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?


JOAN: Will you?


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.

the tardis top ten: vincent and the doctor

Number 9: Vincent and the Doctor

I’m as surprised as you are, really. “Vincent and the Doctor”, coming toward the end of Matt Smith’s first season, is among the most polarizing episodes in Who history. Some love it for daring to wear its heart on its sleeve and largely succeeding, while others deride it for its overwhelming sentimentality and shaky plot.

I was in the latter camp at first, as the episode does poorly as a piece of straight science fiction. The Krafayis is an unconvincing monster that, for basically no reason, is portrayed as a genuine threat against a Doctor who has faced Silurians, Daleks, Weeping Angels, and other assorted alien armies in this season alone. As gimmicks go, “it’s invisible and very violent” is a rather unimaginative concept, and it’s not like we can empathize with a creature that does little more than some implied thrashing (the CGI is a real limitation here) and angry roaring. Smith is given very little to do other than waste time, and he plays most of the episode in full tilt spastic teenager mode. While the previous three episodes in this season—“Amy’s Choice”, “The Hungry Earth”, and “Cold Blood”—managed to weave together their monsters of the week with their moral quandaries, the Krafayis feels like an afterthought. You can summarize the action beats of this episode as “Vincent Van Gogh fights an invisible space chicken.”1

However, this episode is a personal favorite of a friend of mine, who forced me to sit through it again. I don’t know what happened between the first and second viewings (spoiler alert: you’re about to find out), but it was like watching a completely different episode. That second chance revealed three things that make “Vincent and the Doctor” worthy of the #9 spot.

First, the episode harkens back to Doctor Who’s roots as a sort-of-educational program. The series' very first story, “An Unearthly Child”, found the Doctor and his companions in the paleolithic era, helping cavemen rediscover the art of fire, while the second story, “The Daleks”, featured the Doctor expounding on the particulars of static electricity to explain how Daleks move. In much the same way, we are educated on the life of Van Gogh in the academic sense (courtesy of Bill Nighy, in an uncredited role as the Van Gogh exhibit’s curator) and in the personal, as we get a glimpse of the artist’s daily struggles and inner torment.

Second, this episode is chock full of wonderful performances. Granted, Smith isn’t given much to work with, but Tony Curran does an amazing job as Van Gogh, keeping his appearance memorable without descending into caricature. It’s easily one of the best guest roles in the entire series.2 Nighy is terrific in his small role, as he tells the audience why Van Gogh is considered to be one of history’s greatest artists, and manages to sell every word. Karen Gillan, for her part, has a chemistry with Tony Curran that she never really developed in all her time with Arthur Darvill. Amy Pond usually comes off as an overly aggressive combination of sassy/sexy/pixie, but here Gillan dials it back enough to affect genuine charm. Amy becomes increasingly concerned for Van Gogh’s wellbeing as the story progresses, and really seems to want to make his life better than history had left it. Where Gillan usually places Amy at some remove from the historical figures she meets (“Oi! Churchill!”), here she seems emotionally invested. You can almost believe that she might have stayed behind to become Mrs. Van Gogh.

Third, this episode really lays on the shlock,3 and yet somehow doesn’t collapse under all of that emotional weight. This is the key thing to understand about the episode: the Krafayis really is an afterthought, and it’s all about Van Gogh. More specifically, it’s trying to answer the question, “Why art?” The show makes the case that Van Gogh was especially perceptive (he’s the only person in the world who can see the Krafayis, and he senses Amy’s sadness over an event that she herself cannot remember), and that this enabled him to paint things in a way that no person before him had ever mastered. “Vincent and the Doctor” lays out, pretty explicitly, what made Van Gogh’s art so true and resonant for the ages. To review: this episode explains art, for God’s sake, and does so successfully!

