Let’s Talk About Human Nature

Let's Talk About Human Nature

Specifically, the Doctor Who series 3 episodes “Human Nature/The Family of Blood”.

Those of you who read my Chicks Dig Time Lords essay know a bit about how I feel about this episode, specifically Martha in this episode, but I’ll give a small bit of explanation and background for those who don’t.

In this two-parter, the Doctor runs away from the Family because they want to capture him and feed off of his Time Lord essence. So he hides the Time Lord bit of him in a watch (aided by the TARDIS) and hen goes to live as a normal human for a bit so that they can’t find him. The species the Family belongs to apparently have a short lifespan, so the Doctor knows if he can just wait them out in hiding, they will eventually die.

So the Doctor becomes human and hides out in pre-WWI Britain as a teacher in a rich boys school. Martha is his companion, so she has to hide out, too. So she gets to be his maid. Since he brought her along with him to this job as a teacher (I think the explanation was that she was his family’s maid) she focuses most of her energy on caring for him, but is also made to do work around the school. At one point we see her cleaning floors with another maid she’s become friends with.

Then, of course, the Family shows up, stuff happens, big adventure1.

I have a lot of problems with this episode.

  • For a long time I wondered what possible justification the Doctor had for taking Martha to this time period and this place on earth when he had, oh all of time and space to choose from?
  • People have pointed out that the Doctor did not choose the time and place, the TARDIS dd. Well, TARDIS: wtf? Still not okay2.
  • It’s yet another example in a long list of examples where Martha is put into the Mammy role. I might have let it slide except it happens so often it’s a damn theme, and that’s really problematic.

There are a lot of different strings tying this all together. To start, this episode was based on a Doctor Who novel written by the dude who also wrote the script: Paul Cornell. Apparently RTD liked the book so much he asked Cornell to make an episode of it. But the book was written some time ago starring a different incarnation of the Doctor with a different (white) companion. And thus the companion’s role was very different in the book.

By doing this episode during season 3 Cornell and the creative team introduced a tricky element that wasn’t in the original. They did address race more than once, and that’s good. But they only addressed race in the more surface, basic ways while letting other deeper issues stand.

This is more complicated by the fact that I really like the episode overall. It’s well-written and the story itself is interesting and the dilemma the Doctor faces in the end is crunchy and thought-provoking. I’ve found myself wishing many times since watching it that they’d done this episode with a different companion, because obviously there just wasn’t enough deep thought about race to do it the way they did without being super problematic. Or, that’s the way it seems from the result.

So what precipitated this post? Over on Tumblr I reblogged something from Karnythia about this ep where people expressed their frustration with it. It’s the part where the nurse that the Human!Doctor has fallen in love with is talking to Martha, who reveals she is a (medical) doctor. The woman then says: “Women might train to be doctors, but hardly a scivvy and hardly one of your colour.”  Karnythia points out:

“Black women had been training to be doctors in the UK & the US for almost 40 years at this point. Were there a lot of them? No. But there was a lot of coverage of the ones who did succeed. If she knew women were training to be doctors, then she knew some of them were women of color.”

Perhaps she would have, but the writer and the creative team apparently did not3.

That gives me a whole other reason to be mad at this episode.

As I said in my Chicks piece, I don’t think anyone was being intentionally racist here and it’s clear that some thought was given to race when they decided to do these episodes with Martha. That’s a good thing. But when you’re dealing with something as thorny as this, you can’t just put some thought into race. And as many people have pointed out, there is all kinds of just on the surface or just under the surface problems with race in the new Doctor Who4.

These episodes are a source of great rage because of the lack of deep thought about race. For me, the rage is informed by that and by the knowledge that it could be such a good episode if not for this stuff.

And it all makes me realize I need top hop on getting this book started with Karnythia.


