Episode 8: Human Nature

“You are, quite definitely, human.”

I hate the word “squee”. It makes me think of all that’s worst about over-enthusiastic fandom, coupled with the cliquey insularity of the net community and its need to come up with exclusive jargon. Then I saw this episode. Young Barry, sitting next to me, may not have actually heard me go “Squee! Squee!”, but I suspect I probably did, in my head at least.

I’ve known Paul Cornell for a few years now, and found him to be one of the nicest, most welcoming and self-effacing of the Who authors I’ve met. He even gave me some of his wedding cake! Yet every time I talk to him I trip over my tongue like a drunken idiot (which, by that point, I usually am). The reason for this is Human Nature (the novel). It was, and still is, one of my favourite pieces of fiction of any kind, Doctor Who or otherwise, and I was, and still am, totally in awe of the man who wrote it.

And this adaptation did nothing to change my opinion. Paul has done a splendid job of adapting his story to another medium, and as a talented scriptwriter has managed to retain the story’s essence while trimming some of the numerous subplots and adding some more televisual elements.

The historical setting was perfectly realised, thanks to some excellent “living museum” locations, but more than that, it was integral to the flavour of the script. Without being didactic, it demonstrated perfectly both the social mores of the period and the world politics that were dragging Britain inexorably towards the Great War. The sequence of the schoolboys at machine gun practice was masterly, redolent of what the viewer knew was soon to come; a feel reinforced by Latimer’s flash-forward to the trenches. Even the Boer War was touched upon, with Joan mentioning that she lost her husband at the battle of Spion Kop.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that I wondered whether this detailed examination of history might be lost on some of the show’s younger viewers. This was by far the most mature, adult script since Doctor Who returned, and unlike many of the others didn’t seem to have been made primarily with the younger child in mind. But if it prompts a few young minds to take an interest in history, so much the better!

David Tennant was, quite frankly, superb in the most demanding story the series has yet offered him. He managed to make John Smith a quite distinct entity from the Doctor, and sympathetic in his own right. He even modified his usual Estuary English accent. Smith came across as a naive innocent, much as he did in the book, conforming to social norms like allowing a beating or scolding the servants simply because he was a man of his time. This “little boy lost” quality made his blossoming romance with the more worldly Joan truly touching.

Jessica Hynes also did a cracking job as Joan, the first straight role I’ve seen her in. She perfectly conveyed the nature of Edwardian repressed emotion in a manner reminiscent of Remains of the Day, and the scenes with her and Tennant were pure magic.

Martha got more to do than usual this week, too, though it still seemed weird to me that she wasn’t Bernice Summerfield! Freema did a good job of showing her confusion at being left to deal with events without the Doctor, and her scenes inside the dormant TARDIS were pregnant with emotion. The one thing I found somewhat lacking subtlety was her line about how the Doctor had fallen in love “but not with me”. Given the ongoing relationship there, it might have been nicer for that to have remained unspoken. In any case, she did well in her assumed role as servant, accepting with equanimity the racist, classist nature of the times. I particularly liked that far from condemning Baines and Hutchinson for the racist sneering, she showed some sympathy for what she saw as their possible oncoming fates.

As the first part of a two-parter, the episode took time to build up these characters and situations in a way a single 45 minute could not have, and was far richer as a result. The boys’ school setting was well-realised, and redolent of that old saw about the Great War having been won “on the playing fields of Eton”. The schoolboys themselves may have seemed on occasion to teeter close to parody, but were probably good representations of boys of the period. Thomas Sangster (who must be about 18 now but still looks much younger) was superb as Latimer, the quiet, sensitive one who doesn’t quite fit in. He’s been impressive in everything I’ve seen him in and hopefully has a great future ahead of him.

And the villains? At first I was disappointed to see that they were incorporeal aliens, quite different from the creepy Family of the book. Then as they started to take human forms, I was pleased to see that they were exactly as I had envisioned them, especially the little girl with the balloon. But as nominal leader, it’s Harry Lloyd’s Baines who takes the honours here, effectively playing a convincing double role. As Baines the schoolboy, he was a convincing upper class twit, but on his possession by the alien he became incredibly creepy, with his flaring nostrils and sinister but confident smile. A revelation, then, as previously all I’ve seen him do is stand around and look pretty as Will Scarlet in the new Robin Hood. This guy is amazingly talented, and even as a creepy alien, amazingly attractive!

Fittingly for a story so centred on the Doctor (and the effect of his absence) there was a deal of emphasis on the series’ history, something I feel is too often ignored. Like most fans I loved the simple but significant in-joke about Smith’s parents being named Sydney and Verity after Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert, effectively the show’s creators. It was a lovely moment for the fans that nonetheless fitted perfectly with the script – after all, those names do sound convincingly Edwardian! But the best stuff was in Smith’s dreams, and that marvellous notebook he showed to Joan. The beautiful pencil sketches of old monsters were only beaten by the heart-stopping moment when we saw a page adorned with pictures of several of his previous selves. I can’t be the only fan who was overjoyed to see Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor right at the centre of it!

And Smith got to save the day with a cricket ball, something the 5th Doctor would have heartily approved of. I can see how this sequence could have seemed contrived, but actually it worked perfectly. Not only was it a thrilling moment, but it was the scene which establishes that maybe Smith and the Doctor aren’t so different after all. As Stan Lee so groan inducingly put it in Spiderman 3, “maybe one man can make a difference!”.

Then there were the scarecrows. Perhaps a weak point, they’d plainly been put in (at Russell’s suggestion, apparently) as a bit of excitement to keep younger viewers interested in an admittedly somewhat slow-moving episode. British gothic horror has a fine tradition of animated scarecrows, perhaps because these wood-and-straw homunculi are inherently creepy (no matter what L Frank Baum might think). These were done rather well; I loved the moment when Clarke put his hand right through one and out of its back, trailing straw and all. But while they provided a few nice moments, I still found them a little extraneous, as the unsettlingly alien presence of the Family of Blood was quite menacing enough, thank you.

As you can tell by the number of exclamation marks in this review, I loved, loved, loved this episode. But it’s only a first part. It may be perhaps the finest single episode new Who has yet offered us (and I don’t say that lightly), but a lot rides on how the story is concluded. Given that Paul describes himself as new Who’s “emo” writer, I suspect it’ll be in more tears even than his previous script Father’s Day. And I can hardly wait!