A lot of people over the years have said it's the best Doctor Who novel ever. Personally I think it's far from perfect: naturalism is often a problem, and so is melodrama, for the novel inhabits the Cornell-verse, a peculiar take on reality in which all soldiers are cowards and any problem can be solved simply by complete emotional honesty. It has a whacking great info-dump half way through that takes you right out of the story, and the wisecracking, self-aware dialogue is such that companion Benny's speech patterns are indistinguishable from those of the villains (an alien race called the Aubertides who want to conquer Gallifrey and become Time Lords using the Doctor's DNA). Nevertheless, the strength of the fundamental conceit, the Doctor's desire to escape from his cold, inhuman Time Lord existence and become a human being, and the consequences it has for the people around him, makes it a big winner in spite of everything. And it benefits greatly from a hilarious cameo by Steven Moffat, writer of two new series stories!
That was why, before this latest two-parter, I was concerned by all the potential changes that Cornell and Davies would have to make, and a bit miffed at the implicit suggestion that this was somehow going to be 'Human Nature done right': it was bad enough that the new series has already comprehensively demolished any chance of reconciling the novels with the TV show (for those who care about that sort of thing, which I must confess I do!), and this was the final confirmation: 'Human Nature' (1995) and 'Human Nature/The Family of Blood' presumably can't take place in the same continuity any more than 'The Gallifrey Chronicles' and 'Aliens of London' can. Bad enough, as I say; but for the new series to just carelessly invalidate the book lines, which are responsible for many of Doctor Who's finest moments, symbolically painting over them like an artist revising an imperfect work, was a presumption too far.
It isn't quite clear, though, that that is in fact what they've done, which is a blessing anyway, and the pictures in Smith's journal during part one of previous Doctors was balm for the possible sting. In fact, part one is really excellent; mostly, I think, because it's so very different to anything in the series revival so far. All that greenery: because when you think about it, every single episode so far has either been set in a huge city or a claustrophobic, metallic 'space base' (with the possible exception of the one set in Scotland, which was mostly in doors and at night anyway). The relaxed pace and unusual plot (for the series post-2005 anyway, which is ironically all monsters, corridors and sarcasm) contribute to the feeling of novelty.
Jessica Hynes, as Joan Redfern (now a nurse not a teacher, in a change which actually does enhance the original novel), is superbly clipped and loveable, and Martha's jealousy puts her in just as unflattering a light as did Benny's, though she at least has the excuse of being madly in love with the (now sexy and young-looking) Doctor, and Harry Lloyd makes a fabulously alien and unhinged Baines. The villains, in fact, without 255 pages in which to do post-modern things, are in a sense a rather better bunch than the Aubertides in the novel, though they lack the back-story and grisly personalities.
The problems, then, do not surface until part two, but when they come they are familiar from the original novel, but given added impetus by what we have seen in the new series so far. This basic conception of the Doctor as a lonely, tormented figure was fine in the New Adventures, but as time has gone on it's become clear just how far removed it was from the spirit of the original series: watch any of those old stories from before 1988 and see what I mean. Now that the revival has enshrined it (with all this 'Lonely God' nonsense) it's like the whole history of the show has been retconned in a way I can't say I'm totally happy with. Far, far worse though, is the way 'The Family of Blood' dredges up a horror from Series One that I dared to hope we'd seen the back of. "Coward!" shouts Hutchinson. "Oh yes, every time", replies Tim with satisfaction. Yep, it's 'The Parting of the Ways' again.
It is, and was, utterly, self-evidently, indescribably wrong to describe the Doctor as "coward rather than killer". It's become Russell Davies' answer to the famous lines coined by Terrance Dicks to describe the essence of the man, which remain to this day immeasurably superior and a far better template for our hero? and in which, I seem to recall, the words "never cruel or cowardly" feature prominently. Go figure. It's such a small thing here as well, but it ruined the episode for me.
As for the rest, Cornell resuscitates the concept of gratuitous racism on Joan's behalf, just to make sure we don't get to like her a bit too much; and his own particular hobby-horse comes out again with the scarecrows' attack on the school, although admittedly in not such an overbearing way as in the book: the notion that Smith is taking the easy way out by choosing to fight, while the morally superior Tim runs away to do something else, and that his mustering of a defence by the militarily-trained and heavily-armed pupils is somehow the wrong thing to do.
It's completely counter-intuitive, part of the "coward rather than killer" idea, but something which I can't blame RTD for because Cornell was already using it 12 years ago: it doesn't seem to factor in that sometimes it can take enormous bravery to fight (what else does the Doctor spend his life doing?), and that Smith, backed into a corner with no other options, is really taking the obvious course of action. So why is Martha's immediate reaction, like Benny's, that the Doctor wouldn't want this? And as for the ending! The cruel ways in which the Doctor ultimately disposes of his enemies is far worse, morally, than simply leaving them on the spaceship to be blown up would have been, something that Doctors have been doing all through time and space since 1963: another inconsistency.
One last complaint: although Smith's romance with Joan is wonderfully touching, and a salutary example to 'The Girl in the Fireplace' and the whole Rose story-arc of how to do a romance for the Doctor right, it ends on a duff note when the returning Doctor offers to take her along for the ride at the end, claiming that he is capable of doing everything Smith could have done. Well, maybe, these days, but in contrast to the Seventh Doctor's sorrowful incomprehension and alien asexuality, this definitely undermines the central story, although having the Doctor only become human as a throwaway solution to a temporary problem rather than because of genuine, psychologically complex needs, had rather done it already by that point. In spite of this, watching part one I was fervently wishing that this was the first time the new series had given the Doc a lady friend -- yet another reason why romanticising the character in the first place was a terrible mistake.
So in conclusion, a two-parter redolent with frustrated promise that was let down by things that most people, I'm uncomfortably aware, would see as trivial; but still, given that it's taken nine episodes for Series Three to offer an episode that left me as disappointed and deflated as all those Series One and Two stories.