Family Value


If most of us spent a large amount of Human Nature looking for the Doctor in John Smith, then The Family of Blood proved a very slow reveal indeed. There are two reasons for this: first of all Cornell had thrown a good number of balls in the air to juggle – the Doctor/John, the Doctor/John and Joan, Martha, Tim and the watch, and the Family themselves; a number of storylines had to move on (including an iconic machine gun scene plus John/Joan confrontation) before we could get to the crux and the assured besting of the episode’s villains (more of which later).

Secondly, and more importantly, this is John Smith’s story; the Doctor’s part in it was always going to be almost incidental. He’s a ghost of a character in this – the rabbit in the hat. We know he’ll emerge eventually, and we look for any tell-tale sign of his presence, but we also know that as soon as he does appear the show is well and truly over. Kudos then to the writer who spends a good deal of this episode showing us that John Smith is not the Doctor, and staving off any Time Lord revelations until absolutely necessary (and, alas, at a moment somewhat expected).

In the interim we have John Smith the human, paralysed into inaction when confronted by mortal enemies he does not recognise, the schoolmaster familiar with the brutal necessities of war and prepared to send his boys to defend the school and, by extension, their country. He’s a blunderer, but a sympathetic one, which makes him all the more a believable man for Joan Redfern to become smitten by, rather than a hardened man of action with no discernible flaws. The Doctor has flaws too, as this story is at pains to show us, but his heroic action at this story’s climax brings with it moments of anguish for Joan, Martha and John Smith that the Time Lord himself cannot know.   

I’m not entirely convinced that this is the Human Nature Russell T Davies wanted for his series. The story is there, and the emotional sting that would surely have hooked Davies the fan reader into the thing as much as any of us; but for the second time I’ve been reminded, and continue to be, that the version of the Doctor we’re left with at story’s end is not RTD’s cuddly bounder, but the cold and distant manipulator of the New Adventures. As Joan astutely observes in the story’s most cutting line, no-one need have died had the Doctor not chosen to visit that time and place to hide from The Family (although we are led to believe that the fate of the entire Universe was at stake otherwise), and we are left in no doubt that the Doctor’s moment of glory comes at the price of a man’s life, fictional or not, and that it is John Smith’s self-sacrifice that saves us all in the end. The punishments meted out to the Family are awful in scope and imagination – very ‘Cornellian’ with their mixture of mysticism and cod-SF, and this is surely the closest we’ve ever come to the ‘no second chances’ promise of The Christmas Invasion being fulfilled. But this is no heroic Doctor, and it would be a crime if Martha’s feelings for the man who hugs her blithely (it’s her reaction we see to this, not his) did not receive a solid blow as a result.

This however is Davies-Era Doctor Who, and we must prepare for Human/Family to be something of an aberration; for just as its successor is the Doctor-less Blink (another aberration, this time of technique), from here on we’re into the final stretch, and all bets are off. Is Cornell’s Dark Doctor the way of the future for Tennant’s incarnation? I doubt it, but I would be disappointed if the effects of this story on Martha were swept aside without the chance of further examination.


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