Then there’s Van Gogh’s trip into the future, where he learns, in no uncertain terms, that his life’s work, the source of so much humiliation and anguish, was worth it after all. This is pretty big philosophical territory. How many of us have grappled with that question ourselves? Is what I’m doing important? Does it matter? Will it matter? Here, Doctor Who was brave enough to imagine what would happen if someone worthy of the question found out the answer. The consequences are decidedly Who-ish; a few small tweaks to the timeline, but things stay mostly the same. The Doctor and Amy gave Van Gogh a moment of beauty (after all, what is art if not that?), but it wasn’t enough to vanquish all his demons or prevent the inevitable. As the Doctor says, putting perhaps too fine a point on it, “every life is a pile of good things and bad things…the good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.”

So, what changed between my first and second viewings? The first time around, I wasn’t willing to see the episode on its own terms. It wanted to tell a story from the heart, a weird yarn that begins when the Doctor spots a monster in a painting and ends when we learn why art matters. I just wasn’t in the mood for it, couldn’t tune in on the emotional frequency the episode asks of the audience. But that is exactly the type of show Doctor Who can be, if you’re willing to let it. Bear in mind that this episode came right after “Cold Blood”, in which the Doctor faced off against a civilization of intelligent lizards (and racism) and lost Amy’s fiancé to a crack in the universe. That the show could successfully shift gears to a big-hearted flight of fancy like “Vincent and the Doctor” is a testament to Doctor Who’s flexibility and nerve as a storytelling vehicle. What other show could have possibly pulled off an episode that tackles these types of artistic and philosophical aspirations? And that’s why “Vincent and the Doctor” makes the #9 spot.

  1. A description second only to Season 2’s “Tooth and Claw”, which can be summarized as, “Queen Victoria gets chased by a werewolf.”

  2. Perhaps rivaled only by Michael Gambon in “A Christmas Carol”.

  3. The music that plays over Van Gogh’s visit to the future is Athlete’s “Chances”, if you were wondering.

the tardis top ten: the end of the world

It’s been a bad year for Doctor Who, no question. It’s hard to view the seventh season as anything other than disappointing, with its boring, do-nothing episodes, nonsensical melodramas, and huge buildups that went nowhere. But any show that’s been on for half a century is going to wax and wane, and hope springs eternal for the stalwart Doctor Who fan, especially with a new Doctor on the way.

With the news that the eighth season of Doctor Who will premiere in August, I thought it might be fun to write a rundown of my personal picks for the ten best episodes of the reboot. Any such list is subjective, of course, and you’re free to disagree with me. Bearing that in mind, off we go to #10 on my list: “The End of the World”.

Number 10: The End of the World

Doctor Who didn’t exactly leave television on the best terms in 1989. Its final few years on air were marked by infighting at the BBC and borderline incompetent creative decisions. The final story, “Survival”, is a boring piece of nothing about a race of cheetah-people who reside in a parallel universe, and also the Master is there. It was a hasty and ignominious swan song for a program that had once been seen as innovative, experimental, and captivating.

Russell T. Davies certainly had his work cut out for him when he set out to reboot the show in 2005, a task made even harder by the decision to treat it as continuous with the previous twenty-six seasons of material. Davies made a great start with the opening story, “Rose”. In fact, “Rose” very nearly made my top ten list, but it feels more like an episode of Davies' eventual spin-off, Torchwood, with its big explosions in the middle of heavily populated areas, a street level view of fantastical events, and a climactic set piece that doesn’t quite deliver on what it’s promising.

Instead, it’s the reboot’s second episode, “The End of the World”, that perfectly bridges the old and the new. In many ways, it feels like an episode straight out of the old series. There are a dozen monsters in rubber suits, some hokey musical cues, an obvious villain (spoiler alert: it’s the character with the most lines, after the Doctor and Rose), and a cinch ending that amounts to the Doctor deciding it’s time for him to win.

At the same time, these old-school sci-fi tropes coexist with some decidedly new elements. The Doctor comes to the year five billion on a lark, literally just to prove that he can. Rose, however, is overwhelmed, at first by the strangeness of the future, and then by the sudden realization that some lunatic in a leather jacket just invited her into his van, and she hopped in without giving it a lot of thought.

Rose’s anxiety comes to a head in my favorite scene, which is worth reading in full:

ROSE: Where are you from?

DOCTOR: All over the place.

ROSE: They [the aliens she’s met] all speak English.

