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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “The Family of Blood”

(intro to my Who blogging, please read before commenting / previous: Episode 8: “Human Nature”)

It’s like Tim says:

I’ve seen him, and 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 center of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And… he’s wonderful.

It fascinates me that as this new Doctor Who has made the Doctor more accessibly “real” than he ever was before, as it makes him more believable a flesh-and-blood man than he ever was before, it also makes him more inscrutably alien than we’ve ever seen him, too. What the Doctor does to the Family at the end of this episode has got to be the most chilling thing I’ve ever seen from this show, even in the new incarnation. Could the Doctor have somehow arranged things, even after all the horrors the Family committed, so that they would die natural deaths at the ends of their normal (short) lifespans? Or was his only option imprisoning them, undying, forever? “The Doctor was being kind” suggests that, perhaps, that both the Family and the Doctor would have known before he went into hiding that the Doctor’s options for dealing with the Family after they began to chase him would necessarily be more drastic and more limited than those available to him before. But still, the gist of what Not-Baines tells us in his voiceover seems to be that the Doctor does what he does not out of outright necessity but out of some terrible sense of ironic justice. It’s a terribleness the likes of which we’ve never seen in the Doctor before.
Is this prompted, perhaps, by the Doctor’s own new loss (yet another in a long line of recent losses), the “death” of John Smith? How much of what John was is a reflection of the Doctor’s own desires: does he really, actually want a simple life of family and children and work? I suspect not, for when Joan asks him if the Doctor could change back (echoing Rose’s question after he regenerated), he says he can but won’t. Still, is he envious of John? Is the Doctor haunted by that glimpse of John and Joan’s happy life, by the fact that it never even occurred to the Doctor that his camouflage character might fall in love, by the fact that John could be very happy with a life so uncomplicated and ordinary? Might the Doctor, though he doesn’t want that, want to want that…?

And still, and still, and still: he says please. “Please come with me.” Please is not a word he uses a lot. And she tells him, coldly, “You can go.” She dismisses him. Ugh. Nobody dismisses the Doctor. And he takes it, like a punch in the gut. Like, perhaps, the punishment he thinks he deserves for being such a rotten excuse for a sentient being. Now, I don’t think that, but I think the Doctor is thinking that of himself these days — this is part of the something dark and disturbing in the Doctor that, well, fanfic writers (the good ones, at least) always knew was there but that went completely glossed over on the old show. I don’t think the Doctor likes himself very much anymore, and as I’ve mentioned before, I think he has something of a death wish. He’s a little more suicidally inclined than he once was.

And still, and still, and still: he hasn’t killed himself yet. He’s not ready to give up what he is, I think, even if it means living the lonely life of the outsider. I think some of what makes this episode so powerful for really big dorks like, um, me is that it touches on the flipsides of nonconformity, how being a big ol’ weirdo can be a thing of pride, and yet it still hurts to be picked last for the kickball team. Maybe the hurt is why the outsiderness becomes a thing of pride — if I can’t be normal, then let me be confident in my weirdohood.

Speaking of being a dork, and reminded by Joan and her strength — which I would not share, faced with the choice of traveling with the Doctor, or not: I’d go in a shot… I’m writing new stories in my own fan fiction universe, in which the Doctor, Eccleston and Tennant variety, begins to regularly visit a former human companion, Ayren, with whom he’d been in love, as she was with him. (Their original relationship was the subject of the fanfic I wrote in the late 80s and early 90s, which I will get around to posting here sometime soon.) And it’s all very selfish on the Doctor’s part, which he acknowledges to himself and hates himself for, because even though traveling with him drove her a little insane — okay, more than a little, but she’s better now, more than ten years after having left him — he’s so desperately lonely, especially after Rose is gone, that he begs her to travel with him again. Which she refuses to do, because even though she still loves him madly, and knows he loves her passionately, she also knows she’d finally go round the bend permanently if she were to live that life again. (This is what I can point to when people accuse me of writing a Mary Sue. Are you nuts? I can say. She’s an idiot for not going with him!) And she also knows that he’d go crazy staying still in one spot for very long, so there’s no way for them to be together. It’s a crazy doomed star-crossed romance, I tell ya. I’ve only written these stories in my head, at the moment, but I can’t see how I’m going to get away with keeping my sanity if I don’t actually write them out for real.

On David Tennant: “Oh, you look the same,” Joan tells the Doctor after John Smith is “dead,” but he doesn’t look the same at all. Tennant’s John is completely different from his Doctor, from how he carries himself to how he speaks: that moment when the Doctor busts out briefly to explain why Tim can hear the watch, and the instant switch back to John… it really is like flipping a switch. Tennant is brilliant, and I’m almost as madly in love with him and his talent as a I am with the Doctor.

