Ever since I started covering Doctor Who’s third season, I’ve been looking forward to “Human Nature / The Family Of Blood”, a two-parter that’s widely regarded in the fandom as one of the classics from David Tennant’s time as the Doctor (alongside “The Satan Pit” and “Silence In The Library“), and it did not disappoint upon rewatch. A major overarching theme in Series 3 is the human experience, what it actually means to be a human being – faith, mortality, love, socialization, family, little daily rituals – something the audience is innately familiar with, but the sort of thing a time lord like the Doctor could only ever observe from a distance. So it’s really only fitting that this season would feature a two-parter where the Doctor becomes human for a period, something that’s never happened before in the show.
“Human Nature” is the sort of story that can really only be told late in a season. The first half of Series 3 spent seven episodes establishing the new status quo of the Tenth Doctor traveling on as a more damaged man without Rose Tyler, while also endearing the audience to Martha Jones and developing her strong, if somewhat dysfunctional, dynamic with the Doctor, to the point where they trust each other a lot now, so the show can afford to get experimental and buck the usual status quo for two episodes. “Human Nature” is written by Paul Cornell – who previous penned “Father’s Day“, one of the more emotional episodes from Series 1 – and it’s loosely adapted from his Seventh Doctor novel of the same name, written during the wilderness years of the franchise (similar to Rob Shearman’s “Dalek“, which was loosely adapted from his one of his audio stories). “Human Nature” functions perfectly well as a standalone story, a fascinating character study for the Tenth Doctor that can be watched separately from the rest of the season, but it also sneakily turns out to be a pivotal part of the series arc, setting up the three-part finale that’s right around the corner.
With the Family of Blood right on his heels, the Tenth Doctor decides to take drastic measures and become human for a few months to throw them off his scent, creating a new persona for himself as a schoolteacher. I’ve always found it ironic that “Human Nature” is one of David Tennant’s best performances in the show when he’s not actually playing the Doctor for most of it, tapping into something raw and visceral in the second episode. It’s constantly left ambiguous how much of John Smith’s personality is his own separate entity, his own man, and how much of him is what the Tenth Doctor would be like if he was born a human being instead of a time lord – without all the baggage, scars, and centuries of trauma that’s weighing down on the Doctor all the time. John has a lot of Ten’s mannerisms: he’s frequently flustered, awkward, talkative, and absent-minded. He’s a fairly earnest person with a sense of wonder, dreaming of fanciful things, and he develops a puppy dog crush on his co-worker Joan. He’s also shown to have inherited his other self’s resourcefulness and quick-wit. However, in a lot of aspects, John is not like the Doctor at all, his polar opposite. He’s quiet, reserved and likes to keep his head down, compared to one of the most loud and boisterous Doctors, and as a regular human man, John is a product of his time: the Edwardian era. Along with his casual racism towards Martha, he’ll turn a blind eye to all sorts of unsavory things and condone them to conform to what’s expected of him, when the Doctor has never had a problem taking a stand and challenging the ways things are done – whether it’s letting transparent school bullies beat on their classmates to ‘build character’, or putting innocent schoolboys at risk to try to save his own backside. Thankfully, John’s moral character improves over the course of this two-parter, realizing he needs to prioritize the needs of the boys over everything else.
A lot of this story’s action revolves around playing keep-away with the Doctor’s fob watch, his soul jar, but “The Family Of Blood” really gets interesting when our heroes are safe and secluded, and an ethical debate arises over whether or not John should change back to his other persona. Becoming the Doctor again will be a real death for John, and his choice isn’t treated lightly like a happy return to the status quo; it’s given the weight and respect it deserves. Throughout this story, John has been plagued by gaps in his background, while memories of his real fantastical life have manifested in his dreams, puzzling him. When he discovers his dreams are real and his whole life is a lie, that idea terrifies him just as much as the Family does. He’s happy in 1913, he wants it all to be true, and when he realizes his life is already forfeit that revelation breaks him – just as it would break anyone. John doesn’t go quietly, he quite rightly calls out the Doctor and Martha about how cruel and messed-up their actions were. They gave him a life, dreams, ambitions, the capacity to love, and all along they planned to kill him and throw him away when the time was right. They basically used him, and the Doctor never even thought about the consequences of creating him. The emotional core of this two-parter was the gentle, sincere and doomed romance between John Smith and Joan Redfern: John got to do the one thing the Doctor never could – wholeheartedly fall in love. The Doctor has held strong romantic feelings for several great loves in NuWho, like Rose Tyler and River Song, but the tragedy of those relationships is that he could never fully reciprocate their feelings the way they would want him to, as an immortal man loving mortal women. “The Family Of Blood” makes it very clear that John could have had a long, happy and fulfilling human life with Joan, which only makes his decision hurt more.
