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Recap / Doctor Who S29 E8 "Human Nature"

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Technically speaking, the Doctor isn't in this picture...

"It's all becoming clear. The Doctor is the man you'd like to be, doing impossible things with cricket balls."
Joan Redfern
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The one where the Doctor HATES pears.

And his dark-skinned female companion is hit with the double whammy of racism and chauvinism.

"Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" were adapted for TV by Paul Cornell from his Doctor Who New Adventures book Human Nature. The novel starred the Seventh Doctor and Bernice Summerfield, and remains the only novel to be directly adapted, rather than mined for story elements.

The two-part episode was nominated for a Hugo Award. In 2020, Cornell revisited it with three short stories, done as part of the COVID-19 lockdown watchalong.


The story opens in traditional Doctor Who style — the Doctor and Martha burst into the TARDIS, being shot at while trying to escape from a family of alien hunters. The Doctor finds himself forced to use a last-ditch Gallifreyan escape method...

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And Now for Someone Completely Different.

It's 1913. Mild-mannered Upper-Class Twit schoolteacher John Smith teaches history at a Boarding School. He's having a great time keeping a beautifully illustrated dream journal and chatting with Joan, the school nurse. Lately, his dreams have been about blue boxes in space, strange men who are all the same somehow, frightful aliens and being a "Doctor". Joan tells him that she'd love to read his tales, and as they grow closer, he ends up asking her out to the village dance.

Then, one November night, some of the monsters from his nightmares turn up in reality. They're looking for "The Doctor", and they've mistaken ordinary Englishman John Smith for their prey. The monsters steal the bodies of people living in the school area, and are on the hunt...

Weirder yet, John's maid Martha also insists that he is the Doctor, and begs him to change back. Obviously, she's gone mad; she believes that his dreams are real, that she can travel among the stars, and even — with her skin colour! — that she can be a medical student. Smith dismisses her ideas as lunacy. But some of her ramblings spark memories inside him, memories of a life he's sure he never lived. And there was an odd watch in his living room, which Martha desperately wants, but which has been stolen by a young school boy by the name of Timothy Latimer.

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It turns out that the Doctor has changed himself into a human to escape the hunters. Completely. Because the aliens will die after three months without food — and the Doctor is food — he's decided to subject himself to the agonising process of reprogramming his own body during that time. He has one heart, one human brain and one hell of a confused look on his face when he's eventually cornered by the monsters, who demand that he turn himself into the Doctor again. But he, completely bewildered, still has no idea what they're talking about... not even when they take his friends hostage.

Continued in "The Family of Blood".


Tropes:

