Not so long ago, in an English springtime...
There are one or two people I know who, upon hearing that the producers were about to embark on yet another "adaptation" of a beloved piece of Doctor Who writing, immediately decided that blasphemy had occurred. Never mind the fact that it would be Paul Cornell adapting his own material; Rob Shearman had done the same two years prior with the loose adaptation of his audio "Jubilee" turned into the brilliant "Dalek," and last year's best-foot-forward attempt by Tom MacRae to capture the essence of the audio "Spare Parts" by Marc Platt in the two-part "Rise of the Cybermen". There are reasons, after all, why Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner may want to look toward previously-written material: stories that won the hearts of fans might, in a larger venue, capture the hearts of the viewing public as well. For this attempt, there would be no obfuscation; Cornell was charged with a direct adaptation of his perhaps his most celebrated Doctor Who novel, "Human Nature," published in 1995, altering the characters (the Seventh Doctor and print companion Bernice Summerfield to current Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones) but keeping the rest.
I have a confession to make: I never read "Human Nature". I was rather picky with the print Doctor Who I read at the time, and a boys' school in 1914, I must admit, never really interested me. When I first heard Paul was adapting his novel, some time ago, I pulled it off the shelf but never actually opened the book; why ruin the surprise? I knew two things -- the setting, and that the Doctor became human.
What goes around, comes around, and in retrospect I made the right choices. For ninety well-spent minutes, in one sitting, "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood" (which I will refer to as "Human Nature" in entirety in the remainder of this review) unfolded like an epic treat, with all the benefits a two-part story presents these days: adventure, drama, a cliffhanger that excites and moments of insight that challenge. It is, first of all, an exploration of human nature itself, what it means to be human. More importantly, it is an examination of just how inhuman the Doctor truly is. David Tennant has perhaps never been as strong as he is here, creating a character in John Smith that is truly different and unique from that of the Doctor. When we first meet him, it is but a superficial change, an educator's hat and black robes, but soon we realize the change is far greater than that. This is a man capable of love, of humility, of stuttering through an entire conversation about a topic he has very limited experience with: romantic interest, specifically from Joan Redfern (Jessica Hynes, in an equally magnificent performance). His depth of feeling for the humble nurse Joan is readily apparent, his mannerisms quite a change from the usual no-nonsense attitude; when he takes the tumble down a flight of stairs, nervously making his way through a non-invitation to the local dance, it is not the Doctor -- the Doctor is far away, in another lifetime. In that moment where Tennant is ready to take up the role of the Doctor again, aboard the Family's spacecraft, it is not a subtle change -- it is forceful and amusing and absolutely real, and Tennant demonstrates the power of his performance simply by being a different man. What hurts most of all is the debate -- should the Doctor return, or should John Smith carry on with his life? There are merits to both sides, with a heart-wrenching look into a future that will likely never happen favoring the latter, and our own sensibilities which would otherwise root for the former option being checked.
I've read many comments on the Internet about the moments in which people teared up while watching this story. For me, it wasn't the heartbreak of watching Smith and Joan parting for what would likely be the last time, or the funeral piece at the end, but the words of truth from young Tim Latimer (played by Thomas Sangster, in one of the finest performances by a child actor to grace a Doctor Who story) ... everything about the Doctor being fire and ancient and all that, but the moment I cracked was when Tim said he was 'wonderful'. Up until that moment, I was really waffling on whether or not John Smith should accept his fate; then, all of the pent-up emotion of the Doctor being the selfless hero, the one man standing against the evil of the universe came flooding back.
But "Human Nature" questions that in another moment of brilliance, as Joan asks him if all of the death and destruction around them would have happened if the Doctor hadn't chosen 1913 England on a whim. It is rare form when Doctor Who questions its own existence, and this is another of Cornell's strengths -- not just playing to the audience with the fear and the humor and the romance and the adventure, but asking pointed questions to an audience that may have become used to black and white instead of the shades of grey that exist in life. Unsatisfied with questioning the hero's role in the events that have unfolded, "Human Nature" further explores the depths to which the Doctor will go to satisfy his moral objectives: he will not murder his opponents, but in fact subjects them to a fate worse than death. Would murder have been the easy way out for the Family of Blood? Or are they now subject to a malevolence not unlike torture?
Director Charles Palmer demonstrates tremendous skill in his cinematography, capturing the essence of 1913 England beautifully, while an exceptional cast handles the story with ease. Besides Hynes and Sangster, Harry Lloyd is a stand-out as Jeremy Baines, the troubled schoolboy who becomes the warmongering Son of Mine. (Has there ever been a guest star on Doctor Who who demonstrates such otherworldliness and creepiness with a tick of the head and eyes like the possessed?) Rebekah Staton (as Jenny, later Mother of Mine) gives another equally noteworthy performance, first as the standard 'period housemaid' and later as the standard 'possessed villain' but excelling at both to feel as though they were played by two totally different actresses.
Freema Agyeman, meanwhile, like Tennant gives perhaps her best performance to date, as Martha discovers a terrible secret -- not that she is the Doctor's friend, or that the Family is after him, but that she is, in fact, far behind in the running to capture both John Smith's, and the Doctor's heart. Her reaction when John shows Nurse Redfern the pages of his 'Journal of Impossible Things' and comes across the sketch of Rose is yet another revelation, and Agyeman plays Martha as if she is struggling against her own convictions. (Another heartbreaking moment, for me anyway: the Doctor invites Joan to join him in the TARDIS, the two of them together -- and never mentions Martha. I'm not sure I'm very happy with where this is leading...)
While Doctor Who often ignores its own past, "Human Nature" actually makes several references to its roots. The aforementioned 'Journal' and its caricatures not only of adversaries from the past three seasons but also the unmistakable features of Paul McGann, William Hartnell and Sylvester McCoy... John Smith's handiness with a cricket ball... even the lovely homage paid to Doctor Who founders Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert. It is always nice to see the past being paid service while still blazing new trails, and yet it is never done in a heavy-handed fashion. The past, in fact, is as important as the future is in "Human Nature," which explores both cause and effect, actions and consequences -- never moreso than in the aforementioned scene where Joan Redfern chastises the Doctor for bringing the death and destruction, the Family of Blood, and the life and death of one man, John Smith, upon them.
There are rare moments in Doctor Who history when everything comes together -- a perfect cast, a thrilling story, fantastic direction and a magic captured like lightning in a bottle. "City of Death" comes to mind from the original series, or "The Caves of Androzani" -- stories that take an already enjoyable concept and transcend the ordinary, becoming something unusually special. There have been many opportunities and many successes by this production team in three years, with bonified thespians in the roles of Doctor and companion, directors that blend subtleties with their talents, magic in the moments that define Doctor Who ? but rarely in combination. Steven Moffat's "The Empty Child" proved that writing Doctor Who had come of age; Davies' own "The End of the World" demonstrated that style played as important a role as substance. Of course, fans bandy about the term 'classic' so often that it fails to have any meaning anymore -- there are many other examples of fine moments of Doctor Who from the past three series, but what defines a genuine classic is when that cast and story and direction and production come together and create something far more. Dare I say it, but Paul Cornell's "Human Nature" -- and I'm not talking about the book I've never read -- is indeed worthy of the term. Three series of Doctor Who to date, and this is the best it's ever been.