  1. If you want a full synopsis, check Wikipedia. []
  2. In the world of the show that is bad enough. But I find it to be handwavy and bull on the part of the writer/creators/whoever came up with this idea. It looks like they’re trying to absolve the Doctor of responsibility here, and that’s a dick way to do so. Plus, it doesn’t fly for the TARDIS, either, as it’s been well established by this point that it has a consciousness, too. []
  3. Or there’s another explanation. I think we may find out. []
  4. The classic episodes, too, of course. []

22 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Human Nature

  1. What a fantastic conversation to get to experience – thanks to both of you.

    It is interesting to see what I read “between the lines” on this episode wasn’t intended, at least by the writer (though perhaps by the actors?).

    I assumed that the Doctor had some input into the choice of “hiding times” because
    1) it was an unlikely place to look for him and 2) as we saw David Tennant so subtly imply all along, the Doctor was (at his core)terribly self-absorbed.

    And so, he didn’t even think about what he was doing to Martha because he only thought of himself. At least that was how I saw that bit.

    I also saw Martha inviting Joan along as the beginning of her letting go of her feelings for the doctor. To me, it was the first step in her leaving him because (again, as I saw it) – she cared about him and he did not deserve it.

    As for Joan’s comment – I thought she was being a bigot and intentionally being mean too. As kind as she could be, I also read her as being jealous of Martha’s obvious intimacy with the Doctor’s life. Besides, I have seen people be compassionate in one moment and bigoted in another all my life. That rang true to me.

    What is most interesting to me about the *real* conversation above, is that if anyone put any of that in there (besides my brain), it wasn’t the writers.

    Probably goes without saying that Martha is by far, to my mind, the most admirable Companion.

    1. Probably goes without saying that Martha is by far, to my mind, the most admirable Companion.

      Not even a contest, to my mind. She’s smart, brave, compassionate and empathetic, strong-willed enough to say no to the Doctor and attempt to impose her moral view on situations, and takes the agency on her own to decide when she’s done with travelling, unlike Rose and Donna – if she can’t have the Doctor on her terms, then she’ll take Option B (no Doctor at all), thank you very much. She walks AROUND THE WORLD ALONE, because the world needs it. And faced with the Master, alone, kneeling, about to die…she laughs. Just laughs. Bad. Ass.

      Oh, and she did the whole thing IN HEELS.

      I also really like Donna, for being not-young-and-skinny-and-normatively-gorgeous, and being loud and middle-class and unapologetic about it – but Martha’s a strong favourite, and I include pre-reboot companions in that assessment. If I didn’t think it horridly appropriative, she’d be the companion I’d cosplay (I’m a white woman, so just…no).

      1. I liked Donna because she had ZERO romantic interest in the Doctor. That was a nice change! But yeh…who would anyone in their right mind want to BE? Martha! I loved that she walked away of her own accord.

    1. I also feel our conversation has been very valuable! But there’s also a wider conversation in the fandom about this episode that continues. That Tumblr post was more about the overall conversation.

      I posted it after the last big exchange where we where I pointed out how different our perspectives are, which illuminated for me again why so many people in fandom have such different views of Human Nature and S3 in general.

  2. Thanks very much for this post, Tempest, and to both of you for your willingness to have the conversation in comments in a public manner. I’ve learned a lot more nuance about the problems in those episodes (which I also liked, but which gave me some eyebrow-raising moments too) from this.

    Now to go read Karnythia’s essay about S3.

  3. I can see what you’re saying. I was wondering if, now we’ve had this conversation, you might be willing to add something to that tumblr post? It’s kind of mean and a bit personal as it stands, and I’d like to see the real me added to it. The tremendous, depersonalising distance of a lot of internet criticism really gets me down, and I try to show up and say ‘real person here’.

    1. yeah. It’s probably best of I just reblog it and mention our discussion here.

      I can see what you mean about Internet criticism. I could explain it, but you probably know the reason why it happens already.

    1. Agreed. But you know who else is always expected to put others needs in front of their own? People of Color. When it comes to white people, at least. This is why stereotypes like the Mammy and the Strong Black Woman are so prevalent.

      I really, really encourage you to read Karnythia’s essay that I linked above.

