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Doctor Who 3.9: The Family of Blood

June 3rd, 2007 (03:13 pm)

Some disconnected observations about The Family of Blood, which was very, very good indeed, and with last week's Human Nature showed that the promise the revived Doctor Who had in 2005 had not been lost as I was beginning to fear.

I liked John Smith's cry of despair that he was 'just a story'; with last week's revelation that Smith's parents were Sydney and Verity, one could believe that Smith is on the verge of becoming possibly the most self-aware character television Doctor Who has known, and reminds me of the stallkeeper in Paul Cornell's 1991 novel Timewyrm: Revelation who told Ace that she used to enjoy the Doctor's television programme.

Throughout the 1913 characters behave towards Martha as someone who is not playing up and playing the game. It's possible to read the British idea of class (I'm always wary of calling it a 'system') as a form of utilitarianism, a way of putting people into a state of mind where social status is preserved as a way of maintaining broader social cohesion. For Joan, Martha's display of her medical knowledge - one of Freema's finest hours among many candidates - is a gaze into a chaotic future, but it makes the viewer aware that there are many other forms of waste of human potential beyond the warfare that the story foregrounds.

Tim reminds me of one fan archetype - the lonely boy, both intellectual and intuitive, for whom the idea of a police box on a street corner might be seen not just as an escape, but a solution. Tim is more practical, though, than that connection might suggest. We've seen him get on with being a fag; he knows how to insulate himself from his environment and retain his sense of self even though his individuality is at odds with an oppressive social microcosm. Bravery can be knowing when to be a coward in the eyes of those who don't have as much information as you have.

The glory of Joan Redfern, in this episode in particular, is that we recognise her as someone companionable - if the Doctor was a man from 1913, one understand them falling in love. She's loyal, she takes charge of situations with reserves of resourcefulness, she believes what her experience tells her should be impossible, and ultimately will do what is right even if it harms her personal happiness.

The Journal of Impossible Things (surely coming to a bookshop in time for Christmas) tells Joan that the Family of Blood can't be placated; I see no reason why they should not consume Earth first before moving on across time and space. What does this mean for the alternative future John and Joan see together in the watch? It's surely an option which has already been closed, one which would have been possible if Martha and Smith had successfully evaded the Family. The pictures of Smith and Joan as a happily married couple, with children, John Smith adding roots to his flimsy humanity by casting his TARDIS-engineered genes into future generations, wearing early 1920s fashions to show time moving on, and John eventually dying in a sepia-tinged bed as we move firmly forward into living memory. David Tennant's make-up for the death scene - which made the sequence for me - whatever its faults, was at least not as credibility-challenging as Mark Gatiss's make-up in The Lazarus Experiment; there was something friendly about the way John Smith's face had aged, telling us that here was a good man.

I understood the disappointment several other commentators have expressed with the Doctor's use of olefactory misdirection in his confrontation with the Family at first. However, the Doctor does describe it as a form of ventriloquism, suggesting it's a party trick which can't be sustained for long periods; and secondly and more importantly, using the Chameleon Arch and doing something as drastic as disguising himself as human is exactly the sort of thing that one could envisage the Doctor thinking of first. The tenth Doctor is an addict, who likes the adrenalin rush from extreme crisis situations more explicitly than any of his earlier manifestations. He comes down from these highs just as intensely.

The meeting between the Doctor and Joan in the Cartwright cottage has echoes of the conversation between Rose and the Doctor immediately after his regeneration. "Can you change back?" both Rose and Joan asked, and the Doctor gives them the answer they don't want. With the regeneration, the process can't be reversed; but the Doctor could be John Smith again, but chooses not to. He then fails to see why Joan can't come with him; John Smith would have understood.

I can join the chorus of voices saying that the actor playing the wheelchair-enthroned Tim at the end of the episode is too youthful in appearance, particularly in the context of the series' old-age make-up; unless the contact with the watch has given Tim characteristics like Tom Hanks's character in The Green Mile.

Comments

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 04:44 pm (UTC)
Outsider

Tim reminds me of one fan archetype - the lonely boy, both intellectual and intuitive, for whom the idea of a police box on a street corner might be seen not just as an escape, but a solution.

I didn't think of that, but once pointed out, it's unmistakable, although I think not deliberate. That probably explains why I was able to empathise more with Latimer than most of the guest cast of new Who, despite my aversion to child characters.

Actually, it's debatable whether I empathised more with Latimer or John Smith; perhaps they spoke to different aspects of my psyche, which is no bad thing. It makes up for total inability to understand this Doctor, anyway. I think part of me wanted the Doctor not to change, and for the next four weeks to be the adventures of John Smith.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 05:05 pm (UTC)

I think that David Tennant's Doctor seems more likeable and more convincing when the script enables him to show many different aspects of the Doctor. Too much of Tennant's first year was taken up by the Doctor's mugging to Rose, anxiously assuring her time and time again that he was the same person who had grabbed her hand in Hendrick's basement in Rose.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 06:33 pm (UTC)
Outsider

I think that Tennant's Doctor seems more likeable and convincing when not whinging about being a lonely god, raging unconvincingly or messing around in precisely the way Tom Baker never did.