Throughout this story, John was characterized as a rather weak and cowardly man, but he’s the one who makes a brave and terrible sacrifice in the end. He feared that in the grand scheme of things, in a cosmic conflict between wizards and aliens, he didn’t matter as a mere pawn to be tossed aside, but in the end, one ordinary man made all the difference in the world – like Pete Tyler in “Father’s Day”, another episode Paul Cornell wrote where the day was saved with heroic suicide. It’s also interesting how “The End Of Time” mirrors this episode down the line. The real Ten did not go quietly either when his time was up compared to other Doctors, he didn’t want to regenerate, but he made the self-sacrificial choice for Wilf in the end. The option to walk away and be selfish was always there, but like John, there was never really a chance of him taking it, was there? During the RTD era, Russell showed an interest in hyping up the Doctor as a living legend in-universe, in episodes like “Rose” or “Love And Monsters“, and a major thread throughout this two-parter is the myth of the Doctor. The way Latimer and Son of Mine speak of him, you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s a modern day mythological figure. As much as this two-parter gazes upon the Doctor in awe, “The Family Of Blood” is also one of those stories that dives into how thoughtless and selfish he can be sometimes. In the last act, it’s revealed that the Doctor could have easily dealt with the Family head on, but he wanted to give them a shot at mercy and keep his own hands clean. Things spiraled out of control from there, setting up a scenario that forced John Smith to kill himself, made Martha have to endure two months of classism and racism, broke Joan’s heart and got who knows how many people killed in the village. Plus, when he actually did confront the Family, he dealt out sadistic and cruel punishments that will last for all of eternity. The Doctor is many things in this two-parter, but he is most certainly not a hero.
Since the last seven episodes have steadily strengthened their friendship, the Doctor trusts Martha (Freema Agyeman) to stay by his side and keep vigil over him for two months. So poor Martha spends this two-parter feeling more isolated than ever before, decades out of her time, burdened by the knowledge of what’s at stake if the Family of Blood find them – and she can’t even turn to the Doctor for advice when things get stressful, having to deal with so many people looking down on her for being a black woman. Now seems like a pretty good time to talk about racism in Doctor Who. Tackling a subject like racism in this series is always a pretty tricky thing. Because on the one hand, you don’t want to pretend like it’s something that never existed, because that would be dishonest and whitewashing history. But on the other hand, you don’t want every single episode that’s set in the past to be derailed into a history lesson about how the past was super racist every time a non-white companion travels back further than the 1960’s. Doctor Who usually tackles the subject by devoting an entire episode to exploring historical racism and discrimination, like “Thin Ice” or “Rosa”, while the companions’ respective races aren’t a hindrance to them in the rest of the season. Ten and Martha have been pretty careful before now – all their adventures have either been in the future, or in periods where barely anyone cared about Martha’s race like Elizabethan England or 1930’s New York – but here, her luck finally runs out. One bit of nuance that I like about how “Human Nature” handles racism is that it makes it clear that racism isn’t just for evil, wicked people who are one dimensional villains, while good, virtuous people would never partake in such a thing. It’s a set of harmful or oppressive cultural attitudes that are completely normalized and ingrained in everyone to varying extents during a period.
