Friday, September 07, 2007

Doctor Who: I only smell human on the outside

Spoilers for part two of the "Doctor Who" trip back to 1913 coming up just as soon as I check the time...

Okay, now I get it.

When I wrote my review of part one, I said I didn't yet see the brilliance that the BitTorrent people had been promising me in this story, while acknowledging that it could easily come in the conclusion. And, boy, did it. I think I'd still have to put next week's "Blink" (which I can't wait to discuss with y'all) as my favorite of the season, but it's a much harder call now. Paired with "Human Nature," this was a really moving tale of the pros and cons of mortality vs. godhood.

Good as Tennant was as John Smith in the last episode, he was even better tonight. As I mentioned last time, the premise of the Doctor living another man's life without realizing his true nature wasn't entirely a new one on me. But the return to the original life has never been presented quite like this, and Tennant made Smith's struggles feel painfully, understandably real. The Doctor would have no problem sacrificing his life to save the world, nor would mortal characters like Martha or Rose. But not all of us are so strong that we could rush headlong into a heroic suicide -- and that's exactly what Smith was being asked to do -- without at least some pause. It was a really powerful contrast to see Smith essentially have to be told what to do by Joan Redfern, in much the same way the companions often need the Doctor to give them guidance.

Tennant was just as good when he returned to being the Doctor, capable of being cold and cruel and aloof in a way that I think separates Ten once and for all from Nine. I loved the punishments he dished out to members of the Family, and even more loved the scene where he tried to invite Joan to join him as a companion. That's twice now this season (if we're counting "Runaway Bride") where a potential companion rejects the Doctor on the basis that he's too dangerous and capricious about the lives of mere humans -- really, why was it a good idea for him to hide from genocidal aliens at a school for boys? -- but what was really interesting was the different tone this invitation had from the one he offered Donna Noble. With Donna, he seemed to genuinely want her to come (whether because of genuine affection or just because he was sick of being lonely), where here he comes across like he's trying to do a favor for Joan -- or to the very tiny bit of John Smith that still exists somewhere in his consciousness. This was largely a pity invite, and Joan could sense that on top of her pre-existing issues with the man who replaced her Mr. Smith.

(Nice acting, by the way, by Jessica Hynes, whom I only recognized as Daisy from "Spaced" after my wife insisted we knew her and that I had to look her up on IMDb. Funny and a good dramatic actress, too.)

One minor complaint -- maybe. I kept waiting for an explanation of Tim Lattimer's precognitive abilities and never saw one. The Wikipedia page for the episode mentions the pocket watch explaining that Tim had "an extra synaptic engram," but either that was cut from the version I saw, or my brain temporarily shut down at hearing that kind of technobabble. I don't know.

(And speaking of things I may or may not have actually seen, what was the purpose of the brief flashback in the previous episode to Martha in modern dress running past Tim? Are they fated to meet again? If this comes up in a future episode, please don't spoil it here.)

What did everybody else think?


Kensington said...

Alan, I think the Martha-in-modern-dress "flashback" was just a sign that Timothy was getting a whole hodgepodge of Timelordy timey-wimey sort of information from the pocket watch. I don't think it was meant to show a literal meeting between the two of them.

And that ending chokes me up every time. God, who could ever have imagined that Dr Who could be so good in 2007?

Anonymous said...

John Smith makes the observation about Timothy when he first takes hold of the watch and briefly slips into the Doctor. A fun scene by Tennant.

All of Smith's conflicting emotions about not wanting the boys to die/not wanting to die himself, all of Martha's struggle to protect the Doctor while accepting his (effective) rejection of her, and all of the Matrons observations about the man she did (and the man she did not) love were moving. And we get a most off-putting meditation on the nature of the Doctor -- cold, lonely, fire and ice and rage. (And that's from Doctor partisans!) The episode does a good job in communicating how Smith would see the Doctor as a monster; the ending even reinforces that description rather than undercut it, as you might expect. The episode also demonstrates the great double bind that has come up several times over the three seasons (Rose, Sarah Jane Smith, Madame Pompadour) -- choosing to become the Doctor's companion may be a great sacrifice, but so is refusing to become the Doctor's companion. There's just no satisfying answer when the Doctor makes the offer.

But the plot mechanics still bugged me a little.

In particular, can anyone who has seen the UK original cut let me know if there's a scene missing after the family ship explodes? If the Doctor could dispatch the family so easily, why didn't he do so three months ago? Was there supposed to be something crucial about the ship's connection to the family? That part wasn't clear to me at all.

