Tag Archive for paul cornell

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?

The Many Futures of Ace McShane

I almost tacked this on the bottom of my review of Curse of Fenric, but decided it would work better as a separate post.

Ace was the last “Classic Who” companion, still at the Doctor’s side when the show was cancelled in 1989, though there were plans afoot to write her out in the following season. The Doctor’s last line as they walk off into the sunset of Survival is “Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do.”

In many ways, she never left him.

Ace’s character and her post-TV-adventures future have been explored every which way in the New Adventures novels of the 90′s, in the audio plays of the 00′s, and all over the place. She has transformed into a leather-clad Dalek killer, a time travelling biker, from glamorous Dorothea to the bad-ass, cranky “McShane.” She is one of the very few companions who is shown to grow up around the Doctor during her impossibly long time at his side, and sometimes has grown in several different directions. (There have been new Ace stories pretty much every year since the late 80’s – that’s 25 years of character development!)

My favourites are the Ace-and-Hex line of audio plays from Big Finish, where Hex Schofield, a Liverpudlian male nurse (before Rory!) and absolute beta hero, is the younger, more innocent recruit compared to Ace as a cynical, battle-blooded woman. Their chemistry is brilliant, and though they haven’t gotten it together romantically (YET, SAYS THE SHIPPER) their relationship is reminiscent of the relationship between Amy and Rory. Hex is the one who stays to help people, while Ace is the one who runs headlong towards someone screaming or under attack and they also have an interesting relationship as a unit with the Doctor, often ganging up on him to tease or challenge him about that habit he has of manipulating people, history and worlds. There’s a lovely feminist vibe about the way that, as Sophie Aldred herself put it, Ace is tough and independent while Hex is full of “squishy feelings.”

In Forty-Five, a collection of 4 mini-plays (featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin from Press Gang if either of those details are of interest) we see a follow up story to Curse of Fenric, in which Ace once again gets a chance to make peace with the child who will someday be her mother, and find out a little bit more about how Kathleen coped in the latter years of the war. While it isn’t entirely clear how much of the Virgin New Adventures book history has been incorporated into this older, Big Finish Ace, but it’s really nice that the character has been allowed to grow and develop along with the actress who plays her (who is now now a forty-something suburban Mum).

I also really enjoy the character team-up of Ace with Bernice Summerfield, though theirs is more of a hit-and-miss relationship with me because writers (especially in the books) often chose to position them as being competitive rather than friendly. Big Finish has erred on the side of friendly in their occasional representations of that pairing though, and I like The Dark Flame in particular for the way they show them together. I’m also really excited that we get to hear Sophie Aldred’s Ace and Lisa Bowerman’s Benny recreating the first story they appeared in together, when Paul Cornell’s original Benny novel Love and War is released as a full cast audio later this year.

Quite recently, in the “Lost Stories” range, the Big Finish team attempted to recreate the original plans for the Seventh Doctor TV season that would have been produced if Doctor Who had not been cancelled in 1989, and while I am not a huge fan of the Raine Creevey companion introduced in those stories to partner with Ace (for me the posh cat burglar companion works as awkwardly in practice here as it did in New Who story Planet of the Dead), I like that they put the two companions together rather than recreating what would have actually happened in that season, with Ace written out from the show.

The idea that Ace would end up going to Time Lord Academy always seemed to me profoundly stupid and annoying, and something entirely designed to fulfil the Doctor’s wishes rather than coming from her own character. So I love the fact that in these Lost Stories audios (particularly the excellent Thin Ice), instead of following the original plan for that story, we get to see Ace and the Doctor addressing the fact that him trying to create such a future for her would be ridiculously patronising and inappropriate.

A friend of mine has a wish (okay, possibly mild obsession) to see Sophie Aldred bring the character back to the show as UNIT’s current Brigadier, and I think that would be an extraordinary way to honour this game-changing classic companion, and the actress who did such a great job with her.

Steven Moffat reads this blog, right? MAKE IT HAPPEN PLEASE!

