Monday, 23 July 2012

Up-words - Human Nature & Blink

Up-words features the best articles from the first 21 paper issues of This way up
The series concludes with reviews of two of the best ever Doctor Who stories from issue 21


ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS A BOOK By Ash Stewart

TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL By Sean Alexander

July 2007

“Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a book.”

At work recently, we were given guidelines as to how to structure a report. It said that we should not build to the point of a report; it should be there right at the start, and we should then go on to justify that start in the rest of the report. So, I'm going to take that advice and start this review with a big, bold, statement;

Human Nature/Family of Blood is the best Doctor Who story. Ever. Not just in the Russell T Davies era, but from the whole 44 year history of the TV show.

And here's why...

Human Nature (and for convenience's sake, from this point on, whenever I refer to “Human Nature”, please take this as meaning the story as a whole, not just the first part) is on face value a simple story. The Doctor takes human form to escape the clutches of a family of aliens who will hunt him down throughout space and time and kill him. The story at its most basic level is then what happens when they find him but Human Nature is anything but basic.

The best books, films, TV, etc, work at many different levels. You can experience them at a superficial level paying attention solely to what happens, or you can look deeper at the underlying themes running throughout. Here, set in 1913, there is an air of doom hanging over proceedings. The viewer (and Martha) know what is to come the following year so seeing boys playing as “tin soldiers” is somewhat moving. They would never have expected that they would, so soon, be fighting on foreign fields so far away, finding out the hard way the lie that is “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”. (That is, “it is sweet and right to die for your country.”) This is brought in to sharp relief in the second episode where you have the Scarecrow massacre, which is one of the most moving moments in a Doctor Who episode; boys who had trained to kill, now that they were faced with the enemy, start to cry. They know they have to fight, but the emotion wells up inside them and the tears flow. Even here there are parallels with World War One, as the Scarecrows walk to their “death”; soldiers in WW1 were ordered to walk, not run, across No Man's Land, and as a result there were many massacres of soldiers. It's these touches that elevate Human Nature to something special.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself...


Human Nature was originally one of the Virgin published “New Adventures”, and was frequently hailed as being the very best (admittedly, not by me; I'd always placed Love & War, Damaged Goods and Just War ahead of it). As in the TV show, the Doctor had turned himself human; however, here he had turned human to better understand human emotions such as grief after his then companion, Bernice, had lost a good friend. There were, of course, other differences; the bad guys were not the Family of Blood. They were a family called the Aubertides, Bernice wasn't a servant, there were more characters, and there was even an appearance from a fake Tenth Doctor... but I could spend the whole of this review listing differences. Here's what's the same,

The Doctor falls in love. Or rather, John Smith, his human identity, falls in love. And this is something that the Time Lord Doctor does not plan for, it does not even enter his head that this could happen but happen, it does. The romance between Smith and Joan is wonderfully tender; here are a couple who are a little at uneasy around each other, unsure how to approach the affection they have. Joan, because she still recalls her late husband, Smith because nothing like this has happened to him before. The scenes as they are getting closer to each other are heartbreakingly wonderful and the rapport between Tennant and Jessica Hynes is quite natural. You can believe that these two could, and indeed should, fall in love and live happily ever after in a quiet English village.

And this is the rub; as the story rushes headlong to its conclusion, you really do not want Smith to open the pocket watch that stores the Doctor's Time Lord essence. You want him to somehow find a way to ensure he lives the future glimpsed in a flash forward sequence (and what a wonderful piece of misdirection in the “next week” trailer it was to show so much of this...). You want him to get married and have kids, and live that happily ever after life. This is how it's supposed to be. Somehow, you do not want the Doctor, the hero of the show, the reason we watch the show, to come back. Yet, just one scene later, when Smith pulls on those glasses and he's obviously the Doctor you punch the air and you cheer that he's back. And this takes great skill to pull off making you experience such contrary feelings in a script, and for it to be an entirely natural way for you to think.

Oh, there's so much more... there are times when everything, writing, direction, acting, effects, everything, just come together perfectly. This is one of them. It's hard to find fault with anything. Some have said that the “olfactory misdirection” is a little too convenient and if it was so easy to do, why could the Doctor not just have done it before? I would suggest that this is because to pull off this trick, the Family had to be convinced that the Doctor was human. Had he appeared, suddenly, to be human, it would not have worked. That he had been human for so long (two months) worked in his favour. These things don't just happen by chance, you know...

Somehow, all of the supporting cast seem perfect for their roles. It's hard to imagine anyone else in these roles, yet when reading the book, we would all have had pictures in our heads as to what they looked like that varied wildly from what we saw on screen. Thomas Sangster is just so right as the slightly odd Timothy Latimer (curiously renamed from Timothy Dean as he is in the novel; is it a coincidence that the TV name is an anagram of “The Immortality”...? Mind you, it's also an anagram of “thy tit memorial”, which conjures up an entirely different image...). He suggests both vulnerability and strength in the same breath. Here is a child that is clearly different, in an environment – a boarding school – where conformity and homogeny is encouraged. It's hard to be different when everyone else is the same.
 

