Invasion of the BaneBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 12 June 2007 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

After the entertaining but ridiculous Torchwood, I was rather dubious about the idea of another Doctor Who spin-off, especially since Sarah Jane's last solo television venture was the abominable K9 and Company, but based on the evidence of pilot episode 'Invasion of the Bane', The Sarah Jane Adventures has enormous potential. A near-perfect children's program, 'Invasion of the Bane' takes many of the ingredients of classic Doctor Who and strips away much of the rot that occasionally addles the new series.

'Invasion of the Bane' has a simple but effective plot that sees the eponymous Bane attempting to take over the world via pernicious fizzy pop "Bubbleshock". This is straightforward fare, but solidly written by Doctor Who novel and audio veteran Gareth Roberts, but what really brings it to life is the characterisation of the presumed regulars. Wisely, Roberts starts the story from the point of view of Maria, a new girl in the neighbourhood intrigued by her mysterious neighbour Sarah Jane Smith, especially after she witnesses her talking to an alien in her back garden. Roberts shows the audience everything they need to know as Maria gets caught up in Sarah's unorthodox life, and along with her friend Kelsey soon finds herself being chased by monsters. Big, green, monsters with tentacles. Which frankly, is what I wanted from Doctor Who when I was a kid. Roberts' writes the kids very well, with Maria proving independent and smart (she refuses to drink Bubbleshock, preferring a nice cup of tea, so she automatically counts as something of an outsider, and she pointedly asks Kelsey "So that makes it alright then, just the magic word 'organic'?"), whilst Kelsey is far more headstrong and concerned with seeming cool (it is Kelsey who makes all of the cultural references here, or generates them when Wormwood reads her mind). Meanwhile the Archetype, whom Sarah ultimately adopts at the end, is the ultimate question generator, since he knows almost nothing, which makes good sense in terms of exposition in future episodes. Oh and Maria also has a hunky single father, although what role he might fill in future episodes I couldn't possibly imagine.

Sarah Jane herself also works very well here, even if her character development is signposted early on, as we learn that she shuns the company of others and she warns Maria to keep away from her because her life is dangerous. Unsurprisingly, she comes to appreciate the importance of having friends, especially when the Archetype saves the day and she remarks, "I would be dead without you!" In fact rather of lot of what happens here is predictable, but this doesn't matter because Roberts handles it with flair: thus, the blatant infodump in Sarah's attic is rendered magical by the wonder written into the script, and the eccentricity of K9 in the cupboard with his arse in a black hole, and the ramshackle-looking but highly advanced Mr. Smith. And, for old fans, the nods to the past such as the photograph of the Brigadier. There's quite a lot of this sort of smooth handling of the unoriginal, with the scene of Sarah meeting the alien in her garden having a fairytale air to it. As in Doctor Who, we of course end up with a lead who has foreknowledge of the threats that the team will undoubtedly be facing, but exposition always seems more natural when children are asking questions about things. My only main concern in terms of 'Invasion of the Bane' as the first episode in an ongoing series is the worrying presence of irritating narrative shortcuts such as the sonic lipstick and the wrist watch that identifies the Bane for Sarah, but hopefully these come from co-writer Davies rather than Roberts, and will be relied on less in the rest of the series than they are in Doctor Who. I also, incidentally, suspect that Davies is responsible for the nauseating line, "There was only ever one man for me, and after him nothing compared", about which the less said the better.

When I was little, it was the monsters and villains in Doctor Who that always engaged my entertainment, and although at first glance the Bane are unremarkable generic green monsters (and the Bane Mother looks a bit like the old illustrations of the Nestenes on the Target novelisation covers for 'Spearhead from Space' and 'Terror of the Autons'), Roberts makes them interesting enough to keep the adults (or at least, this adult) entertained, with Davey unable to conceive of entering the women's toilets because human culture forbids it, Mrs. Wormwood baffled at the nonsense that fills the heads of children, and Davey getting eaten for failing to kill Sarah because "A hunter that loses its prey is unfit to serve the Bane Mother". Robert's trademark wit is in evidence throughout 'Invasion of the Bane' (and there are some tongue-in-cheek moments for older viewers, such as the acknowledgement that Bubbleshock must have sidestepped all manner of health and safety regulations to be mass produced to quickly) and Mrs. Wormwood gets quite a lot of it, especially when she gets lines such as "These miniature versions have parents" and "the thoughts of a child are chaos". And it is Mrs. Wormwood who steals the show here.

