...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Day 2337: DOCTOR WHO: Human Nature


Okay, after FOOLING everyone with Mr Olaf the other day, here is Daddy's REAL review of this week's Doctor Who.
Everyone, it seems, loves "Human Nature". Alex loved it; the viewers gave it an Audience Appreciation Index of 86%, classed as "excellent"; the notoriously fickle Outpost Gallifrey has 79% of voters giving it 5 out of 5, rising to 96% giving it 4 or 5; the reviewer in the Tuesday Metro was moved to call it "a return to form" (with a backhand slap to last week's "42" as well); even arch-sceptic and master of the splenetic dissection Lawrence Miles thought it was 80% "exceptional".

So there must be something wrong with me.

It's not that I thought it was in any way "bad", it's just I didn't find myself moved or thrilled or engaged in the way that an "Empty Child" or a "Love & Monsters" or a "Gridlock" did. For that matter, I think I was more excited by the derided Dalek double bill earlier in the year.

It's almost certainly down to defeated expectations: where "42" might get away with being derivative fluff because I expect it to be pointlessly derivative fluff and it turns out to be competent derivative fluff, "Human Nature" sets a higher standard for itself both because of its heritage and because its author, Paul Cornell, has a deserved reputation.

There are, I think, two actual flaws in the episode and they are linked.

The first is the opening: exciting as it may be to see the Doctor and Martha rushing into the console room under laser fire, it spells out exactly what is going on and why – the Doctor is going into hiding, and we can guess it's as a human. This undercuts the "what the hell is going on?" factor of the rest of the pre-title sequence where Mr John Smith wakes up and chats with Martha the maid.

In the utterly depressing sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is a story called "Normal Again" where we see an alternative perspective that has Buffy in a sanatorium suffering from catatonia, and under the delusion that her dreamworld of "Sunnydale" exists and that she is a super-hero there. The particular horror of the episode is that it treats this possibility as totally plausible – in fact I think that it goes too far, because it plays it's final scene in the "Buffy is mad and dreaming it all" world, suggesting that that is the world that is "real".

The thrust of the "Human Nature" pre-title is playing with a similar idea: is it possible that the whole of Doctor Who is just a dream in the mind of Mr Smith? Except that the opening has already explained that it is not.

Nothing wrong with a fast paced opening scene, but I'd have just saved the explanatory exposition for later on, when Martha goes to the TARDIS halfway though. Expensive, perhaps, to shoot extra footage, but a bit of mini-adventure with the Daleks... then cut to Mr Smith finishing the last sentence in his journal as he reads it out to Martha the maid.

(Since I prefer "it's a story in his head" to "it’s a dream" in the cliché stakes.)

Now, in a sense, it doesn't matter because the story of "Human Nature" is not really going to be about "is Doctor Who only a dream?" It merely seemed to take away any serious shock factor to Mr Smith's line as we punch into the titles.

Oh and "that's me; completely human": no one in the history of time speaks like that!

(Unless, as Alex suggests helpfully, they are artificially put together by the Doctor and the TARDIS out of the way they think that humans talk.)

The other problem, linked as I say, is the amount of the episode that appears to dwell on Smith's dreams and his journal. It seems to me to be a concentration on the Doctor leaking through into Smith at the expense of exploring who Smith is himself. The reason for this problem would seem to be – forgive me – that the story is too broad and too deep for the small screen.

Now, I should admit, that the New Adventure "Human Nature" never blew me away either, so it's just possible that it's the "what if the Doctor turned human" vibe that produces a "yeah yeah" response in me. Nevertheless, the novel does have the time to pace its development as Smith as a separate person. He has some aspects that are Doctor-ish and some that are altogether human, but with more room to explore both it never seems that this isn't about him as a human being.

All of this recounting of dream adventures is just very like the tenth Doctor in his "isn't this larks" mood, and coupled with Smith sharing the Doctor's habit of gabbling sentences it is sometimes difficult to remember that the Doctor is actually gone.

Saving a baby from a falling piano with a cricket ball, such a Doctor-ish way to save someone, only adds to the over-egging. (Actually, Alex says that as a preposterously complicated sequence of cause and effects it is really a very seventh Doctor-ish way to save someone – most normal people would shout "look out!")

