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Withdrawal Pains: Exploring Human Nature on "Doctor Who"

Not only am I going through withdrawal this week for FX's Damages and Bravo's Top Chef, but Sci Fi has decided to hold off on airing the second half of the Doctor Who two-parter until next Friday, making this a rather cold, barren TV-viewing week in the Televisionary household.

If you missed last Friday's episode of Doctor Who ("Human Nature"), you missed one of the third season's very best episodes. In fact, I'll go so far as to say the Paul Cornell-scripted episode is possibly one of my favorite installments, along with "Girl in the Fireplace," in the series so far.

Quick recap: the Doctor and Martha are being pursued by some alien baddies called the Family, gifted with the ability to track them anywhere in the universe (consider them the E.T. equivalent of, say, the Furies); with no other options, the Doctor hatches a brilliant--if insane--plan. They'll conceal themselves within the timestream (1913 England) and he will make himself wholly and utterly human, placing everything that made him the Doctor (his memories and Time Lord nature) within a fob watch. They arrive at the desired time, Martha poses as a housemaid, and they ingratiate themselves within the fabric of a pre-WWI boarding school.

It's classic Who: gripping, funny, and touching, while exhibiting some fantastic period flourishes and great casting. I'm speaking particularly of Jessica Stevenson's turn in "Human Nature" as Joan Redfern, the love interest for the Doctor--now calling himself John Smith, schoolmaster--a school matron with whom he quickly bonds.

If you recognize Stevenson, it may be because you've seen her now classic turn as Daisy on the much-missed British series Spaced, where she played a, well, spacey would-be journo posing as one-half of a romantic couple with Shaun of the Dead's Simon Pegg. (If you've never seen the sheer joy and wit of Spaced, you are seriously missing out, readers.)

I'm always happy to see Stevenson turn up in guest roles (Black Books, or as Yvonne in Shaun of the Dead) and wish that we saw more of her off-kilter charms as a regular on a series, but I'll take what I get. Personally, while I don't know what Joan's fate is in next week's conclusion of the "Human Nature" storyline, I do wish that the 1913 matron would have become the Doctor's companion next season, rather than Catherine Tate. (I can only take so much of Donna's wingeing.)

Meanwhile, the Doctor's escape plan is impeded by the involvement of Timothy Latimer, a student with psychic abilities, who is drawn to the fob watch despite the "perception filter" the Doctor placed on the item. He's played with an eerie panache by Thomas Sangster, from Nanny McPhee and Love Actually.

Naturally, this being a two-parter, there's a hell of a cliffhanger. The Family does find the Doctor (thanks to Timothy opening the fob watch containing the Doctor's essence) and arranges a terrifying dilemma for the Doctor when they grab both Joan and Martha and threaten to kill one of them unless the Doctor changes back into a Time Lord. "Maid or matron, your friend or your lover," snarls one of the aliens. "Your choice."

While I have no doubt that Martha and the Doctor will make it out of this adventure alive, I can't help but sit at the edge of my seat, anxious for next week's conclusion. I only wish that Sci Fi had done us the favor of airing that chapter tonight, rather than make us bite our nails until next week. Sigh.

Next week on Doctor Who ("The Family of Blood"), the Doctor must decide whether Martha and Joan live or die, while the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Will he embrace his destiny as a Time Lord? Or will the Doctor stand by while one of the women in his life pays the ultimate price?


Anonymous said…
And it only gets better from this point forward. In fact the entire second half of the season can be thought of as a single, interconnected storyline, even though the full design of how all seven episodes fit together is only fully understood by the season finale. But for the first time in its three seasons, the show finally starts to take some interesting risks with the storytelling. Not to mention some fantastic guest-stars coming up as well. I had pretty much given up on Russell T. Davies after the mess that was TORCHWOOD, but I have to admit that he's rebounded splendidly with this season of the Doctor. His best move being the casting of Freema Agyeman, who has been stellar from the start. As the Doctor likes to say, "Martha Jones, you're a star."
Dani In NC said…
Jessica Stevenson's face was familiar immediately but I couldn't put my finger on where I had seen her. After a little research, I found that she was in one of my favorite British shows, "Bob and Rose". I also found out that B&R was written by Davies.

It is strange for me watching Doctor Who and seeing all these faces from other British shows pop up. With American shows, I can place the actress right away. With British shows it isn't that easy because the actors don't get as much press here. Thank goodness for the Doctor Who fans who keep things up-to-date on Wikipedia!

This two-parter was good, but the episode after (Blink) made me cry.
Anonymous said…
Fantastic episode! I'm only sad that I have to wait another week to find out what happens! I was so happy to see Stevenson in this role and wish she could stay around for longer. Was anyone else surprised that this one wasn't written by Steven Moffat? It's on par with some of his very best.
Anonymous said…
As a matter of fact Steven Moffat wrote the aforementioned 'Blink' episode, which airs after the conclusion of this two-parter... and it is pretty darn great. Maybe the season's best, albeit without the benefit of the Doctor and Martha appearing much. But the manner in which they do show up is so ingenious that it almost offsets the limited screentime. And it definitely has that same distinctive tone of alternating melancholy and foreboding from Moffat's earlier episodes. I'd tend to agree that his eps have been perhaps the best, and certainly the most memorable, from all three seasons.
TxGowan said…
Wow, I can't say how much I enjoyed this two-part episode. I watched the first part and just couldn't wait, so I, uh, "cheated" and watched the second part. So very very well acted all around. I particularly liked the actor playing Baines.

In other news, I've just read on the BBC today that they're taking most of 2009 off. There will be the regular Christmas 2007 episode, the new season of 13 for 2008, a 2008 Christmas episode and then three specials in 2009, but no new series until 2010. Bother!
The CineManiac said…
This and it's continuation were two of my favorite's from this season (although the following episode, the Brilliant 'Blink' from Steven Moffat, is by far the best of the season).

But I am sad at the recent news that the Doctor's season 5 will not land until 2010! Apparently Season 4 will air in 2008, with 2 "Specials" airing in 2009 and the show returning for season 5 in 2010.
The CineManiac said…
Apparently this has already been addressed, which I would have known had I read the comments.
Dani In NC said…
I love the flexibility of British TV. If the lead of an American show couldn't make himself available for an entire season, the show would either be canceled or the actor would be replaced.
Jessica Stevenson's career went a bit off track after Spaced, with her starring in pretty bad mainstream sitcom called "According to Bex", taking guest roles and not doing much writing. She did star in Tomorrow La Scala! - which was very good, but is unlikely to get a DVD release anywhere, unfortunately.

However, there are couple of exciting projects of the horizon: Learners, a comedy-drama TV film which she wrote and stars in (her co-star being a certain David Tennant); and Phoo Action, a futuristic kung-fu drama, on which she is one of the writers.

There's more about this, and why she now goes by the name Jessica Hynes in this interview.

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