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02 February 2015 @ 10:00 pm
Human Nature/Family of Blood  
Having gone through a bit of a rut of episodes which, if they weren't actually bad, weren't particularly exceptional, season 3 suddenly produces something really excellent out of its hat.

Of course the bits that Human Nature/Family of Blood does really well is the theme of the doomed pre-war generation and (possibly pointless) self-sacrifice for the greater good. This is pretty much bread-and-butter work for the BBC and even though the organisation no longer shares its sets, costumes and much of its staff across all shows, I think the familiarity of the actors and production team with this kind of story shows through. It is considerably more assured in nearly all respects than a lot of Doctor Who is. Cornell is a good writer as well, although he has a tendency towards the over-sentimental but again the theme of a doomed generation works well with his strengths.

This was the first story I ever wrote about on LJ though that was very much a thinking-out-loud. I'm struck by how, at the time, I was puzzled over what we supposed to see in John Smith. This time around I felt Smith's failings were deliberate. We are supposed to sympathise with him anyway even as he panics, prevaricates and abandons his charges to their fate. This time my problem was seeing where the Doctor was supposed to be in this character because the script wants us to believe this is a human version of the Doctor and I really didn't get any sense of that it was the same man at all.

I was hoping to avoid much by way of a Martha and racism discussion but it is difficult to ignore that in the novel upon which this book is based the Doctor's (white) companion gets to live in the local village as a genteel spinster. Of course, there are plenty of dramatic reasons which have nothing to do with the colour of Freema Agyeman's skin why it may have seemed like a better idea to place her in the school as a servant, but it is undeniable that it permits her to be very poorly treated by most of the characters in the story including the Doctor, repeating his pattern of behaviour from earlier in the season and underlining once again all the ways she isn't Rose. It also, given the particular way race relations evolved in the States, played particularly badly over there. I'm sure at some level the writers thought it would have been unrealistic to have Martha living in the village to which, of course, the traditional response is to point out that a story with walking scarecrows can handle some lack of realism (and to point out that even in 1913 there were black people in British society who weren't servants). It is, obviously, more complicated than that and humans are very inconsistent about where they are prepared to suspend disbelief. I think it could have been made to work, especially given The Shakepeare Code's determination to make Martha's colour not-a-problem, and would even have allowed many of the interactions (the bones of the hand scene, for instance) to remain intact. Interestingly NLSS Child was shocked by the racism on display towards Martha by the other characters having never really grasped how much attitudes have changed, at that level it was educational.

Otherwise it is mostly a good story for Martha. She gets to be considerably more independent than Rose ever did which, again, is playing into stereotypes but which is also nice to see for a Doctor Who companion and, of course, it prefigures her role in Last of the Time Lords. On the other hand the pining is worse than usual.

The punishment the Doctor meets out on the Family at the end is very different to anything the show attempted again. It is like the culmination of the whole "lonely god" aspect of the Doctor's character has come early. He has displayed a vengeful nature both before and since - particularly his tendency to offer "one last chance" to his opponents when they are in their moment of triumph and then use that as an excuse to show no mercy later. However, this goes beyond showing no mercy, and into the deliberately cruel as he dishes out a set of promethean punishments. At the time (judging by my old post) we seem to have been wondering if this was leading somewhere which it wasn't really (if memory serves). It wasn't until the specials in Davies' fifth year that the show tried to confront the Doctor's tendency to play god and it took a different approach. In the light of all of that it is difficult, in retrospect, to view this as anything but the Doctor taking particular revenge for John Smith's loss and bringing a level of the personal into his behaviour that isn't especially pretty to behold. The punishments are also in some cases (the mirror, the scarecrow) rather out-of-keeping with the show's implicit limits on the Doctor's power. He doesn't, in general, come across as the kind of alien who can just trap you in a mirror. It's not necessarily a bad resolution to the story but, at this distance, it looks a lot like a direction that the show pulled back from pursuing.

Apart from the fact that Human Nature/Family of Blood rather magnifies all the problems season 3 has had with Martha's character, it is actually an excellent story. I'm not sure the show has tried anything quite like it since, a story which is steeped in some serious themes that the production team and actors all understand how to explore and convey. It may be very much business as usual for a BBC production, but that means that everything is working together to realise the ideas on the screen.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/140332.html.
 