It's lovely to see all the previous Doctor's faces there in the journal (Alex particularly pleased that the "books' Doctors", Sylv and Paul, are foregrounded), or to hear Mr Smith name his parents as Sydney and Verity – and his father was a watchmaker: see Mad Larry's head explode again this week. But all of this ticking my fanboy boxes gets in the way of me seeing who is this Mr John Smith.

To be fair to Tennant, he does play Smith in a slightly posher, slightly lighter, slightly higher pitched English accent, and tries to imbue him with a sense of nervousness, particularly about the fair sex, that is absent from the Doctor. Matron Joan's gentle banter with him on the stairs plays well to this – I'd have like to see more scenes like this to develop their relationship.

The other scene that plays to Smith as human was obviously the machine gun practice drill, where he permits older Class Captain Hutchinson to give younger boy Latimer a beating without batting an eyelid. This plays better in the book, where we gain insight into Smith's thinking – his more dreamlike and detached nature is emphasised and he is much more "going along" with the mores that say it is right for Latimer to be abused. Although Smith's subsequent conversation with Joan tries to touch on that it seems much flatter and foreshortened in the television version.

Time seems to be a little out of joint for Tim Latimer's story too, with him being a bit precognitive/weird even before he has opened Mr Smith's magic watch. Personally, I'd have rather seen him save the pram with the cricket ball while Smith dithers – after all, the implication is that Tim has picked up some of the Doctor from the watch, while Smith is missing same. This would have strengthened the sense of Smith as not the Doctor and foreshadowed him dithering at the end of the episode when confronted by the Family of Blood. But equally, it would undermine the dramatic integrity of our hero. Still, Tim's very good in the "An Unearthly Child" role, with his big eyes and slightly too knowing stares.

In fact the cast generally are excellent. Harry Lloyd, severely shaved of his Will Scarlet bum-fluff beard gives an excellent and deeply creepy turn as the odious Baines, objectionable even before he is turned into an alien-possessed zombie. And yet he also manages to be a little bit clever and a little bit brave when he thinks that there might be an aircraft in trouble and goes to help. Rebekah Staton admirably performs a harder transformation, from lovely bubbly Jenny to hard-faced Mother-of-Mine, clearly the Ma Baker of the Family of Blood. Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson of "Spaced") gives a perfect performance as Joan – her forwardness being not so much anachronistic as a touching mix of being a little ahead of her time and a little desperate, as a widow, not to be left behind. Making her the experienced one compared with Smith's otherworldly naïveté is rather charming.

Freema remains on absolutely top form, doing more to sell the episode than anyone. Playing along as Martha the Maid; taking charge when she sees the falling star that is the invisible spaceship coming down; almost knuckling under when she thinks she's lost the Doctor that she loves, and to another woman of all things. The fact that she has to put up with Joan's condescending behaviour towards her – and the way that she makes almost no attempt to hide Martha's contempt for the school nurse who is so obviously her inferior. And the way that she keeps bursting into Smith's room is priceless.

In the novel, the seventh Doctor's companion Bernice was placed nearby as an educated lady of means, occasionally visiting her "uncle John". Even though the change to place Martha as a maid in the school means losing the book's overtly gay subplot, this is actually an improvement. Not only is Martha closer to the action, it allows them to develop an alternative viewpoint of the school, i.e. from the servant's point of view. The light touch handling of racism is also a nice addition, colouring our picture of a time easily painted in nostalgia, as well as quickly saying "nasty pieces of work" about Baines and Hutchinson. And seeing Martha and Jenny having to take their drinks outside the pub adds a similar touch for gender equality.

(And in such a potentially male-dominated setting as a boys' school, isn't it good to see that three of the leads, and carrying much of the plot, are women.)

The special effects are kept remarkably simple, limited to one rather well done invisible spaceship (a loving, almost move-by-move recreation of the invisible spaceship scene performed by Tom Baker in the never-broadcast "Shada"), a few laser blasts and the magic watch. The watch in fact is more captured by some excellent sound design. Like Sauron's ring, which also possessed a part of its master, the watch has its own voice – in fact three voices, one of which is David Tennant – with a haunting, susurrating whisper.

The other effect – if you can call them an effect – is the marvellously malevolent scarecrows. With their ungainly boneless walk and their hideous mis-stitched faces you can bet they'll be this year's "monster of choice".

