THIS EPISODE TAKES
PLACE AFTER THE NOVEL
"THE LAST DODO," AND
IMMEDIATELY PRIOR TO
THE TV EPISODE "THE
FAMILY OF BLOOD."
'THE COMPLETE THIRD
EXCLUSIVE DVD BOX
RELEASED IN NOVEMBER
ENGLAND 1913, AND A
SCHOOLTEACHER BY THE
NAME OF JOHN SMITH
HAS STRANGE DREAMS
OF ADVENTURES IN TIME
26TH MAY 2007
(45-MINUTE EPISODE, PART 1 OF 2)
I’m sure that I’m misquoting somebody when I say that stories are never finished, they’re abandoned. Except for Paul Cornell’s Human Nature, that is. Times and Doctors and formats may change, but stories as powerful as this one can evolve right along with them.
In the world of Doctor Who novels, Human Nature is the literary equivalent of a serial like The Caves of Androzani or The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Even those (like myself) who do not consider it to be the absolute best, generally accept that it is there or thereabouts. But now, twelve years on from the novel’s publication, Human Nature hits Britain’s television screens as a lavish two-part spectacular, and in doing so it sets itself up amongst the very, very best of the Doctor’s televised adventures to date.
Above: Joan, Wolsey and Smith in the BBCi e-book version of the novel
To be absolutely honest, I didn’t know what to expect of this episode. It has been a hell of a long time since I read the novel, and whilst I may have been sorely tempted over the last few weeks, I have somehow managed to resist the urge to dust off my copy of Human Nature and get myself back up to speed. I wanted this episode to be a whole new experience and, from what I’d seen in the trailers – scarecrows and “chameleon arches” etc –, I had a feeling that it was going to be.
With his adaptation of the novel, Cornell has gone back to basics. What we see on screen
is the original story completely deconstructed, and then rebuilt with the new series and the new audience in mind. The basic tenets are the same, but there are profound differences in the execution. As good as it was, the novel was catering for a very different audience and, more fundamentally, it was told in a completely different medium. The reflective book dwelt heavily on Smith’s humble existence and the simple pleasures that he took from his life. On television, Cornell uses just the odd scene or two to get the same ideas across much more economically. What we see come to life before our eyes here is a fast-paced, exciting and spellbinding adventure. It’s glossy. It’s quick. But, just like the novel, it is still quite brilliant.
“All the times I’ve wondered…”
From the explosive pre-title sequence, it was immediately evident that we were dealing with a very different animal. Amidst a tumult of weapons fire, the Doctor races into the TARDIS asking Martha if ‘they’; had seen their faces. When he realised that ‘they’ had not, he knew that he had only one way out of his predicament. He would have to do it. To avoid the Time Lord-hunting Family of Blood, the Doctor transforms himself both physically and mentally in-to a human being. He has one heart; a heart capable of loving intimately, as opposed to on
a grand scale. One woman, as opposed to the whole world.
And this time around, Cornell wastes no time in introducing us to Joan, the kindly Matron
who has her eye on ‘John Smith’ from the off. I was surprised at how different the dynamic was between the two characters on screen; of course the seventh Doctor was much older in appearance than the tenth, and so in print I had always imagined Joan to be a more mature lady. On television though, Jessica Stevenson is a relatively young woman, so rather than wile away their evenings together playing chess and stroking cats, on television Smith and Joan snog and go dancing. They fall down stairs and mend scarecrows. They save babies from pianos. Their romance is much more explicit than I remember the book ever being, but it works just as wonderfully.
Smith and Joan are both very likeable characters, yet neither is perfect. With Smith, there is an underlying Doctorishness that occasionally pervades into his human life, but on the whole he is a completely different and separate entity – a fact from which the whole tragedy of this story stems. Smith does do the odd remarkable thing – the piano stunt, for example – but he isn’t perfect and he makes mistakes – at times you’re thinking “c’mon Doctor, you sell-out, do something!” or cringing as he allows young Tim Latimer to be taken for a beating. And when Martha slaps him for being both patronising and even a little bit racist in his attitude towards her (“Cultural differences! It must be so confusing for you. Martha, this is what we call a story…), you can’t help but take her side.
And poor Martha certainly has a hard time of it in this episode. The culture of 1913 is as alien to her as 1914 was to Benny in the novel. Martha is openly and cruelly mocked about the colour of her skin; she has her aptitude insulted by people who are undoubtedly far less intelligent than she is; she has her new best friend taken over by a malevolent alien entity; and - the most painful indignity of all - she has to watch as the man that she loves falls for another woman.
