The Aztecs SEBookmark and Share

Sunday, 10 March 2013 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

The Aztecs SE
Written by John Lucarotti
Directed by John Crockett
Broadcast on BBC1: 23 May 1964 - 13 Jun 1964
DVD release: 11 Mar(R2), 12 Mar(R1)
This review is based on the UK Region 2 DVD release.

Back in the mid-1980s, the stories of William Hartnell were something that I knew little about. I'd had the chance to see the original Doctor in action with the wonderful repeat of An Unearthly Child in 1981 - plus the glimpses of him in The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors - but other than that all I had to go on was the way in which he was depicted from the Target novelisations. The Aztecs was published in this format in 1984, but a year later you could imagine my excitement when the story about the Doctor's encounter with that ancient culture actually arrived on my lap!

Perhaps this is something those of the Cheques, Lies and Videotapes era will appreciate more, but back then with the VHS range only just finding its feet it wouldn't be until 1989 that the First Doctor was to be finally acknowledged with the release of The Daleks, so perhaps unsurprisingly I immediately fell in love with my first proper experience with old-school Doctor Who. Okay, so the picture wobbled and the sound warbled, but it was Hartnell and Co actually there on my television!

Some years later (and a multitude of Hartnells since), a "proper" VHS arrived to replace this god-knows how many generation copy, and I was able to fall in love with the story once again, as the beautiful sets were now visible in all their glory and the sparkling dialogue delivered without an "anti-autotuning" effect! Flash-forward to the 21st Century and the story is the first Hartnell adventure to receive the DVD treatment - and the 'soft focus' of VHS was banished into the past with a restored print delivered which included some new-fangled process called VidFIRE ... and suddenly the fantastic backgrounds turned into ... erm ... obvious backdrops with even the corners visible. I must admit I was very disappointed with that, as I felt this was taking a step backwards and taking some of the magic away from the story I had first encountered in my youth, and - like "the hand of Sutekh" - once you're aware of it your eye is unerringly drawn to it every time thereafter.

However, even with such production deficiencies now revealed, it wasn't going to diminish my love of this story, and just over a decade later I can fall in love with it once more as BBC Worldwide release the Special Edition ...

You can't change history... not one line!

The TARDIS arrives in a tomb, which history teacher Barbara quickly recognises as being from the Aztec civilisation. Passing into a temple through a secret door, she is captured but mistaken by Autloc, High Priest of Knowledge, to be the former high priest and now resurrected god Yetaxa, as indicated by a bracelet she had absent mindedly tried on. The Doctor, Ian and Susan are believed to be the privileged servants of Yetaxa and so any immediate danger is past. However, Barbara is determined that - as a god - she can lead the Aztecs away from their sacrificial beliefs before the arrival of Cortez and tries to stop a sacrifice - but she fails and in so trying is seen to be false by the High Priest of Sacrifice Tlotoxl ... who then sees it his duty to expose her by whatever means possible ...

Episode one sets up the plot nicely for the next three episodes, as Tlotoxl comes up with a variety of schemes to reveal that Barbara is not who Autloc believes her to be, and is not adverse to putting her companions at risk in order to do so. Barbara demonstrates that she is more than capable of countering his attempts, though ultimately the odds are of course weighed in his favour. Jacqueline Hill is able to shine throughout, with her portrayal of Barbara's frustration over the Doctor's continual assertions she will fail and the confrontations with Tlotoxl leading to some of the best scenes in the story.

The ignorance of characters as to what is happening elsewhere is used to others' advantage several times during the course of the tale. Ian's knowledge of pressure points to defeat Ixta embarrasses the warrior leader to quite happily use nefarious means to best his rival in combat - and tricks the Doctor into giving him the means to do by promising his father's plans for the Temple which he doesn't actually have. Then the Doctor is later captured for speaking to Barbara as he didn't know nobody was allowed to approach her. Susan brashly talks about choosing her own husband in contrast to the Aztec way, little knowing that her lack of understanding of the wishes of The Perfect Victim would lead to severe punishment - and Barbara agrees to this not knowing who the punishment is for.