And I think the TARDIS is a mean, mean ship. It chooses an age that would be very difficult for Martha (Yes, I know the Doctor says the TARDIS can't take Martha into account, but that felt like an explanation of convenience, since it couldn't be that hard to constrain the TARDIS to the innumerable planets and untold millenia where interracial human relations are uncontroversial) and, as you point out, chooses to surround the hunted Doctor with children -- something neither the Doctor nor John Smith would ever do. And maybe, as it did for me, this last point jumped out at you most when the Matron makes the exact point in the episode itself -- if the Doctor had simply kept himself in suspended animation for a few months inside the TARDIS, maybe in a storage locker near Martha's place, no one in that village would have died, and the Matron's heart would not have been broken.

Also, I picked out Jessica Hynes -- it was easier having seen her in Shaun of the Dead recently. But it took me until this episode to recognize Thomas Sangster (Latimer), who was in Love, Actually, and Harry Lloyd (Baines), who was recently seen on BBC America in Robin Hood. It's time to start a Hey It's That Guy file, British edition.


J said...

"Timey-wimey" is awesome, and good point about the cruelty of the TARDIS.

I don't think there's a single scene this season I loved as much as the "Is that what he sounds like?" bit. Tennant is so good, and the look of recognition/relief/etc. on Martha's face was perfect.

But yeah, the whole conceit is sort of an excuse (in an episode that seemed, plot-wise, to offer up a lot of lousy excuses). If The Doctor really could just snap his fingers and make the Big Bad go away we just wouldn't have had a plot... Except that I think this established an extremely powerful dark side of which he's terrified. While this goes back to that whole Godhood thing I think is lousy for the program, it's an intriguing idea: The Doctor would rather accept the inadvertant deaths of innocents than be directly responsible for the nasty, retributive Big Bad he knows he's got inside himself. It's sort of the ultimate Passive-Aggression.

Lattimer's precog abilities might have been floated out there as a bit of a red herring, a way of misdirecting all the You Are Not Alone rumors.

One of the things that struck me particularly about this ep -- and there's a bit of this in the series finale, too -- were the little Neil Gaiman-ish touches. The little girl with the red balloon, the trapping behind mirrors, etc.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the punishments at the end were great. Very Grant Morrison. And the part where he's in the Family's ship, and he's sort of transitioning between his human self and the Doctor again... Damn, Tennant's good.

"If the Doctor could dispatch the family so easily, why didn't he do so three months ago?"

Because he wasn't the Doctor then?

Anonymous said...

Harry Lloyd was wonderfully hammy as Son of Mine. I found myself rewinding scenes just to watch him tick his lip while delivering a line.

He was also in one of the best scenes of the show, when he asks the headmaster if he thinks these boys will thank him for sending him off to the trenches of WWI to die. That, coupled with the scene of the terrified children firing machine guns into an invading army, brought a tear to my eye.

I have to say this episode ranks up there with even the Moffat shows of seasons one, two and his upcoming one in season three.

Nicole said...

On a rewatch of the episode, there is a very subtle difference when "John Smith" goes to the mothership but is really the Doctor. I can't point it out exactly, but even there the Doctor can't fully be John Smith... but he's good enough to fool the Family.

Joan's comment of the randomness of the Doctor's arrival and how it killed innocent people, even when the intent was to protect the Family from the Doctor's wrath is poignant, and true and gains a whole new perspective in the final three episodes.

Blink is a great episode too, but it is a one off. Family of Blood and Human Nature really add to the Doctor Who mythos, and they kick start the final run.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, between Harry Lloyd and the gorgeous, scary actress who played the youngest Weird Sister (homina homina) in the Shakespeare episode, you feel like you're watching some future stars in the making.

Speaking of that Shakespeare one, the moment I fell in love with Martha was when she told him his breath didn't half-stink.

Anonymous said...

This was the first time I hated the Doctor's smugness, as Ten; with other Doctors, they made it easy to want to give him a smack, but Ten is so charming and energetic that it's easy to overlook just how much of an ass with justified delusions of godhood he really is.

With the invite to Redfern, it was more than pity; it was his arrogance, his disinterestedness, his assumption that he's ever so much more than what John Smith was, that of course she'll fall in line, like he trained his other Companions to do.

He didn't see, however, just how Smith's capacity for full-feeling love and sacrifice made him more than the Doctor, and that Redfern, in going along with him, would actually be settling for far less than she should. Sure, a girl can be impressed with a man who could condemn his enemies so thoroughly, but she'd take pause at a man who had to hide from them, because his wrath is so terrible that he thought it worth destroying a village's people, to hold it back. For the Doctor could have hid in a mountain, under the sea: He chose to be among people, and to let them die, as his firebreak.

