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May 26, 2007

A Most Uncommon Man

Three years ago, I sat in a café at the University of East Anglia with Paul Cornell, as he drank a cup of tea and we chatted about Doctor Who. I was at the time involved with the running of the university’s student television station, Nexus UTV, and that year we were hosting the annual National Student Television Association Awards. Not just an excuse for a single booze-up but a whole three day shebang, we were tasked with putting on various events over the course of the conference. At my suggestion, we’d invited Cornell – who’d already kindly agreed to judge the drama category that year – down to the campus for an afternoon to give a talk about writing for television, which he was generous enough to also agree to. A very nice chap, I have to say.

Three years ago, I sat in a café at the University of East Anglia with Paul Cornell, as he drank a cup of tea and we chatted about Doctor Who.

Anyway, we sat there chatting as we waited for all the various attendees to gather across at the venue where he was to talk, and we discussed the impending new series, about which he was of course allowed to say very little at the time. This was just about slap-bang in between the casting of the leads, when we knew Eccleston was to be the Doctor, but hadn’t heard about Piper yet. So, early days.

We talked about what Doctor Who we liked, and what we didn’t like, and needless to say the subject of the New Adventures came up. He enthused about the work of Kate Orman, and I had to rather sheepishly confess that, a few books aside, I hadn’t really been a great fan of the range, seeing myself as rather too ‘traditional’ a fan to be part of the audience they were aiming at. He was perfectly nice about this and we swiftly moved on to other things, but it felt a rather difficult thing to confess to, because this was the man whose work had been so emblematic of that range of books. With Human Nature in particular, he had provided them with the gold standard by which other Doctor Who novels are so often judged.

All these years after I basically and incredibly rudely told the man I wasn’t that much of a fan… I have to admit that I was wrong.

I was never entirely swayed by those who spoke of the book as one of the greatest Doctor Who stories that had ever been written, but this time, in this new version, all these years after I basically and incredibly rudely told the man I wasn’t that much of a fan… I have to admit that I was wrong. Because this was wonderful. Perhaps it’s because the story has had time to mature and develop in Cornell’s mind; perhaps because of Davies’s magic touch; perhaps simply because of the different demands of a different medium, but Human Nature in its television form took the very best of the story and substance and heart of the novel, combined it with the freshness and vigour of the new television series, and created something very special indeed.

Let us start with the visual. Director Charles Palmer was praised by many for his work on the first two episodes of series three, so it was no surprise to see that once again he created a dynamic, involving look to the episode. It also stood out, though, because it had such a rural setting. Somehow, alien spaceships and laser beams in the heart of the English countryside have a very nostalgic quality to them. It’s strange, in that I cannot off the top of my head think of a specific series whose style this evokes, but the tone seemed to evoke memories of British science-fiction and fantasy series of old. That immediately gave it a different feel to the often urban and gritty episodes of the new series, ever since the beginning of series one, and helped to identify the first instalment of this two-parter as something unique.

It’s becoming almost needless to say that the BBC always create period settings very well, and we are in danger sometimes of taking it for granted. But the truth is that they do. It’s no longer true, at least not quite so true, what Andrew Cartmel is always saying about BBC designers being far happier in the past than in the future, but all the same the history of Britain does bring out the best in them. Sets, costumes, and all other departments combined to make it look like a proper period drama, and not just the token effort that fantasy shows usually give on shoddy backdrops when they slide back into the past. This was sumptuous.

I can’t imagine that anybody who has read the book will have any problems identifying Jessica Hynes’s portrayal of Joan.

The performances matched the direction and the design. I can’t imagine that anybody who has read the book will have any problems identifying Jessica Hynes’s portrayal of Joan with the character as presented originally on the printed page. She has the same passions and angers, the same drives and emotions, and it was pleasing to see that while making the perfect match for John Smith, the perhaps less positive aspects of the character were also retained. In the book, Joan makes an off-the-cuff joke about the Irish at one point, and some of this survived in her apparent relief that John was not an Irishman. Similarly, her dismissal of Martha – which could, I suppose, have come dangerously close to the schoolboy’s racism nearer the start of the episode, but didn’t – is very like her general antipathy towards Bernice in the novel, although as the story went on that was more fuelled by the dreadful fear of what Bernice was going to take away from her.

Thomas Sangster as Tim had less to deal with than the book version of the character, as the bullying he received seemed positively tame by comparison, but nonetheless he seems to be headed the same way as his literary counterpart. Oddly, I thought he seemed a touch too young for the part, but that might just be compared to the older boys we saw elsewhere in the school. One of whom was Baines – a wonderfully creepy performance by Harry Lloyd once he’d been taken over by ‘the Family’.