Professor Bernice Summerfield is kickass

(This post originally appeared at Geekachicas.com. It has been updated. I should also mention that my thinking on female Doctors has evolved somewhat since I originally wrote this: while I still think that more attention could be paid to the female-led spinoffs, I’m beginning to agree with Courtney that even many wonderful supporting characters do not equal a lead character.)

She’s a little bit River Song, a little bit Lara Croft, but predates either.  She’s worshiped on some planets as a minor goddess of inebriation.  She’s interstellar archaeologist Bernice Summerfield, one of the Whoniverse’s most successful spinoffs, whose audio adventures with Big Finish are on season 13.

Check her out on YouTube in her first animated adventure, a prequel for season 11, with this link: Bernice Summerfield: Dead And Buried

Several months back, I wrote a piece on femme Doctors.  It subsequently got linked to from a couple of places (including here, in French!); where, oddly enough, one throwaway detail got picked up on: that I, personally, don’t particularly want to see a female Doctor.  People seemed to think that that implied I didn’t see women seeing themselves in the lead roles; in fact, I’d stated that it was because I thought the Whoniverse has plenty of kickass female characters already.*

Front and center of these is Professor Bernice Summerfield, interstellar archaeologist and action heroine.  Why Benny Is Awesome is a long and complex topic, and better writers than me have had a go.  But let’s say that any random Doctor Who companion discovered that the Doctor had lied to them, by omission or not, and/or tinkered with their destinies.

  • Probable Rose reaction: None, too busy making googly eyes at Doctor.
  • Probable Martha reaction: Expression on face indicates that she’s hurt and disappointed.
  • Actual Benny reaction: “Git! Git! Git!

 

For everyone who’s complained that the Doctor’s companions are wide-eyed teenyboppers with supermodel bodies, Benny is the tonic.  She’s over 30, ex-military, smart and focused, with a career and a backstory and (you may wish to sit down for this) regular-sized boobs.  And that was just when she was introduced, in 1992, by feminist Who writer and all ’round mensch Paul Cornell.  Since then, she’s acquired an ex-husband, a half-human son (long story), an implacable nemesis or two, a best-selling book or three, and has died at least twice.  Think Martha kicked ass in “Human Nature / The Family of Blood“?  She did–but the original companion for that story (in the Virgin New Adventures novel “Human Nature”) was Benny.

 

Find out more about Benny at the TARDIS Wiki, or check out the Big Finish page.  You can start from the beginning with the audios; or, if you’re into books, I suggest you start with The Dead Men Diaries, a collection of short stories that picks up Benny’s life as she starts work at the Braxiatel Collection.

Or, if you can wait a few months, there will be the perfect intro to the Benny stories: Bernice’s first story, Love And War, adapted by Jacqueline Rayner (who REALLY needs to write for the TV show, am I right, Big Finish fans?) from Paul Cornell’s novel, is coming to audio this fall.

 

* In fact, of the many spinoffs, no fewer than seven nine have or have had female leads (The Sarah Jane Adventures, K9 & Company, the Sarah Jane Smith audios, Virgin New Adventures, Bernice Summerfield, Gallifrey, Graceless, Counter-Measures) and one has three have two female co-leads (Gallifrey, Graceless, Counter-Measures). (Thanks to Kieran for reminding me of Graceless and Counter-Measures!)

Who is YOUR Doctor Her?

Something in common with many of the blog posts, comments and even behind the scenes chat of this new blog is the reference to, you know. Her. The idea that we might at some point get a female Doctor, and how much feminist Doctor Who fans are looking forward to that as an exciting development.

A year and a half ago, at the Australian Worldcon, my favourite panel that I was put on was the discussion about the possibility of a female Doctor, with Paul Cornell, Catherynne Valente and others. The really wonderful thing about that panel was that there was absolutely no debate about whether it was a good idea or not – we all took that as read, and got down to the fascinating nitty gritty of WHO it could be.

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