 
 
doctorxdonnadoctorxdonna on February 2nd, 2015 10:23 pm (UTC)
I'm unfamiliar with the novel to which you're referring. I'm assuming it's a Doctor Who novel, but which one?
parrot_knightparrot_knight on February 3rd, 2015 01:04 am (UTC)
Bad manners of me to pre-empt our host, but this extract from the new edition includes an introduction which explains the context.
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on February 3rd, 2015 10:19 am (UTC)
As parrot_knight says it is Human Nature by Paul Cornell. Arguably one of the best of the Virgin New Adventure novels (and so probably unsurprising that it was picked for remaking into an episode).
Celeste: dw: marthaceleste9 on February 2nd, 2015 10:36 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen these episodes since I watched them originally, so I can't give any specifics, but I just remember being appalled at how terribly Martha was treated throughout, where it seemed to me to be going beyond any attempt of historical realism, particularly where John Smith was concerned. But then, I spent most of season 3 being disgusted at how the Doctor treated her.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on February 3rd, 2015 10:23 am (UTC)
I think even if the production team felt they had good reasons for each of the individual decisions involving Martha's experiences, someone ought to have stepped back taken a look at her arc and said "nope this is sending a really bad message" and then gone in and made some changes on the story by story level because a lot of it wasn't actually necessary.

Human Nature is attempting to be a lot more historically accurate than Doctor Who had ever tried to be since about 1963 and, as such, I can see why they wanted to put in the racism. But Human Nature wasn't about racism, there were extraordinary black people leading at least lower-middle class lives in the UK at the time. It could have been made to work in a way that meant Martha didn't have quite such a grim time of it.
a_cubeda_cubed on February 2nd, 2015 11:34 pm (UTC)
I seem to be alone in disliking, perhaps even hating, not just this episode but actually most of Cornell's. I find his writing mawkish, strained and false. I found this two-party one of those which dragged out rather than made good use of the extra length.
I saw almost nothing of "The Doctor" in the teacher John Smith, and was disgusted with the treatment of Martha, nt so much by John Smith, but by how The Doctor puts her in the position of being treated this way by everyone, including his "human" self.
louisedennislouisedennis on February 3rd, 2015 10:26 am (UTC)
It's worse in context as well since Martha ends up working to keep the Doctor in Blink and her family end up as servants of the Master in The Last of the Time Lords. I can't help feeling that, however innocuous the individual story decisions may have seemed, someone in the script editing team should have noticed that a strong message was being sent by the season as a whole that a black companion had to work harder than a white one to gain acceptance by the Doctor, and gaining that acceptance involved doing menial work on his behalf. Human Nature (especially since racism and prejudice isn't really one of the themes its actually interested in) could have worked nearly as well with a gentler treatment of Martha's situation.
shivver13: Ten with kittenshivver13 on February 3rd, 2015 06:10 am (UTC)
I'll say right off the bat that this is my favorite story in DW, so I'm probably pretty biased in my opinion. (How can anyone not be biased in an opinion? It's an *opinion*, after all.)

I always felt that John Smith showed few-to-no traits of the Doctor and that it was deliberate, which only made his story better, as he tries and completely fails to understand this being he was supposed to become. His sacrifice is made even more courageous because his world and life are slowly disassembled before his eyes. If he had simply been the Doctor turned human, there would have been little tragedy. Compare this to the novel, in which John Smith was basically the Seventh Doctor in outlook, even though he didn't know it: while there was some sense of loss as he had to leave his life and his love, it was nowhere near the scale of this story.

I'm really not prepared to comment on race relations in 1913 and whether or not the portrayal was realistic, but I was actually pleased to see any show actually allow prejudice to be depicted onscreen. "The Shakespeare Code" actually disappointed me in that they glossed over the issue. Is it something that DW should address? Did it make the episode better? I don't know. However, it did underscore all of the sacrifices Martha was willing to make for the Doctor, leading up to her final moment where she said that enough was enough. (As a side note, I don't think it's fair to compare Martha's situation to Benny's. The Doctor basically thrust the watch at her and said, "Take care of this. Invent who you are to stay close." She probably had an hour to figure out how she would stay with him. In the novel, the Doctor took the time to explain to Benny what was happening, and may even have helped her set up her situation. In addition, I believe Benny was a far more experienced traveler and time traveler than Martha, used to taking care of herself and thinking on her feet alone.)

I think that the punishment scene was particularly beautiful because we see the cruelty that the Doctor (or at least this particular incarnation of the Doctor) normally keeps buried. I absolutely agree that it's a personal revenge, due to his anger for John's loss, both the loss of life and the loss of Joan. The Doctor is merciful to most antagonists, but he loses control and become vengeful when they hit too close to home. As you also mentioned, he does not normally display the kind of power that can trap people in mirrors, but to me, this adds to his mystery. We tend to forget that the Time Lords are very powerful, with both innate power as well as technological power, mostly because the Doctor chooses not to display it. So here, we see a glimpse of that power, and you have to wonder just what is he capable of, and how does he keep it so close to himself?

