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Jun 07, 2007

Blood and Thunder

I’m going to talk about the book a bit in this review, and rather specifically. So if you haven’t read it yet but think you might well do so – especially given that it’s available for free once more on the BBC website – or if you are already in the middle of reading it for the first time, then I suggest you give my thoughts here a miss. If you don’t already do that anyway.

I suggest you give my thoughts here a miss. If you don’t already do that anyway.

Also, perhaps less palatably to some of you and even rather regretfully on my own part, I’m going to start off with a complaint. It’s one of only two I have with the episode, and the other is a relatively minor quibble, but this one point really irritated me as soon as it happened. The Doctor’s stumbling about in the family’s spaceship and ‘accidentally’ bumping against the various conveniently-placed control panels, like some sort of galactic Frank Spencer. I was very disappointed with this scene; I know it was supposed to be obvious the Doctor was back – to the viewers, anyway, if not the suddenly-rather-dim family – but did he have to defect the Family in such a ridiculous fashion? After everything we have had before, all the superb and wonderful elements and scenes and characters and dialogue across the two episodes, I felt that this denouement diminished the two-parter a little.

It was not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, and there was still more than enough in this episode to lift it and the story to amongst the top rank of stories since the series’ return two years ago. But in changing the ending from the book, it also lost John Smith’s chance at heroism. He had a little of that, in a sense, choosing to open the watch and destroy himself, becoming the Doctor again and turning his back on the life he could have had with Joan, the life that had been presented to him as an almost Biblical temptation.

In the book he’s more directly a hero, and a more directly independent person as well.

But in the book he’s more directly a hero, and a more directly independent person as well, with a separate soul or spirit or existence or whatever you want to call it, which the restored Doctor is able to channel into the body of a captured member of the Family. He and Smith are then able to play a trick on the remaining Family members, and by the time they have realised Smith is able to turn against them, with poor old Joan thinking all the time that one of the Family had had a last minute change of heart and saved them all, never knowing the heroic fate her beloved John finally succumbed to.

Doesn’t that sound a little more tragic and poignant than not even seeing Smith’s death, only knowing it when the Doctor goes blundering into the ship? There was still power here, admittedly, and Tennant’s performance as the distraught Smith begging to know whether John Smith is still a good man was some of the best acting we have yet seen from him during his time on the series. Perhaps it’s all swings and roundabouts – we lose the ending from the book, which I personally preferred, but gain these affecting scenes of Smith’s fear and doubt, which the book didn’t really have, at least not in anything like the same way.

Tim spends most of this episode almost seeming like a very young version of the Doctor.

There’s also rather more of Tim here, who comes across as a more sympathetic and likeable character on screen, being more distant and withdrawn in the book, where I also felt he was a little older. Tim spends most of this episode almost seeming like a very young version of the Doctor, absorbing the thoughts and feelings of the watch and perhaps giving us a glimpse of what the young Time Lord might have been like back on Gallifrey all of those many many years ago, although that’s an outrageous piece of baseless speculation on my part. Nonethtless, Tim was an excellent character excellently played, especially his Ninth Doctor-evoking “Oh yes sir, every time!” when accused of cowardice by Hutchinson.

Tim, though, brings me to the other point of contention I have with this episode, although as I said it’s a much smaller issue than the Doctor’s pratfalls against the switches in the ship. It’s the change in Tim’s characterisation from the book, or perhaps more accurately his fate. In the novel, he does take part in the First World War, but only as a stretcher bearer. Well, I say ‘only’, but it’s made very clear that he is in a great deal of danger as he rescues wounded men from the field of battle. However, here in the television version when Martha suggests to him that he doesn’t have to fight, he replies with great conviction that ‘I think we do’, as if there were no other choice. It is right and noble and just to fight for a cause in which you believe to be moral and true, but if history has told us anything it’s that the First World War was one of the most monumentally pointless conflicts that has ever been fought. There were no Nazis to destroy, no oppressed peoples to liberate, simply the self-destruction of a lot of utterly ludicrous and obsolete European monarchies.

There were no Nazis to destroy, no oppressed peoples to liberate, simply the self-destruction of a lot of utterly ludicrous and obsolete European monarchies.

So although The Family of Blood had a lot of excellent moments where it rallied against the futile nature of death and destruction of war, it seemed to me that this change of Tim’s own personal story was a shame, as it lessened some of the impact and took away some of the message that no – you don’t actually have to right, but you can still do the right thing.

This is doubly a shame because Cornell had provided such good moments earlier on, with director Charles Palmer, linking the boy soldiers at the school with that we know history had in store for their generation. The scene where they battle the scarecrows will rightly be acclaimed I think as one of the most striking images to be provided by this new incarnation of Doctor Who, and this was an example of something that lost nothing, even though it was watered down from the novel version – quite rightly – for a Saturday night audience. You could not, after all, have a group of teenagers with machine guns blowing a little girl with a balloon to pieces on prime time BBC One.

You could not, after all, have a group of teenagers with machine guns blowing a little girl with a balloon to pieces on prime time BBC One.

