Saturday, 27 June 2009

Doctor Who: Human Nature (1)


Martha: 'You had to go and fall in love with a human. And it wasn't me.'

After a run of episodes ranging from the horrible to the mediocre, this was the story which earned a Hugo nomination, and won David Tennant a Constellation award. It also features prominently in many a fan's top ten, sees the Doctor (kind of) fall in love, is widely self-referencing, and is for many David Tennant's pièce de résistance.

Written by Paul Cornell, and based upon his novel of the same name, 'Human Nature' takes place in England one year before the Great War, and tells the story of shy, retiring school teacher, John Smith, and his trusty maid, Martha. Despite Cornell's original novel featuring McCoy's Doctor and Bernice Summerfield, the switch to Ten and Martha is seamless, and perhaps even trumps the original pairing. Having read Cornell's book, I honestly think this is an inspired adaptation. Obviously, some things have been changed, but the alterations give Cornell's story a modern twist utterly in keeping with the spirit of the novel.

John Smith is the antithesis of the Doctor: he's awkward, uncertain of himself, reserved, clumsy—in short, he's utterly adorable. He's exactly how you'd imagine a beloved public school professor to be, and it isn't long before the kindly Smith catches Matron Redfern's eye, and the two of them fall in love. Tennant is a revelation as John Smith. He's so completely unlike the Doctor, that it's almost like watching a different show. Gone is the dashing adventurer, replaced by a quieter, more unsure, English gent. Smith is a storyteller, an artist, and an educator—plagued by dreams of the future, and haunted by a past he can't recall.

The first act is essentially Martha's story. Initially, she's the only one who knows John Smith's real identity and why he's in hiding, but due to poor social standing, is forced to masquerade as a maid until their mission is complete. In reality, Martha's probably more educated than half of the professors, but her colour prohibits her from taking a loftier job, meaning she's forced to watch from the periphery as the Doctor and Joan's relationship starts to blossom. Which makes for some uncomfortable scenes, as Martha's unrequited love for the Doctor continues to fester, unnoticed and unrewarded.

Where her story really comes to life is when Martha's forced to navigate the murky waters of racism, war and class snobbery. Her struggle to keep her modern day sensibilities in check in order to keep the Doctor safe, is one of the episode's strengths. Martha's calmness under duress, and inventiveness within her restricted circumstances, really allows her character to shine. And whilst enduring the unkind jibes of the students ('With hands like those, how do you know when anything is clean?'), she's forced to ponder the longevity of the students against a backdrop of pre-war England. Will any of them live to see it end?

For a while everything goes according to plan, until prescient schoolboy Timothy Latimer pilfers the Doctor's fob watch—a component of the Chameleon arch used to store a Time Lord's essence—opens it, and inadvertently reveals the Doctor's location to a group of alien hunters. With the Doctor's scheme well and truly scuppered, it then becomes incumbent on Martha to bring Smith to his senses by restoring his Doctorly identity. Unfortunately, with the fob watch missing, Martha has no means of getting the Doctor back, and the whole plan essentially turns to shit.

Virtually everything about this episode works. The Family of Blood are played to perfection by the sinister Harry Lloyd, a balloon wielding Lauren Wilson, the portly Gerard Horan, and the occasionally bong-eyed Rebekah Staton. Likewise, Farringham School For Boys, and its surrounding rural villages, make for the perfect rural canvas on which to paint this Edwardian era classic. In fact, it's the locale which makes 'Human Nature' feels so reminiscent of Classic Who, along with its parochial ambience, its utilisation of the Doctor's oft used John Smith alias, and its period characters.

And hats off to Jessica Hynes, who was something of a revelation tonight. I've only seen her in Spaced and as Cheryl in The Royle Family, but her performance tonight eclipsed both. Admittedly she was spoiled with the character of Joan Redfern—she was just so fascinating—but it still takes talent to bring a character to life so convincingly. John and Joan were perfect for each other, and their clumsy courtship was endearing and sorrowful—a real throwback to the days of yore, when the simplicity of personal relationships seemed hampered by the hardness of the times.

Thankfully, after the blip which was 'Daleks in Manhattan', this feels like something of a return to form. With the Doctor's identity now exposed, and the Family of Blood aware of his presence, who will the terrified John Smith choose to keep alive: his best friend or his lover?

Other Thoughts:

—I thought they were going to side-step the racist quips—particularly with the 'Londoner' misdirect. Good on them for not shying away from reality.

—Martha was back to her bright, intelligent self this week. She sussed immediately there was something wrong with Jenny, and managed to outfox her by offering up a brew of sardines, jam, gravy and mutton. Smart woman!

Quotes:

Martha: 'I wish you'd come back'

Martha: 'It's Monday, November tenth, 1913, and you're completely human, sir. As human as they come.'
Doctor: 'That's me. Completely human.'

Joan: 'Where did you learn to draw?'
Doctor: 'Gallifrey.'
Joan: 'Is that in Ireland?'

Veteran: 'Staff entrance, I think, miss.'
Martha: 'Yeah. Well, think again, mate!'

Joan: 'It's all becoming clear, now. The Doctor is the man you'd like to be, doing impossible things with cricket balls.'

Joan: 'You extraordinary man.'

Joan: 'Widows aren't supposed to be beautiful. I think the world would rather we stopped. Is that fair? That we stop?'

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