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May 28, 2007

John Smith's No-Nonsense Man

The Doctor Dances…Again

Human Nature

Isn’t it nice when - for once - your expectations for something actually turn out to be fully realised. In fact, better even than you had secretly hoped for. Like a few fellow bloggers, I recently re-familiarised myself with Paul Cornell’s seminal novel during a train journey to Leicester and whilst ‘Human Nature’ is certainly a cut above 95% of all the original novels to be spawned from our beloved television programme, it’s perhaps not quite the Woodstock of fan fiction that you’re led to believe. I mean, I personally could never quite imagine the seventh Doctor - human or not - having a romance; nor that the Doctor would just give up being a Time Lord because he was a bit fed up. And the aliens pursuing him in the book version are a bit generic, a bit dull and lacking in some iconic moment of pure evil.

Fast-forward twelve years and ‘Human Nature’ is now a bona-fide television episode. The Doctor is now younger, sexier and not exactly averse to the odd dalliance with a lady. He’s given up being a Time Lord in order to hide from a family of foes seemingly obsessed with his Gallifreyan uniqueness. And the aliens are a bloody creepy bunch who literally sniff out their prey like a pack of extra-terrestrial bloodhounds.

The result? Arguably the closest this show has got to perfection since 2005.

I don’t use that term lightly either. Fellow bloggers might know that I hold ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ up as the definitive slice of nu-Who goodness of the past two years (Neil certainly will…18,342 viewings at last count, mate). But I’ve got a gut feeling that following this barnstorming, elegant, gentle and terrifying forty-five minutes (with the prospect of another forty-five that’s about as likely to drop the ball as Johnny Wilkinson) that I’ll be beholden to a new love. ‘Human Nature’ is so good that you literally want to run into the street and hug people; it’s so rich with imagery and dialogue that you want to phone up Pip and Jane Baker and yell ‘That’s how you do it’; it’s so scary and creepy that you feel like you’ve been transported back in time a la Sam Tyler to the living room of your childhood and are watching this show with fresh eyes from behind the obligatory sofa.

‘Human Nature’ is so good that you literally want to run into the street and hug people

So, yeah I loved it. But I still had one or two niggles.

Firstly, how come the Doctor has never felt the need to use the chameleon arch before, seeing as the likes of Daleks, Cybermen and (ahem) the Master have been baying for his blood these past forty-plus years? Maybe I’m missing the point, but isn’t he a tad too keen to strip off his Time Lord persona for the sake of hiding away from aliens we’ve barely even seen? Then there’s the pocket watch - there’s a brief mention of it containing some sort of dampening effect so that Smith would only see it as a watch, but would he really never open it just out of curiosity? Does the man never need to know what time it is? Timothy Latimer - mysterious, enigmatic little bugger that he is - manages to open it within seconds of getting his posh little mitts on it, so why doesn’t Smith? Oh well, I guess even the best of episodes require some element of suspension of disbelief. And in the case of Latimer, you kinda guess there’s much, much more on him before this story completes its course.

Because that’s exactly what this episode is - the very best of Doctor Who. I’m a sucker for the period pieces like most people because they add a sheen of class to this show that even the futuristic ones never quite muster. ‘Human Nature’ may ostensibly be about the Doctor hiding away from aliens and adopting human form, but it’s set against a backdrop of boarding school ritual and the spectre of impending war. The Great War of 1914-18 hangs over this episode like a black cloud, the pupils of Smith’s school - like the raw recruits of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket - being moulded into killing machines. There’s a great moment when Smith condones the beating of one of his pupils for simply being a bit wet; about as un-Doctorly a moment as could be imagined. And Martha’s very obvious cultural difference in 1913 allows this show to once more beat the drum for tolerance and acceptance in the face of human cruelty. Freema Agyeman is potentially given the short straw this week, given the focus on her former Time Lord chum and his new beau, but it’s a testament to her that Martha is arguably the strongest character here.

the moment when Smith condones the beating of one of his pupils is about as un-Doctorly a moment as could be imagined

So, what are we to make of this new man Smith? The Doctor and yet not the Doctor. David Tennant has come in for no shortage of criticism in the past on this blog for his occasionally wacky interpretation of the Time Lord; so it comes with no little irony to discover that he gives one of his best performances in the role by not being the Doctor at all. Just a slightly stiff schoolmaster who dreams of a world far beyond his reality of timetables and mortar boards and yearns to be more heroic during a time when heroes were becoming just ordinary people. Not least of which when he inadvertently reveals his hidden Gallifreyan and saves the lives of a mother and child with nothing more English than a cricket ball. Fans of the fifth Doctor in particular were probably doing cart-wheels at this point.

On which point, has there ever been a more fan-pleasing orgy than this episode? Smith’s parents being called ‘Sidney’ and ‘Verity’? The suggestion that Gallifrey is in Ireland? And most of all the Journal of Impossible Things which whilst acting like some sort of tie-in merchandise for the show’s recent past, also shows a heart-stopping glimpse of the Doctor’s previous incarnations. Man, I nearly wept with joy.

