Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

19 June, 2007

The Blank Slate

If you're a Doctor Who fan but haven't seen this past weekend's episode, "Utopia", yet, I won't spoil it for you but I must say OMG! OMG! OMG! He's back! OMG! OMG! OMG!

The events in that episode are presaged in "Human Nature". After the uninspiring "42", "Human Nature" was a dramatic turn towards the better. It is the first of a two-parter that's based on the novel of the same name that was published in 1995 as one of the New Adventures, some six years after the classic series was unceremoniously cancelled. Author Paul Cornell was drafted to adapt his story for the small screen. The book featured the Seventh Doctor and can be read at the BBC site for the classic series. Never having read it, I cannot comment on how much Cornell changed the story for the new series.

The episode begins with The Doctor and Martha making a hasty advance to the rear and into the TARDIS. He tells her that whomever it is that's chasing them can follow them across the universe and so he must take drastic measures. "I'll have to do it," he says. The Doctor picks up a pocket watch and, looking her straight in the eyes, says, "This watch is…"

The scene then cuts and we see The Doctor in his pajamas in an old bedroom. A knock on the door and Martha enters as a maid. Our hero has no recollection of what has transpired or who Martha really is. He keeps a pocket watch on his mantelpiece. Shaken by a dream, he relates that he's been having these adventures when he slumbers where he is "The Doctor". It turns out that the year is 1913 and The Doctor is now John Smith, a teacher at Farringham School.

Two months into his tenure, Smith is rather taken with Joan Redfern, the school nurse, and she with him. There's a rather funny scene where Redfern drops more than a few hints that she'd like Smith to ask her to the annual dance. The Doctor is very nervous and trips over his own words here before taking a wee tumble down a flight of steps. Martha catches on to the blossoming relationship between Smith and Redfern and she is more than a bit jealous.

We are then introduced to some of the students including Timothy Latimer, one of the younger students, who seems to be able to see the future. Another boy, named Baines, brags about having a stash of beer and heads out to retrieve it. That night Martha and Jenny, another one of the maids are enjoying a drink outside a local pub when they see a light in the sky. The aliens chasing The Doctor have landed. They are known as The Family. Baines stumbles upon the ship which is cloaked, making it invisible. But he is given entry and is taken over by The Family. He returns to his dormitory and climbs in through the window to be greeted by his thirsty chums. A wide angle lens was used and whoever the actor is who plays him did a remarkable job because he quickly became one of the scariest bad guys in all of Doctor Who history. Not by being frightening, but rather because he is just so fucking creepy. The kid pulls off one of the most menacing sneers you'll ever see. This plus his robotic head movements are just plain eerie.

The next day, Martha returns to the TARDIS which is in a shack out in the woods. Entering and looking about, she has flashbacks which explain that the watch is The Doctor. The Family have a short lifespan so The Doctor transforms himself into a human being with a device known as a Chameleon Arch and stores his Time Lord essence in the watch and protects it with a perception filter so that no one can sense what's inside. Meanwhile, Latimer goes to Smith's room in order to borrow a book but is drawn to the watch because he hears voices emanating from it. Opening the watch, it emits these yellow vapors and the voices become louder. The creepy boy is outside but his attention is drawn – he can smell The Doctor. The Family increase their numbers by taking over a local man and a small girl carrying a red balloon with the aid of the scarecrows they have animated. The girl is quite creepy in her own way and reminiscent of the girl in "Remembrance of the Daleks". Jenny is the final human to be

Back at the school, Smith and Ms. Redfern are having an intimate moment when Martha walks in. She runs away. She is having tea when Jenny returns but Martha knows that something is amiss – The Family has found them. As Smith and Ms. Redfern are preparing to go to the dance, Martha bursts in and tries to convince Smith of his real identity but his transformation was too good and he thinks she is a bit unbalanced. As Martha pleads with him, she discovers that the watch is missing.

Having flashes of the future, Latimer sneaks into the dance where all goes well until the hall is surrounded by scarecrows and The Family enter looking for The Doctor. They recognize what has happened but Smith is completely flummoxed. Baines steps forward with a laser pistol and points it at Smith yelling at him to change back into a Time Lord. When he pleads ignorance once again, Jenny takes hold of Martha and holds a gun to her head. Finally, Baines gives Smith the choice of either assuming his natural state or witnessing as they murder either his friend or his lover.


This was an incredible episode and enjoyed it tremendously. It was rather jolting to see The Doctor being completely helpless. Rather than seizing control of the situation, he was carried away by the actions of others. This left Martha to really carry the burden of their predicament. There are scenes with her in the TARDIS taking solace in a video that The Doctor recorded before he became human. At the end, he gives her heartfelt thanks and the sadness just drips off Martha's face. She is smitten with The Doctor yet he is falling in love with another woman. Still, it all comes down to the trust they have in one another and her ability to protect The Doctor as they spend their time in hiding. The look on her face was heartbreaking.

During one scene, Joan asks Smith about his childhood and he replies that his parents were Sydney and Verity. Older, dorkier fans like myself knew that these names referred to Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert. Newman created Doctor Who while Lambert was the show's first producer. So that was a neat little easter egg. Plus the animated scarecrows are just classic Doctor Who.

Thematically, "Human Nature" is rather dense. There is, unsurprisingly, the racism at the school. In one scene, Martha and Jenny are scrubbing floors when one of the students asks how Martha can tell anything is clean with "those hands". This is the most blatant example of racism in the episode although there are other moments when it is intimated that, because she is black, she is inferior to whites. Although there are certainly people who don't seem to look down on her because of the color of her skin, I think the racism serves to further alienate Martha and highlights her strength and perseverance.

This is tied into the other major theme – war. In one scene, Smith is lecturing on the Battle of Waterloo while in another a man stands outside the hall where the dance is taking place and he is taking a collection for veterans of the Crimean War. Perhaps most important are multiple references to the Second Boer War. Since this took place in South Africa, it provides a link to the theme of racism. In addition to historical references, the boys are shown being taught to fire a machine gun in one scene. The headmaster refers to the targets as "tribesmen of the Dark Continent" and wishes that Latimer is in a "just and good war" in which he can prove himself. It is also notable that in this scene that the boy has flashes of the trenches of World War I, only a little more than a year away.

Characters are roughly divided along the lines of racism & war. Latimer abhors the notion of war and reads Catullus whereas other boys gleefully hurl racist remarks and wallow in their notions of the glory of war. Similarly, Joan is a widow who lost her husband in a conflict so she avoids the machine gun practice while the headmaster extols the virtue of it.

This being the first of two parts, we'll have to wait and see what transpires in "The Family of Blood" but the title here surely refers to more than just The Doctor becoming human.

|| Palmer, 7:49 AM


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