  • Action Prologue: Episode opens and *wham*, the Doctor and Martha are running for their lives with people shooting at them.
  • Absent-Minded Professor: John Smith, whose absentmindedness is caused by his Wistful Amnesia.
  • Adorkable: John is (apart from 1913 values) even more huggably awkward than Ten, which frankly takes some work.
  • Amusing Injuries: Subverted; John Smith falls down some stairs while backing away from a romantic invitation to a dance ball, and is getting stitches in the next scene for his head injury.
  • Anachronism Stew:
    • Tubular metal scaffolding (of the kind that John dislodges with a thrown cricket ball in order to save the woman and child from a falling piano) was not in widespread use in the UK until the 1930s. Before that, wooden scaffolding poles were employed, lashed together/into position with rope or something similar.
    • In the opening shot of the scene where the schoolboys at machine gun practice, a large white modern articulated semi truck can be seen moving from right to left in the distance behind the targets.
  • Artistic License – Gun Safety: When the boys are doing machine-gun practice, they're using a .303 Vickers machine gun, which had a range of 4,500 yards. An outdoor firing range would always have a slope of earth or sand behind the targets to stop dead all bullets fired down the range. Not only is there no such slope behind the boys targets, but we can see they're firing down into a valley full of buildings, well within the 4.5km (2.8mi) range of the gun, jeopardising the lives of the villagers!
  • Asshole Victim: Jeremy Baines is a real piece of work, and Son of Mine's choice of host.
  • Baby Carriage: John has to stop a woman pushing her pram from being hit by a falling piano.
  • Big "SHUT UP!": When the Family crashes the village dance, Father of Mine yells "YOU! WILL! BE! SILENT!"
  • Bluff the Impostor: Teatime with Martha and "Jenny". Martha is suspicious of Jenny's hostile questioning and offers her a nice bit of gravy in the pot with sardines and jam. Jenny thinks it sounds nice, which clues Martha in that she's not human anymore.
  • Boarding School of Horrors: Exhibit A, bullies can request permission to beat up their fags and it will be granted!
  • Brought Down to Normal: What a Chameleon Arch does to a Time Lord, by rewriting their biology into whatever other Human Alien species they need to be to blend in to a setting, morphing their internal organs to fit in a very painful fashion.
  • Cassandra Truth: Naturally, neither John Smith nor Joan Redfern believe Martha when she tells them that the stories in A Journal Of Impossible Things are real.
  • Coconut Superpowers: Invisible spaceships are easy on the FX budget.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • The Journal of Impossible Things contains several. Most notably, the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) is shown as one of the past incarnations, dispelling any remaining confusion about whether or not he's part of the canon.
    • When Tim opens the Chameleon Arch, he sees various villains from past episodes, including Daleks, Cybermen, the Sycorax leader and the Racnoss Empress, as well as the Doctor during several of these events. He also hears a male voice reciting the coordinates of Gallifrey.
    • Joan, suggesting that the Doctor is the man John secretly wants to be, notes that he has quite an eye for the ladies, "a girl in every fireplace".
  • Creepy Child: Daughter of Mine. Making a Self-Made Orphan out of her human host helps.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Joan Redfern is racist, classist, and has internalized misogyny in a time when being openly so is not only accepted, but expected. So is John Smith: he sees nothing wrong with a boy being beaten for not working fast enough during machine-gun practice, and assumes that Martha cannot understand the difference between fiction and reality. The latter earns him one hell of a slap.
    • Martha and Jenny aren't even allowed in the pub just because they're women, having to drink outside in the freezing cold.
    • Jenny herself has a moment of this; when Martha complains about Edwardian values, Jenny remarks (even after Martha has said she's from London) "things must be different in your country".
  • Discriminate and Switch: Martha saying that not everyone would be as kind as John is to someone like her, with her being a Londoner and all. Immediately after this, she's accosted by a student who makes a horrifically rude comment about her race.
  • Dramatic Irony: World War I lurks just over the horizon. Joan reading about it in John's dream journal makes her even less keen on kids practising with machine guns. John himself, on the other hand, responds that what she read about was just a dream, so they can be thankful that it's not true. If he was anyone else, maybe...
  • Dreaming the Truth: John remembers his true life and history as the Doctor in his dreams.
  • Ethnic Menial Labour: It's the Edwardian Era, so Martha can only get a job as a maid.
  • Failed a Spot Check: John Smith, in a conversation with the attractive school nurse offering to go to the dance with him, gets increasingly nervous and flustered, as she tries to point out the very important fact that he's walking towards some stairs. He promptly trips and falls down them.
  • Fake Memories: With a couple of holes.
    Joan: Where did you learn to draw?
    John: Gallifrey.
    Joan: Is that in Ireland?
    John: I guess it... must be.
  • Gadget Watch: The Chameleon Arch, a pocket watch that Time Lords can use to store their entire personality and memories to go undercover as a member of another species.
  • Get a Hold of Yourself, Man!: Martha tries to jog the Doctor's memory. It doesn't help.
  • Hilarious Outtakes: You know that part where Martha fast-forwards through most of a message from the Doctor? That's David Tennant being told to fill time for about a solid minute.
    The Doctor: And five! Very important, five: Don't let me eat pears. I hate pears. John Smith is a character I made up, but I won't know that. I'll think I am him, and he might do something stupid like eat a pear! In three months, I don't want to wake up from being human and taste that. And six: Now I have to talk for around about a minute without hesitation, deviation, or whatever the other thing is. It's like that panel game on Channel 4 like Rory just pointed out. However, I'm going to move on and say number seven, and talk about my other favorite band, which is The Housemartins. I don't know if anyone remembers The Housemartins, but the best gig I ever went to was at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in about December. It must have been 1990, and The Housemartins were playing, and it was quite simply the best gig I've ever been to. They split up quite soon afterwards, I don't know what that tells you about that particular event. I'm sitting in the TARDIS now, and I'm gonna wind up soon, but not before I make a few strange noises with my mouth that will go somewhere along the lines of bingle bongle dingle dangle yikkety-doo yikkety-daa ping pong lippy tappy too tah. And 23...
