Human Nature

Of necessity, this will be more of a compare-and-contrast than a review. Paul Cornell’s 1995 novel, Human Nature, is the first Doctor Who novel I’ve read, and almost cripplingly mired in continuity I have next-to-no knowledge of. So if I say that I didn’t like it as much as the recent TV adaptation (as “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood”), in part all that means is that I don’t know the context. The outline of the plot is the same for both versions – the Doctor, living as a human teacher in England, in the months immediately before World War I, watched over by his companion, falls in love, and (unrelatedly) is pursued by an alien family. But the details are different. In both, the companion is the viewpoint character; but I don’t know Bernice Summerfield like I know Martha, and nor do I know Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor.

Some of the changes are cosmetic. Benny is clearly cut from the same cloth as Martha (or rather, vice versa; both are smart, proactive, athletic, funny), and has an equally impressive resume, being a professor of archaeology, not to mention more overtly political in ways that would probably not sit comfortably with the current TV incarnation. In fact, in some ways it’s hard to imagine a more companion-ish companion, and at times Benny comes across as almost too good to be true, in the manner of the characters in The West Wing: you want very much to believe in her, but there’s always a nagging suspicion that people as intelligent, competent, and passionate about what they do as she is are too awesome to really exist. On the other hand the book’s family, never named as the family of blood, are more alien but less threatening than their TV counterparts. In the novel, the family are from a species of shapeshifters known as the Aubertides, who reproduce by budding. The catch is that (apart from their queen) they can only do so for a half-dozen generations, after which point they become (a) a complete family and (b) sterile. To get around this, the particular family in Human Nature want access to Time Lord “biodata” to enable every member of their family to reproduce 13 times — more than enough to form an army. We are told that this will lead them to scourge Gallifrey (among other places), mostly out of boredom (“Don’t knock it,” says one family member. “It’s something to do”). So they set a trap for the Doctor. As fuel for the action of the plot they work well enough, but none of the family members are as well-defined, as instantly sinister, as their TV counterparts.

Other changes between book and TV are more fundamental – surprisingly so, in some ways. The novel takes an impressive risk (if you don’t know what’s coming) by introducing us to John Smith as though he is just another character. It’s only when we see him through Benny’s eyes that we realize he’s the Doctor in human form. (The downside of this, of course, is that we’re not given a chance to get to know the Doctor before the story starts, so without context we don’t know how similar he is or isn’t to Smith; but the same could be said of the TV version, in isolation.) But to my mind, in the end the novel is a somewhat safer work than the TV episodes. For example, it seems that much more of the Doctor remains in Smith, who is never quite as nakedly human as his screen counterpart; when confronted with the truth of his nature, his reaction is not fearful but pragmatic. He attempts to do what the Doctor would do to save the day – albeit never with any intention of letting himself be turned back into a Time Lord. And what changes his mind is not the desire to do the right thing per se, but the appearance of a character who has been lurking in his memories throughout the novel, Verity. As in the TV episodes, the actual decision to change back takes place off-screen, to set up an encounter in which the Doctor bluffs the family. But, not knowing who Verity is, Smith’s choice in the novel feels more than a bit ex machina. In the context of the New Adventures it may all make perfect sense, but coming to it cold it looks clunky. Moreover, a plot contrivance allows Smith and the Doctor to talk to each other before the end, to reach some sort of accommodation; neat in theory, but unfortunately the scene comes across as nothing so much as an attempt to absolve the Doctor of his responsibility for creating a life he only ever intended to destroy, and that’s a shame.

At the same time, the other big difference of emphasis is that there’s much less of Smith in the novel’s Doctor. In “The Family of Blood”, the Doctor tells Joan (Smith’s love) that he’s capable of everything Smith was — including, implicitly, love. In the novel we get the opposite. Smith certainly still loves Joan, but after he has changed back, the Doctor tells Benny, “I can’t love her”; “whatever [love] is, I’m incapable of it” is how he puts it, bluntly, to Joan. On the flipside, this Doctor is more aware of the moral consequences of his actions – in the novel it is he, and not Joan, who raises the issue of how many lives he caused to be lost by choosing this time and place to become human, citing it as a reason he can’t risk changing back. This fits with the more selfish nature of the original choice to become human: as noted above, in the novel the Doctor walks into the family’s trap, choosing voluntarily to become home to take “a holiday from being himself”, rather than undergoing the transformation as a last resort to hide.

