Doctor Who – Human Nature/The Family of Blood

OK, settle down now. Before running through this two-part Doctor Who story, which has been on my “to-do” list for a while, a little background. In those long dark years when there was no Doctor Who on TV other than repeats on UK Gold, the metaphorical flame thingy was kept burning by a long series of original novels featuring various incarnations of the Doctor and numerous companions. There were even “new adventures” that continued the Doctor’s story after the series ended in 1989, giving him new companions at various times. Then there was a long series following after the 1996 TV movie. I have to say that I never really got into the books – the few I tried didn’t really work for me, and there were too many other things to read anyway. Which means that I missed a book called Human Nature by Paul Cornell, which was apparently highly regarded by many people, including Russell T Davies. So much so, that he invited Paul to adapt it into not one but two episodes. And what a Good Thing that turned out to be.

After a very brief scene in which the Tardis appears to be under attack, and the Doctor tells Martha how important a fob watch is, we see John Smith waking from dreams of wild adventures. Smith, who looks a lot like our favourite Time Lord, is a teacher in a private boys’ school. It’s 1913 – one year before the beginning of World War I, and the horror of trench warfare hangs over this story. Martha is working as a maid at the school, and just for once she’s the one who knows what’s going on. She tells Smith that it’s 1913, and that he’s completely human, which is confirmed when the school matron, Joan Redfern, with whom Smith has been flirting, in response to him telling her of his dreams of being in hiding and having two hearts, that he has one heart.

Smith shows Joan his journal, which is filled with stories and sketches – images that we recognise as various monsters, the Tardis, Rose, all of the Doctor’s incarnations and that watch (which will turn out to be quite important…).

From a conversation Martha has with Jenny, another maid whom she has befriended, we gather that she and Smith will only need to stay for another thirty days. But that wouldn’t have been very exciting at all, so it’s not surprising that there’s a flash in the sky – a meteorite, or could it possibly be an alien spacecraft?

Well, of course it was an alien spacecraft, and it’s found by Jeremy Baines, an older boy who had crept out of school to get some booze. Well, he actually bumps into a forcefield surrounding the otherwise invisible ship. He enters the ship and is told that the occupants are “The Family”. Later, he returns to school with a slightly odd and unblinking expression on his face.

Meanwhile, Martha has gone to a shed where the Tardis has been hidden, and we learn what’s been going on. In a flashback, we hear the Doctor tell her that he needs to hide from the pursuing aliens until they die. He has to stop being a Time Lord, and uses a nifty bit of technology called a Chameleon Arch. This changes every cell in his body, and creates a life for him to step into. Painfully. And everything that he really is is stored in the watch, which is why it’s so important. The Doctor’s last instruction to Martha was not to open the watch unless she really had to.

Back at school, the watch has been picked up by Tim Latimer, a young boy who appears to have some degree of psychic powers. When he opens it, he sees strange lights and odd flashes of assorted monsters. And as it’s opened, Baines seems to detect this and activates the aliens’ soldiers: scarecrows.

Later, at gun practice[1], Tim gets a vision of being killed alongside another boy, Hutchinson, in what we recognise as a World War I battlefield.

Oblivious to all this, John Smith takes Joan for a walk, in the course of which he saves a baby from being killed by a ludicrously complicated and very Doctorish way involving a cricket ball and a piano. As he walks, he tells Joan about his background (Gallifrey? Is that in Ireland?) and mentions that his parents were called Sydney and Verity, which is a lovely nod in the direction of the original creator of Doctor Who Sydney Newman, and producer Verity Lambert. And it’s quite clear that he’s falling in love with Joan.

And The Family are creating copies of more people, including Martha’s friend Jenny. Martha’s suspicions are confirmed when as a test she offers Jenny sardines and jam. Now most people would think that was an odd combination, but when Jenny says “I like the sound of that”, Martha runs to find Smith, and tries to tell him what’s going on. She looks for his watch, but it’s gone.