“You had to go and fall in love with a human. And it wasn’t me.”
though admittedly there is a unique sense of romance intrinsic to the
winter before the Great War. On Doctor Who Confidential they call it
“a time of innocence”, but I think that’s far too kind. If the characters of
Human Nature are anything to go by, it was a time of ignorance. A time
of apathy. A time when those like young Latimer, who had the courage
to speak out against racism or imperialism, found themselves the victim
of institutionalised bullying. Hutchinson, for example, encapsulates all of
these despicable traits, and Tom Palmer has to be given a great deal of
credit for making the character even more vile than he ever came across
And as for Jeremy Baines, Harry Lloyd (Robin Hood)
is absolutely incredible in the role, both before and aft-
er the Aubertide possesses him. There’s a cold rage
behind those eyes of his; a truly frightening edge. Bai-nes is unhinged, as indeed are all the Family of Blood. Mr Clark and ‘Mother of Mine’ Jenny are also both impressive, as is the ‘Daughter of Mine’ character. Little girls are invariably ch-illing when used well in science fiction – take Fear Her, for example – but this kid is really off the page. The Remembrance of the Daleks style music that accompanies her appearances only adds to the sense of unease.
“Activate the soldiers!”
Oddly enough though, the one element of the novel that I singled out for criticism was the villainous Aubertides, which have given way to this Family of Blood here. Because Human Nature was such a contemplative piece, particularly in the first half of the book I found that I couldn’t really care less about the rather bland baddies and that I just wanted to read about Smith. Now on television, this balance has been redressed. The whole emphasis of the plot has changed; this Family of Blood are the reason for the Doctor’s becoming human. And what’s more, they’re a bona fide and legitimate threat, backed up with an army of shit-your-pants scary scarecrows. I mean, how good was that? Batman Begins-style Scarecrows? Brilliant! I only hope that the balance remains the same through The Family of Blood and that we are treated to the same kind of action that the novel eventually delivered towards its end. That’s if they can get away with having schoolboys fighting aliens with machine guns at 7.10pm on a Saturday night…
“The Doctor is the man you’d like to be, doing impossible things with cricket balls.”
However, as this Family of Blood has become more integral to the story, sadly something has been lost. Ever since his first Doctor Who story – the 1991 Virgin novel Timewyrm: Re-velation – Cornell has skilfully explored the Doctor’s thoughts and feelings in a way that no-one before him ever had. In Revelation he literally had Ace take a stroll inside the Doctor’s psyche, and then in the original Human Nature novel, he once again looked at the Doctor’s anguish, but from a different angle. In the book, when the Doctor made himself human it was not to shroud himself from a gang of alien creatures who wanted to become Time Lords; it was because he had been through so much grief and pain and he was sick to death of it all. He wanted to leave it all behind. He wanted to become human.
And after what the tenth Doctor has recently been through (losing Rose, fifteen years as a Postman et al) I thought that Cornell would use the same device again here, possibly even more effectively than the first time around. From what I remember, much of the tension in what will be next week’s episode stems from the conflict within Smith – if you’re a happy
man living a quiet life with your new lover, would you be prepared to sacrifice yourself so
that a cold and calculating alien adventurer might live? And I guess that’s where it all falls down; what may have prompted this shift in emphasis. The tenth Doctor may be brutal to
his enemies, but he is not the ruthless manipulator that his seventh incarnation was. And if we’re honest, no-one really knows what goes on inside the Doctor’s head. Maybe he could have escaped the Family of Blood by some other means. Maybe he did want to become human, just as his seventh self did.
Or maybe not.
“Have you enjoyed it, Doctor? Being human? Has it taught you wonderful things? Are you better? Richer? Wiser? Then let's see you answer this – which one of them do you want us to kill? Your friend or your lover?”
On the whole though, Human Nature is an absolute phenom of an episode and, unlike most two-part stories, I firmly expect the second instalment to be even better than the first. Without exception the performances are awesome, especially from Freema Agyeman, who has this week suffered a cruel introduction to the media circus that now surrounds the show. What’s more, the visuals are first-rate, and the story is every bit as good as it has always been, if not better. There are even a few loving nods to Doctor Who’s long history – “Sydney and Verity”, and a handful of past Doctors.
On a final note, as a huge fan of many of the Doctor Who novels, I would just like to say that I hope that this two-parter isn’t the last adaptation that we will ever see. Doctor Who’s sixteen-year hiatus gave rise to unbridled creativity in the spin-off media, and as a result some of the series’ very best stories exist only in print. But if the current production team can recognise the quality of stories like Human Nature and bring them to life this vividly, then the sky really is the limit.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2007
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Quite astonishingly, and no doubt contrary to authorial intent, the events of this adventure can be reconciled with the events of the novel Human Nature on which it is based. This is because this story takes place in November 1913, five months prior to the events of the novel. However, this theory admittedly relies on one being prepared to accept that the Doctor could enjoy two suspiciously similar adventures with suspiciously similar protagonists and then forget all about the earlier one, but we’ve made bigger leaps...
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