DOCTOR: No, you just hear English. It’s a gift of the TARDIS. The telepathic field, gets inside your brain and translates.

ROSE: It’s inside my brain?

DOCTOR: Well, in a good way.

ROSE: Your machine gets inside my head. It gets inside and it changes my mind, and you didn’t even ask?

DOCTOR: I didn’t think about it like that!

ROSE: No, you were too busy thinking up cheap shots about the Deep South! Who are you, then, Doctor? What are you called? What sort of alien are you?

DOCTOR: I’m just the Doctor.

ROSE: From what planet?

DOCTOR: Well, it’s not as if you’ll know where it is!

ROSE: Where are you from?

DOCTOR: What does it matter!

ROSE: Tell me who you are!

DOCTOR: This is who I am, right here, right now, all right? All that counts is here and now, and this is me.

It’s especially interesting to watch this scene in light of Eccleston’s successors in the role. Faced with a distraught companion, David Tennant’s Doctor would have winked and charmed, and Matt Smith would have fumbled and distracted, but Eccleston’s Doctor gets angry. The manic show-off who took Rose on a field trip to the year five billion is really just a cover for the damaged, bitter refugee lurking underneath. In fact, the Doctor didn’t take Rose to the year five billion. He took her to see the final destruction of her world, which happens to be in the year five billion. This says more about the Doctor’s character and the Time War, only barely hinted at here, than any grandiose monologue ever could.1 The scene also exposes what a tremendous force Eccleston brought to the role, and really makes me miss him.

The moment hangs in the air unresolved. Rose drops the issue without ever getting an apology or an explanation of the Doctor’s motives. The Doctor does, however, upgrade her cellphone (how quaint!) thus allowing her to do what everyone wants to do when they’re scared: call Mom. It’s a touching interlude that anchors Rose and cools the tension from moments before. It’s also another signature of the reboot, which, unlike the old show, often moves the story along via emotional beats instead of a series of narrative events.

The villain of the piece, the Lady Cassandra O'Brien.Δ17, a.k.a. the Last Human, also provides a deftly balanced mix of old and new. Her villainy is broad, obvious, and laughable. But more than just an old-school vamping egomaniac, the Last Human is an elitist and a racist, proudly clarifying that she is “the last pure human”.

The message, which Cassandra makes thuddingly obvious (in true Old Who fashion), is that racism and classism are bad. This theme is also conveyed much more subtlely by Raffalo, the pleasant blue plumber who must ask Rose for permission to speak before actually doing so. The Doctor also expresses this theme in a bit of off-handed dialogue, where he explains that “the great and the good are gathering to watch the planet burn,” and that by the great and good, he means “the rich.”

“End of the World” represents not just a re-imagining of Doctor Who, (as “Rose” does), but a maturation. The show retains its silly rubber suits,2 its fantastical settings,3 and its Doctor’s sense of smug superiority. But this new Doctor also carries an anger, even a fatalism, not seen in his predecesssors. Eccleston grins and giggles in the face of the Last Human’s grotesque appearance, showing concern only as Rose becomes more uncomfortable. When Cassandra finally faces the music, the Doctor simply says, “Everything has its time and everything dies,” a statement that also applies to the Earth, and certainly, his own people. The new show operates on an emotional frequency that the old show almost never tapped. The Doctor opens the episode by musing on the human race’s improbable, incredible survival, and closes it by reflecting on the destruction of his own world, and the inevitably of the Earth doing the same, regardless of whether humanity survives. This is big territory for the show to handle in its second episode, and, as would become the hallmark of the Davies era, it does so in a way that satisfies the heart and leaves the mind thirsting for the next adventure.

  1. I’m looking at you, “The Pandorica Opens” and “The Rings of Akhaten”.

  2. “End of the World” features a lot of rubber suits. The five episodes following this one–“The Unquiet Dead”, “Aliens of London”, “World War Three”, “Dalek”, and “The Long Game”–see the Doctor face Dickensian ghosts, fart-prone alien invaders, his old garbage can-shaped nemesis, and a creature called the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe.

  3. “End of the World” was designed, in part, to show off The Mill’s CGI capabilities.