    • Guess what John Smith is eating when he idly picks up the watch on the mantelpiece?
  • Humanity Ensues: The Doctor uses the Chameleon Arch to turn himself human. Unlike most examples of the trope, while human, he doesn't remember he was ever anything else — except for the dreams.
  • Humans Are Bastards: The Doctor asks Martha not to let him hurt anyone. "You know what humans are like."
  • Humans Are Morons: The Family sure think so when they confront John Smith at the dance.
    Son of Mine: You took human form?
    John Smith: Of course I'm human! I was born human, as were you, Baines! And Mr. Clark! Jenny?! What's going on?! This is madness!
    Son of Mine: Ooh, and a human brain! Simple, thick, and dull!
  • In Medias Res: One of the foremost New Series examples, with first-time viewers guaranteed to be utterly mystified as to what's going on before the Reveal when Martha checks on the TARDIS in the woodshed.
  • Jerkass:
    • Jeremy Baines is introduced telling Martha and Jenny, who are washing the floor, that they're not paid to have fun.
    • Due to aforementioned values dissonance, John Smith comes across as one with Martha, especially during the scene where she comes in looking for the missing watch.
  • Jerk Jock: Hutchinson is a bully, and in his first scene asks Martha how she can tell if something's clean "with hands like those".
  • Large Ham: Son of Mine has his moments. He doesn't need to speak to be hammy; his psychopathic facial expressions outdo even David Tennant's as Barty Crouch Jr., even though Son of Mine's expression doesn't move.
    Son of Mine: JUST SHUT UP STOP TALKING CEASE AND DESIST THERE'S A GOOD GIRL!
  • Meet Cute: John and Joan run into one another while the later is carrying some books.
  • Memory Gambit: The Doctor is trying to hide from the Family of Blood by being human; suppressing his memories is just a side effect.
  • Motor Mouth: For some reason, Son of Mine develops this when he possesses Jeremy; he has a tendency to have his sentences run on without stopping yes thank you if that makes sense.
  • The Name Is Bond, James Bond: "Baines. Jeremy Baines."
  • Missed Him by That Much: When Martha and Jenny arrive at Cooper's Field after seeing the green "meteor", they are standing just metres away from the Family's ship — which is invisible. And they arrived less than a minute after Baines entered the ship.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Martha talking about the Doctor helps lead the family closer to him.
  • Ninja Maid: "The maid has spirit!"
  • Noodle Incident: The circumstances of how the Doctor and Martha first crossed paths with the Family of Blood are never shown.
  • Out-of-Character Alert: Forget about the monsters and the scarecrows. The scariest part of this episode is watching the blasé way in which John Smith waltzes around trampling all over the Doctor's morals. Sure, go ahead and beat the kid. Of course I'll supervise machine gun class. Hide behind a bunch of terrified teenagers to save my own skin? Sounds like a plan! It really isn't him.
  • Painful Transformation: The Doctor's transformation seems to consist of him getting electric shocks and screaming in agony. Given the transformation is hiding his second heart, and probably a few other things, small wonder.
  • Perception Filter: The Chameleon Arch has one to prevent John Smith from getting curious about it. Unfortunately, the Doctor didn't count on running into a psychic human.
  • Piano Drop: Fortunately doesn't hit anyone, due to a well-aimed cricket ball.
  • Psychic Powers: Tim Latimer can talk to the watch, and sometimes knows "little things" without knowing how he's doing it.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Father of Mine, when crashing the dance: "YOU! WILL! BE! SILENT!"
  • Rube Goldberg Device: John Smith saves a baby using only a cricket ball and the power of physics to drop scaffolding.
  • Running Gag: Gallifrey being a place in Ireland, as said in "The Hand of Fear", "The Invisible Enemy" and the TV Movie.
  • Sadistic Choice: The cliffhanger. "Maid or matron? Your friend, or your lover? Your choice."
  • Scary Scarecrows: The Family of Blood's Mooks are scarecrows and they are creepy.
  • Sherlock Scan: John Smith sees half a dozen things about to go wrong which would quickly result in a child being hit by a falling piano.
  • Shout-Out:
    • John Smith's parents are called Sydney and Verity, after Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert, the names of the two people most often considered to be the "creators" of Doctor Who (they weren't — the show was created essentially by committee — but they are the next closest thing; Newman offered the most input of anyone there and Lambert was the show's first producer).
    • Daughter of Mine's red balloon is said to be one to Rover. Though it can come across as a reference to It.
    • The green meteor in the sky and the searchlight sweeping across the common are references to The War of the Worlds, which is set in roughly the same time period.
  • Sickly Green Glow: Inside the Family's spaceship.
  • Significant Sketchbook: John Smith dreams of his adventures as a Time Lord, drawing/recording them in a journal.
  • A Simple Plan: The Family of Blood will die in a few months due to their short lifespan, so the Doctor decides to use the Chameleon Arch to turn himself human until their lifespans run their course, but...
  • Smash Cut: From the Action Prologue with the Doctor and Martha being chased by hostile aliens to John Smith waking up from a dream.
  • Spanner in the Works: Latimer stealing the Doctor's watch and opening it alerts the Family of Blood to the Doctor's presence.
  • Staircase Tumble: John Smith falls down the stairs after getting flustered talking to Joan Redfern and backing away in precisely the wrong direction.
  • Visible Invisibility: When Baines strikes the ship's invisibility field, it briefly becomes visible.
  • Wham Shot: Well, not a shot so much, but the scene where Joan checks John's heartbeat after his fall down the stairs really hammers home to the viewer that whatever is going on is more than a standard case of Laser-Guided Amnesia.
  • Wistful Amnesia: Joan interprets John's dreams as "the man [he] want[s] to be", and his absentmindedness is said to be as if he knows there's something he should be doing and wants to go back to, but he can't quite remember what it is.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Daughter of Mine's choice of host is a little girl.
  • You Are Not Alone: The Doctor's voice tells Tim this when he opens the watch the second time.


Alternative Title(s): Doctor Who NSS 3 E 8 Human Nature

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