But there’s so many moments like this that you’re just left reeling with the sheer sensory overload of it all. Charles Palmer’s direction which makes scarecrows into the best Doctor Who monster since this show’s return. Harry Lloyd’s face being somehow creepier than any special effect. The simple spaceship and its slightly familiar-looking interior ('stolen' technology indeed). And the way the Family of Blood sniff their way to their target. ‘Human Nature’ at its best is the power of Doctor Who in microcosm: making the mundane extraordinary. It may riff in time-honoured nu-Who tradition on the oh-so rich oeuvre of Joss Whedon (with Buffy’s ‘Normal Again’ being its most obvious antecedent) but when it’s done with the style and panache shown here it would be churlish to complain.

has there ever been a more fan-pleasing orgy than this episode?

And fundamentally it’s a very human story about love and loss. How fitting that the first thing the Doctor does when he finally becomes human is arguably the most human thing of all: he falls in love. The gentle romance between Smith and Joan Redfern - helped no end by the perfect playing of Tennant and Jessica Stevenson (sorry, to us Spaced fans she’s always be Stevenson…) - is the emotional heart at the centre of this perfect drama. And given those tantalising flashes to next week’s denouement, this could usurp even ‘Girl in the Fireplace’s position as most heart-tugging, something-in-my-eye emotion-fest that this show has yet produced.

Just time for a few more bouquets. Murray Gold’s beautiful score, once more showing the power of a great choir. Tennant screaming his head off again like it really hurts. The voices calling out to Timothy Latimer from the pocket watch and the flashes of his destiny, be it the trenches of WWI or modern-day Earth (just what is going on here?!?). And that cliff-hanger that raises the stakes to the Doctor choosing between the woman he loves and the woman who loves him.

See you next week; just don’t forget the hankies.

Next time: Births, Deaths and Marriages. And there’s bound to be tears before bedtime.

(The Bumper Book of Made-Up Doctor Who Facts has this to say about Human Nature: following his cameo in last year’s ‘Fear Her’, Jon Pertwee makes a more familiar return to the show in the guise of Worzel Gummidge)



I'm guessing you liked the "...a girl in every fireplace..." line then?

More shocking perhaps than "Smith condones the beating" that you metion is Smith being a little bit racist.

The first post-credits image is of the Union Flag. Now, this is a very charged image. In one way I am glad that this episode was emphasising that the Doctor was British, as did the 1996 TV Movie ("He's British". "I suppose I am" says the Doctor) rather than emphasising the very English nature of the comedy-of-manners that was found within the episode.

(After all, this is a Scottish lead actor in a Welsh production.)

Nu-Who and Torchwood have tackled Britishness before, (and Torchwood evaded the sensitive and complex Irish question by misplacing Torchwood 4!), but never as directly as this episode.

I am not at all saying the Union Flag equates with racism, not at all, but certain people in Britain who cling to a certain idea of Britishness do use the flag as a symbol of their ideas.

The casual racism of the time seems to have affected even the Human Doctor, Mr. Smith.

This is quite a difficult subject to broach but this episode did it quite skillfully.

'Gladstone spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the question.'

Love that quote.. I don't know if you caught it, John, but Torchwoods 1-3 form a hypothetical parallelogram with Torchwood 4 being just off the coast of Ireland (checks map), North of Londonderry. Abandoned offshore oil rig, I was thinking?

And personally, I've got no problem with the Doctor associating himself with the British. He chose to live in 1963 London, and to return to London and other parts of England repeatedly, despite also being exiled there. The only other possibility being he's secretly Irish, because let's face it, no one's got as corrupt and cheeky politicians as Gallifrey, save for Ireland. Lord High Chancellor Bertie Ahern anyone? Castellan Adams? CIA Coordinator Paisley? Alright, I'll stop now, or I'll be tempted to work Stephen Nolan into canon somehow.

Paisley in a huge-collared Gallifrean outfit? That's a Photoshop just waiting to happen.

I'm on it.


Brr...y'know, that's actually really creepy...

In't it just though?

Salem / DamonD:

Just to clarify -
the Irish question was a tangential element of my comment above that Salem has elaborated on.

What was impressive about the episode was that it explored notions of Britain and Empire and the treatment of various different people within and without the Empire, with the Human Doctor reflecting the attitudes of the time (as shown by his casually racist treatment of Martha.)

The Union Flag was last seen so prominently in The Idiot's Lantern, but I would say there was a more multi-layered approach here.

(And it occurred to me today - was, on some level, Gatiss's Season 2006 episode a rebuttal of Lawrence Miles's harsh criticism of the subtext of Gatiss's Season 2005 episode?)

Phew, that's complicated.

Salem, that's REALLY creepy. Especially as he has his hand concealed within his robes...

It is, innit? I'm considering doing a whole series of "Gallifrey? Isn't that in Ireland?" politicians, but it's about as hard to find good pictures of Time Lord collars as it is to find good pictures of Irish politicians..

I'm thinking either Gerry Adams as a Chancellory Guard, or Bertie Ahern as The Master next. Granted, neither will be as creepy as Castellan Paisley there..

Hmmm, yes, well, the balaclavas don't help (or are they scarecrows?) ...

Suddenly, the old 'Paisley Pattern' fanzine assumes a horrible new meaning...

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