The Best Modern “Doctor Who” Episode

If you couldn’t tell from this post, I am a science fiction fan.

I love nerdy, sci-fi stuff and all the areas of humanity that this genre can explore, especially in ways that other genres can not.

In addition to Star Trek, which I was raised on, I’ve recently discovered Doctor Who.

While I have not seen all of “Classic” Who (though I am working on it), I have watched all of the rebooted, “Modern” Who. 

While very few “bad” episodes stick out in my mind, there is one episode that really stands out as absolutely stellar.

It is a two part/cliffhanger episode that arrived under David Tennant’s tenure as the 10th doctor:

“Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood”

This two-parter is based on the novel “Human Nature” by Paul Cornell written for the 7th doctor (if you are not familiar with the show, the Doctor regenerates into a new person every so often and is identified by fans through a number).

One of the things I like about these two episodes is that you don’t have to be a Doctor Who fan to understand or appreciate the story. The story is very well told and very comprehensible and very accessible.

Perhaps the only elements that would help with comprehension, besides the Doctor’s regeneration trick, are these:

The Doctor is a Time Lord who can travel in time and space through his ship the T.A.R.D.I.S (pronounced “tar-diss” and standing for “Time And Relative Dimension In Space”). He travels with different companions at different points throughout the show.

During this episode, his traveling companion is Martha Jones, a medical student from London (who happens to be my favorite modern companion even though she didn’t always get the best writing).

However, it is not the science fiction element of this show that makes it so remarkable. It is the incredible human story that the sci-fi supports.

The story opens with neck-break speed as the Doctor and his companion, Martha run into the T.A.R.D.I.S. from outside in an attempt to escape the Family of Blood, this episode’s set of villains.

We don’t know why they are running from them but the Doctor immediately demands to know if they saw Martha, and can thereby identify her.

She screams that she doesn’t know and the Doctor quickly realizes that they are being followed through time and space and must hide to avoid being captured. If they are captured, the Family will steal the Doctor’s regenerations and future lives and live forever.

Since the Family has a short lifespan without such power, they only need to hide for a few months and wait for them to die. However, the Family possesses a keen sense of smell and the Doctor must rewrite his biology to hide from this.

So he places his consciousness in a fob watch until the danger is past.

“This watch is me!”

Still with me? That is honestly the most technical part of the episode.

Where do they hide? Where do they go in all of time and space?

1913 England: the eve of the Great War.

The Doctor becomes a man named John Smith and he teaches English at a rural school.

School teacher John Smith

Martha, being black, assumes the identity of Mr. Smith’s paid servant and maid. One of the things I like about this episode is that they don’t shy away from the unfortunate fact that Martha would have been limited in this time due to her skin color. The episode doesn’t dwell on it too much either but they don’t try to hide it or pretend like that wasn’t a social reality of the day.

Martha in hiding

The Doctor, as John Smith, has fantastic dreams about traveling in time and space in a big, blue box where he meets fantastic creatures and has wonderful friends with whom he travels with.

He writes all of this in his “journal of impossible things” which he shows to the school nurse, Joan Redfern. She finds the stories fantastic even though neither believes them to be real.

The fob watch remains on his mantle where he ignores it due to a perception filter (basically a plot device so that he doesn’t open it too early), but also where Martha very carefully keeps an eye on it until they are safe. After all, the Doctor’s real persona is contained within the watch.

Martha also keeps an eye on John Smith as well… especially when he and Ms. Redfern begin to fall in love. This is heartbreaking for Martha as she fancies the Doctor and doesn’t know what to do. The Doctor didn’t leave any instructions on falling in love.

Falling in love…

It is quite sad actually: Martha is training to be a medical doctor and her heart’s desire, the Doctor, is falling in love with a nurse.

What’s more: Martha can not be a medical doctor in this time period due to both her skin and gender. This point is even explicitly stated towards the climax of the two-parter.

Meanwhile, the Family has traced the Doctor to Earth in 1913 even though they do not know exactly who or where he is or even exactly what he looks like. They can trace the “Doctor” to the school even though the watch has them fooled. So they begin taking over the forms of various people connected to the school in the hopes of learning there the Time Lord has hidden.

