Image courtesy the BBC.
Halfway into the third season of the Doctor Who revival, I have to say that I’m impressed. Not that this season has contained a plethora of standout episodes — quite the opposite, in fact — but that every episode has generated a great diversity of reactions.
Thus far this season, The Shakespeare Code remains my favourite, for its punch-the-air-brilliant parody/tribute to the plays of William Shakespeare; on the other hand, others found the tale a little over-the-top. I’m still rating Gridlock to be the weakest episode of the season, but others (including those who dissed The Shakespeare Code) rate it among their favourites. The Dalek two-parter wins some over on an intellectual level, and 42 impresses some, but not others.
So, you see what’s happening here? So far, there has been something for every fan to like this season. The program is making use of every weapon in its arsenal, and ensuring that it doesn’t fire on one gun for too long. It’s an approach that I approve of.
On the other hand, Human Nature seems to be an episode which has most of fandom united behind it. Any serious detractors would seem to be in a minority, and those who have complaints still acknowledge that it and the follow up, The Family of Blood, affected them emotionally.
The story kicks us right into the middle of the action, with the Doctor and Martha rushing into the TARDIS, on the run from gunfire. The Doctor desperately asks Martha if the attackers saw her face (they didn’t), and he explains that they’ve encountered a race of vicious hunters who can pursue their prey across the timestreams. The good news is that these hunters have a limited life-span; three months, and they’ll be dead like mayflies, and since they didn’t see Martha’s face, they’re safe, for now. The bad news is, with the Doctor being the last Time Lord and all, there’s no place for him to run to and hide, unless he puts on a disguise, and he looks up at this device which suggests that he’s about to do something drastic.
We next find the Doctor in human form — one heart and all — and with the memories of Dr. John Smith, an unassuming professor at a boys’ boarding school in rural England on the eve of the First World War. Martha is posing as his servant and is really his keeper, as he has absolutely no idea of who he is. Fortunately, before he changed, the Doctor left Martha with a set of 23 instructions on things she must not let him do. Unfortunately, when the eye of Dr. John Smith falls on the widowed Nurse Joan Redfern, Martha realizes that falling in love wasn’t on the list.
Meanwhile the Family of Blood remains hot on the Doctor’s trail, and is sniffing around the school, taking over bodies in their desperate attempt to find the Time Lord.
Let’s get the flaws out of the way, for they are far less numerous than the good points, although they are still worthy of mention. Rebecca caught this one when she said, “Dear Doctor: If you are going to download your Time Lord essence into a pocket-watch and inform your companion that she is responsible to open it at some crucial moment, you may want to try, y’know, GIVING IT TO HER.” And it’s true: there is no satisfactory explanation for why the Doctor keeps the pocket watch even though it has to be Martha who has to open it, other than the fact that the plot requires that the watch be found by Timothy. A couple of lines of dialogue could have taken care of that, but without them, it stands as a glaring error.
Likewise, when the Doctor realized that he was being hunted, why on earth did he decide to hide amongst sheep? This is less of a glaring error, mind, and quite possibly a deliberate character flaw introduced on the part of the producers. For instance, why did the Doctor in The Runaway Bride sonic up the ATM to produce a cloud of cash and innocent bystanders in the shockingly naive hope that the advancing Robot Santas would lower their weapons? The Family of Blood gets huge, huge bonus points when Nurse Redfern calls the Doctor on this (this becomes, moreso than the “death” of John Smith, the reason she refuses to travel with him), but I would feel a lot better about the Doctor’s occasional callous disregard for human life, if it were dealt with at some point in the future.
So, when flaw number two is rendered a plot point with possibilities for future development, you know that I don’t have much to complain about, and I don’t. Human Nature and The Family of Blood have an embarrassment of riches, from Paul Cornell’s heartbreaking script to Charles Palmer’s stellar direction, but it is the acting that stands out, and chief amongst these is Harry Lloyd playing the character of Baines. Baines starts out as a somewhat gormless upperclassman, a typical rich teenager sent off into the woods to fetch his store of beer. He stands stupidly as he sees the Family’s ship land, and he shows incomprehension and fear as the family takes him on board and possesses him. And when they possess him, he changes completely.