Two characters are above all these schemes, and sadly they are the ones who come out the worst after their encounter with the TARDIS crew. Autloc only wishes his culture to become enlightened, but discovers that his trust and support in Barbara to achieve this is badly misplaced, forcing him to challenge his own beliefs and ultimately turn his back on everything he knew. Meanwhile, Cameca succumbs to the Doctor's charms as he gently manipulates her to help achieve his goal of getting back into the tomb, and then having mistakenly accepted her romantic overtures ultimately has to break her heart.

William Hartnell continues to bring the manipulative nature of the Doctor to life, though steadily becoming more mellow as the first year progresses. His highlight has to be the moment when the Doctor discovers he's just got engaged, and then how he casually remarks upon his new status to Ian a little later on. The final moments in the tomb as the Doctor decides to keep Cameca's brooch are also handled extremely well - it's easy to forget how experienced an actor Hartnell was with all the doddery, Billy-fluff nature that is often associated with his portrayal, but here in The Aztecs he ably demonstrates how to dominate a scene.

William Russell continues to portray Ian as someone who is capable of taking everything in his stride, and here also get to demonstrate an ability to fight in both armed and unarmed combat - I almost expected him to go "Hai!" at one point when he appears to use Venusian aikado! Sadly, Carole Ann Ford doesn't have that much to do, but then it was her turn to have holiday time during production so that isn't so surprising. Of the main guest stars, John Ringham manages to tread that very delicate line just above moustache-twirling villainy to create a convincing zealot in Tlotoxl, whilst Keith Pyott similarly gives Autloc a believable air of naivety. Ian Cullen's Ixta comes across a little 'wet' for someone who is meant to be the best warrior in Aztec society, though - it isn't his fault that of course fight sequences are going to be choreographed carefully to ensure actors aren't hurt, but it's a shame he made it look too 'polished' at times. On the other hand, what can I say about Margot van der Burgh other than she was lovely!

Production-wise, both the costumes (Daphne Dare) and sets (Barry Newbery) look wonderful. It was interesting to find out from the production notes that Newbery referenced a documentary about Mexico from 1960 that featured Aztec buildings in order to make things as authentic as he could - and that its writer/presenter Joan Rodker was brought on as a researcher for The Aztecs itself! No wonder it all looked so good. Writer John Lucarotti was able to bring the culture to life too, with plenty of historical references inserted into dialogue to meet the early education remit of the series - though this being 1964 of course, new evidence has since come to light that wasn't known back then (like the role of the wheel in Aztec society). Mind you, none of the great names were to be heard during the story, with only Tlaloc the rain god getting name-checked - apparently this was so the cast wouldn't keep stumbling over the likes of Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli and cause countless retakes (though I thought Tlotoxl was a bit daring!).

Music-wise, the production got a coup with classical composer Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, with producer Verity Lambert mentioning on the commentary that this was a stroke of luck through him being known by director John Crockett - though apparently Sydney Newman wasn't quite so impressed!

The DVD

The restoration is the main "selling point" for these special editions, and The Aztecs doesn't disappoint in that area. The overall quality has taken another leap forward, with modern restoration bringing an even crisper image than the 2002 innovations had provided; improved contrast has also enabled the foreground characters to stand out further and seem less "in the shadows" than before - though it isn't until you compare the old release with the new one that this sort of thing becomes apparent! Shown here are a few comparisons between the 2002 and 2013 releases:

2002/2013 DVD picture comparison: Episode One climax - Tlotoxl declares Yetaxa a false goddess. Note the scratch on the left side has been removed (Credit: BBC Worldwide) 2002/2013 DVD picture comparison: Episode Two climax - Barbara has to save Ian (Credit: BBC Worldwide) 2002/2013 DVD picture comparison: The Doctor and Cameca share cocoa in Episode Three (Credit: BBC Worldwide) 2002/2013 DVD picture comparison: Doctor with Cameca's brooch in Episode Four (Credit: BBC Worldwide)

There's no new making-of documentary for this release, as the original covered this area quite well with the features Remembering the Aztecs with actors John Ringham (Tlotoxl), Walter Randall (Tonila), and Ian Cullen (Ixta), and Designing The Aztecs with Barry Newbery. (As an aside, both these features and the commentary on the story itself bring home how time moves on, as since those recordings we lost both Ringham and Randall in 2008, Verity Lambert in 2007 and, though not involved in these features, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett last year - sadly, this is going to be even more painfully felt as we reach the forthcoming Pertwee releases this summer.)