John and Joan are presented as otherwise decent people who we’re meant to sympathize with, and they have moments where they’re stunningly racist and condescending towards Martha. It’s a really easy writing choice in a story about racism to have the only one who’s racist be the villain or someone we’re supposed to hate, so I respect Paul Cornell for having our lead characters be pricks as well for a chunk of this story. Luckily, Martha manages to make a friend in 1913, because she is still very good at making friends throughout history. On top of her frustration with no one ever listening to a black woman’s opinion, Martha has the added pain of watching the human Ten fall in love with another woman from the sidelines again. By this point, Martha has accepted that the Doctor will never love her back, and while she feels hurt by this development with Joan, she also feels sympathy for her, because she knows what it’s like to love the Doctor and get burned. After being forced to conform throughout the first episode, it is immensely cathartic to see Martha drop the act once her cover’s officially been blown, and reassert herself as the bold, outspoken, shrewd and stroppy woman that she is – taking no guff from anyone, and going out of her way to school Joan on her ignorance. Martha’s bravery as a sidekick is on full display in “The Family Of Blood”. She’s not fearless, she’s every bit as terrified as everyone else about whether or not they can actually stop the Family, but courage isn’t an absence of fear – it’s being afraid and still acting in spite of that fear to save lives. Martha’s resourcefulness has always been a prominent part of her character, but “The Family Of Blood” really solidifies that she has a lot of emotional strength as well, which will continue to come in handy for her. It also makes it apparent why her travels with Ten aren’t going to last for much longer. As much as she loves fighting monsters, meeting new people and seeing amazing things, her one-sided feelings for Ten really aren’t good for her in the long run.
John Smith’s love interest, Nurse Joan Redfern, proves to be quite a layered and well-rounded character – tragic, sensible, and at times frustrating all at once. Like every supporting character in this adventure, she exhibits the values and expectations of the Edwardian era: she puts a lot of stock into propriety and not overstepping one’s station in life, especially when it comes to women, which feeds into her attitude towards Martha as John’s servant. However, there are some facts of life about the Edwardian era that she refuses to parrot without question or criticism, willing to swim against the tide for her own principles. She’s a woman who became a widow at a fairly young age, having lost her husband to a war, and as a result, the grief seems to have hardened her to life’s adversities a bit, without causing her to lose her spark of life. Joan’s grief for her late husband haunts her throughout this story, whether it’s her interactions with the human Doctor (where she wonders if she’s truly ready to let herself love another man again), the way she disapproves of the foolish, reckless ideals that school is teaching it’s students, or the fact that she hates warfare in general. With John, she meets a strange, sensitive, thoughtful and passionate man, and she finds love again for the first time in years. In some ways, Joan and John are foils to each other: while the former is fairly withdrawn and cautious with her heart, the latter is very emotionally open and straightforward (a lot more so than the regular Ten ever would be). Jessica Hynes is quite good at giving Joan an understated thoughtfulness, vulnerability and dignity, and she has some genuine chemistry with David Tennant as their characters grow closer. John proves to be quite a remarkable man with a mysterious past, and as much as Joan loves spending time with him, a part of her suspects that their newfound relationship is almost too good to be true – which is tragically the case.
During the second episode, Joan’s ability to handle concepts and ideas well beyond her time is put to the test, and for the most part, she takes it in stride. She’s characterized as someone who’s skeptical, but not unreasonable: she’s fairly pragmatic and adaptable, and willing to entertain the idea of fantastical events a lot more quickly than John or any of the other villagers in this story (besides Tim), which ironically gives her something in common with Martha. Piecing together everything she’s learned from Martha, the Family, John’s journal, and his own strange behavior, Joan comes to accept that John doesn’t have much time left in the world, which has to be a horrible realization. She’s already lost one loved one in the line of duty, for the greater good of Britain, and she can handle the heartbreak of it happening it again, making it clear to John that she’ll support whatever choice he makes – but it is nonetheless a cruel and horrible dilemma that they find themselves in, having to sacrifice their own happiness and their own future for everyone else’s sake. Which is why I’m quite happy about the coda, which is easily one of the coldest and most uncomfortable scenes you’ll find in this show. The Doctor makes it clear to Joan that he’ll never change back into a human again, but he offers to let her travel with him as some sort of consolation prize, presumably to string her feelings along like he has done with other women in the past – a rather condescending slap to the face after everything else that’s happened. But Joan has more self-respect than that. She lets the Doctor know he is not the man she fell in love with, she wants nothing to do with him, and she will never forgive him for what he did to John, or her. And you know what? Good for her. It’s great to see someone hold Ten accountable for all the hurt he caused everyone in this two-parter, because it’s not gonna be Martha or Tim. There will be no salvaging things here, Ten will just have to live with the consequences of his actions.
