One: Don’t let me hurt anyone.
SPOILERS FOR DOCTOR WHO SERIES THREE (NEW VERSION)
What exactly does that directive mean in the context of a plan the ultimate consequences of which include:
a) The complete and utter ruination of a good, longsuffering woman’s hopes and dreams.
b) The beating of a vulnerable kid by his military school mates, sanctioned by the authority figures ostensibly charged with his education and protection (including our hero).
c) Multiple civilians serving as collateral damage due to laser fire and/or possession by alien consciousnesses.
d) The arming of terrified young men for a battle that is so much bigger than them, so beyond their capacity for understanding that it is treated on screen as an act of cruelty in and of itself.
e) Asking a man who is our hero (in the sense that his consciousness inhabits his body) but also really isn’t (in the sense that that consciousness is distinct from that of our hero) to sacrifice himself and his possible future in order to allow a man of suspect moral authority who drags destruction in his wake but is also somehow the only thing standing between humanity and annihilation to live.
Thus the two-parter “Human Nature”/”Family of Blood” sums up the themes of the complete and utter mindfuck that is the third series of Doctor Who and marks the point where I fell in love with the show for really really reals (for the record, I’m finished with Series 3). Don’t get me wrong, this show has been a great ride so far. I loved Rose and was sad to see her go, but there’s no question in my mind that the show as a whole started taking some major leaps forward in maturity somewhere around the end of Series 2 (“The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit” was a particular high point for me) and then another one somewhere around the episode “Gridlock,” which like “Love and Monsters” and, of course the amazing “Blink” felt to me more like high-concept short stories than conventional episodes of television.
But the Family of Blood two-parter really summed up for me both the major themes of Doctor Who (the twin destructive and creative impulses of human beings, the boundaries of the self, the limitations of human/timelord perception, the loneliness/moral fallibility of The Doctor, the heroism of the companion in spite of human limitations, etc.) and showcased the best storytelling techniques Russell T. Davies et al. have in their bag of tricks. Like many of the show’s best episodes, these two are both remarkably self-contained (like short stories) and yet set up so many important plot devices that get paid off later.* We’re introduced to the premise in a very brief flashback before being abruptly dropped into 1913, where The Doctor is John Smith, a teacher at a military academy, and Martha Jones is his maid. It’s apparent from the beginning that they have either been brainwashed or are doing an excellent job of going through a pantomime. But only after some time and with minimal exposition is it revealed that it’s The Doctor who hasn’t a clue who he actually is and Martha is the master actress, keeping watch lo these three months until the time when it will be safe for John Smith to open the watch and resume his true identity.
Yet what’s remarkable about these episodes is the way in which it shows us that far from simply storing his true consciousness and using the regular bloke persona as a cover, The Doctor has essentially created a new person, a new life. And even though that life may be a fiction, it is as real to John Smith as any of our lives are to us. In a roundabout way, this device is an exploration of the act of storytelling itself, troubling the line between reality and fiction. But it also sets up a problematic that is, I think, unique given how The Doctor is portrayed: here is a man/alien who can take on many shape, who regenerates into a new physical form in order to avoid death, who is apparently capable of mimicking the biological makeup of a whole other species. But ultimately, no matter what it looks like, he has one body. And the final conflict of “Family of Blood” concerns who will occupy that body: The Doctor or John Smith, whose unique subjectivity is as real as real can be even if it is an invention of The Doctor’s (and reflects, perhaps, the way The Doctor sees or wishes to see himself). Naturally, there’s no question in the audience’s mind about how this will all turn out, but the show gives John Smith enough presence, enough depth, and enough distinction from The Doctor that his dilemma feels like it has actual stakes.
And who is John Smith exactly? We’re allowed to get to know him and to understand the world he inhabits quite gradually. All in all, he’s a pretty decent guy. But that’s about the best that can be said of him. He is perceptive enough to know when one exceptionally bright student is dumbing himself down to avoid the resentment of his classmates but too blinkered by his culture and his training to recognize that suborning the hazing of said student at the hands of his classmates is a hideous act of cruelty. He is good-hearted enough to treat his favorite servant with kindness and even a modicum of respect, but he is also willing to surreptitiously fire her when she breaches class etiquette. He is, apparently, willing to sacrifice the future he wants for himself in order to save the world, but not before he has armed a bunch of children and asked them to stand between himself and an army of monsters.
In short, John Smith is an average human being: a pretty decent guy, heroic when the stakes are especially high. He’s decent and adorable enough to make us feel that he deserves to live just about as much as anyone but cowardly and idiotic enough to make us cheer when The Doctor shows back up at the end.
But does The Doctor more deserving of life than John Smith, when we get right down to it? These two episodes and this season as a whole spouts what by now is boilerplate Doctor Who cant: that The Doctor is a wonderful boon to humanity who sacrifices without hope or wish of ever being repaid. And given how often we’ve heard those lines throughout the show, Joan’s final words to him are particularly devastating: “If The Doctor had never visited us, had never chosen this place on a whim, would any of these people have died?” The implication of that question is, of course, whether or not the characters we’ve met so far are better or worse off for having had The Doctor in their lives. The memory of Rose, trapped in an alternate dimension where she has the people she loves but remains cut off from her heart’s true desire, looms over the whole series. And given that Martha watches her family, her entire species, suffer from the consequences of freak convergences in time that directly implicate her involvement with The Doctor, it came as absolutely no surprise to me that she would choose to leave him. Human beings are defined by their attachments, by their responsibilities to one another as much as anything else, and The Doctor is incapable of forming them in the way that we do. Series 2 explored the consequences of that for him—his loneliness, his knowledge that every relationship is temporary, that every human he loves is mortal. But Series 3 really delved into what that means for someone like Martha, human enough to fall in love with him a little bit but smart enough to recognize why that’s not a good thing for her (Martha Jones is my favorite so far, though I have a vague sense that this is not a majority opinion).
At the close here (and because I couldn’t find a way to shoehorn it in earlier), I just have to say that I love how the show continues to use not only sci fi but horror tropes in cool ways. “Blink” is, of course, amazing, but the creepy sniffing in these two episodes was just great. It helps that they had Harry “Don’t Wake the Dragon” Lloyd in the role of the principal villain. Somehow, they also awesomely managed to sell the slaughter of scarecrow golems as a traumatic moment for the slaughterers. Likewise, the confrontation with Daughter of Mine near the end and Martha’s apparent dilemma over whether to shoot Mother of Mine, wearing the form of her friend, further explores the way in which human beings conflate physicality and consciousness/personhood. Additionally, Joan’s difficulty accepting The Doctor in the body she knows as John Smith mirrors Martha’s frantic attempts to get John Smith to realize who he “really” is.
And next I begin David Tennant’s final run as The Doctor. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to handle it.
*The blood pretty much left my face when The Master pulled out that pocket watch. Like I’ve said, I’m pretty unspoiled for this show, and I hadn’t a clue what was coming.