“I know it sounds mad,” says Martha, “but when the Doctor became human, he took the alien part of himself and he stored it inside the watch. It’s not really a watch, it just looks like a watch.”
“And ‘alien’ means ‘not from abroad’, I take it,” enquires the frankly incredulous Joan.
“The man you call John Smith… he was born on another world.”
“A different species.”
Joan is a sensible woman from 1913 and she’s not having any of this nonsense.
“Then tell me,” she presses, “in this fairy tale, who are you?”
“Just a friend. I’m not… I mean, you haven’t got a rival, as much as I might… Just his friend.”
“And human, I take it?”
She humouring the deranged girl. As John said earlier, it must be culture shock. Someone from a less developed culture trying and failing to understand the scientific romances of an ordinary school teacher… an ordinary school teacher, by the way, with whom she is far too familiar.
“Human,” confirms Martha, “Don’t worry. And more than that: I just don’t follow him around. I’m training to be a doctor. Not an alien doctor, a proper doctor. A doctor of medicine.”
This is too much. Aliens… that’s one thing. But this? Joan has tipped over from pitying disbelief into brusque irritation. This is more than just silly, this is… indecent.
“Well that certainly is nonsense,” she snaps, “Women might train to be doctors, but hardly a skivvy and hardly one of your colour.”
“Oh, do you think?” She holds up her hand. “Bones of the hand. Carpal bones, proximal row….” she indicates the areas she names as she goes along, “Scaphoid, lunate, triquetal, pisiform. Distal row. Trapezium, trapezoid, capitate, hamate. Then the metacarpal bones extending in three distinct phalanges. Proximal, middle, distal.”
She is as irritated as Joan. The two face each other across a chasm.
“You read that in a book,” says Joan weakly.
“Yes,” snaps back Martha, triumph in her voice, “to pass my exams!”
I have issues with this story. There’s the strain of bellicose liberalism, for a start. Even as attitudes to war and empire are critiqued, the underlying assumptions valorize an ostensible ethical commitment to fighting for liberal values in the context of empire. The story is, essentially, about anti-war cowardice leading to the assault of fanatical nihilism upon the heart of liberal England. Run away from a fight with an unappeasable evil and you just defer your problems until that unappeasable evil comes to the English heartland (probably bringing Sharia law or something). It shows most directly in the Doctor’s donning of a red poppy, when he voluntarily assimilates himself into an increasingly ugly and intolerant trend in British society: the implicit acceptance of imperial misadventures on behalf of neoliberalism, dressed up as ‘respect for the fallen’ and ‘help for heroes’ and all that dishonest guff. It seems that the character of the Doctor is allowed to get involved in contemporary politics if he’s on the right side, the side of assumptions that ‘we’ supposedly all agree on. There’s also what I call (rather facetiously) the Nice-But-Then syndrome, where characters in costume dramas are there to espouse anachronistic values which rewrite history in the image of modern liberal assumptions, thus robbing real history of context, and comforting our assessment of our own present-day moral elevation by projecting it back onto ‘progressives’ in the past, etc.
But the scene above is great because it actually bucks that very trend. Unlike several Who stories of recent years that are set in the past, in ‘Human Nature’ / ‘Family of Blood’ the issues of racism and sexism are not just totally effaced so that we can all get on with having fun. Joan is a Nice-But-Then character in many ways, but she’s also allowed to evince sexist, ‘classist’ (not a term I’m fond of, but it’ll do for now) and racist attitudes. And this isn’t just done so that we self-satisfied modern liberals can feel superior to all those backward numpties in the past. Joan’s attitudes are shown to be contested within the same period by other contemporary characters, most especially Martha’s friend and fellow-maid Jenny. (Though, of course, that does tend to make Jenny a bit of a Nice-But-Then character herself… it’s a fine line because, if you label every character in a costume drama as a NBT if they happen to have progressive values, you efface the existence of people in the past who really did contest widespread prejudices of their time, and thus end up back where you started, with the “condescension of posterity”.)
Best of all is the fact that Martha answers back angrily, displaying her annoyance unashamedly and eloquently making mincemeat of Joan’s thoughtless assumptions. Okay, Martha could be seen as accepting the onus of having to ‘prove herself’ to the white woman, which would be problematic… but that isn’t how Agyeman and Hynes play it. Their version of the scene is more like Joan getting a deserved ritual humiliation. Okay, Martha has the advantage of a middle class background and an education in modern Britain, so she’s not really in the same situation as a real black, working class woman in the England of 1913, but even so… if the Doctor buggered off and left her there, she’d effectively be in the same situation, her education notwithstanding.
The scene depicts intersectional prejudice, and from an otherwise deeply sympathetic character, thus nixing the simplistic idea (surprisingly prevalent today, in the wake of partial and piecemeal social changes) that racism and sexism are Big Bad Bogeys that only Bad People do. It tacitly recognises intersectionality, along with prejudice as structural and socially constructed – something surprisingly rare in pop-culture. And it also depicts the only way prejudices ever get addressed: by those on the sharp end – the women, people of colour, the ‘skivvies’ – getting seriously pissed off and talking back.