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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

Salem:

Wow - at least that guy admits he is a little obsessive in his introduction to his site.

Returning to the closely-argued logic of Canonicity in Doctor Who:

"In the Fox TV film the Master could not operate the Doctor's TARDIS
because the TARDIS is fitted to the Doctor's half-human DNA."

My favoured solution is to accept the Doctor sometimes TALKS COMPLETE BOLLOCKS.

And thus the more problematic aspects of the 1996 TV Movie, and the Tenth Doctor's "Sorry, I got in the way of the lightning strike. Timelord DNA got all mixed up. Just that little bit of freedom" can all be explained.

Phew!

"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?"

As a McGann-agnostic, I'd say the TV movie was enough (on technical grounds, at least) to make him canonical, even if it wasn't proper. The audios and books (and comic strips) still don't count, though.

Didn't Cornell himself have a decent essay on why canonicity debates are generally meaningless?

Yes, he did, the spoilsport.

Fantastic episode though Mr. Cornell!

Surely this episode kicks all of the New Adventures into the "definitely not canon" bin? Or can you retro-con it with the catch-all clause of a 'Time War'? Discuss...

I don't know if you read his recent DWM interview Neil, but in that Cornell himself rather dramatically said that he supposes it "puts a stake through the heart" of the books being canon.

Neil -- the temporal effects of the time war haven't really been expressed on screen but I think there's enough evidence in some of the McGann audios and in Father's Day that history just sort of works these things out.

It's not really been explained, for example, what happened to all of the previous Doctors and timelords that were knocking around in history dodging out of each others way.

If the time war wiped them from history, how come Sarah-Jane and K9 and the Daleks for that matter remember who the Doctor is? How come all of the changes he's made to history haven't unraveled, that Earth for example isn't a planet that's been invaded over and over, the human race wiped out?

But time and again we're told that the Doctor is the last of the timelords -- and that's how the family of blood can zero in on him and why he becomes human to hide from them. The answer is that history and time work themselves out -- like one of those rubber executive toys when it gets a dent somewhere, it smooths itself out so that it makes sense. It just does.

In other words, the New Adventures are still canon. If both Shadas can still be there so can these two.

Ahhhh, the beauty of science fiction. So, do the Pertwee Nestle chocolate wrapper stories count?

How about the Baker/Romana II computer adverts? Are they still canon?

Also, if this puts the stake into anything's heart, it would likely be JUST the original Human Nature. Which, Cornell seems happy enough about that I can accept, if he can. As long as Benny and Braxiatel aren't completely wiped from the slate, I'll be happy.

And the Doctor talking bollocks sort of mixes in with a long-running argument back at Christmas time. Why didn't the Doctor use a tractor beam on Donna's taxi? He'd already considered it and ruled it out. Or he was thinking complete bollocks, I suppose. Why'd he say he was half-human? He was talking utter bollocks. Maybe he was subliminally screwing with the Master's head. Keep in mind he HAD just recently been the sneaky, manipulative Time's Champion Seventh Doctor. All that grift sense had to go somewhere.

I wonder if the "becoming human" thing was included for more than just being a cracking story. If the Family of Blood can track down the Last of the Time Lords, and they find the Doctor, then that would seem to rule out any other Time Lords, unless...

REFERENCE TO FORMER SPOILER POSSIBILITY (you probably know about it anyway, it regards Mr Saxon, but I thought I'd be on the safe side)

Supposing Mr Saxon is a Time Lord, or one Time Lord in particular. I there a reason he's wearing an oxygen mask in the trailer we saw? Perhaps he became human too, but his body is rejecting it... Hmmm...

The Romana/Doctor PRIME adverts certainly bear all the hallmarks of proud canonicity.

If both the NA Human Nature and this Human Nature are both canon because of the Time War, it's going to give an awful lot of leeway to repetitive storylines isn't it? "You think you've heard this before? You haven't - it's just the Time War Effect"

If they can find a way to work Interference/Ancestor Cell/Faction Paradox into the storyline, I'll be happy. Then again, that timeline page supposits that the Sycorax may well have been a Faction splinter group. As long as whenever they adapt a book or audio, they do it proper instead of just nicking bits here and there and never giving any credit to the originals. The mothershow shouldn't have to do that =/

Does anyone have the original source for Paul Cornell claiming that the TV version puts a stake through the canonicity of the books? Which issue is it in?

It's OK - I've found it!

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