“Human Nature” – Review: Redux

John Smith “I sometimes think how magical life would be if stories like this were true.”

Human Nature

When I set out on this marathon viewing of twenty-first century Doctor Who, there were two things I was looking forward to more than anything else. Firstly, seeing whether rewatching any stories that never captured the imagination first time around could strike a chord this time round. And secondly, whether any of those stories which had been put on a pedestal and find themselves atop fans’ lists of “Best episodes evah!” deserved knocking down a notch or two. And I have come to Disc Five of the Complete Series Three box-set to re-watch “Human Nature”, it’s second half, “Family of Blood” and this series’ Doctor-light episode “Blink”, very much in relation to that second point: Are they still as good as everyone reckons?

Today, by sheer coincidence, sees the release of Paul Cornell’s first script for official Doctor Who with “Scream of Shalka” as part of the Classic DVD range (make what you will of exactly how ‘official’ you think that is), on the same day that I begin to review the story of his final script (to date) with the two-part “Human Nature” / “Family of Blood”. Mr Cornell is returning as a writer for the first time since “Father’s Day” way back in 2005 and he is in fine form, so-much-so that you have to wonder why he’s never come back to do more television. This is adapted from his New Adventures novel of the same name, and “Human Nature” starts with the Doctor and Martha seemingly in the middle of an escape from an unseen adversary. However, realising this mysterious foe has the ability to chase them anywhere in time and space, the Doctor knows that somewhat extraordinary measures are called for. He turns himself into a human being and allows the TARDIS to implant him into a society with his own personal history and, crucially, no memory of his Time Lord existence. Thus, John Smith, for years nowt but a handy pseudonym, becomes a real person.

David Tennant plays it perfectly, with John Smith having a very different persona to the Doctor replete with mannerisms and traits that are far from what we are used to. Martha (played with growing assuredness by the wonderful Freema Agyeman) remembers everything that has happened and needs to keep the whole situation under control. The “situation” in question takes place in and around a pre-World War One boarding school where John Smith is a teacher and Martha is a maid but innocently coming between the two of them is Matron, Jean, played by Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson) whose earthy charms result in a blossoming romance. While the Doctor who we all know and love is clearly bubbling under the surface, it is the smaller details that proved very rewarding here in a story that had a lightness of touch as well as great emotional depth and maturity. The life that the TARDIS constructed for John Smith even included a mother and father, knowingly named Verity and Sydney as a gentle in-joke to the fans.

John Smith dreams of another life where he is “an adventurer… a madman” and he has recorded his dreams in a notebook that provide a tantalising glimpse into his “real life”. With one or two notable exceptions such as Series Two’s “School Reunion”, this new series has seemed to be somewhat reluctant to embrace pre-2005 Who, relying instead on creating its own mythology, so it is with a certain amount of glee that I remember seeing John Smith’s Journal of Impossible Things for the first time with it’s pictures of previous incarnations of the Doctor. It may be an indication of the growing maturity of the show that it feels more comfortable in touching upon these things. As I sit here, counting down the days till the 50th Anniversary and having seen classic Doctors already make more of a substantial appearance in “The Name of the Doctor”, perhaps it was something of a necessity to start to open up the half-century of backstory to the newer viewers who may not have given it much thought before.

Soon though, we have strange lights in the sky, aliens taking over human form and a band of scarecrow soldiers to scare the wits out of any watching pre-teen. The lovely touch is that it is Martha who has to cope with and unravel the mystery, all the while John Smith is oblivious to the threat until the very end that delivers a suitable cliffhanger. Its pace and plot is snappy enough to fit wonderfully into the new series but there is a wider, deeper appeal. One that encompasses people who don’t normally watch this kind of thing…. apparently there are some. They really don’t know what they’re missing and I can confirm that “Human Nature” is fully deserving of the high esteem in which it’s held.

Highlight: Seeing David Tennant do something so, remarkably, different.


Talking Point: Why has Paul Cornell not done any more TV Who?

Demon’s Run Rating: 19 out of 20

Original BBC1 Broadcast: 26th May 2007

Marathon Status: 36 down, 66 to go

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