Episodes 3.08 and 9 “Human Nature” & “The Family of Blood”
Written By: Paul Cornell
Originally Aired: May 26and June 2, 2007
Synopsis: “In order to hide from a family of murderous aliens who are following his scent across time, the Doctor disguises himself as a mild-mannered English schoolteacher in 1913, even rewriting his own memory to complete the charade. Only Martha holds the secret to his identity as the Doctor, with orders to not bring him back to himself until the time of danger has passed. But the Family of Blood appears sooner than expected, and the Martha realizes that she may have lost the Doctor for good this time…” (synopsis by me)
While undoubtedly an excellent story, it’s not exactly quintessential Doctor Who. It lacks most of the humor and optimism that the show usually strives for, and thus may not be the best introductory episode for a new viewer. But then, it was never intended to be an introductory episode. Rather, it explores an intriguing possibility that the Doctor Who universe makes possible, but doesn’t often investigate. What if your mild-mannered, bookish professor was secretly a time-traveling superheroic alien, and even he didn’t know it? How many other people with vague pasts scattered throughout history could be the Doctor disguising himself for months at a time? Smack in the middle of an intense season, “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood” build heavily on the emotional continuity that comes before. While the plot is self-contained and engaging by itself, the real reward of this two-parter is in seeing where it takes the Doctor and Martha in their respective arcs.
John Smith: Mankind doesn’t need warfare and bloodshed to prove itself. Everyday life can provide honour and valour. Let’s hope that from now on this country can find its heroes in smaller places. In the most ordinary of deeds.
We see, if we hadn’t noticed before, that Martha really does work harder than any other Companion. By sheer perseverance, loyalty, cleverness, and humility, she navigates the complex relationships and frustrating class-based (and race-based) hierarchies of the British boarding school system. She puts up with the Doctor ignoring her even more than usual in his guise as Professor John Smith. She resists opening the watch that holds his Time Lord identity, because he told her not to. She tolerates her heart breaking as he falls in love with Nurse Joan Redfern, an event he, as the Doctor, had not foreseen. She suffers, and waits, and works, and talks sense with force and energy when she hopes it’ll do any good. And, as before, she is generally overlooked and underappreciated by everyone around her. Even Joan, normally a very sensitive and perceptive woman, fails to really see or appreciate Martha.
The Doctor-as-John-Smith’s romance with Joan Redfern is very sweet and believable, making it that much more painful for Martha to watch. For seven episodes she has pined for the Doctor, hoping against hope that he might wake up to her. She knows he is capable of love because he himself still pines for Rose, but since she had never seen him with the object of his affections, the reality of it had never quite hit home. Now she watches him fall in love right before her eyes and sees him happy, attentive, and belonging slowly but steadily to someone else.
As it happens, this is not only disastrous for Martha’s emotions but also to everyone’s safety. The less the Doctor-as-John-Smith trusts her, the harder it will be for her to bring back his Time Lord identity and fend off the murderous Family of Blood. And so the story’s power is magnified because the danger to Martha and the Doctor’s relationship runs parallel to the danger to their lives. Everything could be fixed if only the Doctor were back to himself! He’d at least acknowledge Martha as his important friend and deputy, he wouldn’t get sidetracked with domestic romance, and he most certainly would send those scarily mundane aliens packing! Such we viewers know, and thus it is more alarming how completely the Doctor has fallen into his own disguise. John Smith certainly has a few of the Doctor’s personality traits – a warm, energetic optimism that can quickly become grimly serious if the situation warrants it, for one – but he’s also strikingly different. When John begins to learn about the Doctor and to believe the Time Lord is real, he is horrified: who is this person who endangered the lives of everyone at the school on a whim (after all, he could have chosen any place in time and space to hide), who is permanently nomadic and alone, and who couldn’t even anticipate the possibility of falling in love?
Which brings me to what I think is the story’s most heartbreaking and fascinating element: the choice of John Smith to die and become the Doctor again. See, we always expect the Doctor to know what he’s doing. Even when he says he’s making things up on the fly, we generally feel that he knows the risks involved and what he’s prepared to do or not do. But here the Doctor miscalculated. When he uses the chameleon arch to become completely human for a few months, his memory and personality is completely subsumed into John Smith, a man who considers himself imaginative, but fairly practical when it comes to things like reality. He thinks Martha is crazy when she tries frantically to tell him that the aliens have arrived and that he must become the Doctor again. And when he’s later forced to accept the facts of things, he’s terrified. Martha demands that he change back so he can save them all, but John Smith doesn’t feel like the Doctor. He doesn’t know the Doctor. Even if the memories are fake, they are all John Smith knows. For him, becoming the Doctor again isn’t returning to himself, it’s ending himself completely.
Martha: All you have to do is open it and he’s back.
John Smith: You knew this all along, and yet you watched while Nurse Redfern and I—
Martha: I didn’t know how to stop you! He gave me a list of things to watch out for, but that wasn’t included.
John Smith: Falling in love, that didn’t even occur to him?
Martha: [beat] No.
John Smith: Then what sort of a man is that? …And now you expect me to die?!
Of course he makes the change, or else we wouldn’t have the rest of the show. And, while we’re immensely glad to see the Doctor again – and delightfully defeating the aliens in their own ship with virtually no effort at all – we’re also a little bit sad at seeing John Smith go. He was such a decent fellow, with such promise. The show doesn’t let our emotions off easy, either – it shows us the potential for John Smith’s life; happily married to Joan, with beautiful children, a pleasant career (possibly becoming an early sci-fi novelist, I presume), and not putting anyone’s life in danger. We know that he must change, because he isn’t truly John Smith, but while he’s in that guise John Smith is the only himself he knows. And so Joan’s final words to the Doctor sting all the more because there is some truth in them – though she may be too harsh on him because she doesn’t know the whole story, still there is much truth: many people died because the Doctor chose to hide at the school, and ultimately John Smith is braver than him because John Smith chose to die to save others.
It’s such a serious story, and while I don’t enjoy it as much as many other episodes (due to the rarity of humor and prevalence of deserved angst), I remain fascinated by its insights into the Doctor and Martha’s characters. The Doctor saves the day, but you’re not quite sure if he made the right choice. Hiding from the Family of Blood was intended to be an act of mercy from him, to give them a chance to escape the terrible punishment he had for them. Yet many people died because the Doctor chose to hide at the school, and a vulnerable widow’s heart was broken. And then the Doctor’s final punishment for the Family – is it too much? This terrible, poetic judgment – would execution have been more just? Questions worth asking. Good must punish evil, but the Doctor is not God. The show does seem a bit confused on that issue, though. It freely lets him be vulnerable and his actions questionable, but he is also called “ancient and forever…he burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And… he’s wonderful.” Such phrases I would apply only to God.