the tardis top ten: human nature / the family of blood

Number 8: Human Nature / The Family of Blood

Some might say that including two-part stories in a top ten list is cheating. I would tell those people to go write their own top ten list.

“Human Nature” was originally a Seventh Doctor story, if you can believe it. It started life as a New Adventures novel published way back in 1995. These novels filled the gap during the “wilderness years” between the old show and the new, and many of modern Who’s most influential voices—your Stevens Moffat, Marks Gatiss, and Russells T. Davieseses—cut their teeth writing these semi-canonical stories. They often explored darker, more complicated, more internal subject matter, and “Human Nature”, written by Paul Cornell (and eventually adapted by him for these 2007 episodes), is widely considered to be one of the best.1

It’s not hard to imagine Sylvester McCoy at the center of “Human Nature”. His Doctor was by far the most professorial of the eleven we’ve seen so far, so much so that his companion usually called him “Professor”, rather than “Doctor” (much to his chagrin). The Seventh Doctor’s attitude was defined by a kind of winking propriety that would have been a natural fit for a period piece like this one. McCoy is easily the most talented actor to portray the Doctor pre-reboot, and he did so in its worst days, repeatedly polishing nonsensical garbage into something almost enjoyable. I would have loved to see him tackle a legitimately great story like this one, especially since the John Smith persona seems to have grown directly from the Seventh Doctor: pompous, condescending, nerdy, but ultimately a force for good, and not afraid of the occasional daydream.

Though the characterization really does seem made for McCoy, David Tennant is a great actor in his own right (Broadchurch, anyone?), and he does a terrific job with this very challenging material. Smith is the answer to the fan-fickish question, “If the Doctor were human, what sort of human would he be?” The answer we get is a surprisingly nuanced mixed bag. Smith is smaller, softer, less grand, and undeniably marked by his time. He casually gives permission for one student to beat another as a disciplinary measure and repeatedly dismisses Martha as his social inferior. Yet he is capable of great emotion, finding a love in Joan Redfern (another great guest role, courtesy of Jessica Hynes). There is also an undeniable streak of heroism in him, whether saving a baby from an imminently collapsing piano (really?), doing his duty to protect his charges, or ultimately, giving his life to restore the Doctor. As Redfern says to the Doctor, “He was braver than you, in the end.”

Both the Doctor and the Family of Blood are masquerading as humans, but their reactions to their disguises couldn’t be more different. The Family of Blood, particularly Son of Mine, view the whole enterprise as an ugly necessity to be cast off as quickly as possible. Harry Lloyd2 plays Son of Mine completely unhinged, and yet it works. His knowledge of the human race’s immediate future makes all their small-minded posturing hilarious to him, and nearly every word he says to the humans is uttered as an acidic mockery. Meanwhile, John Smith clings to his humanity, desperately trying to find a way around the contents of the pocket watch and his inevitable transformation.3 “Why can’t I be John Smith,” he asks through tears at one point, “isn’t he a good man?”

The climax of the story comes at the very end, not when the Doctor confronts the Family (once he’s restored, they’re easily dispatched), but when he returns to Redfern. It’s the opposite of a regeneration in every possible way. Same body, different person. Not a chaotic new beginning, but a willful ending:

JOAN: Could you change back?

DOCTOR: Yes.

JOAN: Will you?

DOCTOR: No.

Tennant’s delivery in this final scene is quiet and flat, and all the more devastating for it. He can’t love Joan, he’s not interested in trying, and he wants to get out of 1913 before he causes more damage. “Come with me,” he offers, almost off-handedly. “We could start again–I’d like that! We could try, at least.” The offer is perfunctory. He knows she won’t accept, and she knows that whatever love John Smith felt for her has been lost in the wake of the Doctor. She is now a war widow twice over. She comes to her own conclusions about the man in front of her, asking him, “If the Doctor had never visited us, if he’d never chosen this place—on a whim—would anybody here have died?” The Doctor’s only reply is silence; they both know the answer. Finally, Joan dismisses him with a simple, “You can go.”4

This short, quiet scene lays bare some of the darkest aspects of the Doctor’s character. Thrilling as his adventures may be, they rather often get innocent people killed, as illustrated so brutally here (and hinted at throughout much of the Davies era in episodes like “Rose” and “Love and Monsters”). The Doctor, as Tom Baker once famously intoned, “walks in eternity”, a being far greater than any one particular place and time. He is mythic (just look at how he punishes the Family), a larger than life figure who, tellingly, will never shrink himself down for the love of one woman on one planet in one tiny corner of the vast universe.5 He is a force for good, but far from a perfect one, and not one that we can ever truly understand. By skillfully illustrating the Doctor’s enormity as a tragic contrast with the unlived life of John Smith, “Human Nature” / “The Family of Blood” earns the #8 spot.

An Aside: Martha Jones

I couldn’t quite work it into the main write-up, but it’s worth discussing how this story portrays Martha, my favorite companion. On the one hand, these episodes come at the nadir of her one-sided crush on the Doctor. She’s sacrificed everything to keep him safe: her profession, her family, her social status, in short, for a couple of months in 1913, she gives up her life. Yet she can only lament her love for him. “You had to go and fall in love with a human, and it wasn’t me!” she cries, pathetically, to a video image. On the other hand, some of my absolute favorite Martha moments happen in this story. It is she who holds off the Family in a Mexican standoff at the mid-story climax. And it takes her less than a minute to suspect and then confirm that her friend has been possessed by the Family (keep this in mind the next time you watch Rose talk to her obviously plastic boyfriend in “Rose”).6 In this episode she was very much the action hero, with John Smith filling the role of the weepy damsel, and it was great.


  1. And its cover art is indescribably wonderful.

  2. By the way, that’s the same Harry Lloyd who goes on to play Viserys Targaryen on Game of Thrones.

  3. By the way, the actor playing Latimer (the student who steals the watch), Thomas Brodie-Sangster, is also the little kid from Love Actually, and eventually goes on to play Jojen Reed on Game of Thrones.

  4. Fun as it is to hear Sylvester McCoy deliver an impromptu reading of the “Pandorica” monologue, I’d give my sonic screwdriver to see him act this scene. It’s got exactly the kind of dark undertones that late-80s Who always thought it was delivering, but always missed.

  5. This episode makes it rather clear that the Doctor could never really fall in love with a human, let alone some blonde shop girl from London. I make no apology to the Cult of Rose.

  6. Again, no apologies to the Cult of Rose.