...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Day 2344: DOCTOR WHO: The Family of Blood


With rumours sprouting all over that Mr Russell Television Davies may be about to call it a day I think I must announce that the solution is OBVIOUS! The BBC are preparing their new show for next year where Mr Graham Norton and Mr John Barrowman with Mr Television in the Andrew Lord Webber role will decide on his successor – "WHO Do You DO?"

Can you sing, dance and put together 14 episodes of staggeringly good hit television drama? Apply now…

(PS: terms and conditions apply; some applications from people other than Steven Moffat, Paul Cornell, Helen Raynor or Daddy Richard may not be considered. Mr Chibnall, this means YOU.)
Last week I was – perhaps – a little unkind in suggesting that the opening was – for me – a little limp. And with an unsatisfactory opening I never quite cracked into the episode.

No such problem in "The Family of Blood".

This week took off like a rocket, combining just the right quantities of Time Lord magic, feisty Martha taking charge and Mexican stand-off to explode in your face like an adrenaline bomb. Martha's already been compared to an Avengers woman, (though personally I'd have said she's Tara King who simply adored Steed, rather than Mrs Peel who was simply amused by him) but here she's got the moves to go with the attitude. Fantastic.

Excellent too to see Matron Joan taking charge of the evacuation as Mr Smith dithers uncomprehendingly, followed along by Martha's heartfelt "god, you're rubbish as a human" on finding the daft 'apeth still hanging around outside.

This was as good for the character of Mr Smith as it was for Martha since, also last week, I had felt that there was too much blurring of the line between Doctor and Mr John Smith, that this undermined the establishing of Smith as his own man.

No such problem in "The Family of Blood".

Tennant is a force of nature in this episode, playing schoolteacher John Smith and playing the Time Lord Doctor. And even – with great subtlety – playing the Doctor playing Mr Smith. You can just tell, as soon as he walks onto the Family's spaceship, that the Doctor is back.

Tennant paints us a picture of John Smith. The very nervous tics of the man are different, stretching his face into contortions as he tries to reshape his inner thoughts to take in the changes to his world. This is a scarred, smart, sympathetic man: terrified of the responsibility as much as desperate at the loss he is being asked to make; fast enough to realise that, whatever he means to anyone else, the return of this "Doctor" means the end of his own separate identity, effectively his death.

There's a fourth-wall breaking irony here as John Smith is a "written character" who knows that his existence will end when the writer decides that his story over. Alex smartly pointed out that the Nottingham reference is not a Robin Hood in-joke at Harry Lloyd's (Will Scarlet's) expense, but more like refers to Lemuel Gulliver, born at his father's small estate in Nottingham, who met the Doctor in "The Mind Robber". Mr Smith, like that Gulliver, does not realise at the time that he is a fictional character.

And Smith has failings, or possibly different failings. Rousing the school to fight against the Family appals Martha for being un-Doctor-ish, just as it appals Joan for being too inhuman. But then it refreshes your faith in his nature, human or otherwise, to see that he couldn't bring himself to fire his gun, not even at scarecrows. It echoes Tim Latimer, from last week, unhappy at firing on "natives armed with spears" even when they were only straw men, just as Tim's own admission "yes, sir, every time," to Hutchinson's accusation of cowardice echoes the Doctor in "The Parting of the Ways".

Tennant almost makes it look easy, having Smith slide into and out of the Doctor's estuary English toned technobabble when Tim needs an explanation. And his reverse Clark Kent moment – putting the glasses on to recover his superpowers – is a triumph.

But he also turns in a Doctor who is more multi-faceted than ever, adding the terrible darkness and bleakness of his cold fury and the pain of rejection and indeed guilt at the destruction that has followed in his wake when Joan rejects and dismisses him.

Not last week, but… think of an adventure set in a school where there are two stories going on: the usual Doctor Who story of shape-changing aliens who want to seize godlike powers; and the emotional story of being human, of love and loss and growing old together and how a Time Lord cannot have those things, and throw in a companion who loves him discovering that he has feelings for someone else.

The difference between "School Reunion" and "The Family of Blood" could not be more pronounced, though. And it's simply this – in "School Reunion" the aliens' plot was an almost-perfunctory add-on to the emotional plot, done with a sense of "well it's Doctor Who, we'd better have some aliens in it. Is Tony Head free?" Apart from a small amount of waffle about needing to use children to find their god-code there was no particular need for the story to be set in a school rather than, say, a call centre or a firm of accountants; and nor was there any particular reason why Sarah-Jane should collide with the Doctor on this particular adventure. In short, the two stories pulled in different directions.

No such problem in "The Family of Blood".

These aliens plot to obtain the Doctor's Time Lord nature – and that nature is also at the heart of the emotional plot. If the aliens hadn't turned up, Mr Smith would never have faced his dilemma, never have had to choose between the mantle of the Doctor and his life with Joan.

