Messiah Figures and Angels: New Doctor Who Rewatch, Series Three, Part Four

I didn’t finish in time to post this on Friday. Sorry about that.

We’re back, with our new Doctor Who rewatch! Today, we’re nearing the end of Series Three, with three of the Tenth Doctor’s most highly-regarded episodes. We’re looking at the two-part Human Nature and The Family of Blood, and the introduction of the Weeping Angels in Blink. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not seen these episodes!

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In Human Nature, the Doctor and Martha are being chased through time by a violent but unseen enemy. The enemy is using a stolen vortex manipulator to track the TARDIS, meaning they cannot be outrun. Therefore the Doctor executes a desperate plan: he uses the TARDIS’s chameleon arch…and makes himself human.

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Hiding on Earth in 1913, “John Smith” is now an instructor at a secondary school for boys. Martha works as a maid, keeping an eye on him. She remembers the truth, but he does not; but he carries a fob watch that contains all of his memories, his personality, his biodata—everything that makes him the Doctor. Without it, he is just a man—a man, that is, who is falling in love with the school’s nurse, Matron Joan Redfern, much to Martha’s consternation.

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Secretly, Martha uses the TARDIS, which is in low-power mode, to watch for the enemy that drove them here. They are the Family of Blood, a group of four non-corporeal aliens with short life spans. If they can capture and consume a Time Lord, they will gain his life span; otherwise, they will die less than three months from the time their chase began. Elsewhere in the school, a schoolboy named Timothy Latimer is tormented by another boy, Baines. Latimer has some psychic ability, and gets flashes of the future, but has learned to conceal it.

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At night, Martha and a friend witness a meteor crashing to Earth. Martha suspects it may be their pursuers, and she is right. Elsewhere, Baines encounters the meteor in the woods, and finds it is a spaceship. Inside, he is possessed by one of the Family, Son of Mine. The family then proceeds to take other hosts—Father of Mine, a local farmer; Daughter of Mine, a young schoolgirl; and Mother of Mine, Martha’s friend Jenny. They begin to infiltrate the school, leaving Father of Mine to assemble an army of animated scarecrows.

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Smith is overseeing the school’s defense training, where the boys train in military skills, including weapons. Later, he asks Joan to the school’s dance that evening. Martha, realizing that the Family have arrived, runs to get the watch and get the Doctor to open it; but it is missing, as—unknown to everyone—Timothy has been drawn to it, and has taken it. He can hear the Doctor speaking to him from inside it. Smith doesn’t believe Martha’s claims, and ridicules her, as does Joan.

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At the dance, the family invades in force, using the scarecrows to control the students. They pull energy weapons against Smith, and order him to change back to himself; if he doesn’t, they will kill either Joan or Martha, and the choice is up to him.

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The Family of Blood picks up immediately. At the besieged dance, Timothy briefly opens the watch, disorienting the Family and allowing Martha to snatch one of their weapons. Smith is able to evacuate everyone, though Martha loses the gun to one of the scarecrows. Smith and Headmaster Rocastle organize the students to defend the school, while Daughter of Mine—who had not participated in the invasion—arrives to spy on them. Joan is beginning to believe that Smith is really the Doctor, and she is unhappy—but more than that, she doesn’t want him to lead the students into battle. Daughter of Mine encounters Timothy, who opens the watch to expose her to its light; this allows the rest of the Family to track him. They send the scarecrows to attack, and the boys shoot them, but are relieved to see that no one is inside. They attack again, and Timothy again uses the watch to disorient them, allowing the boys to escape. Daughter of Mine shoots and kills the headmaster, along with a few others.

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The family find the TARDIS and move it to the school, and taunt Smith with it. They begin bombarding the school with their ship’s weapons. Martha, Smith, Joan, and Timothy hide in a cottage, and Martha recovers the watch, which still says to Timothy that it is not time. She tries to get Smith to open it, but he will not, although he gets flashes of the Doctor’s personality from it. He realizes it is all true, but he doesn’t want to change back; he considers it death for himself if he becomes the Doctor. He and Joan have a vision of his remaining life if he doesn’t change, but he seems unconvinced. He decides—to Martha’s horror—that he will give the watch to the family.

