(De)canonizing Doctor Who

(The following most assuredly contains spoilers for Human Nature.)

Paul Cornell has gone to the well twice with astonishingly good results. For those who don't know, the latest episode of Doctor Who, Human Nature, is a remake of the author's New Adventures novel from the 90s. The book by the same name is considered a classic by fans, and Cornell was therefore asked to rewrite it as a script for the 10th Doctor. We'll see how Part II goes, but for the moment, it's been received as the best episode of the season, if not of the entirety of New Who.

And I wholeheartedly agree. Lovely episode, with added value for fans thanks to many little references. Being a story that also exists in another medium, one could almost see Cornell working those references into his original story as a wink to all such tales. Is canonicity one of Human Nature's themes? Aside from being a retelling of a New Adventure novel, we have:
-Scarecrows as per the last 2nd Doctor TV Comic strip;
-John Smith/The Doctor naming his human parents as Sidney and Verity, referring to Doctor Who's original producers, Sidney Newman and Verity Lambert (one schoolboy is called Pemberton, a possible reference to script editor Victor Pemberton). If we can consider "the real world" as an alternate source of Who lore, then Human Nature draws a link there;
-The 8th Doctor, as played by Paul McGann, appears as a sketch in John Smith's book of dreams, his first "canonical" appearance since his only appearance. Before this point, some maintained that the TV Movie was not canonical, having been produced for FOX-TV rather than the BBC, and contradicting a number of things from the classic series (a half-human Doctor, the Eye of Eternity inside the TARDIS, Skaro as cemitary planet, etc.). I would have thought the 7th Doctor's appearance and death would have been enough to canonize the TV Movie, but there you go.
But if the story confirms the 8th Doctor's place in canon, it also seems to decanonize Human Nature - the novel! After all, how could the Doctor have made himself a human teacher in a 1913 military academy and married a woman named Joan TWICE? Once as the 7th Doctor (with Benny) and another as the 10th (with Martha). There are notable differences in the plot (the Doctor's motivation, his featured enemies, the companion's role, etc.) but just enough similarities to make you ask some serious questions as to the novel's canonicity.
And if that novel isn't canonical, are any of them? This is an important question for Doctor Who fans, especially the classic series survivors. After 1989, the story continued, first as Virgin's New Adventures, then also as their Missing Adventures. Then came BBC Books' Past Doctor Adventures and Eight Doctor Adventures, as well Big Finish's many audio series. The latter continue to this day, supplemented by a new range of books detailing the missing adventures in New Who (as well as Torchwood). And unlike other tie-in series, these were considered canon. Some of the classic series writers worked on the New Adventures. Actors reprised their roles for Big Finish. And Russell T Davies slid references to the new novels into episodes (most notably Boom Town's mention of Justicia).

For me, the answer quite simply lies in the Time War. In the new series, it's been shown that history can be changed: The Doctor fails to recognize the Great and Bountiful Human Empire, the events of "Father's Day", his comments in "The Unquiet Dead", etc. If you wipe an entire species (or two) from history, that's bound to cause some changes. Changes like an adventure not happening when it was supposed to? Why not? I dare say it can explain away any inconsistency between the classic series and New Who, including the heretofore unknown role of Torchwood, the differences between the 21st century as represented in the 60s and the real deal.

If this line of reasoning opens the door to other adaptations of classic tales, I'm all for it. Which doesn't mean I don't want original material too.

Other thoughts on Human Nature:
-Remember the discussion on racism? Well, when the Doctor's not around with his telepathic aura of friendliness, Martha does get nasty comments directed at her on account of her being... a Londoner.
-Didja notice? The dance occurs on the same date as the Armistice (November 11th remains Memorial Day for Canada and the UK). Given that WWI is set to start the next year, I thought this was a nice touch.
-Speaking of which, Favourite line: "In a few years time, boys like that'll be running the country." "1913... They might not."
-The Ghost of Rose: She's in John Smith's book, but "disappears after a while". Note how Smith is ambivalent and matter-of-fact about this.
-References to actually televised Who, not counting all the stuff in the book: The childish music behind the school girl is from "Remembrance of the Daleks"; the Doctor does something impossible with a cricket ball, just like the 5th Doctor in "Four to Doomsday". Probably more.
Next week: I think I'll be watching Human Nature again, followed by the second part of this excellent story. I left a congratulatory message on Paul Cornell's blog. If you liked it as much as I did, pay him a visit, won't you?

3 comments:

Steve Flanagan said...

Russell The Davies has poured scorn on the whole idea of "canon" from time to time. I think he sees all those stories in different media as things to be touched on and drawn from, or not, to taste.

But he was adamant that the destruction of Gallifrey in the novels could not be the basis for the destruction of Gallifrey in the TV series: he felt that it would be wholly wrong (and, he claimed, somewhat hyperbolically, against the BBC Charter) for major developments in a programme paid for from the license fee to be accessible only to those who paid again for a book.

For the most part, I liked "Human Nature" a lot. Cornell's writing is always a little too over-emphatic for my tastes, but I preferred this to "Father's Day". I did have one major quibble, which I will touch on in my regular Friday blog post about Doctor Who and comics.

Siskoid said...

I'll be looking forward to it as usual!

Obviously, these essays are in the About Time/No-Prize vein, and don't always take into account the "real world" ;).

De said...

Just like everyone else it seems, I loved the episode. When the trailer ran for Part Two, my heart truly sank knowing that the status quo would have to return and any happiness in the Doctor's life would have to be left behind. My wife lost it at the end of "The Girl in the Fireplace" and I think I can expect something similar with "The Family of Blood".

 

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