There are new production notes for this release, however, which this times sees Matthew Kilburn as our guide as he delves into the story of production and relates fun facts and figures. How did David Whitaker describe time travel? What influences did Richard III and Hamlet have on characterisations? What do we now know of Aztec culture that was unknown in 1964? All this and more and be found within!

Disc one retains the excerpt from a 1970s Blue Peter, which features Valerie Singleton on location amongst the Aztec ruins as she relates the story of the Aztec leader Montezuma and how he mistakenly thought Cortez as the resurrected god Quetzalcoatl until it was too late. This acts as a nice introductionary compliment to a full documentary, The Realms of Gold, that is on disc two. Presented by John Julius Norwich, the 1969 edition from Chronicle examines Cortez's 1519 arrival in Mexico in much greater detail, explaining how the influence, Christian belief and foreign diseases brought by the Spanish conquerors had such a devastating effect upon Aztec culture and civilisation within just a mere couple of years. (It was also great to hear music from Delia Derbyshire. too!)

The second instalment of Doctor Forever! to be released, Celestial Toyroom, delves into the world of Doctor Who toys. Again narrated by Ayesha Antoine, the feature explores the variety of toys from the early days of fresh 1960s Dalekmania (with Richard Hollis of product licensing) through to the ever increasing retro range from Character Options (discussed by product development director Alisdair Dewar), and along the way drops in on the slightly awry 1970s Denys Fisher figures, the 1980s accurate model-work from Sevans, and perhaps the more infamous range of figures from Dapol. Participants include writers Jim Sangster, Rob Shearman, Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss and Steve Cole, plus BBC AudioGo producer Michael Stevens and former BBC product approver Dave Turbitt all enthusing over toys they have loved past and present. A host of other items are mentioned, which include discussion of the 70s "pleasure products" from Shearman, the Weetabix action cards by Cole (I still have mine!), and Tom Baker underpants (which a friend of mine has dared to take out in public!). Russell T Davies also recalls that he once thought he could own every piece of new series merchandise. Plus, the original Top Trumps make an appearance, including a brief game between Antoine and Ian McNeice - who also chatted about the process of becoming a Character figure of his own! All-in-all this feature was a lot of fun, with some laugh-out-loud moments!

Other new features include Clive Dunn appearing as "Doctor Fotheringown" in what is considered to be Doctor Who's first spoof, from It's A Square World originally broadcast on New Year's Eve 1963; plus, a behind-the scenes look at the second Aaru film Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. which also features director Gordon Flemyng talking candidly on taking on making the film. The other original items from the 2002 release are also present, including the various specially recorded introductions to the story that were required for BBFC compliance back in 'the dark ages'!

Galaxy 4

The real "selling point" of this DVD, at least for fans, is not so much the spruced up Aztecs but more about the inclusion of the recently recovered third episode of Galaxy 4 - Air Lock. Other than those lucky enough to attend a handful of screenings (or have very long memories!), the majority of fans will be seeing this episode for the very first time! The original recovered print suffered from a number of problems - not least missing its cliffhanger - so this release presents the fully-restored episode in all it glory, including the recreation of the ending. As a bonus, the story as a whole is included, presented as a condensed reconstruction (originally planned for the DVD release of The Time Meddler) that includes especially shot CGI of various planetary scenes and the Chumblies as well the existing clips that had survived from the opening episode.