A major recurring idea in “Human Nature” is the true price of war: John’s sacrifice and Joan’s heartbreak is the most obvious example, but there’s also the subplot with their students. Most of the action in this two-parter is set inside a boarding school for spoiled, pretentious rich kids in the countryside, just a year before World War I – the war that changed the world, which no one was prepared for – diving into what happens when British pride and nationalism is taken to a really toxic level. The boys’ headmaster is a pompous, arrogant, self-important man on a power trip. He served in the military a long time ago, so he believes his views on the matter of war should go unchallenged. He fills the boy’s heads with foolish ideals, glorifying warfare to them, breeding them to be soldiers and setting them up to be slaughtered – encouraging it as a path to being strong and masculine. These sorts of attitudes, encouraging teenage boys to become canon fodder, are obviously super immoral in retrospect, but they were completely normal for a period when Britain was cocky about its conquests and still on top of the world. Paul Cornell delivers a rather vicious condemnation of warfare propaganda, and how much of a lie it is. There’s a really ugly scene during the second episode, where John and the audience are confronted with the brutal reality of what the institution is doing – by treating these boys like they’re men already and training them to become killers, they’re robbing them of their innocence – a glimpse of what’s to come for Britain in only a year’s time. The headmaster is easily one of the most hateable characters in this story: he really couldn’t care less about the boys’ welfare, since he only sees them as an extension of his own ego. But in a perfect bit of karma, his pride winds up being his undoing. He would never see a woman, let alone a little girl, as being a threat to him, and his stubbornness winds up getting him fried.
The schoolboy who’s fleshed out the most is Tim Latimer, who’s quite an oddity in-universe. Like Gwenyth from “The Unquiet Dead“, Tim is basically a telepathic psychic cursed with abilities he doesn’t understand, being able to see through time. He’s a younger, scrawnier boy than the others – he doesn’t reach the standard and ideal the boys are encouraged to strive towards of might making right – so he often gets bullied by his older, abusive classmates (something the teachers condone). As a social outcast, he often tries to keep his head down, and he’s characterized as a fearful person in general. He winds up being a key player in this two-parter because he can see John Smith for what he really is and speak to the Doctor’s soul residing inside his fob watch, consulting with it. Quite a few supporting characters in the RTD era discover their inner courage and empower themselves after an encounter with the Doctor, and Tim is no exception. Being attacked by alien invaders is easily a nightmare scenario for the boy, but he gradually comes to accept that bigger things are going on than he can imagine, things that will decide the future of the human race, so he swallows his fear, take a stand and does what he can to help. Unlike his headmaster’s suicidal pride, or his classmates’ privileged bullying, this is a true example of British nobility – his efforts manage to turn the tide and save his classmates, and the coda devoted to him always gets me to shed a tear. The Doctor and Martha thank him for all his help and the Doctor gives him his watch as a parting gift, which winds up keeping him safe during World War I. The Doctor’s influence stayed with him throughout his life, and Ten and Martha never forget him either, since they later attend a memorial service to honor an elderly Tim and all the other boys who gave their lives for their country. Not a word is said during this coda, but it’s such a moving, meaningful and beautiful moment for all three of them to end the story on.
As a whole, I would say Series 3 really benefits from having some great villains, who either have really interesting motivations or a lot of screen presence thanks to their actors, and “Human Nature” makes that especially apparent. The Family of Blood are a clan of hunters and invaders from the distant future, who have the lifespan of mayflies compared to other species – only lasting about three months. While they’re on their latest hunt, they bring a futuristic conflict to a small town period setting and create an even larger anachronistic genre clash than “Daleks In Manhattan” earlier this season. Like Professor Lazarus a few episodes ago, their motivation here is obtaining an infinitely longer and more prosperous life at all costs – they want the Doctor so they can try to become immortal. They aren’t automatically corporeal creatures, so they spend the first episode stealing hosts, biding their time and gaining intel – building up a sizable amount of tension in the background. The Family have a very symbiotic relationship, partly because of the telepathic connection between the four of them. Son of Mine is the brains of the unit and their unofficial leader. Mother of Mine is the most practical one, since Son of Mine, for all his genius, can be very rash and hotheaded. Father of Mine is the stout muscle of the group, and Daughter of Mine is their bloodthirsty little spy, taking advantage of the small child she killed to avoid suspicion. The Family have much greater strength and are advanced so far beyond anything else in this primitive, ignorant era of humanity, that they lord their superiority over the locals with glee. The four of them are callous, amoral, sadistic and cruel. They prove to be ruthless, cold-hearted psychopaths who enjoy the thrill of the hunt, and kill the local villagers like insects because human ignorance amuses them.