Edited at 2015-02-03 06:17 am (UTC)
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on February 3rd, 2015 10:33 am (UTC)
I think I feel that Doctor Who just isn't a show that is well equipped to deal with racism (beyond solemn face "slavery is bad" type messages which tackle the subject in a largely trivial fashion). It's not well equipped to deal with sexism either, for that matter. In its long history its been prepared to hand-wave sexism away with a few chauvinistic remarks and the companion proclaiming that she isn't "just a girl" and then getting on with the story. No companion has ever had the prolonged demeaning treatment because of their gender that Martha has here because of her race - and yes, its complicated, and this story isn't other stories, and maybe Doctor Who should work harder on all these issues but taken in the context of everything else that is being done with Martha this season I think it was a poor editorial choice.

Obviously, in story, there are lots of ways to explain the situation and absolve the Doctor if you so choose (though mostly I don't choose to do so). In the story, I think the Doctor behaved abominably towards Martha on many occasions, of which this is symptomatic and he never really faced up to that.
shivver13: Ten with kittenshivver13 on February 3rd, 2015 08:17 pm (UTC)
I guess I really don't understand what "dealing with racism" actually means. I don't feel that it's necessary for the show (either this episode or in general) to make any statements about the general issue of racism. I do, however, feel that bringing out the issue of race for just a little bit was important, because it emphasizes how much Martha sacrifices for the Doctor. She sacrifices again in "Blink" (going to work to support them) and again in the season finale, knowing that he isn't going to reciprocate, until she finally realizes she has to get out.

To me, in this story, the Doctor does little of the abominable behavior, but that's because I don't consider John Smith and the Doctor to be the same person. In my opinion, if John and the Doctor were the same person, with the same beliefs and moral attitudes, then the story doesn't work and couldn't work. As his own person, John Smith was certainly a product of his time and acted as I expect a person of that time would behave towards his servant. Of course, I don't feel that the Doctor treated Martha very well in general, but that's not pertinent to this episode.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on February 4th, 2015 08:32 pm (UTC)
I think I would say that a show deals with a subject - particularly one that is fraught like racism or sexism if it attempt to treat it in a non-trivial fashion, showing both its effect on the victim and the kinds of justifications that make generally decent people indulge in it. In some way clearly takes the subject seriously as more than set-dressing or a trivial way to make the audience feel superior to the characters.

Someone choose 1913 as a good place for the Doctor to be. That was probably the Tardis but she was probably strongly influenced by the Doctor's preferences, if canon about their relationship is anything to go by. The fact that it was a horrible place for Martha to be was obviously irrelevant. I think the Doctor is absolutely responsible for that.
shivver13: Ten with kittenshivver13 on February 4th, 2015 11:49 pm (UTC)
With that definition, I think that this episode dealt with racism adequately. It wasn't just a throwaway, as it was relevant to both the horrible situation that Martha had to live in for two months as well as the overall story of all the trials Martha was put through over the whole season. It certainly wasn't a major theme of the episode, and I don't think it was meant to be or should have been.

Ah, I can see what you mean by that; I was looking at the direct treatment of Martha by the Doctor in this episode, which was mostly John and not the Doctor. Your point was already made by Joan herself, when she asked if anyone would have died if the Doctor hadn't chosen Farringham on a whim; while she had no idea how the town had been chosen or why he had really been there, the conclusion is the same for Martha - would she have had such a hard time if somewhere else had been chosen?
Susan: Riverlil_shepherd on February 3rd, 2015 06:36 am (UTC)
I also like this double episode and agree with you about Cornell's sentimentality (as anyone who has read his comic books will.)

I actually approve of the realism in regard to racism. Cornell is well known, again in the comic book world, for his meticulous cultural research - and is the person who chose to have a British Asian Muslim woman wield the (in that universe) magic sword Excalibur as a representation of Britain. The servant thing does not, of course, have the same connotations here in Britain where an overwhelming majority of servants were white. (My English granny was in service, like so many others.) Yes, you can pretend everything was hunky-dory in respect of black people in the UK, you can point out that this is a fantasy world - in which case, where are the 8% or so other black people in the cast? -- or you can be realistic. You have a Black companion: I applaud the decision to have her face what that meant in 1913. The whole double episode reflects very badly on everyone except Martha. I approve.