This episode is perhaps the best one to have been found, as it is here where the motivations behind the main protagonists are finally revealed, and how initial conclusions from the first half of the story are turned on their head. We can now witness the Doctor and Vicki's encounter with the Rill, and see the exhaustion that Marga feels written across her face - something which is merely hinted from the soundtrack alone. A fair chunk of the episode (and indeed story as a whole) also involves on-screen activity with little or no dialogue - like when Steven executes his attempted escape plan, or the Doctor attempts to sabotage the Rill device - which at least make more sense now that we can see them taking place - not to mention finally knowing what is making all the various beeps, whistles and other sounds!

However, for me, the excitement was more seeing a "brand new" episode of Classic Who rather than the story itself. Unlike The Aztecs, it is actually a pretty mundane tale, and the Peter Purves-narrated soundtrack released back in 1999 reinforces how padded the story was. Indeed, with the tighter, faster pace brought about by the short reconstruation, the complete Air Lock almost brings the tale to a shuddering halt! Okay, this might seem like sacrilege, but I happened to sit down and watch the recreated Crisis and The Urge To Live from Planet of Giants recently and that revealed how much more effective an edit can make to the pace! For those that would prefer watching the full length episodes from which the DVD recon is derived from, however, searching a well-known place for such things should sate that need (grin).

Conclusion

As you might have gathered, this is my favourite Hartnell story, and I'd certainly recommend it to anybody who hasn't bought it before. Whether the picture improvements warrant a re-buy for those who have the original release is a matter of preference, though I suspect the inclusion of Air Lock will sway most fans!

(However, I still feel the restoration reveals the backdrops far too clearly!)

Coming Soon...

The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria are up against a group of ancient Martians as they are inadvertently released from their icy 'tomb' and discover a world they'd quite like to live upon ... well they might have been had The Ice Warriors been the next release - the DVD schedule currently indicates it'll instead be a trip to 17th Century Heathrow for the Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa and Adric, as they encounter plague, fire, alien prisoners in hiding, and the loss of an old friend in The Visitation Special Edition...




The GunfightersBookmark and Share

Saturday, 15 September 2012 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

>‎"What a man will do for what he truly believes in"

With A Town Called Mercy featuring the Doctor on a romp in the Wild West, it's time to settle down his other major dabbling in the genre with The Gunfighters. Fan Mythology has long held this story to propped up in the Boot Hill of Doctor Who, the worst the show could get and the nadir of ratings. Fortunately, a lot of this mistaken mystique has now been corralled into the past where it should be!

That's not to say some of the criticism isn't jusified. Considering the show's original remit to educate, the depiction of the Clantons, Earps, and the legendary gun fight would seem unlikely to grace history lessons of the day. But, of course, never let a few facts get in the way of a good story ...

And to be honest it is an entertaining romp. Historical inaccuracies aside, the plot unfolds at a leisurely but not lethargic pace, and the gradual change in ambience from a 'comedy' into something really dark can still catch you by surprise. Laurence Payne in particular is exceptional as Johnny Ringo, portraying convincing psychopath that you really wouldn't want to encounter in real life, much like Hannibal! And those final scenes of the actual fight are played totally straight with the portrayal of the gritty reality of "playing with guns".

Mind you, some of the accents were to be desired - what is it with this genre that when you go to the "wild west" you have to put on such an approximation - after all, "The Masque of Mandragora" didn't go all Italian on us! Perhaps they shouldn't have bothered and just played it straight through in 'normal' unaccented English, it wouldn't have affected the story. Shane Rimmer can perhaps be forgiven, however, for not trying to sound too much like Scott Tracey! (He's fresh in my mind having seen him pop up in The Spy Who Loved Me just before writing this review!).

Talking about Thunderbirds we also have David Graham here playing the fated barman, Charlie. Considering he doesn't actually have much to do in the story he does come across as one of the more competent characters, and of course gets to perform a death scene in a way that Ken Dodd should take lessons from!