Speaking of which, I was worried that the vile nature of the aliens might be toned down somewhat for this version, but a lot of their attitudes were still intact. All the business in the ship with their disembodied voices before they took Baines over was suitably sinister, and a new invention for television of their scarecrow servants was terrific. There was more than a passing nod to The Singing Detective, I think, when the scarecrow first appeared to move, but in an episode full of nods and allusions – as the series as a whole so often is – that can only add to the fun. The Family has been streamlined a little from the novel, though, and there was sadly not much of the creepiest element of all from the book, the girl with the balloon. At least she’s there, though, and I hope she gets up to more of her gruesome tricks next week.

There was sadly not much of the creepiest element of all from the book, the girl with the balloon.

David Tennant discussed on the Doctor Who Confidential episode accompanying Human Nature how he approached Smith as a completely new character, and he certainly seems very different and yet in some ways very similar to the Tenth Doctor. I was worried that the character taking on a human aspect would not be noticeable given how very human he already is, but Cornell confounded my expectations by using the less desirable aspects of humanity to highlight Smith’s human nature. His attitude during the Officer Training Corps sequence, for example, extolling the virtues of the gun practice and allowing Tim to be punished, was shocking for those used to the Doctor’s heroism and sense of right and justice, and showed us effectively just how different a man he is. True, this is also in the book, but somehow the contrast with the Tenth Doctor is greater than it was with the darker, more manipulative Seventh. Tennant was terrific all the way through, from this ruthlessness right through to his touching romance with Joan.

Also impressive was Freema Agyeman as Martha, and her character’s presence in early 20th century England was also well-handled. The racial issue was dealt with but never overplayed, and her concern for the Doctor and dismay at being in this situation was all very good.

Until the moment when Martha goes back to the TARDIS for the first time, there’s absolutely no indication that the Doctor isn’t actually a creation of Smith’s imagination.

Martha had at least had a little time to get used to the situation – the audience were pretty much flung into it. Indeed, for the vast majority of casual viewers unfamiliar with the book it must have been even more surprising and mysterious an episode than it was for those of us who do know the story, and I envy them in a way. Consider, after all, that until the moment when Martha goes back to the TARDIS for the first time, there’s absolutely no indication that the Doctor isn’t actually a creation of Smith’s imagination. It certainly must have had some people guessing.

Smith’s journal, another element taken from the book but expanded on somewhat here, provided the first of several little touches that must have gladdened the hearts of fans everywhere when it once and for all stuck the final nail in the coffin of any of those still clinging to a ‘Paul McGann doesn’t count’ mantra. He’s right there in black and white, sketched by the Doctor alongside his other incarnations. Another heartening touch, added by Davies, was the names of the Doctor’s parents – as soon as we heard the first, I think we all knew at once what the second was going to be, didn’t we? Some might see it as over-indulgent, perhaps, but then again Lambert herself did a similar thing back in The Rescue (‘Sydney Wilson’), so there’s an excuse if any were needed. Which it wasn’t!

And as if this episode needed anything else to confirm that it’s one of the finest of the run, we get an honest-too-goodness old-fashioned cliffhanger, with the music sting crashing in perfectly and making me wish it was next Saturday right now. Some might fear that after such a great first half whatever comes next can only be a disappointment, but I have great confidence in any team that can produce something this wonderful. And if next week’s is only half as good as this, it’ll still have been a powerful and gripping story.

One thing’s for sure – if I ever happen to meet that Paul Cornell again, I’ll make sure I buy him something stronger than tea as a thank you for gracing the series with this.

Comments

I completely missed the reference with "John Smith's" parents, that's a great touch!

The journal was a lovely sequence too, just because I wanted to see what monsters were in there. I was happy alone just seeing the Cybermen, but that 'blink and you'll miss it' page with the previous incarnations of the Doctor on it was pure fanboy giddy stuff. You could clearly make out numbers 4, 5, 7 and 8...not quite sure about the guy on the left, looked a bit like 1. There seemed to be three guys at the top of the page we couldn't see, I'd imagine that pictures of that whole journal page would be much requested by fans!

I'm going to hold off writing a review until I've seen both parts, but this was a very good episode for me. You pretty much nailed all my reasons why...although I thought Baines slightly overdid it a bit with his constant loppy grin and bug eyes compared to the way the other 3 behaved...but that's nothing much to complain about.

A very eloquent review there Paul, you name-dropper you.

As you mention the sketch, as I said in another comment here...

That was McGann right there - HE IS 100% CANON NOW OH YES.

Apart from being pleased like a proper anorak that the sketchbook was tying up loose ends of continuity, I also found it strangely moving.

Can I make one humble plea to any reviewers or commenters here?

Like a lot people I have not actually read the book Human Nature - so any discussion of the story being limited to this broadcast episode would be appreciated, as I am keen to read people's thoughts on the blog here spoiler-free.