Random thoughts on “The Family of Blood”:

• Some great lines in this episode: “God, you’re rubbish as a human!” “I’m ever so good at science, sir.” “This Doctor sounds like some romantic lost prince.”

• John never fires his gun in the battle scene. I was sure, the first time I saw this, that he would shoot the “little girl” and that that would be the beginning of his remembering who he is. And on every subsequent viewing, I think, “Okay, this time he will shoot her,” and he never does.

• School as a theme keeps showing up on the new DW: the regimentation, the enforced conformity… I’m guessing Russell Davies didn’t have the best and most wonderful childhood ever.

• That ending gets me every time, the Doctor and Martha popping in on Tim’s life near its end. It’s something that was rarely touched on in the old show: all the ordinary people who have been impacted by the Doctor. (Would anyone have died?, Joan asks… but people are saved too.)

(next: Episode 10: “Blink”)


MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
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  • Mike Brady

    “The Doctor sounds like some romantic lost prince.”

    For some reason, hearing this line made me immediately think of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. The Prince (who also has no name beyond the honorific) lives by himself on an asteroid until one day – lonely and curious – he sets off to see the universe. He meets a variety of eccentric characters and eventually winds up on Earth. Interestingly enough, the one thing the Prince cares for above anything else is his rose.

    I suspect that the Doctor really does covet the life of John Smith. For as much as we’ve seen a Doctor that loves travelling we’re now being shown a Doctor finally ready to settle down, someone willing to give his heart (and possibly both) to another. Under different circumstances maybe he would choose that life. But the Doctor knows that he has a duty to be more than that. There’s a universe that needs healing, and only one Doctor. He can’t afford to be selfish. And maybe this is the source of this bitterness within him: that he remains indentured to a universe that repays him by taking away those things he loves most. He is cold towards those evil things that force him to be what he is, and harbors no more patience for the blights on existence. He is fueled by the deep desire to be a John Smith, knowing it could never be his fate but simultaneously believing that maybe – just maybe – he could right one more wrong and find his universe at peace. There are several quotes from The Little Prince that resonate with this Doctor, but I’ll leave you with this one:

    “It is the time you have spent for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

  • Poly

    Now I have to go and dig up my copy of the Little Prince.
    This two parter is so rich one can talk about it for ever.
    – Both the Doctor and the Family of Blood get their heart’s desire: him living a normal life, them living for ever. But the wish is perverted, and it’s punishment and heartbreak.
    – I love the reverse Clark Kent moment: the Doctor is revealed as the own with the unhuman power when he puts on the glasses.
    – John Smith not firing the gun: a friend thought this was the moment when John Smith started having a sense of the Doctor and knowing his life is not what he thought it was. And his subsequent denial is all the more panicked because it’s not the external evidence he tries to deny, it’s the instinctive knowledge. It makes sense.
    – David Tennant is amazing throughout. While John Smith and the Doctor are completely different, they are also made from the same raw material, and DT plays both the differences and the deep connections with great subtlety. And when he goes to the spaceship at the end, it’s David Tennant playing the Doctor playing John Smith, which is again completely different from David Tennant playing John Smith, the Doctor isn’t quite as good.

  • Melinda

    Does the Doctor dream about John Smith the way John dreamt about the doctor?

    I have watched this two parter so many times, its so amazing, and the ending gets me everytime too. I love the line “Falling in love, that didn’t occur to him?” “What kind of man is that?” It makes me think about Rose and the relationship he had with her, and it also makes me feel painfully sorry for Martha, who is not going to get what she wants…

    (and the above comment makes me think about Harry Potter (DH) and how Voldy’s goal to live forever was a peverted goal as well that led to him becoming a mess of a creature on the floor of Kings Cross Station)

    And while the Doctor may have a death wish and may hate himself, i agree that he sees himself as having a role in the universe (and as the upcoming Utopia episode, if humans can survive, why should the Doctor give up?)

  • I’m in complete agreement with everything here (though I never have read The Little Prince, so I can’t comment on that). If only there hadn’t been…scarecrows, except for the one at the end, which was just right.

    Regarding why John doesn’t shoot – am I correct in remembering that the Doctor hasn’t killed anyone deliberately, in the last two incarnations? John as an Edwardian teacher, he would have shot, even, I think, a little girl, to protect his students. But the Doctor…might not have.

    The Doctor’s ADHD shows up again where, within seconds of Joan rejecting his offer, he goes off and is pleased to see Martha again. I think that Martha is less of a romantic than Rose was, though she clearly thinks pretty highly of him.

    I’m not sure the Doctor has a complete death wish, but I do think he’s willing and able to take any risk necessary. Perhaps Blink will go into this aspect in a little more detail, because it is an important point. Many people who’ve seen Blink have raved about how wonderful it is.