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Smith goes to their ship, and gives them the watch as they mock his humanity as he falls against the console. However, when they open the watch, they find it is a fake; he has already opened it, and is the Doctor once more. And they just allowed him to set the controls to overload. The Family and the Doctor escape the ship—but they cannot escape him.

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Son of Mine narrates the family’s fates at the hands of the Doctor. He trapped Father of Mine in unbreakable chains; Mother of Mine in the event horizon of a dying galaxy; Daughter of Mine in mirrors; and Son of Mine in a scarecrow. None of these fates allow them to die, giving them what they want, but in horrifying fashion.

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There’s considerably more about this story than I will have room to say here. It’s based on a Virgin New Adventures novel, Human Nature, by Paul Cornell, in which the role was played by the Seventh Doctor rather than the as-yet-nonexistent Tenth, with Bernice Summerfield as the companion of the day. I unfortunately haven’t read this novel yet, though I have a copy; I should get there in about seven months, and we’ll revisit at that time, hopefully. This episode (and presumably the book as well) introduces the chameleon arch, a bit of technology which can turn a Time Lord into another species on both physical and mental levels, storing the original memories and biodata in a token object, in this case a fob watch. The fob watch will be a sort of recurring motif, as we’ll soon see a similar one in the season finale; but I’ll discuss that when we get there.

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It’s a very different performance for David Tennant. The human John Smith is most definitely NOT the Doctor. He’s a good man, and strong in his way, but he’s also panicky and subject to denial; and at the end, although he ultimately does make the right decision, he’s very close to making the wrong one, and doing so willfully. This is a story about character: not the literary kind, but the moral and ethical kind. Is he still the Doctor when he lacks the TARDIS, the two hearts, the sonic screwdriver, and the technical knowledge? What MAKES him the Doctor? I propose that it’s his character, and I believe the series agrees with me on that. It will be borne out some years later when the War Doctor—along with this same Tenth Doctor—explains the nature of the Doctor in his own words:

Never cruel nor cowardly,

Never give up; never give in.

If all that is true, then this is truly a crisis of identity for the Doctor in more ways than one. Beyond just “human or Gallifreyan”, he has to decide if he will keep that promise or not (though he doesn’t remember literally making it). John Smith has his cruel moments, when he sends the boys out to die; his cowardly moments, when he’s desperately searching for a way to avoid opening the watch; his moment of giving up, when he is tempted to stay and be human forever with Joan; and his moment of giving in, when he decides to give the unopened watch to the Family. But, he overcomes it all, and opens the watch, and becomes the Doctor again.

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If I may expand on this just a bit: it’s a little bit of a Christ parallel. Using the arch is his death; he’s even visibly hanging from the thing, as if on a cross. He is resurrected when he opens the watch, and he does it offscreen, just as the Bible doesn’t literally show us the actual moment of Christ’s resurrection through the eyes of witnesses. And, the events of the Family’s battle at the school are his temptation. (That event is not in the correct order for the biblical account, but we can forgive that, I suppose.) All of this is going to matter immensely in the series three finale, when he is clearly portrayed as a messiah figure—more on that next week.

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There’s some exploration of racism here, but I feel like it is not so much commentary as a simple depiction of how it would have been in this time period. Martha’s means of displaying her physician training (listing the bones of the hand) is a bit silly, and really is unnecessary; at this point it doesn’t matter if Joan believes her or not. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to put up with such prejudice after coming from a future where it’s just not like that anymore; but Martha handles it with aplomb, most of the time anyway. However, the depiction of the race issue here is useful in the greater story arc for one thing: it highlights Martha’s growing feelings for the Doctor. I remember at this point thinking “oh no, she’s turning into Rose!” But we’ll see in a few episodes that there’s a different end in mind. Still, she actually voices her feelings here, though she downplays them later. That TARDIS is getting a bit uncomfortable, I imagine.

