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Sunday, 27 May 2007 - Reviewed by Frank Collins

It's a pleasure to be able to say that with Paul Cornell's 'Human Nature' that Series Three has at last given us its benchmark episode despite the fact that we've got another five to go! This was a sublime piece of television drama and a brilliant synthesis of the original novel's theme and plot and the Russell T. Davies game-plan for the new series.

OK. Let's get the wonderful references sorted out. For me, it was a lovely mix of Delderfield's 'To Serve Them All My Days', Lindsay Anderson's 'If?' (particularly the machine-gun training) and Cameron-Menzies 'Invaders From Mars' (invasion by possession seen through the eyes of a young boy) and once again the production team here excelled with the period setting. There was a beautiful, and yet sombre, autumnal feel to the episode that evoked the mood of pre-war England. Like two of the references mentioned above, it thematically explored the nature of Englishness, to quote Michael Bracewell 'where the rebels in England's Arcadia are defending the values that they love, passionately, from what they recognise as abuse at the hands of self-serving tyrants and their occupying armies'. I'm reading H.G Wells' 'War Of The Worlds' at the moment and the parallels in this episode, in both evoking the period and playing out of themes, are also striking.

According to Bracewell, nostalgia is the very fulcrum of the English national and cultural psyche: nostalgia for some kind of lost 'idealised past' - an Arcadian wonderworld. As the Doctor hides out as 'John Smith' in the pastoral confines of that typical symbol of Englishness, the public school, he dreams of and makes notes about his other selves, that time-travelling rebel, that alternative life caught in nostalgic flashbacks and scrapbooks. And to add to this nostalgic riff, the episode name-checks Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert as John Smith's (and by extension the series) parents, Rose (again), and showcases that other English (and the Doctor's) obsession: cricket. That the episode could wind these references so delicately into the story without knocking over the whole house of cards is testament to the care that's gone into crafting this superb story.

The episode cleverly touched on the inevitable tragedy of the First World War, in essence the destruction of Arcadia, with Latimer's flash forwards and the 'great shadow falling across the land' as dialogue represented by the hugely symbolic scene of the piano falling into the street and about to literally crush one of the flowers of England. Fortunately, there was a good bowler nearby.

The three people in the 'marriage' at the heart of 'Human Nature': John Smith, Martha and Joan are all classic symbols of the triad, the three -- spirit, soul and flesh, Father, Mother and Child, purgative, illuminative and unitive. The John Smith/Doctor schism not only touches upon Christ's 'I am way, the truth, the life' but also the reverse of that symbolism in the consequences of the sin and lust of human nature. It's all very beautifully played by the three leads with Tennant managing to completely remove the ticks and affectations of his usual performance of the Doctor to give us a nervous, repressed English school master capable of handing out punishments to young Latimer; Agyeman providing a Martha of great depth, saying much about her feelings through expressions and reactions than through speech and certainly I hope finally silencing the naysayers; and Jessica Hynes' Joan as the perfect foil for John Smith, as a sympathetic, warm and completely 'human' human being. The romance between the two is finely played and doesn't descend into sentimentality.

They were supported quite wonderfully by Harry Lloyd, as Jeremy Baines, whose possession by the Family, (the anti-Father, Mother and Child in the story), was much determined by an eerie performance. For me, it was Thomas Sangster as Tim Latimer who sneaked in and stole the supporting honours. He managed to convey a young man, troubled by his growing abilities, wiser and older than he should be. In effect, he was a younger John Smith, hiding out in the school for fear of being discovered as one of the rebels defending Arcadia.

Charles Palmer, the director, is a real discovery. He captured an England in autumnal fugue with a David Lean touch, framing sterling performances from his cast in long shots of the countryside. And I do hope his first shot of the scarecrow moving its arm was an homage to 'The Singing Detective'. And a word of praise for Murray Gold's score with a stunning passage of music as Martha returns to the TARDIS and recalls the incidents that brought her to 1913 and tries to find some comfort in the Doctor's message. Very beautiful string sections kept underlying her growing fear and frustration in the scene.

Overall, the best episode so far this year and certainly on a par with 'The Empty Child' and 'The Girl In The Fireplace' and we have the second part yet to come. If 'Family Of Blood' is half as good as this then I can confidently say we've got another classic to add to the list.

FILTER: - Series 3/29 - Tenth Doctor - Television