Before moving on to more important issues, let’s talk scarecrows. This two-parter has so much going on that these creatures of nightmare almost get lost in the shuffle. The fact that they end up taking a backseat to the numerous other elements is a testament to the strength of the tale, as in any other story they’d be the standout. But the scarecrows serve a potent function—they exist to turn the schoolboys into men. The boys are learning to fight should a war arise (which it will), yet they’ve experienced little more than target practice. When the scarecrows in “The Family of Blood” attack, the boys are called to serve. The sequence is a brilliant Doctor Who twist (one in a tale with many). Because the show is geared toward a family audience, the boys could never engage in a bloodbath involving other humans or even living, breathing alien lifeforms…but scarecrows? They’re made of straw, do not bleed and as presented here, have a questionable “existence”. That doesn’t stop director Charles Palmer from staging the scene as if they’re as real as you and me.
You didn’t come here to read about scarecrows, did you?
The first half of “The Family of Blood” involves much running around, which, given the character-driven areas the story goes in the second half, is warranted. Allow me to digress: In a classic 4-part Doctor Who serial (keep in mind that classic Who episodes were 23+ minutes long), episode 3 was typically the “running around” episode. The first half of “The Family of Blood” would be episode 3 were this a classic Who story and its cliffhanger sting would be the scene where the Family have the TARDIS and call out to John Smith. I don’t really have much of a point, other than to illustrate that despite how often new Who is lauded as a radical reinvention of a rusty franchise, it’s frequently more like old Who than a lot of people realize (especially in the case of two-part stories). The more things change, etc.
Although I’m sure you didn’t come here to read about the structure of old Doctor Who either, episode 4 might have begun with Smith’s reaction to seeing the TARDIS.
John Smith: (frantically) “I’m John Smith. That’s all I want to be—John Smith. With his life, and his job and his love. Why can’t I be John Smith? Isn’t he a good man?”
That’s a fine moment that tonally leads to the lengthy sequence that towers over the rest. It hits about 4 different beats (each time successfully) before it’s done dragging the narrative through the ringer. It isn’t just definitive to the story, it’s definitive to Doctor Who. It begins quietly with John Smith (David Tennant), Martha (Freema Agyeman), and Joan Redfern (Jessica Hynes) hiding out in a small cottage in the woods, seeking shelter from the mayhem outside. The trio is powerless without the missing fob watch. Smith angrily attacks Martha.
John Smith: “You’re this Doctor’s companion! Can’t you help!? What exactly do you do for him!?!? Why does he need you?”
Martha: “Because he’s lonely.”
John Smith: (crumbling) “And that’s what you want me to become?”
There is a knock at the door in the dead of night. Tim Latimer (Thomas Sangster) arrives—dramatically on schedule—with the fob watch. When Joan quizzes Tim as to why he didn’t come forward with the watch sooner, he tells her that he was scared of the Doctor.
Tim Latimer: “Because I’ve seen him. He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun.”
John Smith: (whispers) “Stop it.”
Tim Latimer: “He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time and he can see the turn of the universe.”
John Smith: “Stop it! I said stop it.”
Tim Latimer: “And…he’s wonderful.”
Thank you Paul Cornell. You’ve been a fan for most of your life, and it couldn’t have been easy to pull all of your feelings together into this statement about what the Doctor “is”. You chose words that are dramatic but not fawning. You said a lot without saying very much at all. You found the poignancy in a fictitious character who’s displayed a myriad of sides and personalities over the past 45 years. You described a being outside the boundaries of human understanding, yet managed to make him one of us with two words: “He’s wonderful.”
When John Smith holds the watch, it beckons to him, and for just an instant he’s struck by the lightning bolt that is the Doctor.
John Smith: (looking deeply at the watch) “He’s asleep. Waiting to awaken.”
Tim Latimer: “Why did he speak to me?”
John Smith/The Doctor: “Ooooh…low-level-telepathic-fields…blah-blah-buncha-rapid-fire-speak-that-only-Tennant-can-deliver.” (Smith stiffens, frightened.) “Is that how he talks?”
Man, can the scene get any better? It does when Smith is aghast at the notion that Martha allowed him and Joan to fall in love, all the while knowing it would have to end.