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Some references: The big one is John Smith’s sketchbook. It includes sketches of the first, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth Doctors; the console room, the sonic screwdriver, a Dalek, Moxx of Balhoon (The End of the World), Autons (Rose, also in flashback in Love and Monsters), Rose, the Clockwork Droids (The Girl in the Fireplace), a Cyberman (Cybus variant, last seen in Doomsday), Jack Harkness (last seen in DW in The Parting of the Ways), a Slitheen (Boom Town), a gas mask (The Doctor Dances). (Yes, I copied that list from the wiki, but with annotations added.) Notably, the book is also the first visual representation of past (i.e. pre-Ninth) Doctors in the new series, although they were referenced in School Reunion. The Doctor mentions perception filters, which figure prominently in Torchwood (Everything Changes) and will soon appear again on Doctor Who (The Sound of Drums). When the watch is opened, the Doctor’s voice says “You are not alone” (among other things), which were the last words of the Face of Boe (Gridlock), and will soon appear again (Utopia). His conversation with Joan about the location of Gallifrey is a reference to a similar conversation in The Hand of Fear. Chains made of dwarf star alloy also appeared in Warrior’s Gate. There’s also a meta-reference, which I have mentioned in other posts; when John Smith talks about his family, he says his parents were Verity and Sydney, which is a reference to Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert, the creator and first producer of Doctor Who.

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In Blink, we meet photographer Sally Sparrow. While photographing an old house, Wester Drumlins, she finds a message behind the wallpaper—a message aimed directly at her, from the Doctor, dated 1969. Freaked out, she visits a friend, Katherine Nightingale. In Kathy’s apartment, she sees a strange video of a one-sided monologue from the Doctor, whom she doesn’t know. The video belongs to Kathy’s brother, Larry. In the morning, Sally and Kathy return to Wester Drumlins, where they see a statue of a weeping angel—and Sally says it has moved from the last time she saw it. On the way out, Kathy vanishes. Minutes later, Sally is met by a young man, who gives her a letter from his deceased grandmother…who proves to be Kathy. Sally doesn’t believe it, but then she finds more angel statues, and one of them has a key—the TARDIS key—in its hand. She takes the key. In flashback, we see Kathy arrive in 1920, beginning a new life.

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Sally finds Larry, who works in a video shop. He tells her that the video of the Doctor is an Easter egg on seventeen different DVDs, and he gives her a list. She can’t explain it all, so she goes to the police. There she tells her story to a detective, Billy Shipton, who shows her a garage of vehicles left by missing persons—and one of them is the TARDIS. He also asks her out on a date. She gives him her number, and leaves. Billy is then touched by another angel statue, and vanishes. He arrives in 1969, where he is met by the Doctor and Martha. The Doctor explains that the angels sent him here, and he is without his time machine. He wants Billy to give Sally a message—but it requires going the long way around.

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Sally gets a phone call, summoning her to a hospital. There she meets Billy, now aged and dying. He delivers the Doctor’s message—“look at the list of DVDs”, which coincidentally are all the DVDs Sally owns. He admits that he went into publishing, and video publishing, and was responsible for placing the Easter egg. He dies thereafter, but with no regrets.

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Sally meets Larry at Wester Drumlins and watches the full video. She finds that it interacts with her, word for word; Larry writes down her words, creating a transcript. The Doctor admits to having a transcript with him, as well. He explains about the weeping angels: quantum-locked predators that feed on the potential time energy of living creatures. To access this energy, they send the individuals back in time, thus negating their remaining life in their own time; otherwise, however, they do not harm anyone. All that is required is a touch. They are inhumanly fast, but they can only exist when unobserved; if you look at them, they turn to stone. Therefore, when facing them: “Don’t blink.” And unfortunately, they have the TARDIS.