In some parts of the country a black person (and, in particular, a person of sub-Saharan descent rather than one of Indian descent), particularly in a small rural community would be... unusual, to say the least at that period. (I was born working class in a city of over a quarter of a million people. I did not see a single black person in the flesh until I was about 10(which would be 1959.) Not one single PoC - because the Jewish girls would not have thought of themselves as that, and one of them was white-blonde - attended my school until 1968 (when there were three in an intake of 120.)

Mind you, this is one of the many episodes where I really, really disliked Tennant's Doctor. I was watching for Martha, as ever.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on February 3rd, 2015 10:45 am (UTC)
There were black people in, at least, the lower middle classes in Britain in 1913. Yes, one in a rural community would have been highly unusual and they would have faced racism, but I think Martha would have had a better and easier time as an eccentric and exotic villager with a small private income than as a servant in the school. In particular, in a time before immigration as such was the kind of issue it is today a well-spoken black woman of private means might well have managed much better in an isolated rural community than she would have done in a city - if we had been asked to believe how one could come about that would be different but the answer here is simple - that the Tardis/Doctor set her up as such and we only have to ask how the community would have reacted to such a person if they existed. The story could still have confronted and handled the racism of the time without subjecting Martha to quite such demeaning treatment.

As I acknowledge the choices here are very complex, but Doctor Who is a show that regularly hand waves away the true extent of sexism and classism in historcal societies in order to allow the companion(s) to get on with things. Actually focusing on the racism is actually atypical for the story (and given this story's themes were about doomed youth not about prejudice it didn't need too much focus on racism). On the other hand, Human Nature is attempting to be a lot more genuinely evocative of a time period than any story since, probably 1964, and in that context Doctor Who's normal hand-waving would have been less excusable. I strongly suspect that Cornell didn't make careful choices but just thought "she would have had to be a servant". However, I give him more of a pass than those who were in charge of script editing the season as a whole who ought to have noticed that they were sending a strong message in Martha's treatment across several stories that a black companion has to work harder to earn her place on the Tardis than a white companion and, once there, she will be expected to perform menial work on the Doctor's behalf. Minor changes to a handful of stories would, arguably, have done little damage to the individual stories and vastly helped to reduce the negative effect of the way Martha was being treated in story.
daniel_saunders: Leekleydaniel_saunders on February 3rd, 2015 11:05 am (UTC)
This was my favourite of the season, despite hating, hating, hating the novel.

Reading your reviews, I wonder whether Martha was conceived as black before Freema Agyeman was cast? And, if not, at what stage in the writing process was she cast? If she was cast late in the writing process, I would think that later stories like this would have had the chance for changes, but early ones might not. That said, the problems with Martha go far beyond racial politics - a pity because I like both character and actress.
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on February 3rd, 2015 03:27 pm (UTC)
I'll confess that although I recall rating the book highly I don't actually remember much about it at this distance.

I think it is fair to say that the production team and writers failed to adequately realise the extent to which Martha's story would be read as a commentary on a black companion. It is impossible to say to what extent the fact Martha has a harder time of it than Rose is because she is the second NuWho companion (and they wanted to do the whole break-up, grieving, rebound thing which in retrospect I think was wrong-headed completely irrespective of Martha's colour) and how much is because Freema Agyeman is black and Billie Piper is white. The answer is almost certainly that both factors were at play and often their influence was subconscious rather than an outcome of deliberate decisions.

I like the character of Martha and I think Freema is an adequate actress, but she wasn't, I don't think, good enough to paper over the cracks with an energetic performance (in the way, for instance, Liz Sladen always seemed to be able to make Sarah Jane likeable and independent-seeming even when she was being clingy and ridiculous). Both Martha and Freema are at their weakest when Martha is trying to elicit more commitment from the Doctor than he is prepared to give and I suspect part of the problem is that Freema disliked that as much as a good segment of the audience.
doctorxdonnadoctorxdonna on February 4th, 2015 01:37 am (UTC)
Human Nature/The Family of Blood are my favorite out of season 3. If anything, I think the ending is meant to remind us that as human as the Doctor sometimes seems, he's still very much an alien. As far as the racism goes, I don't feel qualified to comment on whether or not it was done realistically for the time or taken too far. I think it does serve though to showcase Martha's resilience and strength.
wellinghallwellinghall on February 4th, 2015 07:45 am (UTC)
My less-serious quibble was wondering where a school cadet corps got heavy machine guns from.