There was an admirable sense of tension and menace during the scarecrows’ siege of the school, that stood up very well to the calmer and more emotionally charged elements later on in the Cartwrights’ house. I talked in my review of the previous episode about the good performances on show, and there is little further to add here – I have mentioned Tennant already, and Harry Lloyd continued to impress as Baines, one of the finest villains to have been created for Doctor Who in many a long year. I was rather glad that he wasn’t completely destroyed at the end, as it leaves the way open – however unlikely, I admit – for him to return. Perhaps in twenty or thirty years time, whoever is the equivalent of the 1990s version of Paul Cornell will bring him back for whichever line of Doctor Who novels happens to be around at the time.

Speaking of which, one element I was glad that was retained from the book was Joan’s institutionally racist attitudes, as it showed that she was not the perfect character and could be just as fallible as any other human being, and was not some perfect and glorious specimen for the Doctor’s hearts – quite right, I suppose, because it was not the Doctor as such who fell in love with her. In the novel of Human Nature Bernice out-and-out refers to Joan – albeit somewhat spitefully – as a racist, and here her remarks to Martha were well dealt with. Martha got the chance to show more of her intellect and all-round dignity in the face of danger or oppression, and we got more of a sense of a realistic historical setting. I know that some people feared racial issues would come to dominate stories set in the past by either their over-doing or glaring absence with a black companion, but thus far this season I think they’ve dealt with the issue pretty much perfectly. Or as well as a family action/adventure series can or needs to, anyway.

They say that screen adaptations of books are never as good as the original. It would be very hard to say such a thing of Human Nature and The Family of Blood, because the two are so very different in so many ways, but I think we can call it a draw overall. They were written for very different audiences and in very different worlds, Doctor Who-wise, and comparisons only show how much our dear old show has changed over the past twelve years; or perhaps simply how our attitudes to it have changed. I’m not sure too many adaptations of stories from other media would work, but this was a fine effort producing a fine two-parter, that stands up well to anything else from the new series and, indeed, from all of the show’s long and glorious history.

Comments

I think you're right in pointing to this episode's resolution of the story etc to be its weakest point. The Doctor pretending to be stupid/human has been done to death already (even in Nu Who) and not especially wittily here.

Yeah I kinda got a sense that Tim's story got mangled too and that there was something really interesting desperate to shine through but was obscured by the usual mediocre script editing we've come to expect from Nu Who sometimes (often?) and, to be fair, the severe narrative limitations of the 45 minute episode.

And to turn the story of Tim's life - and by extension that of every other poor sod who gets sucked into war - into a tacky celebration of Memorial Day (when our blessed leaders never fucken remember that war is totally evil etc).

Oh and finally whatever happened to the Doctor who never likes long good-byes?? Perhaps those precious minutes at the end could be saved for more interesting narrative stuff rather than smarmy farewells etc..?

I totally agree about the resolution of the episode, seeing the Doctor fall all over the shop and the (as you pointed out) 'clever aliens up until that point' not realising that the Doc had set the ship to blow up...

Also, I was very surprised at my reaction when John Smith holding the watch 'channelled' the Doctor and spouted some bull about Latimer having an extra brain nodule, latent telepathy etc. I was very dissapointed at how cheesy and annoying he sounded and could totally understand John Smiths horror struck reaction of 'is that how he sounds?'

Apart from that, a very sound episode and the scenes with John Smith and Joan were exceptional and moving.

It would have been wonderful and heart wretching to have actually witnessed Smith's death. It's the only thing to have disappointed me in a superb two part story.

It's not as if the story wasn't emotional enough though, maybe it's best we didn't get his death scene as we would have all missed the end through a wall of tears.

Very interesting comparison piece, Paul, thank you for that. Cornell's own thoughts on how he adapted the book to a screenplay on the same BBC section is also a facinating read.

I don't really have a problem with the way he stumbled in like a lost child and primed their ship like a grenade. It was very "Doctor" of him, after all, and that's precisely what that scene needed. Consider: as an unspoilt audience, some people (especially the kiddies hiding behind the sofa) aren't as sure as we are that the doctor's going to come back. Dare I say, some people might have even hoped that Smith would hand over the watch? When he's fumbling around in the ship like an idiot, the family thinks he's just poor, stupid old John Smith. Hell, he even smelled human. They think their bombing campaign worked to flush him out (silly humans and their empathy), and with that there would have been a flush of arrogance that would have blinded them to the deadly peril they were in at the moment.

The family doesn't get it, but its starting to dawn on us that something's not quite right here. That's the doctor innit!? Oh wow! I bet you it is!

We needed to be let in on the secret before the family was, and we were. We could see it coming, which made it all the more satisfying to see the Doctor emerge again: smug, condescending, implacable. I liked the way that worked, really.

As for whether it would have been more tragic to see Smith embodied in Baine's form (cuz, lets face it, sister, mother, and father of mine would have come off as silly) and then sacrifice himself... I just don't think so. Then again, I've never read the book, so I'm not sure. The reason this worked so well was because it was a human sacrifice. Adding a bodyswap into the already fairly unbelievable setting would have made it come off as shallow and a ridiculous - at least to my mind anyway.

And Tim? Some of the people I watched it were telling the doctor, shouting at the screen, to take Tim with him and spare him his foretold death in the trenches. I smiled knowingly, having seen it before they did.

I agree though, Tim seemed to understand the horror and pointlessnes of war better than his contemporaries: "they don't have guns, sir." He even got to see glimpses of it in the future. No one could say he was fooled by the romance of it. Then again, maybe that's what made him fight? Who knows? He was probably too scared of the Doctor to come with him anyway, or so I told my friends.

Poor martha: always a house-maid and never a house.

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