Baines’ first scene back from the Family’s ship made me sit up and peer closely at the television screen, straining to see what all everybody had done to pull off such a remarkable transformation. No makeup. Charles Palmer uses a from-below camera angle and slightly discordant music in order to create an atmosphere of otherworldly tension, but Lloyd himself supplies the rest, with a deepening of his voice, and a complete change in his body language to suggest something weird and terrifying. It’s a knockout moment.
And he’s not the only one who controls the story through body language. David Tennant shows off his skills here as he transforms from the Doctor to John Smith. There are certain commonalities — his inexperience with love leads John Smith to step backwards down a flight of stairs when Nurse Redfern (Jessica Hynes) shows some interest in him, but the veneer of the idiot that the Doctor often puts on is no veneer here. John Smith is genuinely terrified by events, but moreso by the prospect of turning back into the Doctor. This divide is further illustrated when the Doctor takes back over, but maintains the veneer in order to trick the Family. I’m pretty sure that most of the audience managed to see through the Doctor’s trick, even if the Family did not. There was just a little too much method to John Smith’s madness, if you catch my drift.
And then there’s the script itself. Paul Cornell is a strong writer that keeps plot contrivances to a minimum, and he knows how to write for the heart. About the only thing Russell T. Davies does better than him is conveying character, and that’s praising with faint damn indeed. Human Nature is a straight-up adaptation of a highly acclaimed novel of the same name, originally published in May 1995, which featured the seventh Doctor taking the same actions, becoming human and falling in love.
For fans of the classic series who have transferred over to the revival, comparisons with the novel are inevitable, and it is interesting how the differences between the seventh and tenth Doctors reconcile themselves. Sadly, Human Nature the television show doesn’t have the emotional impact of Human Nature the book because the television show is treading ground that’s been treaded before. The seventh Doctor had no idea what it was like to be human, and he had never experienced human love before; the experience was radically new and moving. With the tenth Doctor, however, though he is able to sell his relationship with Nurse Redfern (thanks to good chemistry between the actors), not much sets this development apart from the Doctor’s mad falling for Madame de Pompedour in The Girl in the Fireplace.
Then there is the fact that the tenth Doctor became human in order to hide from the Family of Blood, whereas the seventh Doctor didn’t know he was being hunted, and became human because he felt he needed the experience. This alteration to the book is especially ironic since it’s usually the seventh Doctor who is seen as the one who manipulates events without regard to the innocent bystanders who might get caught in the crossfire. Instead, it’s the tenth who deliberately puts people into harm’s way. It’s only Nurse Redfern’s rebuke that saves this plot element from becoming a plot hole.
It’s a safe assumption that a number of fans were going into this series with extremely high expectations. Human Nature was voted the “Best Doctor Who Novel Ever” by readers of Doctor Who Magazine, and Charles Palmer had already shown himself to be an impressive director. In the end, Human Nature doesn’t live up to those expectations, but it does enough of a job that it does not disappoint. And that’s a remarkable achievement.
And when you consider that the majority of the episode’s 7.1 million viewers probably haven’t heard of the Doctor Who novel of the same name, those objections above do not apply. For that reason, it’s clear that Human Nature and The Family of Blood will be challenging for the top honours on most viewers’ season polls.
Doctor Who Notes
- One thing that Human Nature the television show had to contend with that Human Nature the book did not was a question of running length, and some explanations may not have fit into the timeframe. I’m told that the Confidential (a making-of documentary that runs alongside the series) suggests that it’s the TARDIS which decides where the Doctor will end up as John Smith, and when. Had this been mentioned, then the Doctor’s actions putting people in harm’s way are moderated, somewhat. Kate Orman also notes that, in the book, the equivalent of the pocket watch couldn’t be stored on anybody’s person without the Time Lord elements within affecting the bearer (including the tree it’s hidden in, in the book). (link).
- One thing I should mention is that the Family’s scarecrow soldiers are, quite possibly, the creepiest minions ever. Credit goes to the designer, the editor and especially director Charles Palmer, for giving them the perfect introduction and lots of effective scenes. Certainly these are head and shoulders above the pigmen of Daleks in Manhattan.
- When writing my review of 42, I asked if composer Murray Gold was double-booked, since I was hearing a lot of themes being reused in a number of the stories. Seems he was spending his time working on this two-parter. I noticed a number of excellent new themes here, which will probably populate the next volume of the soundtrack album.