I am sure that I am misquoting somebody when I say that stories are never finished, they are abandoned. But not Paul Cornell's "Human Nature". Times and Doctors and formats may change, but stories as powerful as this one can evolve right along with them.
In the expanded universe of Doctor Who novels, "Human Nature" is the literary equivalent of a TV story like "The Caves of Androzani" or "The Talons of Weng-Chiang". Even those (like myself) who didn't consider it to be the absolute best generally accepted that it was there or thereabouts. But now, twelve years on from the novel's first publication, "Human Nature" hits Britain's television screens as a lavish two-part spectacular. And in doing so, "Human Nature" sets itself up amongst the very, very best of the Doctor's televised adventures to date.
To be absolutely honest, I did not know what to expect of this episode. It has been a hell of a long time since I read the novel, and whilst I may have been sorely tempted over the last few weeks, I have somehow managed to resist the impulse to dust off my copy of "Human Nature" and get myself back up to speed. I wanted this episode to be a whole new experience and, from what I'd seen in the trailers -- Scarecrows, 'chameleon arches' etc --, I had a feeling it was going to be.
With his adaptation of the novel, Cornell has apparently gone back to basics. What we see on screen is the original story completely deconstructed, and then rebuilt with the new series and the different audience in mind. The basic tenets of the story are the same, but there are profound differences in the execution. As good as it was, the novel was catering for a very different audience and more fundamentally, it was a completely different medium. The reflective book dwelt much on Smith's humble existence and the simple pleasures that he took from his life. On TV, Cornell uses the odd scene to get the same ideas across much more economically. What we see come to life before our eyes is a fast-paced, exciting and spellbinding adventure. It's glossy. It's quick. And just like the novel, it's quite, quite brilliant.
"All the times I've wondered?"
From the explosive pre-title sequence, it was immediately evident that we were dealing with a very different animal. Amidst a tumult of weapons fire, the Doctor races into the TARDIS asking Martha if 'they' had seen their faces. When he realised that they had not, he knew that he had only one way out. He'd have to do it. He'd have to become human.
To avoid the Time Lord-hunting 'Family of Blood', the Doctor transforms himself both physically and mentally into a human being. He has one heart; a heart capable of loving in an entirely different way. Small-ly, as opposed to on a grand scale. One woman, as opposed to the whole Earth. This time around, Cornell wastes no time in introducing us to Joan, the kindly Matron who has her eye on 'John Smith' from the off. I was surprised at how different the dynamic was between the two characters on screen; of course the seventh Doctor was much older in appearance than the tenth, and so in print I'd imagined Joan to be a more mature lady. On TV though, Jessica Stevenson is a relatively young woman, presumably around the same age as David Tennant. So rather than wile away their evenings together playing chess and stroking cats, on TV Smith and Joan snog and go dancing. They fall down stairs and mend scarecrows. They save babies from pianos. Their romance is all a bit more explicit than I remember the book ever being, but on TV it works wonderfully.
Smith and Joan are both very likeable characters, yet neither is perfect. With Smith, there is an underlying Doctorishness that occasionally pervades into his life, but on the whole he is a completely different and separate entity -- a fact from which the whole tragedy of "Human Nature" stems. He does do the odd remarkable thing -- the piano stunt, for example -- but he is not perfect and he makes mistakes -- at times you're thinking "c'mon Doctor, you bloody sell-out, do something!" or cringing as he allows young Tim Latimer to be taken for a beating. And when Martha slaps him for being both patronising and even a bit racist towards her, you can't help but take her side.
Poor Martha really has a hard time of it in this episode. The culture of 1913 England is as alien to her as 1914 was to Benny in the novel. Martha is openly and cruelly mocked about the colour of her skin; she has her aptitude insulted by people who are undoubtedly far less intelligent than she is; she has her new best friend taken over by a malevolent alien entity; and, the final indignity, she has to watch as the 'man' she loves falls for another woman.
"You had to go and fall in love with a human. And it wasn't me."
I'm not sure why this episode is set slightly earlier than the book, though admittedly there is a unique sense of romance intrinsic to the winter before the Great War. On Doctor Who Confidential they describe it as "a time of innocence", but I think that's too kind. If the characters of "Human Nature" are anything to go by, it was a time of ignorance. A time of apathy. A time when those like young Tim who have the courage to speak out against racism or imperialism find themselves the victim of institutionalised bullying. Hutchinson, for example, encapsulates all of these traits, and Tom Palmer has to be given a great deal of credit for making the character even more vile than he came across in print.
