Sunday, June 03, 2007

TV review: Human Nature/The Family of Blood (plus some thoughts on Martha/Freema)

There's bumper loads of happy happy boys over at Behind the Sofa. That alone should assure doubters that this managed to combine the best of Classic and NewWho.

TV Scoop was happy twice over as well, with both Human Nature and The Family of Blood getting a thumbs up.

Anna was also happy twice over.

And Freema-loving TV Today relished what the two episodes achieved.

So what about me?

Well, befuddling and grin-inducing mentions of Nottingham aside, this pair of episodes brought out the best of everyone.

The writing (re-writing) by Cornell was spot-on, transforming a well-loved (if not exactly million-selling) story into a beautifully realised television script. Keeping in mind the regenerations of the Doctor since the story was first published and the (very) different companion figure, the story was retained but adjusted, taking plenty of its nuances and characterisations whilst simultaneously updating them to match the current characters/actors.

The presentation of the narrative, leaving the viewer off-balance as to what was going on (even to some extent for those who already knew Cornell's novel) was well-handled. So some younger viewers may have been confused for a while, but getting your head around confusing ideas is what good TV should enable the viewer to do. Our own lack of clarity helps identification with the figures at the centre of the story, not least with Joan's growing realisation that Smith isn't the 'man' she thought he was.

And the note-book? What artistry and work went into that. Others have said it, but I will too: that HAS to be a PDF on the forthcoming S3 DVD box set. A shout-out to fans to be salivated over.

The direction from Charles Palmer was charming, subtle, dramatic and well-paced. Camera angles were grand, without grand-standing. There were some fine set-pieces and just the right number of close-ups to draw the level of intimacy to the surface.

The music, for possibly the first time in ages, is more spot-on than we might have dared hoped for, and whilst the invocation of hymns in Gridlock felt a little too pious, here the familiarity of "To be a Pilgrim" acting as premonition of the violence to come beyond this story's end, was given fine form with such an appropriate vocal version chosen.

Effects were kept limited, which meant when they did come to the fore they had real purpose rather than being there 'because we can so we should' (a bugbear of those who believed Classic Who had managed to be more creepy, scary and monstrous with suggestion and frequently dodgy SFX).

Which brings me to the people. And this is what has set this two-parter way up in the appreciation stakes. If we accept that NewWho especially (but not exclusively when set against the Classic years) is about people, about characters, then this brought the best of both together in giving everyone concerned real chances to demonstrate their acting chops.

Praise has been heaped on David and Jessica (sorry, she will always but always be Jessica "Daisy" Stevenson) and rightly so, even if it has been as the 'not'-Doctor that Tennant has best shined this season. Don't care says I, since Smith is within the Doctor as the Doctor was within Smith. And as noted elsewhere, come on, we all cheered at re-emergence of the glasses, the suit (BROWN!!!) and the Chuck All-Stars. A glorious moment. As was the sight of the firmly pissed off, getting-the-job-done Doctor giving each member of the Family their what-for.

Jessica was sublime here as Joan, whether terse (and racist) with Martha, charmed and adoring with Smith, maternal to the boys, and ultimately heart-broken by the Doctor. A hiding place on a "whim": ouch. Saxon isn't entirely wrong when Martha's mother Francine gets the messages that the Doctor brings destruction in his wake, whether intended or not. Like the press in Spiderman et al that both lauds the hero and points out that without him the bad guys wouldn't be there in the first place putting the innocent in danger, the attitude is wrong-headed but comprehensible. Funnily, having been re-reading a lot of Buffy and Angel books and essays lately, one of the lines that first came to mind after watching last night's episode was Giles' remark to Xander about his friend Jesse who has been vamped: "You're not looking at your friend; you're looking at the thing that killed him". No wonder Joan cannot look at the Doctor.

There's equally good work from the supporting cast: big kudos especially to Baines (Harry Lloyd, step ye forward for your totally-creeped-me-out award of the year) but all the cast deserve a cheer for their well-inhabited period turns. And that includes Thomas "I-need-to-see-a-birth-certificate-before-I-believe-that-boy-is-now-17" Sangster.

To conclude, I have to make a special note about Freema who finally gets to do some more good work (at last!), showing that much of the problem with her character/acting is to do with what she is given. Is she finally able to want to be with the Doctor, even or despite her knowledge that he doesn't and will not love her? It would be helpful if she could move on, since when she's allowed to be more sparky - as here - she's more than a match for anything Rose could or would have done. As I have said elsewhere [in the comments], Marth/Freema has had "rather erratic service from writers and directors (and probably in terms of overseeing her, the producers)". She's done some of her best work in this two-parter, probably helped by the overall raising of the bar and then some that it's drawn out. But I'm still left with a nagging sense that she's not fully hit, or been allowed to hit, her stride (I'd be interested to know what the filming blocks were this season to see whether that's down to directors or time: she's certainly been at her best here and in the opening episode or so). With some qualifications to those aforementioned previous remarks, I don't think she's "done justice to the spectacular opportunity she has has been given (or perhaps more truthfully had chance to develop sufficiently to do justice)."