The cast of 'Invasion of the Bane' is generally very good, with some impressive performances from the child actors and Elisabeth Sladen stepping back into her old role with ease. The only weak link is Jamie Davis, who is rather stilted as Davey, but it is former Miss Moneypenny Samantha Bond who really grabs the attention, delivering an enormously entertaining arch performance as the catty and malevolent Mrs. Wormwood. She gets away with dialogue like "descend and consume" and "I can't understand a word she says. She's all noise and ignorance" because she takes the role as near to over-the-top as she can, without actually being hammy, which is impressive. She's clearly designed to be enough of a pantomime villain to appeal to the kids, and it works. My favourite Mrs. Wormwood moment, incidentally, is when Sarah sarcastically thanks her for the assassination attempt and she icily replies, "My pleasure. The next one will involve harpoons". Happily, she gets away at the end, furiously announcing, "Until the next time, Miss Smith", so she's presumably all set to become Sarah's new arch-nemesis. Hilda Winters, eat your heart out.

Director Colin Teague brings a real dynamic energy to 'Invasion of the Bane', which I would imagine is very useful for a series aimed at children, who almost certainly have less of an attention span than I do. Children's program or not however, I enjoyed 'Invasion of the Bane' enormously, tapping as it does into the spirit of Doctor Who of old and carrying itself off with confidence and humour. It's much better than Torchwood and even large chunks of the new series of Doctor Who, and I'm thoroughly looking forward to The Sarah Jane Adventures proper.





The Girl in the FireplaceBookmark and Share

Thursday, 7 June 2007 - Reviewed by Shane Anderson

I have to admit that I enjoyed this episode more than I thought I would. On the surface, it’s a mix of absurd story ideas. A love story for the Doctor is going to struggle against long odds just to be acceptable or believable, especially with the limited development time available in the 45 minute format.

And “a spaceship from the 51st century stalking a woman from the 18th” is certainly an inventive idea, but any attempt to explain why that is happening is going to strain credulity, even in a Doctor Who context.

Let’s start with the Doctor/Madame du Pompadour romance. I’ll be the first to admit that Sophia Myles is stunningly beautiful, and would no doubt turn the head of just about any red-blooded man who noticed her. She’s also playing a character that was quite accomplished and intelligent in real life, and her performance brings that out fairly well in the limited time available. That being said, the Doctor isn’t normally given to noticing anyone, and indeed it’s possible to argue that the attraction in this story is one-sided. The advances and flirting certainly all come from Reinette, and the lengths that the Doctor is willing to go to in order to save her life and protect history (since history tells us that Madame du Pompadour did not die at the hands of clockwork robots) are perhaps no more than he would have done for anyone else.

The time needed for a genuine relationship to develop is the crucial missing element in the story, both for the Doctor and Reinette. At best she enjoys either flirting or toying with the Doctor, and he lets himself be pulled along perhaps by the sheer novelty of it all. Certainly he seems to treat her kiss as something to be proud of because of who it was that kissed him. “I’ve just snogged Madame du Pompadour!” he says exultantly, after first listing her accomplishments. As for her motives for kissing the Doctor when she’d only met him twice as a child, who can say? It certainly doesn’t make much sense in the context of the story. To be honest, it makes her look rather easy. That’s not a character trait to admire. At least when she becomes involved with the King she’s sleeping her way to the top, though that too is hardly admirable.

In essence what we have is not so much a love story as it is the story of Reinette perhaps trying to hold on to the mystery of this man who keeps appearing in her life. I’m just trying to explain what’s on screen. We’re told it’s a love story, but the events that are acted out for us don’t support that description. There’s no time for love to develop, and there’s no depth to the relationship. Perhaps Reinette hopes that a good kiss and some flirtation will entice the “Fireplace Man” to remain longer so that she can learn more about him. After all it’s worked on other men in her life. This theory holds at least until the point the Doctor suddenly gains the ability to read minds and has his read in return. There certainly appears to be a bit more genuine affection in the final scenes where Reinette tells the Doctor about the one remaining link back to the spacecraft. The two seem very relaxed and happy in each others company, and the Doctor’s sadness at Reinette’s death is certainly heartfelt. Once he opened the letter and knew that she had never seen him again, going back to visit her in the TARDIS became impossible.