Once they have the Doctor’s scent, they try everything to force his hand, whether it’s manufacturing a hostage situation, attacking the school, or destroying the village. While all the Family members are suitably creepy, Harry Lloyd in particular stands out as Son of Mine, since he chews every last inch of scenery in this two-parter. The regular Baines already gives off the impression that there’s something rather off about him, and once Lloyd starts portraying his alien host, he paints a very vivid picture of an alien predator who’s only making an apathetic half-hearted attempt at pretending to be human, and still failing miserably at it – his blank, glassy eyes staring straight into your soul repeatedly in this story. There are also times when he gives you the odd chill, like when Son of Mine decides to cut the Headmaster’s ego down to size and illuminate to him how tiny and insignificant he really is in the grand scheme of the universe. The Family have the rug pulled out from under them during the climax: for all their arrogance, hubris and genuine competence, they discover they were only really a threat in the Doctor’s absence, and they never stood a chance against him in an actual fight. They’re as tiny and insignificant to him as the humans they’ve been slaughtering indiscriminately for two episodes. The Doctor decides to grant them their wish of becoming immortal, by subjecting them to sadistic, creative torments that will last for all of eternity. If the Doctor is a modern day mythological figure in this story about gods and devils, the Family are your greedy, foolhardy, power-hungry mortals who flew way too close to the sun and got burned. The hamtastic performances from their actors, combined with the horrific fates the Doctor subjected to them in the end, wound up making the Family some of the more memorable one-off villains from the RTD era.
“Human Nature” is directed by Charles Palmer, who previously handled “Smith and Jones” and “The Shakespeare Code“, and his vision for this story is of an even higher caliber. From the opening scene alone, which rarely lingers on one shot for longer than a few seconds, it’s clear that Charles wanted to include as many different perspectives as possible in this two-parter to hit all the right emotional beats, like the tense cliffhanger of the first episode where Martha and Joan are put in peril. I’m especially fond of how he shoots the Family and their scarecrow minions: whenever they’re onscreen, there’s always plenty of dutch angles and uncomfortable close-ups to be found, leaving you feeling very queasy. “Human Nature” is one of those episodes that uses CGI sparingly, mainly for laser blasts and disintegration effects, giving the Mill all the time they need to polish off certain shots without aiming for anything too ambitious for the series like the Scorpion creature in “The Lazarus Experiment“, and as a result, the visual effects for this two-parter have aged well after twelve years. Murray Gold has gone on record saying that “Human Nature” was one of his favorite scores from the RTD era, and it shows. There’s a lot of new original material in this two-parter, utilizing sharp strings, harmonic whistling and wholesome woodwinds, like “Only Martha Knows“, “Smith’s Choice“, “Like Scarecrows To War“, “Miss Joan Redfern“, and “The Dream Of A Normal Death” (the latter two pieces stand out as being stirringly tender and heartbreaking). As a two-parter that harkens back to a lot of previous adventures, Murray also weaves in some musical references to the last two series with quiet variations on “Rose’s Theme” and “The Doctor’s Theme”. Like he did in “Gridlock’s” score, he weaves together the opening notes of “Martha’s Theme” and “The Doctor Forever” in the last scene, to symbolize Ten and Martha’s friendship constantly growing stronger this season.
All in all, “Human Nature” stands out as one of the most beautiful, thought-provoking and emotionally complex stories from Series 3, and it remains quite a gem from Paul Cornell and Russell T. Davies.
* “Take this watch, because my life depends on it. This watch, Martha. The watch is me. I’m going to become human”.
* When the Eleventh Doctor is lecturing humankind years later in “The Rebel Flesh“, about how callous it was to create sentient life to be used and then thrown away, take your pick whether it’s character development from his experience in “Human Nature” or hypocrisy, especially considering how that two-parter ends.
