Monday, June 04, 2007

Everybody Dies!: Doctor Who Thoughts

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.

11 comments:

Mike Taylor said...

I wish I had more to say in response to this than "Yes, that's right, I agree" all the way though. (Nearly all the way through: I take your point about the aged-Latimer code undercutting the theme, but it was still one of the best scenes on its own terms, and I'm glad it was retained.)

It's been interesting to me how uniformly I have liked Cornell's and Moffat's contributions more than those of the other writers. I agree that they seem to be about something altogether deeper and more thoughtful than the likes of Mark Gatiss, Helen Taynor and of course Russell T. Davies. On seening that prejudice confirmed by this superb two-parter, my immediate reaction was to wish that all Dr. Who could be like this; but of course the whole point of the Doctor is that you never know what you're going to get. (In that respect, life is much more like Dr. Who than like a box of chocolates.) Maybe an unremitting diet of Moffat and Cornell would become a bit hard to take. I need the occasional Lazarus Experiment in there, too.

I do regret that the Dalek two-parter was given to Helen Raynor. I quite enjoyed it at the time, but from the post-Human Nature perspective, it looks increasingly like a series of missteps and wasted opportunities. I find myself wondering what Moffat or Cornell would have done with the same material.

Anyway: Human Nature represents the first time in Series 3 that I've felt as moved and provoked as I did by Series 2's Girl in the Fireplace and to a lesser extent School Reunion. So that's nice.

Speaking of School Reunion, I'd like to see Toby Whitehouse given another episode or two. Sadly, the list of Serious 4 writers announced on the Outpost Gallifrey omits both him and Paul Cornell completely. The good news is that Stephen Moffat gets a two-parter. The other bad news is that so does Helen Raynor.

Mike Taylor said...

Oh, forgot to say: the acting was superb throughout HN/FoB: Nurse Redfearn was wholly believable from start to end, but was only the first among (near-)equals. The contrast between this and the acting in, for example, Genesis of the Daleks makes me feel ashamed for those who profess to prefer Classic Who.

Judith Proctor said...

"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,"

Whereas on me, it had the opposite effect. It reminds me of the vast numbers who died - and hopefully gives Rememberance Day some meaning to a younger generation.

It says to me that the Doctor has respect for all the dead, not just those he knew personally.

(I'd use my LJ name, but Open ID doesn't seem to work here)

Iain said...

I agree that he crystallises as a character in this episode, but I still don't find Tennant's Doctor as unlikeable as you.

The darker, more aloof aspects of his personality are definitely intentional on the part of the writers, however they don't make him unlikeable for me because they're tempered by his other traits. This season I've found him more even-tempered and more humane than before; less self-absorbed.

Very Doctor-ish, in fact, albeit a touch darker than some of the past incarnations. The Doctor, even in the old series, was always a mixture of outrageous egotism, boundless compassion, and something alien and unreachable. He wasn't always likeable, but he was always charismatic. That's what we're getting here.

Also while some of the other writers are just not in the same league as Moffat and Cornell, I'm not sure I could say which ones are "core" and which ones are outsiders, except that Davies is clearly core. And Davies must get some credit for choosing Cornell and Moffatt as writers and allowing what they do to be part of the fabric of the series.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Judith:

There's no question that the final coda is reverent and sombre, but I don't think it's as viscerally horrific as seeing young men - boys, really - who in less than a year will be going off to a terrible, pointless, mismanaged war. Your mileage, obviously, may vary.

Iain:

My reading in this entry is probably more critical of the character than its overall representation actually deserves. It's just that, as I say above, this is the first time Tennant's Doctor has made sense to me, which probably has something to do with the fact that Eccleston - who, by all accounts, gave an atypical performance - was my first Doctor.

As for the writing staff, I actually think Davies has some chops - I liked "Rose" and "Bad Wolf"/"The Parting of the Ways" very much. He does, however, appear to have run out of ideas. He's still rerunning the Bad Wolf ploy even though the second season proved that it wouldn't work a second time, and "Smith and Jones" is pretty much a remix of "Rose." Cornell and Moffat's major contribution to the series isn't the fact that they're good writers but that they have good ideas, not just in terms of plot but also structure - Moffat is still the only writer to have written a non-linear story.

Kev McVeigh said...

Abigail -- I disagree about the final scenes. The Rememberance Service made the Trenches scene real, it related something most of us will never truly appreciate (thank god) to something we can imagine, something we have seen.

I also think it adds to the strong sense of this episode's Doctor as somewhat Christ-like. More than anything FoB reminded me of Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation.

Dotan Dimet said...

I really liked the confrontation between the headmaster and the family; a very tense and touching scene without any protagonists.
I really admired the portrayal of the Doctor in the closing scenes, Tennant's performance echoing Latimer's description. The terrible thing about the Doctor, he made me realize, isn't that he's a terrifying godlike alien, nor that he burns with greater then human anger and compassion; it's that it's so easy for people to mistake him for human, to feel for him. Because in the end, he has compassion but not empathy. In his final scene with nurse Redfern, the Doctor is as cruel as he is when he dispenses punishment to the members of the family (which was probably a little bit too Frank Castle for the Doctor, even Tennant's Doctor).

Ian Cundell said...

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,

I don't know how familiar you are with the poem being read in this scene, but the cleverness was in using rather more of it than is commonly heard, even in Britain. So when its most famous lines arrived, I was choked by it. A fine example of the editor' craft.

And as long as this fella is still with us nothing will smooth the horror of war.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm not familiar with that poem, Ian, but I did catch the references to not dying and staying young forever even as old Latimer sees Martha and the Doctor. I agree that it's a clever use (misuse?) of the poem.

Ian Cundell said...

Oh, it was a quite legitimate use. The lines:

They will not grow old, as we who remain grow old,
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
We will remember them


are used at every remembrance service in November and are carved on many war memorials.

Using them dead straight would, I think, have felt terribly forced but coming into the poem at a less familiar point and keeping it as 'overheard' rather then pushed to the fore was very effective. As I said, a fine example of the craft of editing.

Alison said...

Looking forward to your comments on 'blink'

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