More than that, the aliens have a family, the biggest thing that the lonely Doctor no longer has and the thing that human John Smith is on the brink of obtaining, as the flash forwards shows.

The school, of course, is a surrogate family, but also a surrogate Time Lord Academy. And the metaphor of all these young lordlings about to face the greatest war in history, one that will wipe them out, suggests that the Doctor knows this even as he tries to escape his own past. The choice that faces Smith, to fight and die or run away, is explicitly the same choice that Tim makes.

You could call this the perfect Russell T Davis era Doctor Who story, because it is impossible to uncouple the emotional story from the chase with monsters. The two sides of the plot, the location, the history all flow into one another and reinforce the message of sacrifice and redemption and what the world is like with a Doctor-shaped hole in it.

Who were the Family of Blood? The question of their origin is never answered, although we did get a very satisfactory answer to why the Doctor chooses to run from them. That the Doctor might, in a sense, be afraid of himself, of how far he might go, is a theme that has been developing since "The Runaway Bride" where Donna stated it explicitly, if not earlier with his "No second chances" remark in "The Christmas Invasion" and "No higher authority" claim in "New Earth". And – you might think – it looks set to return in this series' climax, in one way or another.

The threat of the Family is only touched on a little, as Joan reads from the last pages of John Smith's journal: with the life of a Time Lord, they could breed and wage war forever. Had the BBC had a few million pounds lying around unused, it might have been nice to see a flash forward to this possible future to match the one of John Smith and Joan's possible life together.

Russell T Davis described them as "rather small and petty", just four of them with only one ship and that's stolen. I think that does them a bit of a disservice, as they do rather impressively obtain the wherewithal to go on their little Time Lord hunt, and it also suggests that the Doctor's actions in the end might be a bit of an overkill.

On the other hand, the description of them as "Mayflies" might be telling more than we think. Obviously, everyone knows that a mayfly lives only one day, but remember that that is merely the adult form: the immature nymph or naiad lives happily in the water for a whole year. Is it possible that these would-be demi-gods are the brief-flowering "adult" form of creatures that have spent a lot longer in "immature" form preparing themselves for this hunt?

Whoever they are, they're certainly fun to watch – it's been simply ages since we had proper posh zombie baddies in Doctor Who.

Rebekah Staton is a marvellous turn as Jenny/Mother-of-Mine – her gleeful cruelty as she taunts Martha in that opening scene, her wicked mockery of poor Jenny's death screaming really set light to the screen and power up the opening. And Lauren Wilson as little Jenny Cartwright/Daughter-of-Mine is rather splendid in her defeat of the headmaster (even if it is a great shame they couldn't get "death by balloon" to work).

But the honours really have to go to Harry Lloyd, playing Baines/Son-of-Mine with an upper class sneer adhered to his features like a rictus and clearly revelling in barking out orders and staring like an unblinking loon. Particularly I loved the almost Fast Show-esque confrontation with the headmaster "here to give me a caning, sir?"; the demented "Ruuuuun!" as the schoolboys flee; and the "Super, super fun!" as the Family bombard the village. The elegiac, fairy-tale quality of his narration of the Family's punishment at the end was also masterly, as though he's learned his lesson too late.

Looking at the fate of the Family of Blood, first thing to note: if you are going to go after a god, it is likely you will piss him off – and this is baaaaad.

Appropriate for an adventure that I described as a Fairy Story, there's a very Brothers Grimm feel to the punishments dealt out, especially Sister-of-Mine trapped in a mirror, even if no one ends up dancing in red hot shoes until they fall down dead.

The Fairy Tale feel of "Once Upon A Time" is reinforced by the use of narration, previously only used for "The Deadly Assassin" to emphasise the mythic feel of the Doctor's return to Gallifrey; and for "The Army of Ghosts" as Rose reads what is effectively her own eulogy. Here we have two narrators – three if you include Tim's "He's ancient and forever…" speech – even if Baines' monster's eye view of what the Doctor does to monsters could be an unreliable narrator.

There is also an elemental – elemental in the alchemical sense – feel to their four fates: Father-of-Mine is buried in the Earth; Mother-of-Mine falls into the fire; Daughter-of-Mine is a Watery reflection and Son-of-Mine is left to stand in the Air. This is all rather in keeping with last year's "Love & Monsters" where the Doctor defeated a Shadow from the Howling Halls. It is the idea of the Doctor as magus, who struggles with dæmons.

But equally in those terms the Doctor sends them all to hell. In Norse mythology, Fenrir (or Fenric), is wrapped in adamantine chains and cast into the pit at the root of the great world tree. Milton sees Lucifer cast into fiery ruin, the same perdition as the Beast from last year's Satan Pit. From Japan, the "Hell of Mirrors" is a short story by Edogawa Rampo (Hirai Taro) where a man is driven mad by infinite reflections of himself, or it could be a reference to Alan Moore's Superman-ish comic book "Supreme: The Return", or the mirrors could even reflect the frozen surfaces of Dante's icy ninth circle. And Baines the Scarecrow is crucified.

