Human Nature is considered to be one of the very best in Virgin’s New Adventures series of novels. It’s reputation is huge and the news that it as to be adapted for the Tenth Doctor's adventures was greeted by great excitement and anticipation. Expectations were high but could the TV version live up to the ten year reputation of the original?
If anyone was up to the task of adapting the book then it had to be the original author. Besides representing the cream of the Doctor Who novel author pool Paul Cornell also scripted Fathers Day for series one of the new Doctor Who. An episode much loved and subsequently Hugo nominated. It was also cited by Christopher Eccleston as his favourite script of that series and certainly widened the range of subject matter that the show could explore in this bold new age.
Human Nature sees the Doctor rewrite his own DNA to recreate himself as a human being. The cause of this drastic action is a family of time travelling hunters who are intent on bagging the last of the Time Lords to increase their own lifespan and power. The Doctor sends the Tardis to rural England in 1913 to lay low until these hunters have burned out their tiny life spans. It seems that the Tardis rather than the Doctor creates John Smith, as his human incarnation is known. Presumably the Tardis also chose the time and place. The Tenth Doctor previously posed as a teacher in the excellent second series episode School Reunion, though the disguise was less thorough then. Similarly though his companion found herself in a less privileged position. This time as a maid, rather than a dinner lady.
The shadow of war hangs heavy over this tale. Many of the pupils who survive these events will die in the awful battles of the First World War and the knowledge that this will happens casts the ‘King and Country’ mentality in quite an unflattering light. Particularly the Headmaster's hope that Latimer will have a ‘just’ war to prove himself in, as if war is just something like a cricket match or game of squash. A tool for turning boys into men, hopefully by sending them to kill technologically disadvantaged foreigners. For all his stirring patriotic hyperbole the Head certainly runs at a good lick when the aliens vaporise his colleague.
In his time at the school John Smith develops an attachment to the school nurse, Joan Redfern. The Matron is a widow whose husband fell in the defence of the crown and who can’t abide the sight of the boys playing at soldiers. Having never expected to love again she is surprised to find herself falling for the strange new teacher. Not as surprised as Martha though. In all the Doctor’s twenty-something instructions for looking after a Time Lord who’s turned himself into a human he didn’t think to include any for the eventuality that he might fall in love, as humans often do.
The Family of Blood are an unpleasant, though decidedly small time, group of villains who lay devastation on the school and environs in their merciless pursuit of the Doctor. They care not one jot for preserving the web of time or what consequences their ham fisted meddling may have. It is their total lack of responsibility or compassion that damns them to their ultimate terrible fates.
Knowing that all the Family want is the watch that contains the consciousness of the Time Lord John Smith is tempted to give it to them in the hope of a normal life. The sequence showing that normal life that the Doctor can never have is heartbreaking. Though it dashes her own hopes Joan is able to give John Smith the courage to do the right thing.
In dealing with the emotional fall out of these events the Doctor, back in his body and right as rain, demonstrates the total ignorance of sensitivity that we have come to expect of him. He goes to see Joan and invites her to travel with him, to start again. For that moment the Doctor is the most frightening monster in this story. His offer is obscene and yet he cannot understand why Joan refuses. Until she puts him in his place by pointing out the human cost of his whim.
Is it that humbling question that spurs his terrible vengeance upon the Family of Blood? Or does he do it for John Smith? For their greed and wanton destruction the Doctor gives them their immortality in eternal imprisonment.
Human Nature is as great a success as a television drama as it was was a novel. What changes have been made only enhance the story and the degree to which Cornell has grown as a writer in the intervening twelve years shows through in the finished script.
The scarecrows feel a little like they’ve been chucked in to ‘monster things up’ but they are still effective and if anything a little underused. They look brilliant and move in a suitably creepy manner but we don’t see all that much of them.
The acting is excellent though a few performances must be picked out for special mention. Harry Lloyd plays Baines the schoolboy as an understated sap but his transformation into an alien is chilling. He convinces totally and his perpetual smirk reminds viewers of the Joker as he takes such pleasure in death and destruction.
Thomas Sangster gives a sensitive performance as Tim Latimer that belies his young age. Latimer never seems a victim and the strength of his performance makes the final scene, where we see the character as an old veteran, affecting on an emotional level.
Jessica Hynes creates a believable 1913 lady who knows her place in the world and how that world works but can still question that knowledge when faced with the impossible. Given a second chance at happiness she is forced to sacrifice it for the greater good. Mrs Redfern is unlikely to have loved again one supposes.
Freema Agyeman has to carry much of this episode as the Doctor is out of action and once again she shows Martha’s intelligence and resourcefulness. A highlight of the series is Martha’s ‘okay,’ when her friend Jenny agrees to some gravy in her tea. The only irritation is the continued references to Martha’s feelings for the Doctor, haven’t we been here before?
David Tennant makes John Smith everything the Doctor is not. Smith is unsure of himself, a daydreamer, indecisive and a bumbling romantic. His terror as he begins to believe that the Doctor is real and he himself an invention is heartbreaking and enough to make the viewer resent the Doctor just a little when he puts on his glasses and shows off for the Family. In dealing out their punishments the Doctor is dark, cold, distant and alien and a stark contrast to his human creation.
This story also has a few nods to the past to treat long term fans. John Smith’s ‘journal of impossible things’ features portraits of a number of earlier incarnations of the Doctor while his parents Sydney and Verity are named for the creator and first producer of Doctor Who.