      In the context of Series 3 and Martha’s story arc within, she’s not just called on to put others needs in front of her own once or twice, but a whole bunch. Now, it can definitely be pegged as heroic sacrifice in many instances, such as when she walks the earth in the finale. However, when she has to work in a shop in Blink, when she is the one who has to risk herself to get food for the Doctor and Jack in The Sound of Drums, when she has to be a maid in Human Nature, there’s a different tenor to those actions.

      Add to this that the Doctor constantly makes her feel like she’s second best for no good reason. For almost the entire series he behaves really badly toward her, and yet she continues to stay with him. Because, really, she shouldn’t expect better treatment, should she? She’s just a black girl.

      Again: this message was likely not anyone’s intention. But it’s the message that women of color like me saw all too clearly.

      One might even argue that we see it because we want to see it, but based on my lived experience, this is exactly the kind of unconscious attitude that white people hold without realizing, that then comes out in harmful ways. Exactly the kind of thing they don’t see or perceive because they don’t experience it.

      Just look at you: you actually see that moment as a heroic one. You wrote it to be that way. But that’s not how it comes off.

      That Martha would be willing to have Joan fly away in the TARDIS with them is basically her agreeing to not only being second best to a woman who wasn’t even physically present but then to a woman who the Doctor would be trying hard to please, unlike the way he treats her. Why would any person willingly put themselves in that position? How is that brave or heroic? Just because you do something that will make someone else happy at your own expense, that doesn’t signify heroism.

      Walking the earth for a year makes Martha a hero. Being willing to be second best makes me think that she feels she’s not good enough. And that makes me want to scream and cry because every moment of almost every one of her episodes in that season was a testament to how much she didn’t deserve to be treated so poorly by the Doctor and.

  4. I think he apologised for everything. My favourite thing, placed between the lines, is that, at the end, she’s even brave enough to offer to go and ask Joan to join them in the TARDIS.

    1. This may be a British vs. American thing, but after all that I kinda felt Martha deserved a big, gregarious apology complete with a neon sign in the sky saying: MY BAD, I DONE FUCKED UP. But that is me :)

      I really didn’t like that Martha offered to go talk to Joan so she could come fly away with them in the end because I saw it as another way she was taking care of the Doctor and putting his needs in front of hers. It was certainly nice of her, and selfless, and maybe in another context or at the end of a different episode I could have seen it differently.

  5. I think it’s clear that, in some ways, we simply let you down, and I’m sorry about that. Some of this stuff one just can’t argue with, really. Back then we saw ‘chosen by the Tardis’ as a more poetic way of saying ‘by a roll of the dice’, but yes, it’s our choices that mattered. As a British person, the idea that in 1914 Joan would have known about women of colour being doctors feels very strange to me. That sort of cultural information would have been hard to come by (people of her class would have been surprised by that, I think, up until the 1950s, some much later), and I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to assume her ignorance. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think one of the reasons the text is problematic for you is that you feel kicked by the heroine expressing such things. The way institutional bigotries touch good people (because I think it’s important to be able to acknowledge one’s own racism, so I also think it’s important to show racism as a flaw in otherwise positive characters) is a theme in my work. I’ve read the Butler, which is, as you say, the best sort of SF.

    1. Thanks, I appreciate that a lot :)

      Obviously this is not something you can go back and change unless the Doctor is about to show up at your place with a TARDIS. But the reason that I’m glad you wanted to participate in this discussion was to make you aware of what I and others think of that ep so you can keep in mind for the future. It sounds like you think about these issues a lot already and I can only say: awesome, thank you, keep doing so!

      As a British person, the idea that in 1914 Joan would have known about women of colour being doctors feels very strange to me.

      I will have to defer to historians on this one, because I admit I don’t know. When I first watched the episode what Joan said didn’t strike me as being out of character — I had been expecting something like that to happen. And I was less annoyed by that specific scene as I was by the general situation of the episode.

      You’re right that there can be racist attitudes in otherwise positively-portrayed characters, just as you can in real life. And I think it’s appropriate to acknowledge and portray these things as long as the tone or attitude of the media — TV, movies, fiction, whatever — is explicit in pinging the audience that this attitude is wrong.

      Where that may have gone wonky in this ep for me is that Martha was a maid, and the Doctor never even apologized for that.

