Sunday, 10 January 2010

Doctor Who: Human Nature/The Family of Blood (2007)

Adapted from the much-loved Doctor Who: New Adventures novel by the marvellous Paul Cornell (who wrote both the novel and this TV version), this has long held a very special place in my heart as one of the finest stories told since Doctor Who arrived back on our screens in 2005. Beautifully made, impeccably directed and perfectly scripted, it was something of a departure for the tone of the series and the first time one of the numerous Doctor Who novels has been adapted for TV.

The two part story was broadcast as episodes eight and nine of the third series of the new era of Doctor Who, and featured David Tennant as the Doctor and Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones. Originally written with the seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy in the TV series) and Bernice Summerfield (the non-TV companion that Cornell introduced in the novel 'Love and War', who went on to star in her own series of novels and audio dramas) in mind , the story sees the Doctor turn himself human so's to escape a bunch of marauding aliens who want to feed on his Time Lord life force.

He ends up in 1913, posing as a teacher at a boy's school, while Martha becomes part of the house staff. It's an interesting thing to see David Tennant playing a character completely unlike the Doctor for one thing, but the whole story is a brilliant piece of genre television that lives on in the memory long after the credits roll. It was nominated for a Hugo award in '08, and quite rightly so.

The aliens, known as The Family of Blood, manage to follow the Doctor to 1913, but by the time they arrive, he is well integrated as the human John Smith, with no knowledge of his real identity other than strange dreams of fantastic adventures. There are some notable moments where the attitudes of the time are brought up when Martha's ethnicity is mentioned, which are handled nicely and highlight the character's strengths to great effect.

The aliens proceed to take over new host bodies and try to track the Doctor down, which they finally do so, but he is trapped in his human disguise and unable to stop them laying waste to the village and the school. He would be able to revert to his true form, but the fob watch that the Doctor had put his essence into has been stolen by a psychic boy who can hear the strange energies within it. Thus an ever more tense tale is woven as the Family of Blood, and their army of animated Scarecrows, set about finding the Doctor.

'Human Nature' and 'The Family of Blood' are incredible pieces of entertainment, and thrilling science fiction. There is more than excitement at work though, as there are some incredibly poignant moments throughout the two episodes. Of course, it is set a little while before the outbreak of the first world war, and there are moments that allude to the horrors that were to come, which make for some of the most powerful scenes in the whole Doctor Who canon.

I've been a fan for twenty years, but nothing has moved me as much as this story. It is a testament to the artistry and respect of the cast and crew that the issue of the war is handled so tastefully. The scene in which the young boys are forced to take up arms against the Scarecrows is breathtaking in its simplicity and its double meaning.

David Tennant plays the dual roles of the Doctor and John Smith with astonishing power, especially during the scenes in which John Smith is trying to come to terms with his existence being a lie, and his dream self of the Doctor being the real thing. Those moments are heartbreaking. However, the most moving scenes are saved for the epilogue, which never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

The Doctor and Martha visit Timothy, the psychic boy from 1913 who ultimately helps the Doctor regain his real self (and whom survived the first world war), as an old man in the present day. They attend a remembrance service, where Timothy is in a wheelchair, surrounded by veterans. While a reading of the poem "For the Fallen" by Laurence Binyon is given, Timothy is holding the watch that he has kept at his side his entire life, and he looks over to see the Doctor and Martha. Both of them are wearing poppies. The reading ends, and we are left with the image of Timothy clutching the watch.

It is an incredible moment and a most poignant ending to a story that is one of the very finest examples of televised science fiction that, to me, has ever been made. Gorgeous in its execution and very memorable indeed, 'Human Nature'/'The Family of Blood' improves with each successive viewing, and reminds you that the most mind-blowing, thought provoking science fiction doesn't have to take place beyond the stars. Sometimes, the greatest stories can be told right here.

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