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Sunday, 27 May 2007 - Reviewed by A.D. Morrison

In any other era this story would have been seen as as controversial as The Deadly Assassin (which revealed more about the Doctor's background than ever before, and also, by placing him tangibly among his own kind, portrayed him for the first time as vulnerable, out of his depth and thus more mortal) was in its day, in its radical take on the nature of the Doctor and the Timelord makeup. But in a revamped series already littered with romantic lapses on the main protagonist's part, the radical departure of this episode has had its way softened. Nevertheless, finding the Doctor living as a literal 'human' school teacher in 1913 England, enamoured to the school matron, is still quite disorientating, albeit in a well-articulated and quite moving way.

Before commenting on this highly promising opener to the latest - and most anticipated - two parter of this season, I'd just like to say that I do think the convenient 'chameleon device' the Doctor uses to turn his actual physiology human is a really hard concept to swallow: it seems impossible in theory, as in, how can it actually turn his two hearts into one (which it does of course, as witnessed in the scene when Redfurn checks his heartbeat(s)? Plus, why hasn't he ever used it before? Like when he was fleeing the Black Guardian for instance? This idea really does stretch us from the outset in terms of credibility. However, when an episode is generally as impressive and beautifully made as this, I'm almost beyond caring about the logistics. (One might also now use the concept of this device to argue that the clumsy revelation in the 1996 movie about the Doctor being half-human could be explained by him altering his bio-makeup in order to try and avoid detection from the Master in said story - though clearly in that case he half-botched it...)

This is one of the most filmic episodes done so far and the opening shot of the school to the choiring of 'Yee who would most valiant be' was inspired and reminded me of the classic TV series To Serve Them All My Days. Indeed, Tenant's teacher, Dr John Smith, could quite easily fit the part of said series' cheif protagonist, David Powlett-Jones. 21st century hairstyle aside (they could have gelled it down for this episode really couldn't they?), Tenant very much resembles and acts the part of his disguise, though one of course he has necessarily forgotten to be a disguise, truly believing himself to be the earthling teacher, who is disturbed by strange dreams of time travelling adventures.

This premise is one of the most superb ever thought up for Doctor Who (I know, it's based on Cornell's 90s novel), and in terms of developing the Doctor in a very new way, a truly unique scenario in the entire series' history (a sort of Superman III/Last Temptation of Christ outing for the Timelord). It is handled with great delicacy and feeling here: the romance with Nurse Redfurn is believable, gentle and actually moving, helped by Murray Gold's most/only accomplished music so far, which captures - for once - the mood of the episode. There is none of the adolescent sloppiness of the Doctor/de Pompadour liaissons of the otherwise well-realised Girl in the Fireplace of last year. This is a rather awkward, innocent and abstract love affair (bar one kiss this episode, which too was done believably), perfectly fitting the more sexually restrained Earth period. And for once the Doctor seems to be attracted to someone whom one could conceivably understand him liking: a kind, intelligent woman who oozes humility. The shots of the very convincing and detailed notes and pictures of Smith's time travels are beautifully choreographed, enriching this immaculately realised episode with extra poetic leaven.

The mysterious schoolboy is excellently portrayed, a real Little Father Time (re Jude the Obscure) - if only they'd though to nickname him that, so appropriate too - if I ever I saw one, harrowed-eyed and silently knowing, surely either an alien, a young Timelord, or some sort of younger version of the Doctor? We'll find out next week...

This apparently trapped 'alien' English schoolboy of course is very reminiscent of Turlough in Mawdryn Undead, a story also set in a public school. But what is even more challenging about this episode - and too in common with Mawdryn - is the focus on what might be described as 'the Doctor having a nervous breakdown', as opposed to the Brigadier's literally alluded-to crisis in said Davison story (another case of amnesia). Brilliant treatment of Tenant here.

The elder, Flashman-esque prefect is also an engrossing portrayal, even if he goes a bit too far with some of his lines, overdoing his RP. But he really is a menacing-looking young actor, with his goggling eyes and resonant voice to match. Some shots of him are truly disturbing.

Not so impressive are his two fellow 'family' members and one can't help feeling RTD had a hand in casting them in these roles, echoing his rather childish preoccupation with portly villains (see, well, maybe don't see, Aliens of London). At one point I seriously worried they might have written in those interminable Slitheens into this - that would truly wreck the story.

The scarcecrows! Well, these have to rank as one of the most evocative and creepy monsters ever done in the show (old or New), alongside the baroque clockwork robots in Girl in the Fireplace. Indeed, these scarecrows actually move like clockwork, lurching clumsily forwards with their heads lolling to the sides, a macabre posture duplicated eerily in the humanised 'family'. The shot of the first scarecrow moving its hand on the top of the field is a classic series shot - as are the subsequent rampages. Excellently realised creatures - one wonders why the old series never used such a potent disguise for aliens (the nearest they got was the Master stuffed with straw in Mark of the Rani).

Human Nature does of course have its clumsy lapses (as do all the stories of new Who so far, even the best ones; ie, Dalek (the Doctor with the gun), Impossible Planet (the Doctor's hugging session) and so on): tenuous humanisation plot device aside, we also have aliens firing rather wieldy and cartoon-like ray guns, and a pointless scene in which Martha moans to herself about why the Doctor had to fall in love with a human woman who wasn't her. If this is going to be the extent to Martha's characterisation, I rather hope the recent rumours of her being axed from the series come true (sorry Freema).

But slight quibbles aside, this is a beautifully shot, acted and written episode, and will in time I am certain be regarded as one of the all-time classics in the entire cannon of Doctor Who (though still not quite on a par with Deadly Assassin, Caves of Androzani, Genesis of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars, Seeds of Doom or Kinda, in my view). But this of course depends very much so on how it pans out and concludes next week! One has grown quite accustomed now to striking first episodes and flatter finales, but I think and hope that with the emotional depth and uniqueness of Cornell's highly ambitious plot, we shouldn't be let down this time.

This season keeps getting better (bar the ok but rather empty filler 42). Human Nature is the best episode of the series so far (and up against strong competition such as Gridlock, Daleks in Manhattan and Lazarus), and arguably of new Who altogether. But as I say, how it concludes next week will very much determine its potentially great status as a complete story. Still, at least we have one episode so far which already achieves greatness in itself.

9.8/10