There are some good reasons to draw comparisons between the recently completed Doctor Who two-parter, "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood", and Steven Moffat's first season story "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances," and not simply because the latter is the last time Who was as good as it's been these last two weeks. As Iain Clark points out in this entry on "The Family of Blood", "this two-parter does for World War One what 'The Empty Child'/'The Doctor Dances' did for World War 2: make an abstract historical event into a real and relevant thing for a young generation of viewers."
The comparison seems particularly apt when one notes the two stories' emotional arcs. "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" is a story that emerges from the bleakest despair into the most miraculous, unexpected hope and redemption. "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" tells an opposite, and extremely grim, story. It describes ordinariness giving way to horror, a simple, pleasant way of life--village dances, the schoolteacher courting the matron, and also of course casual racial and class prejudice--about to be devoured whole. John Smith's fantasy of a bucolic family life with Joan Redfern is impossible not only because he's merely a story with a three month shelf-life, but because their entire world is about to be overturned. "The children are safe," an aged Smith is assured at the end of his life, but of course they aren't--neither the boys at the school, nor the children of his and Redfern's imagination, who would have been born in the shadow of an unspeakable war, and come of age in time to fight in an even more terrible one. The Doctor's last encounter with Joan, in which she bitterly accuses him of bringing death to her world "on a whim", is the anti-"everybody lives!"
In a way, Joan Redfern gets the rawest deal of any New Who companion or potential companion. Especially in the Tennant era, the show's writers have made much of the parallel between the Doctor/companion relationship and a romantic one--the most successful episodes of Tennant's tenure have dealt with the similarities, and tragically great differences, between the two kinds of relationship. It makes sense, therefore, for John Smith, who may not be the Doctor but is certainly of the Doctor, to respond to Joan's companion-ish qualities with the human equivalent of the Doctor's 'come travel the galaxy with me'--a romantic overture. Turned back into the Doctor, he offers Joan the closest analogue he's capable of, but she's already been poisoned against him by getting to know John Smith. She doesn't get the chance to fall in love with the Doctor on his own terms the way Martha and Latimer do, or to see how travelling with him changes a person and makes them more Doctor-ish (I didn't catch this while watching the episode, but Latimer's characterization of himself as a coward, every time, is of course a direct quote from "The Parting of the Ways"). All she sees is what he's taken away from her and her community, and her reaction is appropriately venomous and disdainful. The Doctor leaves her to what we know is going to be a pretty harsh fate--the endless, thankless task of a nurse during wartime. As, in fact, he does to the rest of the episode's guest characters, while he and Martha walk away largely unscathed--Martha has got, if not what she wanted, then at least what she can get, and if the Doctor even comprehends what he's lost in Joan, he's certainly not unwilling to leave it behind.
I find myself wishing that the episode had cut off after that last, horrible encounter between Joan and the Doctor, or at least after the Doctor's ambivalent reunion with Martha (which, of course, includes the requisite takeback of any unambiguous romantic feelings expressed throughout the story). The cheerful farewell to Latimer, as well as the almost hopeful scene of him and Hutchinson in the trenches, undercut, perhaps deliberately, the horror of what the main story seems to be saying, the equivalence it draws between the Doctor and the first world war. The episode's final coda, in which an aged Latimer catches a glimpse of Martha and the Doctor at a memorial ceremony, all but demolishes the episode's horrific effect, just as time and distance tend to smooth the horror of war into a comfortable, and even slightly pleasant, melancholy. There's a part of me that wishes the episode had retained the courage of its premise, and not sought to console its viewers.
David Tennant does his best work thus far as John Smith, but the episode's standout scenes are the ones in which the Doctor peeks through from beneath Smith's human surface. The cricket ball scene in "Human Nature" is jubilant; the one in which Smith momentarily slides into the Doctor's arrogant mode of speaking is heartbreaking. Both of them, along with Tennant's performance as an initially oblivious, ultimately terrified, and always entirely human Smith finally manage the job of crystallizing the Doctor's otherness. In the past, I've said that what's been missing from Tennant's performance as an incomprehensible alien is a core of humanity, along the lines of the prickly vulnerability Christopher Eccleston brought to the role, and that absent that humanity, the Doctor will never amount to more than a mass of mannerisms. "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" is making me wonder whether my problem with Tennant's Doctor isn't a great deal simpler--maybe I just don't like him. What's human about Tennant's Doctor, I'm beginning to believe, is his immaturity and his selfishness, and while the show has in the past featured characters who have criticized or disliked the Doctor for these traits, they have mostly been villainous or unlikable themselves. "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" is the first instance in which viewers are allowed, or even encouraged, to dislike the Doctor, and it's probably as a result of that shift in perspective that I'm seeing Tennant's Doctor as a fully-fledged character for the first time.
Another character placed in a new light by this story is Martha, whose appeal had, up until "Human Nature," managed to escape me. When I wrote about Martha at the beginning of the third season, I said that I felt "Smith and Jones" was bullying me into liking her. That impression has persisted into the season, mostly because I don't feel Martha is being allowed to develop her own personality and her own reasons for traveling in the TARDIS. Yes, she's smart and resourceful, but last time I checked these were companion prerequisites, and I've yet to see anything about Martha that sets her out from the crowd. Why does she love the Doctor? Because she's the companion. Why has she walked away from her life for an indeterminate amount of time (not that the scene of her showing Joan up by reciting the bones of the hand wasn't fabulous, but did anyone else wonder how long she's going to keep calling herself a medical student when there's no indication that she intends to resume her training?) to travel the galaxy with him? Because that's what anyone would do. These answers aren't specific to Martha. Nothing seems to be specific to Martha except her infatuation with the Doctor, which increasingly seems to be her only motivation. For most of the third season, Martha has focused herself completely on a person who barely even notices she's there, while letting the wonders of the universe, for the most part, pass her by (which, by the way, is more or less the reason that Adam got chucked off the TARDIS with a hole in his head).
What "Human Nature"/"The Fellowship of Blood" does is turn Martha into the point of view character. The minute that happens--the minute we start seeing the story through her eyes instead of seeing her through the Doctor's eyes--she becomes about a thousand times more interesting, regardless of the fact that her actions are still Doctor-oriented. Instead of constantly telling us that she is fabulous--through a character who most of the time doesn't even seem to notice her presence--the episode finally gets around to showing us that she is. In her interactions with Joan, Jenny, and even John Smith, the focus is on Martha the person who happens to be in love with the Doctor, not Martha the smitten companion who has a family and a budding medical career on hold somewhere. The Doctor's obliviousness to Martha ceases to matter because she's become a character in her own right.
In the end, my only real complaint against "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" is that it is unlikely that any of these interesting character developments--or, for that matter, the more sophisticated storytelling--are likely to stick. Like Steven Moffat, Paul Cornell is an outsider to the writing staff, and he doesn't have a significant influence on the show's overall tone and overarching plotlines. Next week (or the week after next, if Moffat meets his previous high standards), the Doctor will be an arrogant prick again (and the viewers will be expected not to notice), and Martha will go back to being a doormat (I'm really starting to wonder where her storyline can possibly go at this point. Given that the Doctor is never going to give her what she wants, what's left for her but to leave in a huff?). I don't think it's even entirely fair to say that "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" is an example of what Doctor Who can do when it tries hard enough--it might be more accurate to say that it shows us that the show's premise, characters, and actors are capable of great things, but that the people in charge on a day-to-day basis are either incapable or unwilling to strive for those heights.
See, I told you this episode was grim.