So where did this ability to read minds come from? We’ve never seen it before, though I admit it’s plausible given the Doctor’s limited use of telepathy in the past. Susan displayed some talent for telepathy, the Master was able to hypnotize rather easily, and Time Lords are supposed to enjoy telepathy among themselves, so it’s not inconceivable that the Doctor suddenly has the ability to mind-meld with a human. It’s just highly convenient as a plot device.

It’s so highly convenient that I’m tempted to be really irritated at the sudden appearance of the Doctor’s new ability, but I’ll let it go. Convenient or not, it’s certainly a shortcut around the time limitations of the episode and suddenly the Doctor and Reinette are intimately acquainted. Just how intimately acquainted depends on whether the ‘dance’ metaphor from last season still refers to sex and whether the Doctor went along for the ride. You can read it either way. If you like the Doctor as a cosmic Casanova who beds attractive women he barely knows while he’s supposed to be in love with Rose, you can read events one way. If you prefer a more virtuous Time Lord, you can go that route, despite the obvious intent of the author.

During the final encounter with the robots, the dramatic entrance of the Doctor as a heroic ‘knight on a white stallion” is entirely in keeping with the self-sacrificial nature of the character, though his abandonment of Mickey and Rose is hard to explain. He saves Reinette’s life, but (as far as he knows) strands himself in 17th century France, and strands his traveling companions in a 51st century spaceship with no means of returning home. When he asks Rose, “how long did you wait?” it doesn’t really make sense. Neither she nor Mickey can fly the TARDIS, and the Doctor is surely aware of that. What else could they do but wait? Perhaps it’s just a case of the Doctor trying to save face and mend hurt feelings.

Moving right along, there’s a lot less to say about the clockwork robots, proving yet again that this series of Doctor Who frequently puts character above plot, which is detrimental to the story far too often. Plot holes are papered over with sentiment while the writer hopes the audience won’t notice or won’t care. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I think that the attempt is successful in “The Girl in the Fireplace”, though in all honestly I must confess that the story is crazy. As a means of tying the spacecraft and France together, we have repair robots who create time windows and travel back in time to find the person their ship is named after, so that they can use her brain to repair the main computer, but only when she’s the same age as the spaceship. It’s so off-the-wall and creative that I’m willing to enjoy the idea tremendously and buy right into the premise.

The robots themselves are inventive, from their mannequin-like period dress and masks, to the clockwork-filled clear heads underneath. Having the first one that we encounter hiding under a child’s bed is just a wonderful conceit.

I have to address the issue of ‘self-awareness’ in the new series of Doctor Who. I would define this as actions or dialog which pulls me out of the story and reminds me that yes, I am watching a TV program. This is frequently a failing of Russel Davies scripts, but it crops up here as well. “The Doctor and the monsters,” Reinette says at one point. “It seems you cannot have one without the other.” And with that meta-textual line my suspension of disbelief is shattered and I’m thinking about Doctor Who the program rather than remaining engaged in the story. Any time that someone says “Doctor Who?” it does the same thing. And it’s very annoying.

There are other things to like about this story apart from the Doctor/Reinette relationship and the robots. It’s Mickey’s first trip in the TARDIS, and his enthusiasm is wonderful to watch. The fact that he and Rose get along with no hint of Rose’s usual jealous streak is a breath of fresh air. I’m sick of Rose’s jealously and tired of the character for that matter. It just seems like her story was told last year, and there’s not really anything new to say about her. It’s a lot like Charley Pollard, whose story came to a good conclusion in “Neverland” and then the character seemed to stagnate. Rose has been irritating in “New Earth”, “Tooth and Claw”, and especially in “School Reunion” where the claws came out with Sarah Jane. She’s much better here, and I hope continues to do well in future. As of this writing I haven’t seen any stories beyond “The Girl in the Fireplace”, so I don’t know how the character develops over the remainder of the season.