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Sally and Larry are interrupted by four angel statues. They try to not let them out of sight, but it’s nearly impossible. The creatures chase them into the cellar, where they find the now-relocated TARDIS. As Larry desperately tries to watch the statues, Sally tries the key, and they get inside, locking the door. A hologram appears, and says they are carrying a control disk; Larry puts the DVD in the console, and the TARDIS dematerializes, headed for 1969—leaving the two of them behind. They are terrified of the angels outside—but they suddenly realize that the disappearing TARDIS left the four angels facing each other. Now observing each other, they are all quantum-locked forever, or at least as long as they are not moved.

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A year later, Sally and Larry are now operating the video store together. She has a folder with everything from her adventure in it. She sees the Doctor and Martha run by in the street, and she stops them—but realizes they are from an earlier point in their own history, and for them, it hasn’t happened yet. She gives them the folder, and tells the Doctor to make sure he has it on him when, one day, he is trapped in 1969.

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Here we have it: possibly THE most famous episode of the revived series. Often people will cite Blink as the episode they show to non-fans to get them interested in Doctor Who; that seems strange to me, as it’s very different from most episodes. Still, whatever works, works, I suppose. This is Series Three’s “Doctor-lite” episode (and companion-lite, too, now that I think of it), allowing filming of two stories at once by two different units. It also introduces one of the most popular and controversial modern villains: the Weeping Angels. (Interestingly, Sally is the one who calls them that here; while the Doctor will confirm the name later, what a coincidence!) The angels are simply terrifying here; it’s the only, and I do mean only, episode of modern Doctor Who that has ever scared me. Others are tense and suspenseful, but I’m nearly forty years old, and jaded about television; but this one, in my first viewing, got to me. (Well, I suppose I was younger then, but you get the idea.) For better or worse, the angels are not as scary in all subsequent episodes. It’s what I jokingly call the M. Night Shyamalan Effect: Once you know the twist, it’s not scary anymore. It can only get you once. Here, though, they are at their best, and it’s glorious. I remember thinking about the sheer beauty of the resolution—yes, Sally and Larry got left behind, but the Doctor, without even being there, trapped the angels into looking at each other. It’s a work of art.

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There’s a bootstrap paradox, but a weak one. Sally and Larry record the Doctor’s words into the transcript, which is why he knows what to say…where did the words originate? It’s not as egregious, though, as some other paradoxes we’ve seen, and besides, it’s not complete; Sally’s words originate with her, onscreen. It’s only the Doctor’s words that are impossibly scripted.

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I’ve heard it suggested that Sally Sparrow should be a companion. It’s a fair point; she has all the makings of one. Still, I’m glad she isn’t. I like the thought that there are companion-worthy people in the Doctor’s sphere who get to go on being normal, especially since companions tend to have their lives upended in spectacular fashion. I don’t know anything else about Carey Mulligan, who plays the role, but she is perfect for this part; Sally is a great character. My favorite one-off character, though, is Billy Shipton, the detective who flirts with Sally before being caught by an angel. He’s played by Michael Obiora in his younger version, and by Louis Mahoney in his elderly version; both actors play the part so consistently that you would believe they really are the same person. ( I suppose I should admit that Old Billy’s accent is a bit thicker, but that’s not unreasonable over five decades.)

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There aren’t many references to speak of. The “Timey-Wimey Detector* will appear again in a couple of novels, Ghosts of India and Touched by an Angel (actually a different model in the latter). Sally successfully takes a photo of the angels, but this will be retconned in The Time of Angels, where it’s a supremely bad idea to do that. However, this episode gives us two of the most famous tenth Doctor quotes, ranking right up there with “Allons-y!”:

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.

Don’t blink. Blink and you’re dead. They are fast. Faster than you can believe. Don’t turn your back. Don’t look away. And don’t blink. Good luck.

I’m running out of space, so I’ll leave it there for this week. Great episodes, all around.

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Next week: We’ll wrap up Series Three with a three-part finale, involving my favorite villain, the Master! Join me for Utopia, The Sound of Drums, and Last of the Time Lords! See you there.

All episodes may be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.

Human Nature

The Family of Blood

Blink

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