Martha: “He gave me a list of things to watch out for but that wasn’t included.”
John Smith: “Falling in love? That didn’t even occur to him?”
John Smith: (through tears) “Then what sort of man is that? And now you expect me to die?”
Forgive me for making this recap so damn quote heavy, but this is important stuff and no written description can sub for the dialogue itself.
Martha: (to Smith) “He is everything. He’s just everything to me and he doesn’t even look at me, but I don’t care…’cause I love him to bits. And I hope to God he won’t remember me saying this.”
It’s a great moment for Martha when she’s finally able to say the one thing she’s wanted to say for so long. Although she says it to Smith and not the Doctor, it’s still noteworthy that Rose Tyler by comparison was unable to say the same thing until it was too late. Oh don’t get me wrong, I’m a Rose devotee ’til the bitter end, but the series as a whole is nicely playing an ongoing symphony of dramatic notes. With Martha, what seemed like a case of “didn’t we cover this ground with Rose?” is turning out to be a horse of a different color.
But Smith is not yet the Doctor and he hasn’t opened the watch. He is in love with Joan Redfern and that must be addressed. Martha and Tim are asked to leave the pair alone. Smith fixates on this mysterious watch.
Joan: “If I could do this instead of you, then I would.”
Um, Cornell—why don’t you just rip out my heart and smash it into little pieces, dude?
John Smith: “He won’t love you.”
Joan: “If he’s not you, I don’t want him to.”
Oh, I see—that’s what you intend to do. Two people in the early, magical stages of falling in love must now make a decision about whether or not to end it. Joan grabs the watch and Smith in turn grabs her hand. Then the most magical thing of all happens: They see a future. It involves much love, marriage, children, grandchildren, happiness, fulfillment and a peaceful end for Smith. It’s the life everyone dreams of having, but most of us do not get (or at least do not believe we’ll get). At this point, it’s difficult to understand why Smith would choose to open the watch and experience the horrors contained within it. Is it because it promises wonders as well? Possibly. Even more likely is that Smith is a much stronger person than he realizes and he’s made even stronger by the good woman at his side. The following quote is a bittersweet refrain to Cornell’s previous story, “Father’s Day”, where the 9th Doctor said basically the same to a young couple worried about their future:
Joan: “The Time Lord has such adventures, but he could never have a life like that.”
And so ends what was sort of an “Anatomy of a Scene”. Of course Smith opens the watch, and it’s a delight to see the return of our central character even though it means the death of a noble man. Suddenly we realize exactly how far removed Smith was from the Doctor, and the greatness of Tennant’s performance is clear.
To put the finest point on it, the Family is fucked. The methods in which the Doctor takes out each of them are operatic and disturbing. I will never look into a mirror the same way again.
“The Family of Blood” doesn’t require the Doctor to change, only for him to be aware of a noteworthy event is in his 900+ year life. This isn’t going to impact his being, but it might inform it. Not every episode can reach the fantastic heights achieved here. Doctor Who must ride from A to B to Z for these points to work. To get to a story like this, Dalek tales must be endured. There are a hundred other things to say about this material and I’ve only scratched the surface. How about the Doctor’s attitude toward Joan in their final scene? Or the touching coda with Tim Latimer? (The implications of how Tim’s life was changed and defined by his encounter with the Doctor are vast.) Hopefully House readers will offer up their feelings and fill in the gaps in the comments section.
Want even more of this story? If you are so inclined, Paul Cornell’s novel Human Nature is available for download on the BBC Doctor Who website.
NEXT WEEK: As if this two-parter wasn’t perfect enough, next week you must see Steven Moffat’s brilliant contribution to Season Three, “Blink”. It’s not just great Doctor Who—it’s excellent sci-fi. Don’t change the channel, don’t turn away and don’t miss “Blink”.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: ...is not a DVD. Check out the Who spinoff Torchwood, which details the further (and far more adult) adventures of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). It premieres Saturday night (9/8) on BBC America at 9PM (ET/PT). You need know nothing about Doctor Who to watch this show—it stands on its own and is completely different in tone.
Then come back to The House Next Door and check out the first entry in Joan Hedman’s ongoing Torchwood recap series.