And as for Jeremy Baines, Harry Lloyd is absolutely incredible in the role both before and after the Aubertide possesses him. There is a cold rage behind those eyes; a truly frightening edge. Baines is unhinged, as are all the Family of Blood. Mr. Clark and 'Mother of Mine' Jenny are also both impressive, as is the young 'Daughter of Mine' character. Little girls are always chilling when used in science fiction -- look at "Fear Her", for example -- but this kid is off the page. The "Remembrance of the Daleks"-style music that accompanies her appearances only adds to the sense of unease.
"Activate the soldiers!"
Oddly, the one element of the novel that I singled out for criticism were the Aubertides. From what I understand, after his epic novel "No Future", Cornell didn't want another big supervillain like Mortimus -- he just wanted a little gang of rogues; a nasty little group that would cause some trouble, but not detract from the book's more central theme of the Doctor's character and in fairness, that is exactly what he wrote. However, because "Human Nature" was such a contemplative piece, particularly in the first half I found that I couldn't really care less about the baddies and that I just wanted to read about Smith. Now on TV, the balance has been corrected. The whole emphasis of the story has changed; these Aubertides, 'Family of Blood' or whatever you want to call them are the whole reason for the Doctor's becoming human -- they are a bona fide and legitimate threat, backed up with an army of shit-scary scarecrows. I mean, how good was that? Scarecrows? Genius! I only hope that the balance remains the same through "The Family of Blood" and that we are treated to the same kind of action that the novel eventually delivered towards the end. That's if they can get away with having schoolboys fighting aliens with machine guns at 7.10pm on a Saturday night?
"The Doctor is the man you'd like to be,
doing impossible things with cricket balls."
However, as this 'Family of Blood' have become more integral to the story, unfortunately something has been lost. Ever since his first Doctor Who story -- the 1991 New Adventure "Timewyrm: Revelation" -- Cornell has skilfully explored the Doctor's thoughts and feelings in a way that no one before him ever had. In "Timewyrm: Revelation" he literally had Ace take a stroll inside the Doctor's psyche, and then in the original "Human Nature" novel, he once again looked at the Doctor's anguish, but from a different angle. When the seventh Doctor made himself human, it wasn't to shroud himself from some mad aliens who wanted to become Time Lords. It was because he'd been through so much grief and pain and he was sick to death of it all. He wanted to leave it all behind for a little while. He wanted to be human for a few months. To experience human life and human emotions. To have himself a quiet life. To conform.
"Have you enjoyed it, Doctor? Being human?
Has it taught you wonderful things? Are you better? Richer? Wiser?
Then let us see you answer this -- which one of them do you want us to kill? Your friend or your lover? Your choice."
And personally, after what the tenth Doctor has recently been through (the Time War; losing Rose; fifteen years as a Postman etc.) I thought that Cornell would use the same device again here, possibly even more effectively than the first time around. From what I remember, much of the drama in what will be next week's episode stems from the conflict within Smith -- if you're a happy man living a quiet life with your new lover, would you want to sacrifice yourself so that a cold and calculating alien adventurer might live? And I guess that's where it all falls down; what may have prompted the shift in emphasis. The tenth Doctor may be brutal to his enemies, but he's not the ruthless manipulator that his seventh self was. And if we're honest, no one really knows what goes on inside the Doctor's head. Maybe he could have escaped the Family of Blood by some other means. Maybe he did actually want to become fully human, just as his seventh self did. Or maybe not.
On the whole, "Human Nature" is an absolute phenom of an episode and, unlike most two-parters, I firmly expect the second instalment to be even better than the first. Without exception the performances are awesome - David Tennant; Jessica Stevenson; Harry Lloyd; Thomas Sangster; and especially Freema Agyeman, who this week has suffered a cruel introduction to the media circus that now surrounds the show --; the visuals are first-rate; and the story is every bit as good as it has always been, if not better. There's even a few loving nods to the show's long history -- 'Sydney', 'Verity' and a handful of past Doctors. And finally, as a huge fan of many of the Doctor Who novels, I'd just like to say that I only hope that this two-parter is not the last adaptation that we will ever see. If the current production team can not only recognise the quality of stories like "Human Nature", but also bring them to life this brilliantly, then the sky really is the limit.