Ouch, that was waspish even by my standards. I suppose I should mention (bearing in mind I haven't written anything approaching a proper review on my LJ yet) that some minor quibbles aside, I thought the entire two-parter superb, one of the three or four best stories of the Davies era.

Posted by: Thwen (footnotetoplato)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 04:50 pm (UTC)

"I can join the chorus of voices saying that the actor playing the wheelchair-enthroned Tim at the end of the episode is too youthful in appearance ..."

Do we know when this scene was set? It looked somewhat modern, but it seems it could easily be fifteen years ago or more.

Posted by: viala_qilarre (viala_qilarre)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 04:56 pm (UTC)

Has to be after the advent of women vicars, of course.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 05:57 pm (UTC)

I think that may be one the reasons of casting a woman vicar...

KT

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 06:09 pm (UTC)
DavidIcon

It's meant to symbolize contemporary Britain, where the restrictions experienced by Martha and Joan have been swept away, and possibly suggest what Tim knew he had to fight for; the white poppy/conscientious objector strand in the novel has been discarded.

Posted by: bunn (bunn)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 06:34 pm (UTC)

I thought the conscientious objector theme was quite clear as an intention ( though I have not read the novel so I may be missing the intent of your comment)

John Smith clearly has a moment of 'realisation' that having the boys fight the aliens was wrong, (this was spelled out in the accompanying 'Confidential').

Though actually, I didn't get the clear moral message that the writers apparently thought they'd intended about children fighting from that story.

To me, the boys fought the scarecrows rather effectively, even though it was stressful for them, they pulled it together and eliminated the first wave neatly. It was after the boys were told to run that some were captured, and the captured boys only escaped because their captors were distracted, and not by John Smith either.

Then JS lost all the boys who were with him and supposedly under his care. He and the matron went off to a cottage to hide and left the kids running about the countryside under fire. Not impressive.

I was very willing to hear the 'schools should not be teaching war skills' message, as I went to the last school in England that required compulsory cadet force membership (including most of the stuff shown, such as rifle drill...). I genuinely believe this idea is a very evil one.

But perhaps for that reason, there was something just a bit thin about this episode to me.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 07:19 pm (UTC)

I agree that the theme of the story remains anti-war; however, from the way the World War One flash-forwards are played, and the rows of medals on the elderly Tim's chest suggest that he was a combatant; his contact with the Doctor may even have given him a sense of what he was fighting for. In the novel Tim is a conscientious objector with the Red Cross.

There have been many comments to the effect that the depiction of the cadet force was inaccurate; the school would have been privileged to have machine guns, for example, still a recent invention prized by the War Office.

I don't know the history of combined cadet forces, and wonder how far it depends on the English tradition that the country shouldn't have a standing army but a militia, led by an officer class for whom proficiency in arms. This is a tradition honoured more often in the breach than the observance. Are there parallels to the CCF, I wonder, in countries with more substantial traditions of a citizen army, like Israel or Switzerland?

Posted by: bunn (bunn)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 08:19 pm (UTC)

I didn't mind the machine gun. In that world everything depended on who knew who, and I imagine that the further back you go, the more that would apply. A pupil whose father was 'something high up in the War Office' would be a reasonable explanation for the machine gun.

I thought the general feel of the cadet force was about right. The brutality had the authentic ring, and the sort of horror that comes with children being forced to handle weapons. It brought back to me a rifle-shooting lesson in which I was forced to shoot without glasses - I couldn't see the target at all! and a friend of mine who was a committed pacifist was browbeaten until she picked up the rifle and shot, shaking and in tears. There was that same sick feeling to it.

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 08:40 pm (UTC)

But at the start of WWI, machine guns were limited to two per batallion. Having so many at one school just seems wrong (historically speaking!, and leaving aside for the moments).

Posted by: bunn (bunn)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 09:11 pm (UTC)

How many were there? I only saw 2.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 09:49 pm (UTC)
Cromwell

I think that more emphasis is placed on the machine gun in Human Nature; while it's still prominent in The Family of Blood we get a look at the other weapons as well, and they seem a mixed bag, appropriate to the sheer unpreparedness of the boys who wield them.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: June 4th, 2007 03:24 pm (UTC)
Outsider

Are there parallels to the CCF, I wonder, in countries with more substantial traditions of a citizen army, like Israel or Switzerland?

As far as I know (and it's not something I've thought to ask about before) there's nothing comparable in Israel. The Israeli army is perhaps not directly comparable with the idea of a citizen's militia, being a conscript army, albeit with an ethos like that of a citizen's militia in many ways (not to mention various controversial loop-holes and exemptions from conscription).

Posted by: louisedennis (louisedennis)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 09:03 pm (UTC)

I agree with bunn.

I was going to add something, but I can't really think what just a sense that in certain places, what the writing clearly wanted me to think was not what I actually took from the events that unfolded on screen.

Not that it wasn't a corker of an episode...