It seems clear that Paul Cornell's version of the Doctor here is a lot closer to Andrew Cartmel than Terrance Dicks.

Think of "Never cruel and never cowardly; a man of peace caught up in violent events" and compare with "He's like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night and the storm and 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."

Alex leans to the heavily Christian-influenced idea here of the godhead as unknowable mystery, with John Smith as the man without sin (as he pretty expressly said last week) who must suffer temptation and death before returning as the saviour.

It may be my different upbringing, or it may be my recent re-reading of Olaf Stapledon but I saw this reading as a much more transcendent force than anything we humans might familiarly name as a "god". It's been likened to Neil Gaiman's idea of the Endless from his "Sandman" series, and I can see something of that.

The ending, where the Doctor's victory is pretty much taken as read, is very Paul Cornell. That's just winning and he's the Doctor: like the Bishop of Southwark, it's what he does. (See also, and most especially, "The Shadows of Avalon". A wonderful read that got Alex in tears. In a good way!)

There is though the delicate question of whether the Doctor should actually be god. It's certainly magnificent, but is it Doctor Who?

Three short notes on continuity. Not exactly niggles, they don't undermine anything, but they caught my attention as "moments it would have been nice to have". All three are probably trims for time or budget.

First, after the battle in the courtyard, the scarecrows are all scattered and "dead" on the ground. Mr Smith orders the retreat from the Family of Blood and we cut inside to see boys running, and we hear Baines/Son-of-Mine cry: "Reanimate!" Next thing we know, the scarecrows are back up and at 'em again. What's missing, is the shot of them in the courtyard literally pulling themselves together and getting up again. As I say, it's not necessary and probably expensive, but it's the horror cliché that we expect to see.

Second, in all the trailers, over and over, we've seen an exchange between Martha and Mr Smith. She says, urgently, "save us!" and he replies "I am not the Doctor!" Except where was it in the finished episode? I'd suggest that it belongs in the scene in the deserted Cartwright cottage where Martha confesses her feelings for the Doctor to Mr Smith. Did I just miss it, or was it genuinely lost in the edit?

Finally, "Confidential" revealed that the scene in the World War One trenches was a heartbeat longer. On screen, we switch to the overhead point-of-view of the falling shell or bomb, we hear Tim's shout of "to the right!" as they dive to safety. But from the behind-the-scenes recording, at that same point, we first hear Hutchinson say "carry on!" to which Tim replies "No, to the right, to the right!" which is more evocative of the choosing of a different path, the small bit of free will that says we are not bound to the wheel of history and we can avoid that bombshell.

But I must correct myself there and pay tribute to the enormous effort that the creators on this series have put in for the smallest of moments: from David Tennant's four hours in make up for quarter of a minute of screen time as the aged John Smith, to the wirework that acrophobic Rebekah Staton performs for a second-long fall into a black hole, to the entire team who were frozen to the bone in order to recreate the horror of the trenches for a single scene (albeit one seen three times). The story would have been so much less without each of these moments.

What other show could massacre scarecrows and make you think it's a war crime. And then make you think that the crime was putting guns in the hands of children to perform that massacre. And then make you think that exactly that would happen to exactly those boys in only twelve months' time. And then and then make you wonder whether after all, given the choice, the choice to go and fight might have been the right one.

In the end there is no avoiding John Smith's choice because both love and war are a part of human nature, but there is no future that we cannot avoid with a little help and a little revelation.

Joan charges the Doctor "how many people would have died if you hadn't come here", but that's not fair. And anyway, there's a better answer: how many people lived because he came there? Tim Latimer at the war memorial is enough.

Next time… all the indications are that this will be the "offbeat" one that gives David and Freema breathing room to film the big three-part finale. But it's by the author of Hugo Award wining "The Empty Child" and Hugo Award-nominated "The Girl in the Fireplace" and soon-to-be-seen "Jekyll" Steven Moffat so you won't want to miss it. Don't "Blink".


Simon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

"Had the BBC had a few million pounds lying around unused, it might have been nice to see a flash forward to this possible future to match the one of John Smith and Joan's possible life together."

Nooo! That a) would have been Sub-Terminator and b) would have lessened the gut-wrench of him seeing himself have a happy life.

Thank the Lord for small budgets.

Millennium Dome said...


Ooh, Mr James that is a LITTLE unkind!

And a vision of the future with the Family in charge is ever so slightly in...

the book

...although it IS a bit GRAPHIC for Fluffy Elephants!

Unknown said...

Can I just say thank you - that was one of the most interesting reviews of something (let alone a "Cult TV show") that I have read in a long time!!

Aindreas O Gallchoir said...

small point, question really, they use a musical riff as the boy describes him 'fire, ice' orchestral evocative, i think its old music from previous series.. reminded me of the (very) occaisional use of original superman score in smallville.. did i imagine this?