This was also the first Doctor Who story to make me cry. Yeah, there's been a couple that have brought a tear to my eye, but Human Nature made me blub like a big jessie. It was that last scene that did it, the coda where an old Tim is sat in a wheelchair at a memorial service, holding the pocket watch. Such a simple moment, yet so effective. The tears were already welling up from the scene where the Doctor goes to visit Joan, but old Tim just let them loose.

I'm looking at my notes now, and I see I've missed out so much from this review. No mention of the pictures in the notebook, the references to the Master, the casual racism, the Doctor's punishments, why the balloon is important, Sydney & Verity, the “fire and ice and rage” speech, why all the local farmers have identical scarecrows, how Tim can see who Smith and Martha really are, the voices that Tim hears from the watch... Curiously I've written “music reference Rem”, but I've no idea what that means...

It is a testament to how packed these episodes are that I can write so much without touching on so many aspects of the story. But there is one last note I have to mention, and that is something Joan says; “If the Doctor had never visited us, never chosen this place on a whim, would anyone here have died?” The answer, of course, has to be “no”. Everything that has happened here has been because the Doctor came to visit. He's not here to save the day. He is the cause of the village's problems in that he has led the Family there. Usually the Doctor wades in, finds a problem, and solves it. Here, he is the problem.

Human Nature, as I said right at the top of this review, is to my mind the finest Doctor Who story ever made. It's a perfect blend of action and adventure and romance and joy and pain and sorrow. And I love it to bits.

TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL

In these modern days of big-budget, big-concept Doctor Who it’s hard to remember that this show is still beholden to many of the practical limitations that plagued the original version all those years ago.  Budgets that stretch only so far, special effects that can’t quite keep up with the imagination of writers and that oh-so interminable dilemma that faces any TV drama: time.  So it is that last season’s solution to providing fourteen new episodes when a cast is used to thirteen rears its head again in this year’s almost Doctor-less episode ‘Blink’.  And where ‘Love & Monsters’ sidestepped the show’s regular format for a journey into the very heart of Doctor Who’s hardcore audience, ‘Blink’ looks instead at the effects the absence of the Doctor might have on a story and its outcome.

Tricky things, these standalone double-banked episodes.  For a show which pretty much nails its colours to the mast with the opening titles, the idea of Doctor Who without the Doctor must seem as bizarre now as it did when the show first tried its hand at alternative narrative back in the 1960s with ‘Mission to the Unknown’.  So it’s a good thing that - whether by accident or design - show guru Russell T Davies turned to arguably the safest pair of writing hands to script the latest in the show’s occasional walks on the quirky side.  It’s difficult to talk about Steven Moffat and his superlative brace of Season One and Two stories without resorting to cliché and hyperbole, such has been the impact of ‘The Empty Child’ and ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ on both fandom and the television cognoscenti at large.  Awards have rained down on the former Coupling scribe like Manchester weather, and it seemed inevitable that whatever the Scotsman did next, no matter how good, would seem an anti-climax.  How wrong people can be…

‘Blink’ is possibly the finest piece of off-the-cuff writing since the days of Robert Holmes, and I’m aware immediately how I need to qualify that.  Back in the day, the one-time script-editor and writer used to bang out rewrites of other authors’ unsuitable work like some sort of conveyor belt script Doctor, turning unwieldy and over-ambitious stories into liquid Who gold.  Robert Holmes has arguably never been bettered since those halcyon days of 1976, but I’ve a feeling that his position is facing its stiffest challenge yet.  Having already produced three of the finest nu Who episodes of the past two years, Moffat’s third entry had an almost Holmes-like conception before reaching the screen.  Pushed further and further down the production schedule by his commitments elsewhere to a radical reinterpretation of Jekyll for the Beeb, Moffat finally offered to write the budget-friendly Doctor-lite episode that had seen ‘Love & Monsters’ achieve mixed success the previous year.  The result, he feared, would be an automatic banishing to the wrong end of the DWM season poll.  How wrong Steven Moffat can be…

To say that ‘Blink’ is audacious is to only partially cover the many, many reasons that make this arguably the year’s best episode.  What comes as no surprise is how its convoluted and occasionally brain-wracking narrative makes perfect sense come the final frame (you only have to look at last year’s slice of Moffat genius to see that we’ve been down this road at least once before).  But what is  surprising - in fact, quite breath-taking actually - is how Moffat’s mystery within a puzzle wrapped up in an enigma comes packaged in one of the most heart-warming, tragic and often quite profound tales of the fragility of time and the brevity with which each of our lives come.  As in his previous Who works, ‘Blink’ comes with no great malevolent force looking to devour the universe or conquer a populace for its own subjugation.  Instead, we have a race of quantum-locked angels whose only desire is to feed off the lost days of life that their time-warped victims have missed out on; and like the nanogenes of ‘The Empty Child’ and the Clockwork Droids from ‘Girl in the Fireplace’, the weeping angels’ malevolence is never more than misguided.  And it’s perhaps this understated risk posed by the everyday loss of time and opportunity that gives ‘Blink’ its greatest poignancy because essentially the episode boils down to two lost lives. 