This is one of those adventures where the plot ambles along quite happily in spite of the TARDIS travellers being there; like "The Romans" and other historical-based tales, their actions hover more around the edges of the main 'real conspiracies' that are revealed over the course of the story, rather than being integral to the plot. Dodo and Steven are unaware that they are both to leave the show in a matter of weeks (grin), and instead display their naivety over the potential dangers they put themselves in with their wild-west antics. Dodo's innocence around Doc Holliday is a wonder to behold, and Steven's ability to continually team up with the wrong crowd is a far cry from the astronaut from the year before. Still, we did get to see the Regret and Dupont double act entering "Tombstone's Got Talent"! Meanwhile, "Doc" ambles between sitting in a dentist's, sitting in jail, and sitting in a bar, and general making Mr. Wearp's life a misery - and what a joy it is, too!

The story is also one of those rarities where the underlying soundtrack is a unique experience. Had Lynda Baron been spotted in Cardiff earlier this year rather than last year I'd have been mighty suspicious about what we'd get in A Town Called Mercy, but it would seem that we're probably safe with Gold's usual fare tonight ... of course she's prevalent throughout The Gunfighters, and could almost be classed a narrator with the way the plot is reflected in the lyrics of The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon. For some reason I used to find it quite grating a couple of decades ago, but nowadays it slots in seamlessly with the story. But please don't do it again, no matter what Barrowman pleads!

Random musings:

"I never touch alcohol" ... well maybe not in this incarnation but a couple down the line and he's swigging his wine like a goodun! Actually, we don't see the Doctor drink that often in the series, with only the Fourth coming to mind as another distinct tea-non-totaller!

If the Doctor is a practitioner of never inflicting violence unless under threat, why does he have a collection of favourite guns?

Doctor Caligari ... Doctor Who? Ho hum, we are of course into the Innes Lloyd era of the show, where Who was treated more as a title than a question (thank you Dorium for reminding us of that!) - this one is more subtle than WOTAN's proclamation in The War Machines and Doctor von Wer in The Highlanders.

One has to wonder why - even though at this point he has little control over the TARDIS - he didn't just get back in and travel somewhere else rather than risk his health in a known bacteria-rife environment!

Interesting factoid on the production notes, there was plenty of real food and drink on hand for the cast to eat during the story - lamb chops and beans, such luxury!

This was the last story to feature individual episode titles up to Aliens of London/World War Three, which in some ways is a shame as it meant a clear end to the concept of a continuously evolving adventure. Sadly, however, this story a candidate for fandom to argue endlessly over what it should really be called :)

Having threatened Susan with a jolly good smacked bottom, he actually does the business with Dodo - albeit light-heartedly with the poster Holliday just gave him (grin).

And finally, so what exactly happened to the Doctor's tooth after Halliday extracted it? I wonder if it has disappeared into obscurity only to return next year as a major plot point for the 50th Anniversary as Time-Lord DNA is recovered in an unexpected place...

Conclusion

In conclusion this story is not half bad at all, and certainly didn't warrant all the 'hatred' it accrued over the years. Historically accurate it ain't, but then the multitude of films out of Hollywood don't exactly tell the true story, either.





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.





Human Nature / The Family of BloodBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 5 June 2007 - Reviewed by Shaun Lyon

Not so long ago, in an English springtime...

There are one or two people I know who, upon hearing that the producers were about to embark on yet another "adaptation" of a beloved piece of Doctor Who writing, immediately decided that blasphemy had occurred. Never mind the fact that it would be Paul Cornell adapting his own material; Rob Shearman had done the same two years prior with the loose adaptation of his audio "Jubilee" turned into the brilliant "Dalek," and last year's best-foot-forward attempt by Tom MacRae to capture the essence of the audio "Spare Parts" by Marc Platt in the two-part "Rise of the Cybermen". There are reasons, after all, why Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner may want to look toward previously-written material: stories that won the hearts of fans might, in a larger venue, capture the hearts of the viewing public as well. For this attempt, there would be no obfuscation; Cornell was charged with a direct adaptation of his perhaps his most celebrated Doctor Who novel, "Human Nature," published in 1995, altering the characters (the Seventh Doctor and print companion Bernice Summerfield to current Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones) but keeping the rest.