The Family of Blood in their stolen forms

Meanwhile, a boy at the school, Timothy, steals the watch and briefly experiences who is inside.

The cliffhanger ends with the Family discovering John Smith and demand that he change back into the Doctor or they will kill either Martha or Joan (or both). He is unable to change back since he has no recollection of being a different person.

After escaping this circumstance in the beginning of the next episode, everyone runs to the school where the young boys and the teachers prepare to defend against the Family’s approach.

The episodes do a very good job of showing the military training the boys receive as part of their normal education, and how they are taught that war is noble for King and country.

They quickly set up formation and barricades in preparation for the Family’s attack.

Training for War

Perhaps one of my favorite moments in the story is when a member of the Family asks the schoolmaster:

“But tell me sir… will they thank you?”

Schoolmaster: “I don’t understand.”

“What do you know of history, sir? What do you know of next year?”

Schoolmaster: “You’re not making sense…”

“1914, sir! The Family has traveled far and wide searching 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?”

After the attack and a hasty retreat, John Smith and Joan begin to accept that maybe the Family and Martha are correct: that John Smith is not real and that he is hiding the Doctor. When the Family shows them the T.A.R.D.I.S. that they captured, John Smith, in one of Tennant’s best performances, begins to sob. His whole life is a lie and he raves at Martha when she describes the Doctor as a man without romantic love in his life.

“What sort of a man is that??”

Indeed…

Timothy shows up with the watch he has been hiding from the Family and offers it to John Smith, who looks at it with fear.

Timothy also describes the Doctor in words that have now been used in nearly every fan-made Doctor Who montage:

“Because 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 can see the turn of the universe… and he’s wonderful!”

The height of the whole story comes not from explosions or science fiction special effects, but from John Smith struggling with his humanity and whether or not to give it up. By doing so, he would also be giving up Joan, whom he genuinely loves. Through this, Joan reluctantly admits that they need the Doctor with the Family bent on destroying Earth.

Watching the two of them struggle with a love they can not have and a vision granted by the time-watch of what their life would be like together is heart breaking.

A life that can not be…

Eventually, the Doctor returns and cleverly saves the day. He imprisons the Family in various versions of eternity (granting their wish of living forever) that are more like various versions of hell. He then confronts Joan and the two can not reconcile since he is a different man than the one she fell in love with.

The story wraps up with Timothy using the now-ordinary watch to escape a falling bomb in the Great War and the Doctor and Martha visiting him years later as a veteran.

While it is not Doctor Who’s lightest episode, I really believe it is one of Who’s finest.

The many levels of strong story telling make this an episode I love to re-watch.

The clever depiction of 1913 and the incredibly developed characters make this story work so, so very well.

The Doctor as being both kind and dark at the same time in his punishment which is thrilling and not a little bit chilling.

Watching John Smith and Joan Redfern fall in love with genuine chemistry…

Watching Martha’s heartbreak… and her confession of love falling on deaf ears…

Seeing John Smith wish for the life of the Doctor and then recoil when he is presented with the real-life opportunity…

The not shying away from the fact that these boys are young and they will soon go off to war…

Perhaps the most thought-provoking line in the whole two-parter is when Joan asks the Doctor (the real Doctor):

“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?”

It is a question not just for this episode, but for all of Who since the Doctor, in saving so many worlds and so many beings, has also left a path of destruction in his wake.

I won’t attempt to answer that. I will only repeat the question.

It is also part of a larger story arc of the Doctor becoming too powerful and acting like a god.

I realize that some of this sounds quite dark and sad. There is that in the episode. I won’t deny that. Welcome to Doctor Who.

But there are wonderful, powerful, shining moments as well.

My favorite is when John Smith says:

“Mankind doesn’t need warfare and bloodshed to prove itself. Everyday life can provide honor and valor. Let’s hope that from now on this country can find its heroes in smaller places. In the most ordinary of deeds.”

It is a moment to sum up another reason why this story is great, since these episodes have many “ordinary” moments of valor and honor and friendship and kindness.

It is a message of hope, which is essential Doctor Who, both “Classic” and “Modern.”

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