* “You there, what’s your name again?” “Martha, sir. Martha Jones” “Tell me then, Jones. With hands like those, how can you tell when something’s clean?” Fuck you too, Hutchinson.
* “The stairs-” “What about the stairs?” “They’re right behind you” Ooof.
* “A Journal of Impossible Things. Just look at these creatures, such imagination” “It’s become quite a hobby” “It’s wonderful. And quite an eye for the pretty girls”.
* Tim, my lad, for someone who wants to stay out of sight and keep their head down, you’ve got a real staring problem.
* “I’m talking to a machine” Hey, I’m sure the TARDIS takes offense to that remark.
* “Lucky” “That was luck?!” “Nurse Redfern, might I invite you to the village dance this evening, as my guest?” “You extraordinary man”.
* “My father Sidney was a watchmaker from Nottingham, and my mother Verity was a nurse, actually” “Heh, we make such good wives”.
* “You’ve made me far too beautiful” “Well, that’s how I see you” “Widows aren’t supposed to be beautiful. I think the world would rather we stopped. Is that fair? That we stop?” “That’s not fair at all”.
* “It’s Baines, isn’t it? This isn’t very funny, sir-” “Just shut up, stop talking, cease and desist, there’s a good girl! Mother of Mine is dying to meet you. And here she is”.
* There’s something very satisfying about watching Martha slap human Ten.
* “You took human form” “Of course I’m human. I was born human, as were you, Baines. And Jenny, and you, Mr. Clark. What is going on? This is madness!” “Ooo, and a human brain, too. Simple, thick and dull”.
* “Have you enjoyed it, Doctor, being human? Has it taught you wonderful things? Are you better, richer, wiser? Then let’s see you answer this. Which one of them do you want us to kill? Maid or matron? Your friend or your lover? Your choice”.
* “Would you really pull the trigger? Looks too scared” “Scared and holding a gun’s a good combination. Do you want to risk it?”
* “Don’t just stand there, move! God, you’re rubbish as a human! Come on!”
* “As for you, Mother of Mine, let’s go to school”.
* “All your little tin soldiers. But tell me, sir, will they thank you? What do you know of history? What do you know of next year? 1914, sir. Because the Family has traveled far and wide looking for Mr. Smith and, oh, the things we have seen. War is coming. In foreign fields, war of the whole wide world, with all your boys falling down in the mud. Do you think they will thank the man who taught them it was glorious?”
* “They’ve got an army. So do we. SOLDIERS! SOLDIERS!” I’m not kidding when I say that Son of Mine’s actor chews all of the scenery, and I love it.
* “Well, that certainly is nonsense. Women might train to be doctors, but hardly a skivvy and hardly one of your color” Aw, hell no!
* “Latimer, you filthy coward!” “Oh yes, sir. Every time!”
* “Put down your guns” “But sir, what about the Headmaster-?” Fuck him.
* “I’ve seen him. He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And he’s wonderful”.
* “People are dying out there! They need him and I need him! Because you’ve got no idea what he’s like. I’ve only just met him, it wasn’t even that long ago. But he is everything. He’s just everything to me and he doesn’t even look at me, but I don’t care, because I love him to bits. And I hope to God he won’t remember me saying this!”
* “Did you see?” “The Time Lord has such adventures, but he could never have a life like that” “And yet I could”.
* “He didn’t just make himself human. He made himself an idiot” “Same thing, isn’t it?”
* “He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing. The fury of the Time Lord. And then we discovered why. Why this Doctor, who had fought with gods and demons, why he’d run away from us and hidden. He was being kind“.
* “Answer me this. Just one question, that’s all. If the Doctor had never visited us, if he’d never chosen this place on a whim, would anybody here have died? That’s what I thought. You can go now” Hell yes, Joan, go straight for the jugular.
* I do appreciate the way the Tim / Hutchinson subplot is handled in this two-parter. Tim’s journey from a timid schoolboy to a mature young hero is fully cemented by him saving the life of his former classmate, who was a complete ass when they were in school.
* “They have no lot in our labor of the day time. They sleep beyond England’s foam. They went with songs to the battle. They were young, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted. They fell with their faces to the foe. They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them…“