That evening, John Smith and Joan go to a dance, discretely followed by Tim. Martha again tries to convince Smith that he’s not who he thinks he is, showing him the sonic screwdriver. And it’s more or less at this point that The Family crash the dance and start killing people with some suitably nasty weapons. They say they have questions for Mr Smith. Which was a nice point to close the first part of the story.

While Smith babbles in a generally quite useless manner, Tim creates a distraction by opening the watch. This gives Martha a chance to grab the Very Nasty Gun being used by the Family, and everyone retreats to the school, where John Smith sounds the alarm and rallies the school’s cadet force.

While Tim hides with the watch, which has told him to keep it safe, the other boys build barricades in time to meet the attack of an army of scarecrows. The scarecrows are cut to pieces by machine-gun fire, and it appears that they were really made of straw – somehow animated by the Family. Then one of the Family, in the form of a little girl, comes through the shattered gates and kills the headmaster, who couldn’t believe that she could be dangerous. John Smith orders the retreat, and Tim opens the watch again….

Somehow, the Family have moved the Tardis from its hiding place to the school. John Smith says that he’s never seen it before, but Joan tells him that he wrote about it. He’s beginning to realise that his life might not be what he thought it was, and pleads “why can’t I be John Smith?”

The Family have returned to their ship to prepare more weapons. Joan takes Martha and Smith to a cottage. They’ve just settled in when there’s a knock on the door. It’s Tim, who hands over the watch. Martha asks him why he didn’t give it up sooner, and he says that it told him to keep it safe, and that he was afraid of the Doctor, and says why:

He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the Universe and – he’s wonderful.

Which has to be the best description ever of the Doctor.

John Smith now realises that if he opens the watch, the Doctor will be back and he will cease to exist. He’s terrified. He doesn’t want to die. As he holds the watch, he sees a fast forward view of the life he could have – marriage to Joan, and finally dying in bed as an old man.

And so John Smith goes to the Family’s ship. He begs them to stop their attack and offers them the watch. They take it, believing that it will give them the lives of a Time Lord. But it’s empty. That’s not John Smith, it’s the Doctor!

He’s distracted them enough to sabotage their ship, and tells them they should run…

And then we learn why the Doctor was hiding. He went through all that so the Family could live out their existence, but they were greedy. They wanted to live forever, and so the Doctor arranged it so they would, trapping each of them in time in various quite nasty ways (quite unusually vindictive for the Doctor, but they were an annoying bunch…).

The Doctor asks Joan to come with him, but she refuses. He’s not the man she loved, and she asks him a pointed question: if he hadn’t come to the school, would so many people have died? A good question, which could be asked about a lot of his adventures…

Tim comes to the Tardis to say goodbye, and the Doctor gives him the watch. We then flash forward to that trench war scene, and this time Tim knows where to jump to avoid the shell that would have killed him.

And finally, we see Tim as an old man at a remembrance parade, with the Doctor and Martha looking on.

This was a complex, deep, and more than a little disturbing story. It was interesting to see Martha having to cope without the Doctor, and having to take charge. You’ll never look at a scarecrow the same way again, and Thomas Sangster, who played Tim Latimer was a particuarly impressive guest star, who should be added to the list of “companions that weren’t”.

[1] Quite the thing at public schools at the time…

2 thoughts on “Doctor Who – Human Nature/The Family of Blood

  1. Barry Hardin

    The episode summary is very good, except for the bit about sardines and jam. In English terms “jam” doesn’t mean jam in the Amrican sense, as it were. Most likely tomato “jam” as in a paste or topping made into a jam. Martha just bleated on to get out of the room, she figured out before hand she was all wrong.

    1. Les Post author

      Errrrr, no. I’m quite sure Martha meant jam, as in strawberry jam, or something of the kind, which is exactly what we mean by “jam” in the UK. The kind of thing Americans call “jelly”, more or less.

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