The Family of Blood.

TV Glancing through the back of the new dvd release of Robot, as well as noticing that they've forgotten to mention that Barry Letts is on the commentary track (poor Barry) I misread the top line of the synopsis so that instead of 'mortally' it said 'morally' and so became 'Morally weakened by the Spider Queen on Metabelis 3, the Doctor is forced to regenerate'. Apart from offering the wonderful image of Pertwee finally letting his hair down and the timelord stopping off at Metabelis 4 to pick up some skank and a bit of skirt before making a few bets on a gladiatorial contest in Ancient Rome, it demonstrates how lately I've really been hoping that my favourite television series (tm) would surprise me. And tonight, for a change, it did, right from the opening through to the climax.

I loved the unpredictability of Gridlock and but I think this two parter, concluding tonight with The Family of Blood, might claim to be one of the best (if not the best) stories ever. I'm so pleased that my hyperbole of last week hasn't been misplaced and that once again, in the middle of some familiar tropes it managed to become something totally new. This was dark, ugly, strange, melancholic yet still witty and yes, totally surprising, and in fact everything that BBC Four's Children's TV on Trial season suggested has disappeared from children's and even family television entertainment.

Primarily it was about death, one of the subjects that lately we've apparently been trying to hide from kids. From the confirmation that when the family possessed the human vessels the original person is gone, to the boys taking up arms again the scarecrows in a rehearsal for the theatre of war a year later, to Joan taking John and Martha to the house of the little girl understanding that the owners will have been vapourised, to the family not wanting to die by stealing the timelord longevity, to John Smith dealing with his own mortality so that the Doctor can live and finally that all of this wouldn't have occurred, as I suggested last week, if the time lord had chosen a different place and time to 'hide'. Yes, kids it's a shitty world and you're all going to die.

Yet in the midst of that it provided an admirable sense of hope. The boys didn't kill anyone because the scarecrows are filled with straw, the family don't die in a variety of grim somewhat cruel ways, John Smith is still there under the surface of the Doctor this time not the other way around and by returning the Doctor saves them all. Again. Tim and his friend live because he's able to see the future and dodge the bomb, and he lives to a ripe old age, old enough to commemorate his fallen comrades in what is possibly one of the new series best conclusions. Yes, we're meant to feel but on this occasion it was earned and those of us who slept through History at school learnt something in the process.

But it was a mark of the story that it still managed to rattle along but unlike elsewhere it stayed tonally concrete. One of the few moments of humour, when Martha showed that, yes, it is possible for someone of her social class to be a Doctor came from another reminder of the casual racism that went on at the time (and at the same time daring to make Joan a slightly unsympathetic character with modern eyes). That battle sequence provided the requisite action but tempered with the image of boys shooting guns, the very people who shouldn't be anywhere near a battlefield yet still are in some parts of the world. Some time in the future, perhaps someone will write an essay about those scarecrows and how they could be seen as a symbol of the objectification of the enemy that goes on in war, the apparently necessary disregarding of your opponent as being human.

The magical connection between the boy and the watch was wonderfully redolent of the adaptations of the past of C S Lewis and John Masefield, of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and particularly The Box of Delights, finding through an object fantastical doorway into another world and adventures. Of course, today's kids might see Harry Potter parallels and that's fine but part of me wondered if there was the potential for another spin-off, of the watch's powers not being completely depleted as Tim drifts through history writing wrongs as he goes, a kind of Quantum Leap going the slow way. The story also harked back to the kinds of fantasy stories the BBC has always done so well but has lately abandoned for being too out of step with contemporary society. The fates of the family where laced with the kind of fairytale imagination you'd expect from The Brothers Grimm and Lemony Snicket, the little girl trapped in all mirrors everywhere perhaps appearing out of the corner of a child's eye whenever they wash their face in the morning.

The way these fates were revealed, the villain's voice over a montage sequence was again another example of how this story plays about with time and innovative approach to editing. That's not entirely new -- see Elton narrating his story in Love & Monsters, but it managed to turn these murderous fiends into sympathetic characters in order to heighten the darkness in the Doctor's character. The flashes forward were a treat too and it's nice that it wasn't clear whether John and Joan had actually been given the opportunity to experience that life for themselves within those moments rather like the fallen messiah in The Last Temptation of Christ or for a genre reference Picard in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Inner Light. It would be lovely to think that the watch (and the spector of the Doctor hidden within) had given Smith the opportunity to live a version of the life he was about to give up to ease his choice.

The impeccable (there's that word again) production design continued this week with the apparent reliance on location filming paying dividends in terms of creating a sense of place. If some of the CG didn't quite integrate properly (I'm thinking this time of the mass of scarecrows which looked like different groups matched together) the episode still benefited from a cohesive approach to period design meaning that when elements of the future did intrude (the sonic screwdriver, the Tardis, the space ship) they looked even more alien. For a comparison see the Daleks in Manhattan episodes in which looked like a recreation of a movie version of the past rather then the authentic article. It's a fine line but if your setting is believable it goes some way to helping the audience suspend their disbelief and enjoy the story all the more.

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