And, oh, yeah, no mention of the Negro they'd have to drop off in the 21st century? Joan couldn't have missed how the Doctor discards Companions for the latest model, and that she, being older, less peppy, not of the time that could keep up with him, would sooner or later be dropped off, either back in her time, just before her comfortable country is scarred forever, or somewhen else, where her memory would be a weapon or a hindrance, to adjusting to her new place. Not as bad as being trapped in all mirrors, but you get the picture: His callousness would dislocate her, with no promise of the real love Smith was able to give her. Feh, on that.

But, the end? Made me tear up, as it was meant to do. If RTD left us after the TARDIS fade out, we could have brooded on the real nature of the dark god we love tuning in to. But shifting the focus on the one life the Doctor saved gave us a bit of hope; the juggernaut of his love and rage spared one.

Anonymous said...

Oh, yeah, can I say just how deeply it sucks to wade through the trash that is FLASH GORDON and PAINKILLER JANE, to stay up for the DW repeat, for the West Coast?

Which Satanic scheduler decided to show why original SciFi programming ought to be thrown into the collapsing black hole of a dying universe? Can you tell how much I miss BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, and SciFi's threatening to frak up that schedule, now? With the vault of all of Universal's sci-fi movies and TV at affordable fingertips, they can't do better than this? REALLY?

a said...

"If the Doctor could dispatch the family so easily, why didn't he do so three months ago?"

Son of Mine answers that question:

"He was being kind."

Anonymous said...

The Doctor didn't off the Family 3 months before because he didn't want to - he chose to hide instead. He knows that the eternal life they crave wouldn't be a blessing, but a curse and rather than risk them suceeding, he put himself through an extremely painful procedure (those screams were truely shocking) to spare them.

And that makes the punishment all the more dark.

a said...

Another facet of the Doctor's punishment of the family is its motivation--is it for those they killed or because they denied him something that he wanted? Was it justice or revenge?

a said...

Re-watching the episode, I noticed again where the camera is focused during Latimer's declaration:

"and... he's wonderful."

It's not on Latimer. It's on Martha. Freema Agyeman is going to break my heart before this season is over, I just know it.

Mac said...

I think Martha-in-modern-dress was a flashback to the first moment she met the Doctor, the bump-into-in-the-street in her first episode. Tim was "remembering" things that happened to the Doctor.

Kensington said...

Another facet of the Doctor's punishment of the family is its motivation--is it for those they killed or because they denied him something that he wanted? Was it justice or revenge?

It's not justice -- mere mortals, even Time Lords, were not meant to administer eternal damnation.

It was revenge, and well deserved, probably the harshest and most disturbing fate for villains since Borusa was made immortal and turned to stone in The Five Doctors back in 1983.

Of course, come to think of it, all those poor Cybernized human getting sucked into the Void (described as Hell) at the end of Series 2 was pretty harsh, too. Surely the Daleks deserved that, but so many of those Cyberman had been normal wives, husbands and children and not at all responsible for what they were turned into.

The Whoniverse is a harsh place at times.

Anonymous said...

"And, oh, yeah, no mention of the Negro they'd have to drop off in the 21st century?"

He's had more than one Companion before, hasn't he?

J said...

He's had more than one Companion before, hasn't he?

Yeah, but not more than one that's been crushin' on him.

Unless Adric...

Mac said...

Rose and Captain Jack?

Toby O'B said...

Says Jim: "Yeah, between Harry Lloyd and the gorgeous, scary actress who played the youngest Weird Sister (homina homina) in the Shakespeare episode, you feel like you're watching some future stars in the making."

There'll be another coming along next week!

a said...

"Yeah, between Harry Lloyd and the gorgeous, scary actress who played the youngest Weird Sister (homina homina) in the Shakespeare episode, you feel like you're watching some future stars in the making."

Strange thing about that. Christina Cole (Lilith in Shakespeare Code) was just awful as Cassie in Hex.

Guess it shows the importance of the script.

Anonymous said...

"Rose and Captain Jack?"

Yeah, Capt. Jack would screw a knothole in the door of the TARDIS!

Taleena said...

Martha is so much better than Rose, (ya I loved Rose but she was a clinging vine) and the great thing about Doctor 10 is that the women he chooses are so much stronger that they are able to make choices with clear eyes.

The TARDIS loves the Doctor. The only time the TARDIS didn't actively try to screw over the companion is when it teamed with Rose to save 9 and then it didn't careless that Rose would have died.