The Sound Of DrumsBookmark and Share

Sunday, 5 March 2017 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
John Simm as The Master in The Sound of Drums (Credit: BBC)

Series Three - Episode 12 - "The Sound Of Drums".

STARRING:

David Tennant , Freema Agyeman , John Barrowman, 
WITH John Simm and Alexandra Moen 

ALSO FEATURING: Adjoa Andoh, Trevor Laird,
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Reggie Yates, Elize du Toit,
Nichola McAuliffe, Nicholas Gecks, 
Colin Stinton, Olivia Hill, Daniel Ming,
Lachele Carl, Sharon Osbourne. 

ALSO WITH VOICE WORK BY:
Zoe Thorne, Gerard Logan, and Johnnie Lyne-Pirkis 

WITH CAMEOS by McFly, and Ann Widdecombe. 


Written By - Russell T Davies,

Script Editor - Simon Winstone

Directed By - Colin Teague
Music - Murray Gold
Produced By - Phil Collinson

Executive Producers - Russell T. Davies + Julie Gardner

Originally Transmitted 23rd June 2007, BBC 1

This middle component of the storyline that saw out the 2007 run of modern Doctor Who is a dynamic, compelling slice of action and political satire. As good as it had been to have the likes of Autons and Macra come back from days long gone, and especially welcome to see the Who staple monsters that are the Daleks and the Cybermen return with a vengeance, the show badly needed the most masterly of humanoid villains to keep the Doctor on his toes.


John Simm's Master can be best likened to 'The Joker from Batman. He is utterly unhinged, and without remorse for the crimes he commits.  He actively enjoys causing chaos and misery. But such is this prolific performer's calibre of acting, the viewer cannot help but like him on some level. This is a quality inherent in all the more effective Masters – with other notable names being those of Delgado, Ainley, Jacobi (albeit mainly resting on the fake Yana persona), and Gomez.

Of course I will acknowledge the pure villainous qualities of the 'decayed' Master that showed up in the Tom Baker era, and in places also in the 1996 TV Movie. To my mind though, the ideal variant has some level of dark charm, and humorous edginess.

A great idea that makes this episode work, is putting the TARDIS crew firmly on the back foot. They do not even have their magic ship as a 'home base', and arrive late on the scene as the Master Plan has already unfolded to near finality. 'Harold Saxon' has become the British Prime Minister, and virtually the whole population are enthralled by his charisma and decidedly alternate style to politics.

The manner in which he sweeps aside all dissenting voices in his Cabinet through the method of poisonous gas, and tapping his hand on the table to the 'Sound of Drums' is a fine scene. He even gives some warning to his victims, but in such a way that he is comically obtuse, thus catching some of the supposed smartest people in the land completely off-guard.

It is hard to tell which is the more disturbing death in these 10 Downing Street sections: the prolonged suffocation of senior politicians by gas, or the way the Toclafane slice-and-dice Vivien Rook - a reporter rather too bold and determined for her own good.

                                   "I'm taking control, Uncle Sam, starting with you. Kill him!"

By contrast, the execution of the American President is played very much as black comedy. We have a boisterous and self-important world leader, and one perhaps looking down on Britain; no doubt due to the "ass" elected by the population. In this day and age, with such a controversial new president in charge this scene plays out on a different level. Even the very current affairs savvy Davies could not have anticipated this dimension his work would take.

Having a wife by the Master's side is a neat spin on an antagonist that was normally a lone wolf. Whilst he may have temporary stooges to help him (and usually hypnotised ones at that), this is the first time it appears he has a stone cold lover to endorse his villainy. In the Colin Baker portion of the Classic Series, there were tentative alliances with The Rani and Glitz respectively. However, in Lucy the Master has someone who seems to love his unending ambition, ruthlessness and even his sadism. (But of course there are limits to what evil a spouse can put up with, and this is explored effectively in the concluding episode).                                                                                                                                
The Sound of Drums (Credit: {s{LastoftheTimeLords}})The telephone conversation scene gives both Simm and Tennant a chance to share screentime equally. When they finally meet in the same frame the effect is even more marked.  However, whilst the Tenth Doctor swansong The End Of Time is inferior to this Series Three closer, it is ahead in terms of offering decent one-on-one material for two of Britain's most respected screen actors.