Of course, much of the power of Human Nature comes from the contrast of Smith’s love story with its setting – among schoolboys training to be soldiers, on the eve of a singular, terrible, global war. That aspect is the same, and similarly effective, in both novel and TV episodes — if anything, the argument for pacifism is stronger in the original. The epilogue – which, as in the TV version, plunges us fully into the midst of war – is probably the best piece of writing in the book, arguably the only place where the prose aspires to anything beyond the comfortable. But in the novel, Timothy, the boy who finds the Doctor’s essence (which in the novel is stored in a cricket-ball-like pod, rather than a watch) only goes into the conflict as a member of the Red Cross, a choice made as a direct result of his experiences with the pod. Both versions of the story shift focus as they develop, moving the rural idyll from foreground to background, but the extra room to breathe in the novel makes the contrast between quiet, pastoral life and the harsh intrusions of conflict that much more powerful. It’s a contrast that, in the end, perhaps gives us a taste of the Doctor’s perspective, his capacity for what in the novel is called loving “big-ly, not small-ly”; or is that already part of human nature?

8 thoughts on “Human Nature

  1. the Doctor tells Joan (Smith’s love) that he’s capable of everything Smith was — including, implicitly, love

    I’m not sure whether we’re supposed to believe this, or whether it’s yet another indication that the Doctor lost something fundamental (fundamentally human?) when he changed back, and that his inability to comprehend the kind of love Smith felt for Joan extends to the belief that he can sham it. As you say, the Doctor is portrayed more positively in the novel than in the TV episode, which perhaps includes the ability to recognize that he’d only hurt Joan more by taking her with him.

  2. in the manner of the characters in The West Wing: you want very much to believe in her, but there’s always a nagging suspicion that people as intelligent, competent, and passionate about what they do as she is are too awesome to really exist

    You know, I’d just decided I ought to watch season one of TWW (well ok, I decided I should watch it backwards to see what it would be like) and now you have put me right off it.

    I have no doctor who comments.

  3. (well ok, I decided I should watch it backwards to see what it would be like)

    You should do this and let us know if there are any coded messages.

  4. At the risk of steering this thread back on topic, I’d forgotten the “loving big-ly” line, but it points up the Christ parallels of the Doctor’s nature even more strongly. The scene in the TV Human Nature of the Doctor renouncing his godhood, having a family etc was very strongly reminiscent (for me) of the matching sequence in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ – which, as I remember, nearly got the film banned.

  5. Coincidentally, I just watched “Human Nature”/”Family of Blood” last night; they’re the first episodes of season three that I’ve seen (having grown disenchanted with the show by the end of season two). I mostly enjoyed it, but I wish it hadn’t opened with the scene of the Doctor and Martha in the TARDIS; we see that scene later anyway, and I’d have liked the episode to begin with less explanation. I also wish that John Smith had been less awkward around Joan; it felt like a sign of the Doctor’s inexperience at being human, and I think a more comfortable Smith would have suggested a fuller, more-rounded person. As the episode stands, the scene near the end where Smith desperately desires to remain human felt a bit too abrupt a switch from what we’d seen earlier.

  6. Chance: That probably depends how funny the instructions are.

    Ted: I suspect the opening was something of a concession to the timeslot/audience, to ramp up the urgency a bit — as I say, you don’t get that in the novel. (There is a prologue where it’s clear that something has happened, but it’s not clear what, and Smith is introduced without any winking.) Interesting comment about the bumbling; I hadn’t thought of it that way. But I’m not sure it was accidental, in that I don’t think Smith is a fully-rounded person. He runs up against gaps in his knowledge after fairly superficial probing.

    Oh, and obviously you should watch “Blink”, if you get the chance.

  7. I agree that Smith isn’t a fully-rounded person. I can see a certain utility in having a scene in which Joan and he discover the gaps in his knowledge, which is why I’m willing to let that go; the bumbling, by contrast, not only felt unnecessary, but worked against the emotional weight of the second half.

    And I’ll probably be watching “Blink” next week.

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