“Why can’t I be John Smith? Isn’t he a good man?”
Wow. That certainly did live up to the promise of the first half, putting the viewer through an emotional wringer the likes of which we haven’t seen since Father’s Day. Paul Cornell’s script continued to do a fantastic job of adapting his book into something much more televisual, and the cast really gave their all.
David Tennant particularly. I mean, the Doctor isn’t a human being, he’s an all-powerful alien with a totally different range of emotions, and this doesn’t give an actor too much chance to strain their acting muscles. True, he’s brought a deal of depth and pathos to the character, but the Doctor is still fundamentally unknowable. But as John Smith, we saw an actor at the peak of his powers, a genuinely likeable character who even within the framework of the story had never really existed. As a fiction within a fiction, it’s hard to imagine that we should care about this character so much, but Tennant made him likeable, admirable and sympathetic. The scenes in the cottage as he realised his true nature and was presented with the choice of, effectively, committing suicide to save everyone else were heartbreaking, and played to perfection both by Tennant and Jessica Hynes. The little flash-forward to the normal life the Doctor could never have was beautiful, reminiscent of a similar sequence in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. It expanded perfectly on that significant remark the Doctor makes in Father’s Day about envying humans the miracle of their small, mundane but thrilling lives.
The overtones of the impending Great War were also very well done, more overt than in the novel but gelling perfectly with the visual style of the show. That Baines should explicitly tell the Headmaster of the conflict to come, and have it not dent the man’s sense of duty one bit, was a lovely moment that gave the man an integrity and nobility, making his later death quite affecting. Likewise, the expansion of Latimer’s flash-forwards to the trenches worked very well, although Thomas Sangster did look rather young to be serving at the front line.
But perhaps the best of these moments was that machine gun battle at the school. Perfectly directed by the talented Charles Palmer, it was a truly chilling moment as the boys began to shoot down the advancing scarecrows, a presaging of things to come in France. Playing it in silence with “To Be a Pilgrim” mournfully layered over the soundtrack was a stroke of genius, the hymn sounding a lament for the death of England’s innocents. And John Smith’s firm assertion that “this must not happen” just made you love the little human blighter that much more. The final payoff, the epilogue with an aged Latimer in the present day, was one of my favourite scenes in the novel, and taken straight from it, almost unaltered. A few tears came to my eyes as the Doctor and Martha pinned on their poppies, and I fervently hope that this episode will keep the memory of those who died alive for yet another generation.
Jessica Hynes was amazing, displaying an acting ability hitherto only guessed at from her role in Spaced. Her dilemma over whether John Smith should die and become the Doctor was played to perfection, but the scene that really got me was that final scene in the cottage, as she confronts the man her lover has become. Another superb sequence from the novel played as it was originally written, it brought the Doctor face to face, as the new show sometimes does, with the consequences of his actions. Joan’s cold enquiry as to whether, had he not chosen to hide there, anyone would have died, was a chilling moment. Her refusal to travel with this new version of the man she had known was perfect, and it was truly moving as she crumpled into tears when the Doctor closed the door and left.
Freema got a lot to do as well, perhaps because she was inheriting the role of Bernice Summerfield, a rather ballsier companion. The standoff at the village hall was genuinely tense, and Martha cama across as movingly brave as she told Smith to get his lady friend out of there and leave her to deal with it. In the absence of the Doctor, she seemed almost to take on his mantle. Indeed , the episode seemed full of people trying to fill the void the Doctor left, with Latimer too becoming very Doctorlike (as in the novel). The moment when Latimer stopped the little girl by opening the watch at her was a very Doctorish thing to do!
The Family continued to be chilling, the mannered performances of the actors fitting perfectly their otherworldly characters. As before, Harry Lloyd got the lion’s share of the action here, and a lot of fun he was too, particularly with his exaggerated schoolboy mocking of the Headmaster. Their ultimate fate at the hands of the Doctor was a jawdropping sequence, with the Time Lord’s darker side shown to an extent never seen before, not even in his genocide of the Rachnoss in The Runaway Bride. It’s possible that the chain of events leading to his punishment of them could have been shown, but actually that would have detracted from the impression the script was giving us of the character. Paul Cornell has always written the Doctor as an almost godlike being with tremendous, almost supernatural powers, and that’s the point. We’re taking it as read that he could have done this any time he’d wanted, and his hiding away was more an act of mercy, a choice to allow the Family to live their short lives. He was, in fact, trying to restrain himself from doing what he ultimately did, a moral choice that I don’t recall from Paul’s original novel. Incidentally, I loved the little girl being stuck in “every mirror, forever” even if it was an obvious “homage” to the classic Sapphire and Steel story of the man in every photo.
That was, in every way, how Doctor Who should be done. An instant classic worthy of being up there with any of the original series’ finest moments, it was in my opinion the best story since the show’s return. David Tennant’s performance blew me away, and for the first time in such an emotional story, not once did I wonder how Christopher Eccleston might have played it! Paul, thank you for one of the finest pieces of television drama I have ever seen. I can’t believe you’re not writing one next year!
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