I have a confession to make: I never read "Human Nature". I was rather picky with the print Doctor Who I read at the time, and a boys' school in 1914, I must admit, never really interested me. When I first heard Paul was adapting his novel, some time ago, I pulled it off the shelf but never actually opened the book; why ruin the surprise? I knew two things -- the setting, and that the Doctor became human.

What goes around, comes around, and in retrospect I made the right choices. For ninety well-spent minutes, in one sitting, "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood" (which I will refer to as "Human Nature" in entirety in the remainder of this review) unfolded like an epic treat, with all the benefits a two-part story presents these days: adventure, drama, a cliffhanger that excites and moments of insight that challenge. It is, first of all, an exploration of human nature itself, what it means to be human. More importantly, it is an examination of just how inhuman the Doctor truly is. David Tennant has perhaps never been as strong as he is here, creating a character in John Smith that is truly different and unique from that of the Doctor. When we first meet him, it is but a superficial change, an educator's hat and black robes, but soon we realize the change is far greater than that. This is a man capable of love, of humility, of stuttering through an entire conversation about a topic he has very limited experience with: romantic interest, specifically from Joan Redfern (Jessica Hynes, in an equally magnificent performance). His depth of feeling for the humble nurse Joan is readily apparent, his mannerisms quite a change from the usual no-nonsense attitude; when he takes the tumble down a flight of stairs, nervously making his way through a non-invitation to the local dance, it is not the Doctor -- the Doctor is far away, in another lifetime. In that moment where Tennant is ready to take up the role of the Doctor again, aboard the Family's spacecraft, it is not a subtle change -- it is forceful and amusing and absolutely real, and Tennant demonstrates the power of his performance simply by being a different man. What hurts most of all is the debate -- should the Doctor return, or should John Smith carry on with his life? There are merits to both sides, with a heart-wrenching look into a future that will likely never happen favoring the latter, and our own sensibilities which would otherwise root for the former option being checked.

I've read many comments on the Internet about the moments in which people teared up while watching this story. For me, it wasn't the heartbreak of watching Smith and Joan parting for what would likely be the last time, or the funeral piece at the end, but the words of truth from young Tim Latimer (played by Thomas Sangster, in one of the finest performances by a child actor to grace a Doctor Who story) ... everything about the Doctor being fire and ancient and all that, but the moment I cracked was when Tim said he was 'wonderful'. Up until that moment, I was really waffling on whether or not John Smith should accept his fate; then, all of the pent-up emotion of the Doctor being the selfless hero, the one man standing against the evil of the universe came flooding back.

But "Human Nature" questions that in another moment of brilliance, as Joan asks him if all of the death and destruction around them would have happened if the Doctor hadn't chosen 1913 England on a whim. It is rare form when Doctor Who questions its own existence, and this is another of Cornell's strengths -- not just playing to the audience with the fear and the humor and the romance and the adventure, but asking pointed questions to an audience that may have become used to black and white instead of the shades of grey that exist in life. Unsatisfied with questioning the hero's role in the events that have unfolded, "Human Nature" further explores the depths to which the Doctor will go to satisfy his moral objectives: he will not murder his opponents, but in fact subjects them to a fate worse than death. Would murder have been the easy way out for the Family of Blood? Or are they now subject to a malevolence not unlike torture?

Director Charles Palmer demonstrates tremendous skill in his cinematography, capturing the essence of 1913 England beautifully, while an exceptional cast handles the story with ease. Besides Hynes and Sangster, Harry Lloyd is a stand-out as Jeremy Baines, the troubled schoolboy who becomes the warmongering Son of Mine. (Has there ever been a guest star on Doctor Who who demonstrates such otherworldliness and creepiness with a tick of the head and eyes like the possessed?) Rebekah Staton (as Jenny, later Mother of Mine) gives another equally noteworthy performance, first as the standard 'period housemaid' and later as the standard 'possessed villain' but excelling at both to feel as though they were played by two totally different actresses.

