Is a person responsible for things they don’t remember doing? For keeping promises they don’t remember making?
As far as John Smith knows, he is whole and complete as he is. There is no ‘better’ version. There is no other life. This one is enough. Joan Redfern agrees; John Smith is a good man, a remarkable man, a courageous man. Why should he give his life for a stranger neither of them has ever met? What if he did go to the Family and hand over the watch?
The person no one ever thinks of is Martha.
Yes, she knew the risks when she boarded the TARDIS. There was always a chance of never getting home. She has faced death before. She has even faced life lost forever under an alien sun. The Doctor constantly promises things he can’t possibly hope to deliver. Why should this be any different?
Here, the Doctor’s choices trap Martha in a difficult and restrictive life. Between her class and her color, she is shut out of any opportunity she might have had at home. She is entirely dependent on the Doctor – John Smith – for her livelihood. Yes, she is a smart woman, and given time might very well figure something out, but what must she face in the meantime? For no other reason than her friend has forgotten her? Even after less than three months she chafes at the social mores of 1913. How would she manage a year? the rest of her life?*
She faced loss and separation on New Earth in ‘Gridlock,’ but there she was a free woman and her friend was looking for her. In ‘The Last of the Time Lords,’ she walked the world alone, facing unimaginable horrors – for the purpose of saving it. In neither case was she abandoned, without hope or friends. In each case there was a goal to strive for, a chance that not all was lost. In ‘Human Nature’ there is none. If the Doctor remains John Smith, she is stranded.
So, is that John Smith’s problem?
The Doctor asked Martha to trust him. The Doctor asked her to look out for him. The Doctor chose to hide, endangering his friend and an entire community, to avoid bloodying his own hands. Maybe he believed the chances of discovery were small. Maybe he never imagined how completely human he would become. Maybe he thought it was really the better choice. But John Smith doesn’t know this. He never promised to take Martha home. He never wanted to be anyone other than himself. Is he responsible for the Doctor’s words, the Doctor’s actions?
Fortunately for Martha, John Smith is a courageous man. In the end he gives his life, uncertain as he is, persuaded by Martha, Tim, even Joan, that it’s the only way. That he, John Smith, never had a future at all. He sacrifices himself, where the Doctor was unwilling to. He is, as Joan says, the better man.
It wasn’t his fault; it wasn’t his job. It was his choice.
*Truthfully Martha could have done very well. War is imminent, and her skills would be highly valued in the next several years. Perhaps she would find satisfaction in a nursing career after the war; not the doctorate she had aimed for, but a place where she could help as she always wanted to do. The women’s suffrage movement is also imminent; her awareness of the impacts of feminism could make her a powerful leader. What did great women aspire to in 20s and 30s England? What might she have accomplished? And when she reached the end of her life, in the decades in which her parents were growing up, would she be sorry? Would she regret the Doctor’s choice in the end? Would she regret her family’s ultimate grief? Would she regret the twenty-first century life she never got to live?
Or would she look at what she had done for her country, and consider it enough?