a schoolgirl crush, but a loyal and brave friend, which is what the companion should be, especially as she has to deal with the bigotry and prejudice of the times, something that Benny, who spent the early part of the novel getting pissed, didn't have to deal with. She also ends up looking very capable, especially during her face off with the Family: for a moment, when she establishes that Jenny is lost for ever, I really thought that she was going to shoot Mother-of-mine.

Thus, in plot and scripting terms, 'Human Nature'/'The Family of Blood' is almost flawless. Cornell's politics tend to leap out of all his novels, to such a pious extent that they often alienate the readers, even those who, like me, tend to broadly agree with him. This is reigned in here, partly because timing means that the bullying and abuse of the novel is only alluded to. Amusingly and almost certainly unintentionally, the message that sending children to war is wrong ends up looking very muddied since, as John Smith points out, they don't have much chance here: Smith could feasibly have ended the attack by surrendering to the Family, but the consequences would have been so terrible that everyone would probably have ended up dead anyway. This ends up conveying an ambiguous message about the need to fight and give ones life for the greater good (as Smith does) in some situations, which is very Doctor Who (and what he vengefully does to the Family is almost as nightmarish as the World War One scenes), but not very Paul Cornell. Nevertheless, it works well, resulting in some genuinely moving scenes.

There's some fine support here from Jessica Hynes as Joan Redfern, who helps to make the character both believable and very sympathetic, and conveys a real sense of just how much Joan is giving up to save the world when she persuades John to become the Doctor again, whilst Thomas Sangster is also very good as Tim. Both episodes are also beautifully directed by Charles Palmer, who brings an almost fairytale feel to the flashbacks of the Doctor deciding to become human, and of montage of his defeat of the Family. And both episodes look stunning, with gorgeous location footage and sets, and some great design touches such as the Doctor's journal. The journal, incidentally, is a treat for long-time fans, with sketches of past Doctors, including McCoy, McGann and Hartnell, briefly visible on screen. This is the sort of unobtrusive continuity that pleases the old guard without baffling new fans, as is Smith revealing that his parents were called Sydney and Verity, and the musical cue that gives a nod to 'Remembrance of the Daleks'.

But whilst 'Human Nature'/'The Family of Blood' is extremely good, it isn't perfect: Harry Lloyd is embarrassingly hammy as Baines/Son-of-mine, and Rebekah Staton and Gerald Horan as his parents are only marginally better, which makes the Family, despite their army of very creepy scarecrows, rather less impressive than they should have been. This is a shame, but it is by no means the greatest failing of the episodes: that lies with a familiar problem. On the commentary track for the Region 1 DVD release of 'The Armageddon Factor', director Michael Hayes mentions the old principle that the best incidental music is the kind that the audience doesn't notice, a view that I subscribe to, but which Murray Gold evidently does not. He has, by this point, ruined scenes in every single episode of the Welsh revival, but here, in a story that is generally outstanding, his abysmal, overblown musical tripe is smeared over the episodes to such an extent that it frequently pulls me out of the drama and throws me headlong down a helter-skelter of aural assault into a pit of auditory excrement. Never has the score seemed so intrusive, with Gold's pompous refrains attempting to signpost whatever emotion the viewer should be feeling in the least subtle ways imaginable. It actively detracts from many scenes: the scarecrows, which should have been very creepy, are robbed of menace by the score, and some of the pathos during Smith's scenes in the second episode are rendered vaguely nauseating by the accompanying warbling. The commentary tracks on the DVD releases of series one and two, reveal that the current production team think Gold to do no wrong, so we're clearly stuck with him, but I long for a day when he gets another job, preferably on a program I don't watch, possibly in partnership with Keff McCulloch.

Fortunately, 'Human Nature'/'The Family of Blood' is so well written and (in most cases) performed that it can survive such audio assault, and still stands, for me, as the best story since Doctor Who returned to our screens. I assume that adapting an existing novel is something of a one off, although given how well it works here, it wouldn't surprise me if the trick was repeated. And personally, I'd love to see them try realising the Dyson Sphere of 'The Also People' on the available budget?