Freema Agyeman, meanwhile, like Tennant gives perhaps her best performance to date, as Martha discovers a terrible secret -- not that she is the Doctor's friend, or that the Family is after him, but that she is, in fact, far behind in the running to capture both John Smith's, and the Doctor's heart. Her reaction when John shows Nurse Redfern the pages of his 'Journal of Impossible Things' and comes across the sketch of Rose is yet another revelation, and Agyeman plays Martha as if she is struggling against her own convictions. (Another heartbreaking moment, for me anyway: the Doctor invites Joan to join him in the TARDIS, the two of them together -- and never mentions Martha. I'm not sure I'm very happy with where this is leading...)

While Doctor Who often ignores its own past, "Human Nature" actually makes several references to its roots. The aforementioned 'Journal' and its caricatures not only of adversaries from the past three seasons but also the unmistakable features of Paul McGann, William Hartnell and Sylvester McCoy... John Smith's handiness with a cricket ball... even the lovely homage paid to Doctor Who founders Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert. It is always nice to see the past being paid service while still blazing new trails, and yet it is never done in a heavy-handed fashion. The past, in fact, is as important as the future is in "Human Nature," which explores both cause and effect, actions and consequences -- never moreso than in the aforementioned scene where Joan Redfern chastises the Doctor for bringing the death and destruction, the Family of Blood, and the life and death of one man, John Smith, upon them.

There are rare moments in Doctor Who history when everything comes together -- a perfect cast, a thrilling story, fantastic direction and a magic captured like lightning in a bottle. "City of Death" comes to mind from the original series, or "The Caves of Androzani" -- stories that take an already enjoyable concept and transcend the ordinary, becoming something unusually special. There have been many opportunities and many successes by this production team in three years, with bonified thespians in the roles of Doctor and companion, directors that blend subtleties with their talents, magic in the moments that define Doctor Who ? but rarely in combination. Steven Moffat's "The Empty Child" proved that writing Doctor Who had come of age; Davies' own "The End of the World" demonstrated that style played as important a role as substance. Of course, fans bandy about the term 'classic' so often that it fails to have any meaning anymore -- there are many other examples of fine moments of Doctor Who from the past three series, but what defines a genuine classic is when that cast and story and direction and production come together and create something far more. Dare I say it, but Paul Cornell's "Human Nature" -- and I'm not talking about the book I've never read -- is indeed worthy of the term. Three series of Doctor Who to date, and this is the best it's ever been.





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?





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Tuesday, 5 June 2007 - Reviewed by Neil Clarke

At this point in its history, Human Nature is pretty much as perfect a story as I think Doctor Who is capable of producing on TV. Even the arguable classics of the new series (themselves all too few and far between) haven't come anywhere close to this -- even Dalek, The Girl in the Fireplace, et al.

It just seems such a shame that, to my mind, the only real, true brilliance of what are destined to become 'the RTD years' is taken wholesale from the NAs. I love the New Adventures, but I don't see that that should be any barrier to appreciating the series in the way I do the 'classic' TV stories; but, quite simply, the new series simply hasn't even aimed at creating anything comparable to the complexity, originality and emotion of the best of those novels. Everything's straightforward and easy to grasp on one viewing; it's all very dumbed down and very Saturday night?

So, on the one hand I feel vindicated that the best story of the new run derives from those books, but it's a depressing proposition that no brand new story has been anywhere near as fully-formed or multilayered as this adaptation.

Even the way in which the narrative strayed outside of the given 'here and now': to Tim's glimpses of the future - the war, the memorial; to the flashbacks of past stories, which were effectively and economically used; down to the voiceover handling of the ending. Even the three-month time span -- a welcome exception to the adventures more usual seeming to take place over only a day or so. Sadly, I doubt any of these techniques would have been employed had the script not derived from a story from a 'broader' medium than television -- born out by the fact that no other story of the new series have been quite this audacious or wide-ranging. In this way, the story felt like a 'novel on film,' rather than a simply televisual creation.

