Monday, 30 August 2010

"Better, richer, wiser"

Written by Paul Cornell, directed by Charles Palmer, 2007


NB: Posts should be rather more regular from now on than they have been lately...

Human Nature/The Family of Blood is the story I’ve been waiting for since 2005, being as close to perfection as televised Doctor Who is likely to get any time soon. Even the arguable classics of the new series – Dalek, The Girl in the Fireplace – haven’t come anywhere close to this. (Even The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances doesn’t have the same level of structural and emotional complexity.)

It seems such a shame that one of the few examples of real brilliance from ‘the Davies years’ is taken wholesale from the New Adventures. Aside from this story the new series simply hasn’t aimed at creating anything comparable to the maturity, originality and emotion of the best of those novels. Everything’s straightforward and easy to grasp on one viewing; it’s all dumbed-down and very ‘Saturday night viewing’ – which, okay, is fine, but arguably I don’t think that’s what the best of the original run was.

So, on the one hand I feel vindicated that the best story of the new run derives from those books – but, it’s depressing that no brand new story has been as fully-formed or multilayered as this adaptation (perhaps with the exception of Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead).

Unfortunately, the season just gone didn’t offer any real competition, as, despite being an unashamed Moffat man, I can’t deny that the one area where his run has so far has fallen down – by comparison to his predecessor’s – is in its failure to provide a story that lives up to this precedent. Indeed, where the slot of the second two-parter has previously all but guaranteed an increase in scope and complexity, with The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood series fnarg delivered one of it’s most hackneyed and clumsily characterised outings. So, for now – to me – Human Nature remains unrivalled in new Who. (But – there’s always 2011, eh?)

Its structure alone is unusually ambitious, with a narrative straying beyond the given setting, to Tim’s glimpses of the future; the war; the memorial service; the flashbacks of past stories (which are effectively and economically used, for once); John Smith and Joan’s possible life; down to the voiceover handling of the ending. Even the three-month time span is a welcome exception to the adventures more usually taking place over only a day or so. Sadly, I doubt any of these techniques would have been employed had the script not derived from a broader medium than television – no other story of the new series has been quite this audacious or wide-ranging. In this way, the story felt like a ‘novel on film,’ rather than a simply televisual creation.

It really seems as if the stakes were raised for this production, as if, because of its origins as a novel, people realised there was more behind it than the majority of stories. I’ve never been an admirer of Paul Cornell – it’s always seemed to me that though he has the ideas, they’re let down by pedestrian prose. Here, freed from those constraints, it is wonderful to see the plot refined, and imbued with a loving attention to detail.

The continuity references, for example, are rather joyous, but not overplayed – the music accompanying the sinister schoolgirl from Remembrance of the Daleks momentarily echoed for the Family’s Daughter of Mine; the reference to the village’s dust being ‘fused into glass,’ alluding to the sequence from the novel in which the school itself is turned to glass; and, most charmingly of all, the sketches of the previous Doctors in the journal of impossible things. It’s wonderful that such a tiny thing, which’d be overlooked by the vast majority of the audience, is so heartening; it’s particularly great to see McGann’s portrayal vindicated by the new series, even if only so briefly.

It was also gratifying to see a story achieved so effectively with minimal use of CGI (which everyone seems to forget is going to date as badly as any crap blue-screen in about, ooh, two years). The use of green lighting for the Family’s communication demonstrates how effective simple, in-camera effects can be, while the rendering of the bombardment of the village is impressive for being so low-key.

On its initial broadcast though, the Doctor’s elaborate punishments for the Family came close to ruining things for me. Given that this sequence was narrated by Son of Mine, I immediately assumed that it was intended to appear unreliable: the Doctor doesn’t do this sort of thing! Which, given Cornell’s obvious understanding of Doctor Who and what it stands for, seems even more bizarre. What happened to ‘never cruel, never unkind’? Now, I’ve actually quite warmed to the Family’s ‘mythic’ fates; it feels pleasingly huge and magical, compared to the majority of the series at large, and, in a perverse way, it’s quite exciting to see an atypically vengeful edge to the Doctor.

This story really shows the difference it makes when a story is written by someone with an abiding love and understanding of not only the series, but Doctor Who in a broader sense. As opposed to the jobbing writer approach of, say – ooh, I don’t know – Chris Chibnall’s stories.

A strong script, complemented by great character moments, the backdrop of the oncoming war, and some surprisingly non-‘mainstream’ directorial touches (the slow-motion shooting of the scarecrows scored by children’s singing, etc) add up to the strongest story yet of the resurrected series (again, only contested by Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead). Among the elements that particular impress me is the emotion of Smith’s breakdown (“What exactly do you do for him?”) and the entirely appropriate excision of Smith’s sacrifice and his change back into the Doctor. Also, I always want Doctor Who to be beautiful, but it’s ordinarily too busy being flashy – for once though, with Charles Palmer’s shallow depth of field and visual darkness, it really is.

This story is sad and complex and serious and wonderful. (A shame then that Journey’s End is a bit of a betrayal of Human Nature’s affecting human Doctor – as is Utopia’s demeaning reuse of the chameleon arch fob watch.) It’s just regrettable that, despite demonstrating the highs the new series can evidently reach, stories this strong have definitely been in the minority.

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