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 09:43 pm (UTC)
DavidIcon

That reaction makes me wonder where the clash between script and execution might lie. Is it that the execution of the episode is less stridently anti-war than the script?

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: June 4th, 2007 03:33 pm (UTC)
Outsider

There's a structural problem that Doctor Who encounters whenever it does an anti-war story (e.g. Remembrance of the Daleks): the time-slot means the sheer horror and brutality of war has to be played down, or dealt with metaphorically (e.g. the 'massacre' of the scarecrows The Family of Blood), and the lead characters are certain to survive, but the action-adventure nature of the serial requires a certain amount of excitement, explosions etc., and the writers often can't think of a more appropriate solution than the Doctor blowing everything up. The result is usually rather more ambiguous than was intended.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 4th, 2007 08:02 pm (UTC)

I think part of what makes the massacre of the scarecrows so powerful is that the boys believe they are shooting at creatures of flesh and blood, men dressed up. It's usual in Doctor Who battles for there to be no blood, but in this case the fact that these 'soldiers' are animated by what might as well be magic draws attention to the absence of gore, and juxtaposes it with the looming shadow of the horrors of the First World War.

This serial showed some awareness of the problem you describe, I'd suggest. The Doctor blew up the Family's ship, but not the Family, and proceeded to condemn them to fates not a million miles from the justice of the Time Lords as depicted in The War Games. He really is the Last of the Time Lords, not a rebel so much as the last resident of Olympus. I wonder if this side of the Doctor will be built upon in the final few episodes, leading up to whatever confrontation we are to be treated to in part thirteen.

Posted by: Virgers! How are we doing with those explosives? (tree_and_leaf)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 09:38 pm (UTC)

So about 1993 at the earliest - at least eighty years after the events of Family of Blood.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 05:15 pm (UTC)
Sylvester

The parallel concluding scene in the 1995 novel (where Tim's surname is Dean) is set in 1995; I think that a date in the mid-1990s would be appropriate, though Tim Latimer could be the Doctor Who universe's equivalent of Henry Allingham, and the scene could be a more recent one.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 06:14 pm (UTC)

This has just overtaken The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances as my favorite story of the new era. (The Radio Times reviewer even suggested best ever, but I am in no position to comment on that.)

> using the Chameleon Arch and doing something as drastic
> as disguising himself as human is exactly the sort of
> thing that one could envisage the Doctor thinking of first

My one niggle about the story is the Chameleon Arch. Showing tt seemed a bit gratuitous and it leaves open the question of how he changes back (which as wisely evaded...). It might have been better if the mystery of exactly how he made himself human (or even, physiologically, how huma he had really become) had been left to our imaginations. All we need to know is that he has left behind his conciousness and cghangedsufficiently not to be recognised by the Familiy. If the rest cannot be complained rationally and coherently, it had better not be explained at all.
I think I may have said that kind of thing before :-)

> He then fails to see why Joan can't come with him; John Smith
> would have understood.

I am not sure if he entirely fails to see it, or if he just tries to deny it as long as he can
(which, I suppose, John Smith would not have done, point taken..).


BTW, I thought there was some superb acting from more than one person as Joh Smith holds the watch and sort of slips back into Doctor mode.

And in the trenches, I liked the hint that the little "coward" Latimer was now the superior officer.

KT

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 09:33 pm (UTC)
DavidIcon

I think that after this story no-one can claim that the series is about the companion more than it is about the Doctor, which is ironic considering how little the Doctor is on screen, at least in the conventional sense.

Posted by: helflaed (helflaed)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 10:24 pm (UTC)

I didn't necessarily think that the Tim shown at the end was too young- I know a few men in their eighties, war veterens, who look as though they are in their sixties. I did think that the actor who played "young Tim" looked too young- he looked about eleven or twelve to me, which would have made him too young to have been an officer- a private might have been able to have lied about his age, but a public schoolboy officer? I have my doubts about that.

He would have been the same age as my Grandpa- who was sixteen at the end of the war and therefore too young. At least for that war.

I certainly can't complain about his very fine acting though. These two were probably my favourite David Tennant episodes so far.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 10:29 pm (UTC)

I think we have to assume that Tim, who is clearly younger than Hutchinson, is in battle at the end of the war. That being said, Thomas Sangster was sixteen when he filmed the episodes, and while I don't think he's tall, he's always shot from an angle that exaggerates the shortness of his stature.

Posted by: helflaed (helflaed)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 10:31 pm (UTC)

Sixteen?

I'm amazed- I really did think that he looked about twelve! (I was assuming 12 in 1913, therefore 17 by 1918 and too young)

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2007 10:37 pm (UTC)

I agree with you - and I don't think the character is meant to be older than thirteen or at most fourteen.

Posted by: king_pellinor (king_pellinor)
Posted at: June 4th, 2007 10:45 am (UTC)

And even that seems a little old for a fag, from the little I know of that institution.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 4th, 2007 10:55 am (UTC)

I thought that might be the case, but I wasn't sure. In the book Timothy isn't so young; I think he was made younger to provide an identification figure for the child audience, but if so this leads to the problem with the dating of the battle scene.