The 'Toclafane' - a name from young Gallifreyan fairy tales – essentially act as the Master’s force of marauding assassins. But they are a pretty neat invention, in that they combine a distinct monster look with some semblance of a disturbingly imbalanced personality. Having multiple voices to breathe life into them is also a great production choice. The story behind who these creatures are is kept mysterious for now in this particular outing. If one were to be overly critical, they could be accused of looking somewhat like the confectionary Maltesers - especially when the pulsating Voodoo Child track plays out for a distinctly long stretch. Using a piece of popular chart music was a bold move by Davies and can perhaps be seen as risking dating the production. But taken as a suitably offbeat piece of rhythmical noise, that the Master would choose to celebrate his crowning moment with, it is more than appropriate. Also, this is one of the few moments in the show at the time when composer Murray Gold is not providing persistently stirring backing music to the onscreen drama. 

Series Three did a serviceable job of giving the viewer a clan of relatives to make Martha’s attachment to Earth mean something, and managed to be both similar enough but also distinctly different from the dynamic that Rose Tyler had in terms of her original 'home'. Furthermore, some good groundwork was done in terms of exploring just why Martha eventually chose not to remain by the Doctor's side full time. Adjoa Andoh is probably the best performer out of this family group, and combines steely determination with a subtle sense of really caring for all those closest to her. She would justifiably return in Series Four's closing pair of episodes, as well. Trevor Laird is notably stronger in his acting, than the very tired and ineffectual henchman role that was part of 1986's Mindwarp. He makes for a devoted father figure, and shows some real bravery in helping the Doctor's party evade capture. Reggie Yates is the kind of casting choice that peppered the 1980s under John Nathan-Turner's watch, and is engaging enough. It is a rather generic brother role as Leo, however, and there is virtually no character development that the show normally pulled off so well by now. Also, for whatever reason, Yates barely features in this episode, and contributes even less in the following one. Martha's other sibling Tish, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw is perhaps the best used recurring character in terms of the Saxon Arc itself, and is performed with conviction throughout. Much like Freema Agyeman, Mbatha-Raw has had a very fine career post-Doctor Who.

Martha herself remains a solid companion, with Ageyman really selling the reveal that the Master is the most powerful man in the country. The response to the startling impact of her 'normal' world being so drastically changed is a strong core theme of this multiparter, and plays out with full effect in the ensuing Last Of The Time Lords. As this episode comes to its cliff-hanger ending, the viewer is utterly captivated as to how Dr Jones will cope without her near-immortal mentor. Like Rose she is capable and independent, but has usually needed some superior experience and incredible intellect from the Doctor to overcome the problem at hand. This particular challenge is mountainous to put it mildly.

The Tenth Doctor putting his mind to work (Credit: http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/s4/images/S3_12)

Captain Jack perhaps is just more along for the ride after some very good material in the preceding episode where he sought some kind of acknowledgement from the Doctor. Of course, he does helps with the escape back to present day Earth - conveyed in a frenetic flash back - and he also gets to do a (very deliberate) plug for his own spin off Torchwood. Otherwise he is arguably surplus to immediate story requirements, and also suffers yet another helpless 'death' - this time at the hands of the Master, and his upgraded sonic screwdriver. This disconcerting cycle of painful demise and lurching back to life in traumatic fashion has been echoed in more recent times in the Forever TV series. Whilst short-lived at just one season, that particular show had a lead character - Henry Morgan - that has some minor similarities with the Jack Harkness character.

Pacing in this story is mostly good, and the episode packs a lot into its duration (which is slightly longer than the average of most episodes that year). The climax plays out for a good ten minutes, and thus is both truly riveting and furthers the long-running story concerning Harold Saxon, that first was glimpsed back in Love And Monsters. Most of the earlier sections are breathless chasing or exposition, with some detail on the Master's raison d'etre, and what he means to the Doctor. The whole thing could so easily be rushed, but in the hands of the dependable Colin Teague, it all comes together sufficiently well.

One recurring plot point which was a little less welcome was the call-back to The Lazarus Experiment, which many still regard as the weakest story of the run of thirteen episodes. Having the Doctor rendered helpless was a good idea on paper, but the choice here is to make him look like an especially ancient-looking man. Whilst showcasing good make up it never really adds much to the overall story, and would lead to the regrettable 'Harry Potter' CGI imp the following week. Perhaps something different, which rendered our main man immobile and slow of wits, would have worked better. 