Can anyone else even believe that this and Gridlock are the products of a common series? Perhaps if Russell T Davies weren't so monumentally arrogant about his own ability as a writer (or having his ego so fully and inexplicably stroked by seemingly everyone who works with him), he'd be cringing with mortified jealousy round about now.

It really seems as if the stakes were ramped up for this production, as if, because of its origins as a novel, people realised there was more behind it than the majority of stories. I've never even been that much of an admirer of Cornell -- it's always seemed to me he has the ideas, but they're let down by slightly pedestrian prose. Here, freed from those constraints, it was wonderful to see the plot refined, and imbued with a loving attention to detail.

The continuity references, for example were rather joyous, but not overplayed -- the music accompanying the sinister schoolgirl from Remembrance of the Daleks momentarily echoed for the Family's youngest sibling; the reference to the village's dust being 'fused into glass,' alluding to the sequence cut from the novel in which the school itself is turned to glass; and, most charmingly of all, the sketch of the Eighth Doctor in John Smith's journal. That warmed the old cockles -- wonderful how such a tiny thing (that'd be overlooked by the vast majority of the audience) could be so heartening; it's wonderful to see McGann's portrayal vindicated by the new series, even only so briefly.

The ending though came close to ruining things for me -- the Doctor devising elaborate punishments for the Family? Given that this sequence was narrated by one of their number, I immediately assumed that it was intended to appear unreliable -- it's just so jarringly? wrong. The Doctor doesn't do this sort of thing? it's just so off. Which, given Cornell's obvious understanding of Doctor Who and what it stands for, seems all the more bizarre.

I'm telling myself that perhaps that along with the Doctor's Runaway Bride callousness, this is leading somewhere. But, I'm not convinced -- like the Sixth Doctor's worst excessive which everyone gets so het up about, the problem for me was there wasn't even anyone to question his actions. Are we meant to suddenly accept the Doctor -- someone the episodes tried so hard to persuade us was worth fighting for -- is the kind of man to truss up his enemies and kick them into the centre of suns?? The whole sequence had a kind of unreal or storybook feel, so here's hoping there's something clever going on there. Even the NA Seventh Doctor at his most pitiless would never actively punish an adversary -- perhaps the worst would be to not save them from someone else, but even he (arguably the most godlike and terrible Doctor - until now, perhaps?!) -- never stooped to undeniable, deliberate sadism.

So it's sad to say that really struck me as a jarring moment in an otherwise note perfect story.

Although, it is kind of amusing -- or a bit depressing, depending -- that, in a wonderful but essentially Doctorless story, when he does reappears, he's being such an annoying tit.

Not that I dislike Tennant. But still, imagine that story with Sylvester? And Bernice come to that. I say that and I like Martha! It does just show though -- despite the strong script, complemented by great character moments, the backdrop of the oncoming war, and some very nice, non-'mainstream' directorial touches (the children's singing over the slow-mo shooting of the scarecrows, etc)? I still just crave the NAs. Because it makes me sad that, despite the highs the new series can evidently reach, a story this strong is definitely in the minority. (And the NAs might seem a defunct reference now, but, it a way, a story like this defies direct comparison to the classic series because then the idea of making fully emotional 'dramas' wasn't the concern; the NAs et al are much more the precursor to what seems, to a general audience, to be this 'brave new approach' to the series?)

However, this story really shows how much difference it makes when a story is written by someone with an abiding love and understanding of not just the series, but Doctor Who in a broader sense - as opposed to the kind of jobbing writer approach of School Reunion (compare and contrast these two stories set around a school, in which the Doctor takes the role of a teacher?), or 42 (a less developed Satan Pit rip-off).

I desperately want to love the new series, but it never quite delivers. Yes, I'm probably being harsh - but having a high-point like this almost makes it worse. Even if you're trying to be charitable about the 'average' episodes, you suddenly can't kid yourself about how vapid and hollow and unoriginal the majority of them really are?