Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: Human Nature/The Family of Blood

By Jonn Elledge on 06 June 2007

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

I was nine when the original ‘Doctor Who’ series ended. In the normal course of events I would probably have got over it and got a life, but in 1991 Virgin Publishing started releasing ‘Doctor Who The New Adventures’, a series of novels. Their vision of Doctor Who was perfect for the grumpy adolescent I was about to become: not only were these stories bigger and more ambitious than the TV series, but, like me, they were obsessed by a combination of existential angst and breasts.

‘Human Nature’ and ‘The Family of Blood’ are the new show’s first attempt to adapt one of those books for TV, and their writer Paul Cornell was one of the novels’ leading lights. It’s 1913, and John Smith is a teacher at an English public boy’s school, helping to drill some discipline into the future leaders of the Empire and falling in love with the matron Joan. But he’s plagued by dreams of aliens and monsters, and a mysterious time traveller who can change his face. When the village’s peace is shattered by a wave of murders, why is his maid Martha so convinced that Smith is the only one who can fix things?

Nitpicks first. The cliffhanger doesn’t make sense. The scenes of alien technology and bodysnatching feel oddly like they belong in an entirely different story. And the contention that every girl who ever travels in the TARDIS is head over heels for the Doctor is beginning to get a little tired.

It’s important to get such criticisms out the way first because ‘Human Nature’ is one of the best bits of television ever broadcast under the label ‘Doctor Who’. The performances are almost universally excellent, the script is packed with ideas, and there’s a real sense of dread throughout: you’re uncomfortably aware that, this time, even when the monsters have been defeated, the real horrors of war wait just around the corner. It’s this that gives the story one of its most powerful images, as terrified school boys machine gun an invading army of scarecrows. Their relief on discovering they haven’t killed anyone is undercut perfectly by the flashforwards reminding us that soon enough they’ll be in the trenches doing the real thing.

But the real heart of this story is the plight of John Smith, the little man who finds he has the universe on his shoulders. The love affair with Joan is played with such reserve, and his ambitions in life so simple, that it’s heartbreaking to watch him realize that he must sacrifice it all to play the hero. Smith’s horror at discovering that he’s a Time Lord, a man so alien that falling in love would never even occur to him, makes the ease with which David Tennant switches back to his all conquering Doctor persona genuinely disturbing.

It’s been argued that, with its ongoing plotlines and romantic obsessions, ‘Doctor Who’ (2005) is pretty much a spin off from the New Adventures. That’s not quite true. But the books were the first medium in which it clicked that character development and emotional depth could no longer be optional extras if the series was to survive. ‘Human Nature’ is proof that Doctor Who can work as strong character-led drama, ask real questions about history and humanity, and simultaneously tell a good old fashioned ‘Doctor Who’ story about evil aliens who want to destroy the world. It does all that, and the Doctor gets about eight minutes of screen time. It is, quite simply, awesome.

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By Jonn Elledge

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