Although much of the episode is focused on action, satire or re-establishing the Doctor-Master rivalry, the most moving and powerful portion concerns some exposition and visual display of Gallifrey and its orange skies. This is portrayed so much better on a respectable TV budget, compared to the closest precedent in the six-part 1970s serial The Invasion of Time. The narrated flashback makes use again of the poignant music Gold previously used in Utopia, and this backing track seems even more appropriate, as the key to the scene is making the viewer care for the Master through showing him in the form of a mere innocent child. Some mysterious and anonymous Time Lords also feature, with the scene notably breaking the ethnic onscreen barrier which for so long had been a minus point concerning the Doctors home world TV stories.


SUMMARY :

Whilst a little lacking in fully combining both fun adventure and true depth in terms of themes and moral lessons, this is still a good episode in a generally strong second full season for the Tenth Doctor. In comparison to the prior Utopia, it is a small step down in most respects, but many other stories would also struggle to compare favourably. Taken on its own merits, it is still a great watch, and has stood the test of time well. Back in mid-2007, the season finale was set up with a very dark and intriguing premise, and most regular viewers at the time were left desperate to see how it played out.





UtopiaBookmark and Share

Saturday, 12 March 2016 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
John Simm as The Master in Utopia (Credit: BBC)
 Series Three - Episode 11 - "Utopia".

STARRING: David Tennant, Freema Agyeman, John Barrowman
WITH: Derek Jacobi, and John Simm

ALSO STARRING: Chipo Chung, René Zagger, Neil Reidman,
Paul Marc Davis, John Bell,
 Deborah MacLaren,
Abigail Canton, and Robert Forknall

Written by Russell T Davies,

Directed by Graeme Harper

Music - Murray Gold

Produced by Phil Collinson

Executive Producers: Russell T. Davies + Julie Gardner

Originally Transmitted 16th June 2007, BBC 1

The first in a series of retrospective reviews covering stories missing from the Doctor Who News archive.

 

The David Tennant incarnation of everyone's favourite twin-hearted iconoclast was enjoying a second full series on TV in 2007. Back then with Martha Jones as the able and beautiful new companion, played by up-and-coming star Freema Agyeman the show was continuing to provide excellent entertainment and role models for men and women in equal measure.

And overall, the production and writing crew began to combine the emotional weight of Series 1 with the heady hi-jinks of Series 2. At its peak, the Third Series of modern Doctor Who was the show at its very best, but it did still have some notably weaker efforts in places. To my mind, it was only the following year when showrunner Russell T Davies totally perfected the formula and came up with a great TARDIS crew, great one-offs, and a really fulfilling linking arc.

The Tenth Doctor/ Martha collection of travels and timelines, did however keep those viewers, who may still have missed the amazing chemistry that Tennant and Billie Piper shared on screen, engaged in the present. This episode of course, was one of the stand-outs, and did a terrific job of rewarding the loyalty of those too young to have experienced classic Who, but also came up with the return of a pivotal returning character that long-term watchers and committed fans alike were surely expecting to make another return to the fray. (And hopefully in a more traditional manner than the muddled Terminator homage of the TV Movie).

The Master makes his triumphant return in a fast-paced episode, by making the closing few minutes a powerhouse of revelation and dramatic chutzpah. And what a steal in getting none other than Derek Jacobi to guest star. Here he is just credited with the part of Professor Yana, obviously designed to preserve secrecy. It is an admirable '2 for the price of 1' effort, and succeeds in making the viewer remember this story as having a truly kind man succumb to a cruel twist of fate. Just as we could not dismiss the benign John Smith and think of him as a 'placeholder person', so we can never forget the combination of wisdom and boyish excitement that Yana has in this tale.