  • Ken

    Maybe the hurt is why the outsiderness becomes a thing of pride — if I can’t be normal, then let me be confident in my weirdohood.

    One might point to this as being the origin behind some of the best villains as well.

  • Joanne

    Regarding why John doesn’t shoot – am I correct in remembering that the Doctor hasn’t killed anyone deliberately, in the last two incarnations?

    I think so. Nine fails to set off the Delta wave in “The Parting of the Ways”. You could possibly argue that the destruction of the Crillitane (sp?) in “School Reunion” by K9 counts as killing them, because the Doctor knows exactly what’s going to happen. But the Crillitane are baddies so it’s not the same as the Delta wave situation. Although death accompanies Nine and Ten wherever they go – as Joan points out at the end of this episode – it’s never a deliberate thing, it’s a consequence of other factors. However I don’t think that absolves the Doctor of responsibility for some of those deaths, although it has to be weighed against the lives he also saves.

    A Saturday evening sci-fi show generating this sort of debate. Wow. I love Doctor Who.

  • Katie

    I actually don’t think the Doctor wants John Smith’s life per say but he does want John Smith’s love. He wants to have someone he loves stay with him, someone he can love openly, someone he doesn’t have to be afraid he’ll lose. So while he could never stay stationary and play house he wants the emotions that come with being a husband.

    I said two weeks ago that I really wanted to see this story with Rose instead of Martha and while that’s still true I don’t think you could have the second half with Rose because I think subconsciously he would know he’s in love with Rose and therefore John Smith wouldn’t struggle so much with the idea of going back to being the Doctor. So we can’t have the second part with Rose but that doesn’t mean her ghost isn’t there. I think it’s the Doctor’s deep love for Rose (and others – though not Martha) that allows him to love Joan so much. I’m not saying John Smith isn’t in love with Joan, I think it’s more the Doctor’s love that is seeping through because finally finally finally here is someone he can actually love and be with, someone who he doesn’t have to hide his love from and that is what makes it so tragic.

    What he does to the Family is just chilling. We haven’t seen the Doctor this…cold and hard in a very long time. When I first saw this I was immediately taken back to the Christmas special that introduced David Tennant as the Doctor, that moment after the battle when he throws the orange and kills the alien saying ‘no second chances, that’s what kind of man I am’…that’s the moment that came to mind for me (and the moment that I completely fell in love with DT). Because there are no second chances here, he ran to prevent this moment, the Family had their chance and now they have to face the consequences. It’s just so chilling and real.

    David Tennant is just unbelievable here. The moment the Doctor peaks through is just…wow.

    The end gets me all teary every time. Am I not mistaken in believing this is the first time we’ve seen the Doctor go back and “follow up” with someone he’s interacted with in the way he interacted with Tim? It’s very touching.

    I agree with Mike that we could talk about this episode pretty much forever, there’s just so much to talk about. And ‘Blink’…can’t wait. So amazing.

  • Parma Violets

    There’s a really interesting religious subtext to this episode too – Russell T Davies said in a recent interview that ‘Human Nature’ is “basically the story of Christ” and he’s got a point; John Smith is an ordinary human being who discovers, one day, that he’s not an independent person and that his entire existence is a creation of a more powerful, non-human being. Moreover, he learns that he has to give up this human life in order to fulfil the higher purpose he was created for.

    Of course, put like that, it’s not quite the Gospel account – it’s Nikos Kazantszis’s novel and Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ, which I’ve long felt is the greatest film about religion ever made. So I was practically punching the air when John Smith allows himself a look at the future he might have if he didn’t become the Doctor – the scene is lifted almost verbatim from The Last Temptation…

    Oh, and the hymn that’s playing when John finds he can’t shoot the scarecrows is worth mentioning too. If we take this as the moment when John Smith starts to realise his essential Doctorishness, then the lyrics make an interesting point:

    “There’s no discouragement
    Shall make him once relent
    His first avowed intent
    To be a pilgrim…”

  • the song, of course, being from “A Pilgrim’s Progress”… i think its certain that everything in this show has great significance and there is no such thing as “incidental” music. when “john smith” is looking around so desperately during the shooting scene, you can’t help wondering if some part of him is remembering his “dreams” of a great conflict coming.

    love this show… love this particular episode.

  • i think the actual name of the hymn (very significant) is “All Who Would Valient Be”.

  • Bonnie-Ann,

    Before the ’80s, the title was “He Who Would Valiant Be.” I haven’t been in church in years, but I think the beginning of the hymm is:

    He who would valiant be
    ‘Gainst all disaster
    Let him in constancy,
    Follow the master.

    There’s no discouragement
    Shall make him once relent
    His first avowed intent
    To be a pilgrim

    I remember the ending of one of the later verses was:

    No foe shall stay his might
    Though he with giants fight
    He will make good his right
    To be a pilgrim

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