Doctor Who #762: Human Nature

"Take this watch, because my life depends on it. This watch, Martha. The watch is me."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired May 26 2007.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor makes himself human to hide from the Family of Blood in a 1913 military academy.

I haven't read the original Human Nature yet; I'm trying to read the New Adventures in order and I'm still quite a few books out. But like Rob Shearman's adaptation of his audio "Jubilee" (as "Dalek") a couple years before, the fact that it's (closely) based on a Doctor Who story that already has a lot of cred and critical success seems to have created one of the new series' best stories. Of course, Cornell had to make changes (see Versions), but Human Nature needs no help fitting into the Series 3's "Doctor as God" metaphor, what with his being reborn human and everything (next episode: Last Temptation!). But while the original book is definitely the core of the episode's DNA, drawing from the past seems to have given Cornell and the production team license to reference other bits from Doctor Who's past. We get John Smith from the 3rd Doctor, and his parents names are Sydney and Verity (see An Adventure in Time and Space if you don't see the relevance), the Gallifrey dialog echoes similar lines from the 4th Doctor's The Hand of Fear, the trick with the cricket ball is pure 5th, the little girl with the balloon skips to the same music the little girl who's a Dalek battle computer (Remembrance of the Daleks, a 7th Doctor story) skips to, and the Scarecrows are straight out of the 2nd Doctor's comic strip. And there's the Journal of Impossible Things, in which the Doctor draws several of his past selves. I wish I could distinctly understand the voices in the fob watch, I bet there are some cool references in there too. It's like an Anniversary special a few years before we needed one.

But it's not all retread. With the Doctor turned into a human who does not remember he's the Doctor except in dreams, Martha becomes the protagonist. And though she's - as ever - a drip about the Doctor not loving her (sigh), she's still the smartest companion New Who's ever had, and can take care of herself. It's not like the Doctor's instruction manual is all that useful, except as a tool to tell the audience the rules of the game. Due to her particular weakness, she's more confounded by John Smith falling in love with Joan Redfern than she is dealing with the Family of Blood. She tricks Jenny/Mother of Mine into revealing herself, and takes a leadership role once they attack. One of the more interesting threads running through Human Nature is the racism Martha must endure. Perhaps there's some truth in the notion that the Doctor's telepathic aura of good will has protected her until now, but given New Who's track record, it's almost shocking, even if it's quite correct for the era. Not just matters of race either, but class. Martha takes the racist remarks with patience, knowing she has to play a part, but struggles and bristles at the challenges associated with her being "the help". She's too familiar with Smith, gets sent away, is asked to use the service entrance, and no one listens to her medical opinion. The overall effect is to cut Martha off not just from the Doctor, but from Doctor Who's tropes. He's been made human, and so the world has been made more mundane and thus, dangerous.

As for the Doctor himself, he's in there somewhere, but his scenes make it clear John Smith is an altogether different person. He's clumsy and scatterbrained, but more crucially, a man of his time, teaching young men how to fire machine guns and sending Tim Latimer for a beating without batting an eye. Ironically, his most human traits are what make Joan recoil from him. On repeat viewings, revelations like his single heart don't mean as much, but John Smith overseeing boys with guns does maintain its frisson. Joan rather falls for the part that's not human, the man not sure of who he is, whose imagination runs rampant, who saves babies with magical cricket bowls, who has never loved before... It's a sweet romance. Opposite that are Martha's desperation and the creepy Family sniffing around for him, or rather, for the psychic boy who opened the watch. In their true forms, they use the same effect Torchwood's sex alien did, in acid green instead of pink, a color that's used to great effect for effects both fancy and simple to represent their abilities and technology. And now that they've discovered the Doctor's hiding place, he's lost the things he needs to defeat them...

My original review, (De)canonizing Doctor Who, I spend some time discussing just what's canonical and how this story could have happened to both the 7th and 10th Doctors.

VERSIONS: Deleted scenes on the DVD include David Tennant vamping through the bits Martha fast-forwards through, including a gag about not letting him eat pears and what his favorite band is, Daughter of Mine's abduction, and a small bit where John Smith absentmindedly sings songs from the future in front of the mirror. Obviously, Human Nature THE NOVEL is the original version of the story, starring the 7th Doctor and Bernice Summerfield has a different motivation for the Doctor, different enemies (though the Aubertides have similar abilities and motives), and Bennie isn't stuck as a lovelorn maid, but the story is largely the same, with the Doctor hiding as a human teacher in a military school on the eve of WWI.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Very worthy, in every way.


Anonymous said...

Jessica Stevenson! It is impossible to dislike Jessica Stevenson.

Re: the racism Martha is enduring. Perhaps part of it is the role she's in; as a servant woman the upper crust expect the least of her. I'm not sure how British racism stacks up against American racism, but I'm betting in England it's got more to do with White Man's Burden than with slavery. Certainly, John Smith trying to explain the concept of fiction to her plays into that.

Siskoid said...

The condescension is certainly part of that, but the upper crust twits saying things like "with hands like those, how do you know when something is clean?" goes quite a bit further.

CiB said...

For my money this is the best Tenth Doctor story. Although it does show (especially in the next part and the resolution) that this was written with McCoy's chessmaster in mind.

Siskoid said...

The end is very "New Adventures".


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