      Anyway, I feel like I understand where you were coming from a lot better now. Thanks again for coming over to discuss this with me. (And feel free to drop in anytime.)

    2. As I’m the one that brought up Joan knowing about women of color training to be doctors I feel like I should interject here as a historian to point out that it was always newsworthy & often treated as a huge scandal. Scandals like it would have been much talked about above & below stairs & the question of race & gender would have been mentioned every time it came up. There’s no way a woman of Joan’s class wouldn’t have heard about it & that line she utters kind of betrays the fact that she knows women are training as doctors. If she knows about white women it seems very odd that she wouldn’t know about people of color at medical school.

  6. So do I, she’s my favourite. She’s not there by a character’s choice, though, but by accident. (You seem to deny us that in the tumblr bit, somehow.) Feeling pain watching it is fine, in many ways that’s me doing my job, because drama is meant to make the viewer identify to the point of being hurt. And I think that all companions are either being looked after by, or looking after, the Doctor. They are in danger together, after all. I can only say that I think Joan’s reaction is right for her social position, and that her compassion has nothing to do with it. She’s been formed in a racist society, and that touches even ‘good people’.

    1. She’s not there by a character’s choice, though, but by accident.

      But she is there by A choice. Your choice, RTD’s choice, or whoever. Someone chose to put Martha in that situation, and that choice has some strong emotional resonances. Even if, in the story, it’s an accident, from a creator’s perspective it’s not.

      And from an out of story perspective, it’s a problematic choice. Once you made it, you had to make other choices, like the way in which you brought up race and where and when.

      Do you get how that choice affects a portion of the viewership? (honest question, as I’m trying to gauge how well I’m expressing the issue.)

      In story, I still think it’s a cheat to say it was an accident. I just watched the scene again, and the Doctor says that the TARDIS gives the Doctor a backstory and integrates him. Well, the TARDIS is aware, not just that Martha is with him (even though it can’t invent a backstory for her, too), but also that she’s black and that there are certain time periods where it’s more or less easy for her to integrate comfortably. So why choose 1913 Britain? Why not 2113 or 2013 or 2613? If the TARDIS isn’t smart enough to figure out that 1913 was probably a bad choice for Martha, the Doctor shouldn’t have left it up to the TARDIS.

      Out of story, I know the reason why the TARDIS chose 1913. That doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable or anger-making.

      Feeling pain watching it is fine, in many ways that’s me doing my job, because drama is meant to make the viewer identify to the point of being hurt.

      True, but there’s a difference in identifying with a character and feeling sorrow when they sorrow and joyous when they’re joyous because you like the character and build a connection with them through the drama and feeling pain because you’re seeing some racism on television and get the feeling that the people behind the television are being obliviously racist for no reason or just unconsciously.

      This makes me think of Octavia Butler. You’re familiar with her work, right? If not, you should read her stuff, it’s fabulous. Anyway, the first novel of hers I ever read as a teen was Kindred, and it’s the story of a black woman in modern day America (I believe it was written in the 80s or 90s) who keeps getting sucked back in time to the days of slavery. She figures out that she’s being specifically drawn back to one of her ancestors, who was a slave, and the slave owner who is also her ancestor due to him raping the slave.

      At first the trips back are short, but then she gets stuck there for a long stretch and has to BE a slave.

      Up until that point, I had never read a book that punched me in the gut so hard with identification. I almost couldn’t finish it because I identified so directly with the protagonist. I thought: what if that happened to me? I don’t think I could even begin to handle what she went through.

      Butler is a black woman as well, and if I had to guess I’d say that was the germ of the book: her wondering how she would handle life if snatched back into that dark past.

      That book had a severe emotional effect on me, and that’s why I’ll always count it as one of the best I’ve ever read. But the reason I was able to read it and not get angry at it is because of the way Butler handled the very thorny issues at hand. I trusted her (almost completely because she is a black woman, but also because she’s a good writer).