Their masters, the alien hunters – now are they aliens who are hunters or hunters of aliens? – the Family of Blood look suspiciously like the alien gas creature from Torchwood's "Day One" repainted in green. (Like that's never been done before in Doctor Who… cough cough Axons cough cough Krynoids.) Having said that, the fact that the inside of their invisible spacecraft looks like a redress of the TARDIS console room, down to the grating on the floor, is actually rather a nice nod to the stolen time-technology they are supposed to be using.

As characters, however, they do appear a little undeveloped and their motivation is unclear. We know that they are after the Doctor – or at least a Time Lord but that amounts to the same thing these days, doesn't it? But why? Do they want him as a trophy or for revenge or for something that he can do for them or just to eat him as a delicacy? And it seems odd that they'll all be dead if the Doctor can just hides for three months. Three months? That hardly suggests a lifespan long enough to have acquired the necessary technology to hunt him down in the first place, does it?

Reaching for the book again, the Family of Blood replace the Aubertides a family of humanoid-ish aliens who reproduce by budding up to a limit of seven. They want the Doctor to try and incorporate his Time Lord DNA into their reproductive cycle so that they can grow their family twelve times larger and turn their clan into an army. Annoying characters and with a silly name, but at least there was an interesting thing going on behind why they wanted the Doctor, and one that tied into the rest of the plot about his Time Lord nature.

At the moment it seems as though the Family of Blood are after the Doctor because that's what villains do.

Still, it was a packed episode so maybe they're holding the explanation back for next week.

In the end, "Human Nature" isn't science-fiction at all. Being Paul Cornell, obviously this is a great big Christian allegory, but the scarecrows are the real clue – evil twins of the one from "The Wizard of Oz". This is a fairy story: the mighty wizard has laid aside his wand, hidden his magic cabinet and – watched over by his faithful apprentice – turned himself into a mortal, only to have to fall in love and face evil zombies at the same time.

Because the Universe needs its Doctor, there's nowhere he can go without that intruding: even if the Family of Blood didn't find him, the shadow of the First World War hangs large over this invented idyll, and if that isn't about accepting duty over love I don't know what is.

For me, the central line to this story should not be how "magical" it would be if his "imaginings" were real, but that he likes his small and mortal life better. It's almost there in the scene where he talks to Joan about not needing war to prove your courage, until that piano intrudes. Love is the price that the Doctor must pay for great power; he can have one or the other. We need to believe that Smith would rather have love.

That's what the choice at the cliff-hanger is about, after all: chose Joan or Martha, Matron or Maid, Love or Duty, to be human or to be the Doctor.

Next time… "He burns at the centre of time and can see the turn of the Universe." Time's up for John Smith in "The Family of Blood".


Nick said...

So I'm not alone! I thought it was a good episode, even very good at points, but not a great one. I think the problem was that, as you point out, it wasn't really sure who Smith was - the human side of the Doctor, or someone completely different - and seemed to get caught between telling two storiee. One was about what it means to be human (and thus what it means to be the Doctor) while the other was about the Doctor having to take extreme measures to hide from ill-defined bad guys.

Though I do think (or hope) that it'll come off better as one 90-minute story than two 45 minute ones.

Liberal Neil said...

I don't think we will know how good this episode was until we've seen next week's.

I enjoyed it - and thought the development of Martha's character very strong.

I really liked the book mind.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Not convinced by your first objection (a more ambiguous beginning would be redundant as it would suggest that a bloke in 1913 was accurately capable of predicting the world in 2007), but I think your second objection is more interesting.

Having Mr Smith rather less au fait with these disturbing dreams he keeps having, would certainly have both given you more of Mr Smith and added tension, with Martha unsure that the plan was working (maybe have Martha find his 'journal of impossible things' hidden under the bed or something as the only clue that the Doctor is still bubbling under).

Nevertheless, this was a standout episode for me, and my favourite since 'the Girl in the Fireplace'.

NAMUPAI'AI said...

Interesting, thinking more about a Wizard of the Oz connection. Aside from the obvious about the scarecrows, and the wizard being just a man, there is also the theme of the world-of-dream-being-real-life. Martha, like Dorothy, needs the Doctor -- the Wizard -- to send her home. But Smith is more like the Tin Man (less a heart) and the Cowardly Lion, except that he wants to stay the way he is rather than change himself.

tmd said...

Your objection to the opening scene is that it gives the game away up front, correct? As it happens, I interpreted that first scene as a dream sequence--the dream from which he is awakened after the credits by Martha's precipitate entry, and the reason the two of them have the journal in mind.