Don't get me wrong, I grew to love the Rose/Ten relationship as passionately and fondly as a non-full-on-shipper could do (I appreciate the shippiness but my old skool Who chops can't help but think that proves to be a narrative cul-de-sac). I can't ignore the gut feeling that sympathised with those who came to loath the smug intensity of Rose/Ten 'in love'. In that respect, the possibilities for Martha as a character have been immense, not least because she is smarter, more worldly-wise. But I don't think these opportunities have been as well-explored as they could have been. The whole unrequited love thang that has over-shadowed much of Martha's behaviour and actions seems to come "not only from the Who team but also from Freema's own effusive delight in having the chance to work so closely with David Tennant as the Doctor. It's a bit of a fan's dream come true for sure, but it sometimes overwhelms her performance."

That's probably why in this episode it was so refreshing to see her doing more and also - the "... and it wasn't me" line aside - dealing and seeming to move on from being 'in love' with the Doctor. Martha and Freema deserve more of these opportunities. Whether they'll be coming is another matter.

So, the overall verdict: Brilliant episodes, with everyone on-song. Moffat to come (hurrah!) and the finale. Despite some nay-sayers, and the less-than-fully-successful Dalek story aside, I'd actually say this season has felt more consistent and enjoyable than the last. Maybe it's the different momentum this time around, a groove both settled (three years in) and unsettled (after the departure of Rose, who after all was deliberately intended to be our eyes into the world of the Doctor). Either way, I've been enjoying it far more than I dared hope. And this two parter has simply been the best cake, let alone icing, that any of us could have hoped for.


Marie said...

I adored this double bill - have barely stopped crying - but I have to disagree with you re Martha. She's awful, just awful. Freema is a mediocre actress and the character is underwritten and charmless. Watching the Doc with Jessica made me realise that I am more than happy for him to give his heart away post-Rose, and indeed have no nostalgia hangover whatsoever - I just can't bear Martha. I even wanted him to get rid of her for Timothy if Jess wouldn't go. Please, please, please, no Martha for series 4.

Tell you what though, the fact that this was a book first does explain why it was so damn good.

PS I have finally posted a v short review chez moi, was delayed due to social commitments last night...

Sarah said...

I've just caught up with both parts of the two-parter (busy, busy weekend last week..y'know, Old Vic commitments n'all ;-) ).

Anyway - glad I was able to watch it all in one go - not sure I'd have been happy with the suspense. I'm no tv critic - you do a far better job, than I - so I'd just like to weigh in with the happy Who fans. It was great. Really great.

AnnaWaits said...

Fantastic review as always :)
But I think I'm with Marie, and less inclined to blame the writers for Freema's shortcomings. She really doesn't make Martha very easy to feel anything for, and it's becoming less and less believable that the Doctor would want her as his companion.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

To clarify: I don't think it's the writers alone since there are too many good writers on board doing good things. I don't think it's the directors/producers. who as I say I think have been far more settled this seasons than I could have hoped for. I don't think its entirely Freema, despite her frequently more flat than 3-d performances.

But I DO think that the combination of having a somewhat under-developed character, in a role that seems a pseudo-Rose echo (in terms of the 'love' thing) but an intentional not-Rose (in terms of everything else), with an actress who frankly seems too tongue-tied and adoring of the thrill of being there without necessarily having the acting chops to sustain what's required (a bit like recruiting, say, me to the task*)... well THAT as a combination just seems doomed to fail.

It should have worked, it could have worked. But with that combination.

* for the record, I haven't acted since junior school (a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat since you didn't ask). And my record for dealing with seeing actors etc isn't known for its eloquence. Still, with even a modicum of forethought I'd hope I could step up and at least be no worse than sweet FA. Should I get a chance? After all, I do work with a fellow former new Crossroads 'star' a la FA...

PS Sarah, after flaunting your close-up shots of Rufus... ah shucks, I'm just jealous, thanks for the compliment and stopping by!

Rob said...

You were in Joseph? Perhaps that explains your liking for tights of red, and yellow, and green, and brown, and scarlet, and black, and ochre, and peach, and ruby, and olive, and violet, and fawn, and lilac, and gold, and chocolate, and mauve, and cream, and crimson, and silver, and rose, and azure, and lemon, and russet, and grey, and purple, and white, and pink, and orange, and blue....

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Rob: god, those lyrics are flooding back.

btw I was the coat bearer and the sacrificial goat (as well as in the choir). Not big parts but pretty crucial I'm sure you'd agree.