There’s Cathy Nightingale’s make-best trip to 1920, where she finds love and happiness despite her swift and unexplained ‘death’ in 2007.  And then there’s the somewhat more tragic fate that befalls policeman Billy Shipton, flung back to the year 1969 just when he has met the woman of his dreams and destined to live a lonely and unfulfilled life waiting to give a message that only one person can understand.  Moffat never really dwells on the implications of these two characters’ post-2007 fate, merely concentrating on how human beings make the best of a bad situation.  So while both Cathy and Billy’s lives may have ended the moment their inability to keep their eyes open in 2007 condemned them to the past, it’s their adjustment to their new fates - and how they will ultimately affect Sally Sparrow - that Moffat prefers to reflect on.

So how do the Doctor and Martha fit into this moebius strip of self-fulfilling prophecies and cyclical fate?  Arguably it’s the integration of the time-travellers’ own story into this episode’s already convoluted plot which provides ‘Blink’ with its coup-de-grace.  The impenetrable scenes in which the Doctor makes seemingly random statements as a DVD extra yield to possibly the most ingenious use of exposition in this series yet; as our heroine Sally Sparrow (the cute as a button Carey Mulligan) slowly pieces together the jigsaw puzzle of written warnings, mysterious letters and easter eggs which make up ‘Blink’s narrative DNA.  It’s very typical of modern storytelling - not to mention storytelling that’s very aware of the kind of audience that most makes up Doctor Who’s hardcore fanbase - to have a storyline that makes full use of the mediums on which it will be later bought, viewed and re-viewed ad nauseum.  So in many respects here we have the ultimate Doctor Who adventure for the multi-media savvy techno-nerd: one whose very secret is buried inside a DVD extra, forming the closest thing yet to an interactive adventure in which the viewer himself is party to the story’s outcome.



Moffat being Moffat we’re never very far from his core obsessions: the mechanics of human relationships and his own undying love for the show which first captured his fervent imagination all those years ago.  So on the one hand we’ve got a pseudo-Coupling cast of characters who are as instantly likeable as they are believable, while on the other we’ve got one or two sly digs at the self-appointed cognoscenti of Doctor Who fandom; the likes of which would bang on and on about the size of the new TARDIS’ windows or recreate utterly meaningless statements in the form of enigmatic T-shirt slogans.  ‘Blink’ more even than ‘Love & Monsters’ delights in tweaking the nose of the aesthetic that feeds it, even down to the clichéd haunted-house setting of the opening scene or how the Doctor and Martha are engaged on yet another monster-hunt just as Sally’s realisation of her part in their story comes clear.

In a story as tightly written as this, it’s easy to overlook the myriad elements that make up that whole.  Such as Carey Mulligan’s delightful cameo as the best companion the Doctor never had, or Murray Gold’s hauntingly minimalist score (especially the blackboard-scraping theme for the weeping angels).  And how refreshing to find in an episode that pushes all the buttons both sartorially and intellectually that oh-so rare element behind the scenes: a woman at the helm.  Hettie McDonald’s direction is never less than as tight as Moffat’s script, and in her stone-clad nemeses she creates a genuinely eerie and memorable image of everyday ordinariness given a sinister bent sure to send school-children in parks and museums running.  And buoyed by an eclectic and natural cast, McDonald’s assured hand gives these characters room to breathe and grow; a factor which adds to ‘Blink’s underlying sense of the everyday macabre. I’m not even going to make the same mistake of wondering how Steven Moffat can top this, given his track-record of proving me wrong these past two years.

 Though it’s safe to say that, what with his already commissioned two-parter for next year and continuing rumblings about his possible elevation to executive status come RTD’s much-rumoured departure, Steven Moffat is still the one writer for whom you just cannot use brackets on this show.  Everything he does is different and fresh, and the only safe prediction you can make is that whatever he produces next it will be memorable.  I for one simply can’t wait to see how he’s going to surprise me…


Editors Note:
Thank you to everyone who wrote the articles that have been featured in this series. Choosing which ones to include was difficult but I hope I have captured something of the feel of the zine as it was in its previous incarnation.
After issue 21,` This way up` then had a hiatus for 18 months during which time I published 3 issues under different names- one issue of `Jargon` and two of `Live From Mars`. Then in early 2009 `This way up` returned which is another story for another time....

 

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