      Drama is meant to create an emotional response in the audience, but if the emotional response I feel is: “oh great, more racist shit,” I don’t think that’s what you’re going for. I’m not feeling angry or in pain because I identify with Martha as a character, I feel anger and pain because as a black woman I feel insulted. That’s not what you’re going for, either.

      There’s a really fine line between these two responses and it’s very easy to cross if you’re not careful. It’s also easy to cross if you don’t get that there’s a line there. I think that’s what’s happening here.

      And I will stress again that I really don’t think you meant to be intentionally insulting or racist or anything. I don’t think you are racist, either.

      And I think that all companions are either being looked after by, or looking after, the Doctor. They are in danger together, after all.

      Not all in the same way, though. I’m not as familiar with classic Who as I am with the new stuff, so feel free to bring up stuff from before the reboot. But none of the white female companions have had to care for the Doctor in so direct a way.

      I mean obviously they’re there to “take care” of the Doctor the way friends take care of each other. But I don’t recall a time when Rose, Donna, Amy, or even River have had to work in a shop to support the Doctor because for some reason he can’t get a job for himself or been a literal servant of the Doctor in order to keep an eye on him. The closest we come with Rose is when she has to be a lunch lady.

      Martha is put in a subordinate position in which she directly serves the Doctor. Not even figuratively. Not emotionally. That is the issue of the Mammy stereotype.

      I can only say that I think Joan’s reaction is right for her social position, and that her compassion has nothing to do with it. She’s been formed in a racist society, and that touches even ‘good people’.

      So you’re saying that even though she might have been aware that women of color had become doctors, the attitudes formed by her being in a racist society negates that fact at the moment?

      Okay. I can see that. I have no problem with Joan just being wrong.

  7. This was a supremely difficult decision, and one I didn’t make alone. I think what it comes down to is this: since there is only one mention of racism in the script (depends what you think the boys are up to when they have a go at both maids), the question is, do we have everyone in (upper class, somewhat sheltered) 1914 be portrayed as absolutely non-racist, or do we note the possibility? I hate it when series set in the past ignore the racism of previous eras to extraordinary degrees. (To not have Martha hammered with it *every time* she sets foot in the past was, though, I think, the right decision.) I think it airbrushes the suffering of individuals back then out of history, by implicitly saying things were always all right. However, as you’re in the group portrayed here, I think your voice should have weight, and I don’t want to push it aside through my own privilege. It’d be really good if we could manage to have the (perhaps first ever) caring, dignified chat about race in the series. Mainly because I’m an enormous wuss and if it gets heated I could well disgrace myself with the wailing and the sobbing.

    1. Hi Paul, sorry my response is so late. Work and things.

      And of course we can have a caring and dignified chat about race and DW :) It happens all the time, actually, though perhaps in fan communities where you don’t regularly hang out due to them being fan communities and suchlike.

      I do think it was the right decision to have race addressed in the episode and also fine that it wasn’t addressed constantly because that wouldn’t have been realistic. I did always feel the boys were making nasty comments about Martha’s race in that earlier scene.

      For me and for (I believe) Karnythia, it’s not the fact that the nurse woman puts down Martha in this scene because of her race, but that she does it in a way that should be inaccurate for a woman of her intelligence and seeming compassion. If she’s just trying to be mean to Martha, that’s one thing. But for her not to know that it’s at all possible for women of color to be doctors is an extra twist of the knife in an episode that was already exasperating.

      Overall, I just think the entire premise here is too flawed to work for the reasons I mentioned above. Martha is in this situation not by chance, by by choice. Someone’s choice. And that makes it really painful, as a woman of color, to watch. It makes it even more painful when I watch and I don’t trust that the people behind the show have thought enough about those choices, though I am glad to hear some of the background on that. I never thought anyone on the DW team was being completely thought*less*.

      It also yet another instance of Martha being pegged in the stereotypical role of Mammy — i.e. it’s her job to take care of the Doctor. Karnythia actually has a really excellent essay delving into this topic that I’ll link to rather than try to paraphrase since it’s worth reading.

      The swirl of all these things coming together is what ignites the fire you saw on that Tumblr post, which is everyone just going GRR ARG WHY. We have so much love for Martha.

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