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Domesticating the Doctor 2.5 – John Smith’s Human Nature

Previously in “Domesticating the Doctor” I looked at The Classic Years, which included a granddaughter in the TARDIS, an unexpected Aztec cocoa marriage and the Third Doctor being house-trained by Benton and the Brigadier. I also looked at the RTD era of New Who, with particular reference to the three central female characters of this period, and their mums, with The Missus, the Ex and the Mothers-in-Law.

However, I did miss out one particularly important bit…

Human Nature/The Family of Blood is the most significant New Who story to fully address the issue of the Doctor v. Domesticity, so worthy of a post all on its own.

Adapted from the original New Adventures novel, Human Nature (featuring the Seventh Doctor and also written by Paul Cornell) this story introduces us to John Smith, a man who dreams of being a Time Lord who saves the world and has fantastical adventures, but in reality is a rather quiet, unassuming teacher at a boys school in England, 1913.

Except of course, he isn’t. The Doctor is hiding from a devastating if short-lived alien family who want to drink the Time Lord right out of him. The only solution (apparently) was to use a Gallifreyan fob watch to transform himself into a human, with no memories or knowledge of the Time Vortex.

Martha, in disguise as a maid at the school, is the only one who knows the truth about her Doctor, a man who can no longer recognise her.

The Family of Blood are closing in, the country hovers on the brink of a different kind of war, and in all this, John Smith manages to fall, rather awkwardly, in love with Joan Redfern, the school matron. The Doctor planned for every contingency except the possibility of romance… and Martha has no idea how to handle it.

The contrast between John Smith and the Doctor is noticeable in every scene – this is not just a mortal, one-hearted version of the Time Lord we normally follow around. John Smith is nervous around women, he gabbles about his strange dreams and is a bit wet, frankly. But he takes on a different persona around the boys, not flinching from the casual violence that is part of the school routine, and getting offended when Martha gets ideas ‘above her station.’

There are class issues running rampant through this story, and it’s noticeable that Tennant affects a far posher accent than usual to play the educated gentleman teacher John Smith.

When people start dying, the Doctor is desperately needed, but that means that John Smith has to die. And he doesn’t want to. He protests at having to give up the simple life he has here, and his newfound love with Joan, to let the madman in the box take over his body again.

Paul Cornell has provided some fascinating insights into the Doctor in this story, and I particularly like the way that he portrays the uncomfortable aspects of this time period – from the racist comments directed at Martha from the privileged male students, to the maids drinking outside the pub because women can’t sit inside, to the boys volunteering to give each other beatings, and practicing with real guns for the coming war. Most discomfiting of all is the revelation of how ruthless the Doctor can be, and what a lonely figure he is.

Joan, who might look on paper like the kind of passive female character SF fans deride and dismiss in favour of the girls with low cleavage and big guns, is actually strong and secure enough in herself to call the Doctor on his bullshit, despite the fact that he looks so much like the man she loved. Both she and John Smith, in fact, are equally scathing of the kind of person the Doctor is, and his priorities. Considering we most often see the Doctor through the eyes of people who adore him – such as Rose, Martha and Jack – it’s always refreshing to have characters who are good people, and yet completely disagree with the Doctor, and are not proved wrong in the context of the narrative.

There’s not actually a lot of domesticity evident in the story, despite the premise. John Smith may be sacrificing a future as a husband and father to let the Doctor save the day, but apart from that brief glimpse of the lost future with Joan, we mostly see him at work, or at war. But domestic scenes are used, to illustrate how comfortable John Smith is in this school (his study is so cozy that I want to live there!) and the contrasting horror of the Family of Blood, who literally steal bodies and kill families.

The scene in which Joan shows that she has already figured out not only that the Cartwright girl possessed by Sister of Mine is dead, but her whole family is dead too, is quietly horrible. It shows what kind of person she is, though – thoughtful, compassionate and very pragmatic. The Cartwrights are dead, but their house might shelter the rest of them.

And while we’re talking about domestic horror, let’s look at the Family themselves – a parasite group of aliens who take over bodies of humans, including children, in their quest for immortality. Their use of familial names and language with each other only make their more sinister acts more horrible – but also make them feel like rich, developed characters, which is in turn more disturbing when the Doctor gets his revenge on them.

More than anything, this story explores the idea of what the Doctor would need to lose, in order to have an “ordinary” life. Which is an odd sort of thing, really, because an “ordinary” life for the Doctor shouldn’t involve Earth or humans at all.

What shall we do tonight, guys? Pizza, booze, telly?

What was Gallifreyan domesticity like? We never got to see those parts, on our brief visits. Do they have robot maids to dust all those shiny white surfaces, or nano genes to do the washing up? Certainly we get the impression that Time Lords, the educated aristocracy of the Doctor’s home planet, are at the very top of the class pyramid, which makes the comparison to the boys at this school all the more apt.

There’s a lot in this story about the traditional ideas of masculinity, and the historical tradition of incredibly young men going to war. Which nicely foreshadows a story coming later in the season, of two very particular men at war with each other, and the planet they have lost.

In this particular duel of Domesticity vs. The Doctor, the Doctor wins, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory (nobody really wins). Having seen John Smith react in horror to the idea of turning back into a man who is the very definition of inhuman, it’s oddly anti-climactic to realise that the Doctor is back, pulling switches and blowing up spaceships like usual. And he killed a man to do it. Took him over with his own personality… just like the Family of Blood did with their victims.

Tennant is brilliant in this episode. Both characters feel so utterly him, and yet you never doubt the difference between them for a moment. Jessica Hynes (I can’t get used to her not being Stevenson) is also brilliant as Joan Redfern – subtle and affecting. The final scene in which she faces the Doctor with all that anger and hurt pushed down deep inside her is incredibly powerful.