The 'Y.A.N.A. acronym' was of course one of the story-arc elements so elegantly laid out in prior episodes in Series 3. The other, and more deliberate hook was the 'Saxon' thread, which even stretched back to the preceding Christmas special - The Runaway Bride. The acronym stands for "You Are Not Alone", and could be read as a positive. For most of Utopia, Jacobi plays the most charming and likeable of people, in some ways even more engaging than the Doctor. Perhaps the message from the Face of Boe in Gridlock was meant as an encouragement. It also looks that way in the company Yana keeps. His own female assistant is very well performed by Chipo Chung, and in make-up terms a finely designed semi-humanoid, who employs a speech pattern of "Chan..tho" to bookend her statements. The two syllables form together to denote her name.

But it still is very clear that Utopia is overall a very bleak tale. Like Frontios, and a few other stories from the Who mythos (such as the recent Hell Bent), it is set at the end of time and sees a group of humans trying to proceed despite the odds being against them. A small camp of civilised people are having to guard against regressive beings, and they put all their hope in a great journey to another world. But of course they do not know if that world will have anything for them. And later episodes quickly confirmed the worst feelings of any TV viewer with an ounce of pessimistic suspicion in them.

Enough character development is spent establishing how close Yana and Chantho are together, that when the Master is unleashed by the spate of 'triggers' that lie within his subconscious, and despite the best intentions of the TARDIS crew, it really feels like a blow towards the captivated viewer. The ability to quickly make viewers care about 'supporting characters of the week' was one of Davies' finest assets in all of his TV writing, and not just this one prime time show. The way that Jacobi announces who he is, the sheer venom he hurls at the bewildered lab-coated and loyal ally of his previous persona, before fatally wounding her, is a moment of top notch thespian malice. "I am the ... Master" is a simple line of dialogue, made into something truly resonant.

David Tennant also has his moments of darkness at times in this story, most noticeably when the Doctor shrugs off the attempt of Captain Jack to re-forge their travelling partnership. In the process the former Time Agent makes his friend fully aware of the impact of being abandoned. He wanted some answers for what we were able to see were Rose's Time Vortex powers causing him to have the dubious superpower of being able to die and revive in the most traumatic of fashions. The Doctor's necessary regeneration into his Tenth self was a process that makes such a conversation with a former ally not the easiest of topics.

Ultimately it is a good thing we get Jack back after having all but no proper sign of him in the main show since The Parting of the Ways; the 'Torchwood' name being a verbal reminder over the course of Series 2. Barrowman makes the most of his opportunities in RTD's deft script, and is able to exude the energy of a man who has forged his own life, but still values the Doctor's friendship and mentorship highly. Even if many viewers did not see Torchwood the sister show in the interim, it matters little over the course of this episode and the next two, as enough exposition is made, without it being too obvious an advertisement for another BBC production.

John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness in Utopia (Credit: BBC)

The music from Murray Gold is typically strong in any given TV story, but this tale  introduces one of my absolute favourite musical motifs. It clearly was seen as strong by those around Gold in post-production as it was to be repeated again in the concluding episodes of this third year to even great effect. Most notably featuring when the Doctor and Yana make progress as a team, it combines both the heroic and the melancholic to exquisite effect. There is also some frenetic up-tempo musical accompaniment to the  action, where the heroes are on the run from the regressive outsiders, and this helps breath life into what flirts with being vaguely absurd.

Although the concept of the savages is a sound one, part of me finds their witless  expressions and gnashing teeth somewhat out of synch with the intellectual and  emotional complexity of the overall narrative. But if one was to just view them as a token  monster and plot device then really this is just a tiny drawback.

Back to some praise again: the cliffhanger leading into The Sound of Drums is truly brilliant. We see a final blaze of glory for Jacobi as he defiantly cries "The Master ..Re-born", and then the most dangerously unpredictable and indeed disturbing regeneration yet is on the TV screen. Of course, in recent times Michelle Gomez has made the part her own and benefited from enough good scripts, great co-stars, (and crucially) screen-time to be that bit more nuanced than the John Simm incarnation. But make no mistake, the renowned Life On Mars actor is still fiendishly good and makes any given scene must-see TV. The ultra-confident, happy-chappy Doctor has now met his equal and opposite. However, it will take a journey or two into the past and across the cosmos, before they finally get their face-off in person.

Utopia is a fine piece of prime time TV in its own right, and it underlines the enterprise and craft of the production team in no uncertain terms. The mega-length finale had got off to a great start, and much more character development and high drama was just around the corner.

 





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?





Human Nature / The Family of BloodBookmark and Share

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?