Some of the dialog is almost poetic. References to “The slow path” to describe linear time, or Reinette’s phrase “In your world there are rooms where the days of my life are pressed together like the pages of a book” are wonderful to hear.

Overall, the story has an appeal that transcends the crazy premise, but it never lives up to the billing as ‘a love story for the Doctor’. But it is inventive, it’s different and it’s sincere, which sets it apart and elevates it above much of the new series. It’s well worth the time to watch it.





Boom TownBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 5 June 2007 - Reviewed by Shane Anderson

This was a pointless episode. I can sum it up in two sentences: anti-death penalty rant and Rose/Mickey soap opera.

I wish RTD would stop using Doctor Who as his personal platform to throw his left-wing politics at the audience. Having a character as a mouthpiece for the anti-death penalty message would be fine, but constructing the entire episode to revolve around it is over-egging the pudding. Lest you think I'm being harsh in casting the episode this way, Mr. Davies admits as much in the Confidential episode, saying that this was written just to get to the conversation in the restaurant. The plot is very much an afterthought in "Boom Town", which is the opposite of how it should be.

In his review of WW3, Richard Board made this observation: being encouraged to think is a good thing, but being told what to think is offensive. "Boom Town" very much tries to tell us what to think. We're asked to sympathize with a character that has murdered a number of people, and twice been a part of a scheme to destroy the Earth, which would lead to the murder of billions. Basing an entire episode on the idea that the death penalty is cruel and wrong by trying to make us sympathize with such a murderous character results in a wasted 45 minutes, marking time until the next episode. Equally pointless and unrealistic is making Margaret Slitheen the only character with the courage of her convictions, as demonstrated in the "look me in the eye" scene.

Not only that, but in a show where the Doctor routinely kills or allows aggressive aliens/humans to die so that innocents won't die, any attempt to undermine his actions and character is an absurd soapbox to stand on. Either the Doctor's a cold killer who causes chaos and then runs away, or he's a moralistic traveler who makes hard choices and does his best to protect and save lives. As in "Dalek", the attempt to draw morally relative parallels between the Doctor and his enemies would, if taken seriously, undermine the Doctor's character and the series in general.

Then of course, there's the ending where the Slitheen is reduced to an egg, thus avoiding the need to actually deal with any of the issues raised during the course of the episode. It's a cowardly way out of the dilemma.

On to Rose and Mickey. Mickey has to show how manly he is by crying and saying in an anguished voice, "You left me!" Boo-hoo. I'm not watching "The Young and the Restless"; I'm watching Doctor Who. I don't care about Rose and Mickey's love life, or lack of it. Enough already. Get on with something interesting.

Are you getting the idea that I really didn't like this episode? I can put up with politics I disagree with if they integrate smoothly into the story. I don't watch Doctor Who so that the writer/producer can preach to me. I watch to be entertained. That requires a subtle approach rather than a sledgehammer. This episode has a few entertaining moments early on, but then loses itself in the 'moral'.

As always, I want to like the show, so I can't be content with simply criticizing the bad aspects. To give credit for the good stuff, there were a few nice ideas. Parking the TARDIS to refuel it is something we haven't seen before. With Gallifrey gone, one assumes that the Eye of Harmony as the TARDIS power source is gone as well. The 'cosmic surfboard' is quirky, but creative. Nice to see the rift from "The Unquiet Dead" is still in existence and once again used as a plot device. Seeing the heart of the TARDIS under the center column ties in with Hartnell's explanation about the power source being under the column all the way back in "The Edge of Destruction", making for some nice continuity tie-ins. How the power source is used is absurd, but seeing it isn't.

As for the characters, leave off the unwelcome sexual innuendo, and you have a really strong TARDIS crew here. There's a nice comfortable relationship between the Doctor, Rose and Jack that I enjoy watching. They really do seem to enjoy each other's company and work well together. Nice to see that Jack has some technical skill and some capacity to work on the TARDIS so he can fulfill other functions besides serving as audience identification and a vehicle for plot exposition.

Overall though, despite some nice touches, this episode is a preachy waste of time. 2 out of 10.





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?