We’ve seen the power the Doctor has to hurt Martha with his romantic indifference to her, but that’s nothing to the casual cruelty he demonstrates at the end of this story, when he suggests Joan come along in the TARDIS, as if she can set aside her grief and loss as easily as he removed John Smith from himself, joining him and Martha for great intergalactic larks and cherry cake. He honestly doesn’t seem to realise what he has done, and how badly he has treated her – and yet how else do you explain the other cruelty he displays just before this scene, when he condemns each of the Family of Blood to eternal life? Was it the Doctor or John Smith who decided on their fates?

One thing seems certain, the ultimate message of this story is that if the Doctor stops running, and falls in love, and gets a job and a home, and has a family… then he wouldn’t be the Doctor any more. Or at least, to have and do all those things, he would have to stop being the Doctor first.

Which all ties in to the ongoing theme of these essays – that domesticity and the Doctor don’t fit together comfortably, unless one of them is prepared to change pretty radically. And the Doctor never changes. Right?

That Other Time The Doctor Was a Lady: Unbound Exile

The Doctor Who Unbound series of audio plays at Big Finish were one of their earlier experimental series – you can tell it’s early because a) the plays are all the in the ‘Big Finish for Under a Fiver’ grab bin on their website and b) David Tennant is in it.

David Tennant actually turns up a lot in early (pre-2005) Big Finish plays because he was taking any opportunity he could to be involved with the franchise – previously I’ve heard him as an unrepentant Nazi in Colditz (with the Seventh Doctor and Ace) and as an outrageous Scottish hard-ass UNIT commander in UNIT: The Wasting.

This time around, in Unbound: Exile, Tennant is a bumbling, second string Gallifreyan CIA agent (that’s Celestial Intervention Agency, yes really) trying to hunt down the Doctor on that planet where you usually find the Doctor.

The trick of course being that the Doctor has managed to regenerate, rather sneakily, into a woman, and thus is even harder than usual to track down.

The Unbound series provided some seriously batty premises, the idea being that the production crew could play around with the very idea of what a Doctor Who story was, canon bedamned. The stories are mostly stand alone (though a few have sequels) and include such premises as: the Valeyard killed the Doctor and now Mel is trying to redeem and/or kill him; the Doctor and Susan never left Earth; and my personal favourite, what happened to the Brigadier if the Doctor was never exiled to Earth in the 70’s?

Taking such a bold step to the left allowed them to cast all manner of alternative Doctors, including Derek Jacobi, David Collings, Geoffrey Bayldon and David Warner, and to explore a variety of alternate time streams. At the time, it probably seemed fairly controversial to make one of those Other Doctors into a woman – these days, I suspect we’d wonder why they only picked one.

All I knew about this play coming in was that it was widely regarded as being a bit crap – and my feminist spidey senses had sparked up, wondering whether it was truly bad or if the listeners were just trying to justify why they felt uncomfortable listening to a woman play the iconic “male” role. But I still hadn’t got around to listening to it until recently when the actress in question, Arabella Weir, appeared in DWM talking about her recent experience performing in the Christmas special.

Among other things in the interview, she talked about how she was close friends with David Tennant, and how he had been part of her previous Who experience when she played the Doctor (long before he got to on TV). So I had to check it out!

And… oh. Right. Um.

It’s not a great play, not by Big Finish standards, and certainly not by the standards I expect of the writer, Nicholas Briggs, who turns out stellar material these days. It’s not as bad as I expected, but I can see why people turned away in droves as the first twenty minutes of the story is basically the (female) Doctor getting repeatedly drunk off her face, belching and throwing up with all the sound effects you would expect from such a thing.

Once the story settles down and there’s a bit less vomiting to listen to, it’s actually pretty good. Arabella Weir herself does an excellent performance, though I prefer it when she’s playing the part straight than all the comedy stuff – as would be the case, I think, of any male Doctor too.

I wonder at their choices, long before the script was written. Why is it that the only female Doctor in this series of cool, alternative Doctor Who stories is also the only one that’s a slapstick gross out comedy? Did they think that the listeners wouldn’t accept a serious story with a female lead? Why, if one of the Doctors had to work in a supermarket, was it the woman?

On the other hand, women are often derided as ‘unfunny’ because we’re not used to respecting them as comedians in our culture. Am I the one with the problem, by thinking the female Doctor SHOULDN’T get to be funny? Would I feel differently if it was Tina Fey or Dawn French in the role?

I think, in the end, it’s a bit of all those things. I actually really enjoyed the play when I wasn’t having to listen to burping and vomiting – I thought the plot twist as to why the Doctor was female and how she had got that way was interesting, I liked the friendships she had made on earth, and I thought it did some interesting things to interrogate the role of the Doctor in a domestic setting. Even the issue of characters drinking all the time on weekends to balance out their crappy lives (this was written at the height of “ladette” culture as a media buzzword) was discussed with a certain degree of gravitas. Plus, David Tennant.

I actually REALLY liked Arabella Weir as the Doctor. When she (and that script she’d been lumbered with) wasn’t grossing me out.

Ultimately I suspect that they didn’t quite think through the ramifications of depicting gross-out humour in audio (directly into your ears rather than on TV/film screen at a nice safe distance) and that it sets the play up to fail (or at least scramble to recover from the awful introduction). It’s a shame because if played far more straight, a noirish mystery about the female Doctor, why she was that way, and her attempts to stay under the radar, could have been a far more powerful piece of drama than the mixed bag we ended up with.

And maybe by now, nearly ten years later, Big Finish might have had enough encouragement from fans to portray a female Doctor more than once.

I’d love to hear other opinions on this one, if anyone else has downloaded this play.