McGann was right in the centre of the page, too...think they were really trying to make a point with that.

Geek out.

http://www.anorakzone.com/doctorwho/humannature2.jpg

I didn't even know there was still a debate over McGann being canon. All of those audio books and novels and a tv movie not enough for some people then?

Ah the infamous line of "the canonicity of the audios / books / comics is unclear." The Big Finish audios and BBC books (and DWM Comics! Izzy!), while weaving excellent stories and continuity for the Eighth Doctor, have unfortunately always existed in a grey area of canon.

As for the Movie, you've got me there. I've never understood how, after watching the titles, seeing the TARDIS spin, seeing Sylvester regenerate into Paul, and seeing the BBC logo in the credits, people can consider the TV Movie as not canon. Some people blame it on the American factor. Some people blame it on the single televised appearance. Granted, it was a joint BBC/FOX production, and it had a VERY short run, but I've always considered the the Eighth Doctor fondly, and as part of Canon, right until Russell himself stated clearly that this is the SAME Doctor that faced the Master in San Francisco on New Year's Eve.

I'd better stop now, and save something for my review, which will be coming after I've kicked this summer cold I'm suffering from, which has also delayed my review of 42. I will say that I've thought both episodes so far have been brilliant, and I'm looking forward to next week's.

By the way, anyone caught that clip of Utopia that's making the rounds?

Nice review Paul. The Singing Detective influence was reinforced by the casting of Gerard Horan (first man atacked by the scarecrows) who played Reginald, the hospital patient reading Marlow's book in TSD. I doubt that this was accidental.

What a great episode! Might even get me off my lazy arse to write a review. Might.

Great review. Good eyes above on the incarnations drawing.

Anyone else notice when the young boy had run off and opened the watch for the second time, the words "You are not alone." were uttered?

I may just go back and rewatch the season so far, to see if this is a story arc - or again just pulling our heartstrings taught with madness.

That was Reginald? Blimey! I'd never have noticed! :-)

Stu / Salem:

To expand upon my above quoting of myself from another comment-thread here -

"So what if it was just a pen and ink and wash drawing?

Forget arguments about whether the 1996 TV Movie was or was not proper Doctor Who...

That was McGann right there - HE IS 100% CANON NOW OH YES."

In my mind the 1996 TV Movie was already canon, but I know there are fans out there who refuse this idea.

Here's hoping the author finds time to update his thesis Canonicity in Doctor Who, last revised in March 2000, which I quote from:

"...we may in the future find that the movie may be considered
canonical if a future _Doctor Who_ series directly mentions the
events in the film and uses Paul McGann as the Doctor. [28] Much
like _K-9 and Company_ and "Dimensions in Time" the fate of the
Fox Television film's canonicity rests in the future. As of now,
the show is not canon.
As established at the start of the investigation, the rule
must always be followed, without exception, to determine
canonicity."

Link:
http://homepages.bw.edu/~jcurtis/Zepo_1.htm


"I didn't even know there was still a debate over McGann being canon. All of those audio books and novels and a tv movie not enough for some people then?"

Well, I generally think of the film as being canon (all this "ninth and tenth doctors" stuff, for example, seems to assume it)...except, of course, for all that "he's half human" bullshit. The Master clearly made a mistake there. Perhaps he was pissed after a night of drinking or something, but that can't possibly be right, if only because it's a mindnumbingly pathetic cliché.

I've put the half-human thing down to that his body would have been full of human blood from a blood transfusion in the operation, so messing up the regeneration.

I then tell myself to stop taking this stuff so seriously.

The link that I posted above is useful for anyone who has fretted over whether "A Fix With Sontarans" or "Dimensions in Time" or indeed the 1996 TV Movie could ever be considered canon.

The author is absolutely rigourous in his scholarly approach to canonicity, with extensive footnotes.

A little obsessive perhaps?

I couldn't possibly comment.

Impressive certainly.

(And of course the 1996 TV Movie is canon - though I still feel strangely satisfied about the McGann drawing.)

ARRGHH...Something clicked into place when Bill Godfrey said that.

Half-human - Human DNA received from blood transfusion - under normal circumstances a Time Lord body would have rejected human blood, but it died too soon, and the regeneration must have rewritten the human DNA from it into the Eighth Doctor's DNA. The Eighth, and probably ONLY the Eighth may well have been half-human.

On his mother's side: Grace was the last female he saw, and the one who ordered the transfusion: The Eighth's mother. Half human, on his mother's side.

Ok, not technically, but I think he was telling her a little joke, riling her up a bit.

Oh, and Jon, tacking into the other wind on the subject, here's a site that quite feasibly manages to fit EVERYTHING into canon.

http://www.geocities.com/willbswift/

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