Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Human Nature

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I dream I’m this adventurer. This daredevil, a madman. The Doctor.

Here’s another one I remember primarily in terms of my own early viewing experience. Which is convenient, really, because it’s also a difficult episode to write about – the opening episodes of two-part stories often are.

Certainly, I recall – not the twist, because that’s not quite the right way of describing it – the premise, in particular the pre-credits scene, being quite a shock. Even then I was reading as much as I could about the series, albeit in a fairly limited and constrained way – Doctor Who Adventures magazine was pretty much my limit. I don’t think I’d discovered the internet yet. (Don’t you all wish I never had? So do I, sometimes.) In any case, then, the only descriptions I’d read where to the effect of “When John Smith’s dreams start to come true, where is the Doctor?”, or something like that – there was no analysis of how this was probably an adaptation of Paul Cornell’s novel from the 90s or suchlike.

That was nice, actually – I sometimes wonder if, in becoming so plugged in, I’ve lost something of the actual viewing experience. Not just in terms of Doctor Who, but television in general; simply by virtue of how I approach it these days, with the analytical mind and the keen interest and so on, the actual watching isn’t quite the same. I don’t mean this in the way that people sometimes decry critics for – the inability to ‘just switch off and watch it’, because I wouldn’t want to just switch off. I love the analysis, and I do get more from that.

But at the same time, I can’t help but feel I bring a real baggage and weight of expectations to a lot of what I watch these days. Be it Doctor Who, where I’ve been reading the magazine (I’ve graduated to the ‘grown up’ one now, but its counterpart will always hold a special place in my heart) in advance of the episode for months, or indeed any other television show, where I’ve been reading message boards and tumblr and news websites ahead of time. There’s less surprise to television now, I suppose. (On that note: I think perhaps one of the reasons why I’ve been loving The Good Fight so much is because it’s consistently surprising to me in just how good it is.)

I guess that that, then, is what I associate with Human Nature primarily. A real sense of surprise. It’s not fair to say it’s an integral part of the episode, per se – though certainly there are a few moments where it could have swerved off into something unpredictable, it does begin to start feeding us information (very effectively) quite early on.  But for a few moments at the beginning, it does (or did) genuinely shock me, and I’ll always love the episode for that.

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Obviously, as a Paul Cornell episode, it’s really well written – absolutely lovely throughout. That’s something I can comment on, even though this episode is existing just on its own until next week.

The entire piece just sings, really – it’s very well done. From the absolutely lovely development of John and Joan’s relationship, to ensuring that John Smith is a charming character in his own right yet still fundamentally of his time, with all the human faults and foibles we don’t normally see of the Doctor. It’s a quick but deft sketch of two characters, but an entirely necessary one – so much of next week’s episode is going to rely on these two characters working and working well, and the setup here is absolutely fantastic.

While I’m mentioning the character work, a quick word on Jenny and Baines. Minor characters, yet, but never caricatures; in their own way, they both feel real, in such a way that when they are taken over by the Family of Blood, there’s something meaningful about it. Certainly, Jenny’s death is genuinely sad, and it’s difficult not to feel for Baines too – despite his priggish nature, it’s the moment of fear that sells it. Seeing the characters in their element and then taken out of it entirely, undercutting any confidence or defence mechanism they’ve built up. It’s fantastic stuff, and it’s to the episode’s credit that it takes the time to make these characters work as characters first, before they’re possessed.

One moment I’d like to highlight as a personal favourite is the bit with the piano and the cricket ball – you know the one I mean. That’s something else I specifically recall from the first broadcast; it made quite the impact on me. I remember watching Confidential after the episode, and Russell T Davies and Charles Palmer (I assume, I’ve not checked) were discussing how difficult the scene was to achieve – but ultimately also how essential it was, to demonstrate that the Doctor was still in there, beneath the layers of John Smith. That’s exactly why I love it so much – not only is it a wonderful set piece, but it’s such a wonderful example of the ingenuity and panache and indeed, yes, heroism that (to me, at least) defines the Doctor. It’s moments like this that make the character matter, really. That’s something Paul Cornell understands, and has always understood, innately and intuitively.

Got to love a Paul Cornell episode. Been meaning to read the original novel for some time now – I’d hoped to get a review of it to go up some time over the next week, but that’s not going to happen now – and to get into some of his original novels. Chalk looks quite good. Still, though – I know you said you were sticking with your original work from now on, and that’s genuinely quite admirable, but (selfishly speaking)… come back and give us another Doctor Who episode, please? You’re damn good at it.

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I’ve spent quite some time gushing over this episode – which in turn begs the question, was there anything I didn’t like? Well… in some cases, it was almost too good for its own good.

I criticised The Shakespeare Code some time ago for its historical treatment of race, and recently celebrated Thin Ice for much the opposite. Human Nature occupies a rather lovely middle ground in that respect – it’s a deft and subtle handling of how Martha’s race would impact on her experiences in 1913, leaving it implicit yet at the same time very direct. There’s something really impressive here; in some ways, I’d argue that it paved the way for Thin Ice’s success later on, demonstrating acutely that Doctor Who can handle historical racism in a nuanced and sensitive way.

But like I said – it’s almost too good. Because it’s so, so damning of the Tenth Doctor in a way that’s almost staggering to behold. There’s the moment where Martha laments the fact that he didn’t consider what would happen to her if he fell in love with someone, and like, yeah, sure – but did he not also consider the months of racism, abuse, and servitude? Damn. There’s an implicit cruelty here that’s difficult not to lay at the Doctor’s feet, which I was struggling to come to terms with. Why 1913? It’s a lovely setting and Paul Cornell does some great work within that, so I’m not inclined to argue it particularly – but from a Watsonian perspective, as it were, what on Earth was the Doctor thinking? Why not go to 2007, and stay with Martha’s family, Lodger style? It almost feels like there’s a need to throw in a line about sending the TARDIS to a random location in Earth’s history, just to absolve the character of some of the responsibility he’s putting on Martha.

It’s not a huge dent on the episode. It’s a lovely episode. In some regards, it’s a good thing – I almost feel like that questionable discomfort is part of the point, particularly given what I recall of next week’s episode. But still, it’s a bit of a sticking point.

Ultimately, though, this is a really good episode – one that proves why Paul Cornell is so good, and why we should be praying for his return. Thankfully, though, even if he doesn’t come back – we’ve still got next week’s!

8/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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