Human Nature was written by Paul Cornell, and based on his Doctor Who novel of the same name. The novel comes highly recommended and often tops polls of peoples favourite Who novels, and so the pedigree is good for a cracking television yarn. And that's what we got!
We open with a bang ... something I'd often thought should happen but until now never did - starting a story at the tail end of an unseen one. I always liked the idea of that which is why we did it when Telos published the original Doctor Who novella Companion Piece a few years back ... but anyway ... something is after the Doctor and he has to try and escape. The details of what happen come a little later on: he uses something called a chameleon bridge to rewrite his biology and make him human. What is it with the current Doctor Who team and DNA? Barely a week goes by without something happening to mess with it. In Smith and Jones, the Judoon are detecting non-humans with DNA scanners, in The Shakespeare Code the Carrionites have DNA replicators, in Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks it's the Daleks playing with human and Dalek DNA, in The Lazarus Experiment it's all about DNA gone wrong and now we have more DNA messing about. So the Doctor is now a single-hearted human called John Smith who teaches history at a boy's public school in 1913. Martha is keeping an eye on him by posing as a servant and somehow the Doctor's personality is now held in a pocketwatch.
There are so many great things about this episode that it's hard to keep track of them all. The pacing is brilliant, introducing concepts perfectly, and managing to slowly crank up the tension all the while. The other schoolboys are a wonderful lot, with the spooky Baines and the brilliant Tim Latimer as the highlights (Thomas Sangster playing Latimer is simply awesome). The Doctor is falling for the school matron, the widower Joan Redfern, brilliantly played by Jessica Haynes, and although some of their scenes are perhaps a little mawkish for a Doctor Who audience (the kissing mainly), you had to see the Doctor (or rather John Smith) going through this to make him real to the audience. And David Tennant pulls another rabbit from the hat by managing to make Smith different from the Doctor. It's a stand out performance as usual from Tennant and he makes it all look so simple and elegant.
There are some beautiful scenes with the journal that Smith has been keeping. I felt these were wonderfully played and am I the only one who wants a 'Journal of Impossible Things' of my own?
But this is Doctor Who and any life of idyll bliss will soon be shattered. The nasty aliens arrive in their spacecraft and promptly start harvesting bodies to occupy through the services of a stack of animated scarecrows (I have assumed that the collective noun for a number of scarecrows is a stack ... sounds right anyway). I guess the aliens took the scarecrows as temporary bodies at first until they could get enough human flesh to work with. The hapless schoolboy Baines is one such body, a farmer called Clark is another, a small girl with trademark red balloon is a third, and fourth is Martha's fellow maidservant Jenny. The aliens call themselves 'the family' and are after the Time Lord for some unknown reason.
The plot rolls forward and Latimer, who seems to be able to see people's futures (he witnesses the death of an older bully on the battlefields of the Second World War), takes the pocket watch with the Doctor's personality in and opens it, thus alerting the Family to the Doctor's presence (I guess they knew he was on Earth somewhere but couldn't trace him precisely enough). There were some wonderful scenes here, with short cameo flashbacks to a Dalek, Cyberman, Ood, Werewolf, Sycorax, Racnoss and Lazarus. I did with some concern find this resonant of the self-indulgence of the eighties where barely a season could go by without too many back-references and the show slowly vanishing up its own posterior. I sincerely hope this isn't an indicator of the future here.
Smith and Joan head off to a local evening dance, and Latimer follows, realising that something is up. No sooner have the couple enjoyed a waltz than the Family-inhabited humans and scarecrows burst in, and confront Smith - Martha had given the game away trying to get the Doctor to snap out of it - and demand that he turn back into a Time Lord or they will kill either Martha or Joan ... and Smith must decide.
A cracking ending to the episode, and a great cliff hanger. All the performances here are uniformly brilliant, with no-one in particular taking overall kudos as they are all so good. There is an elegant simplicity in the Family's ray guns, turning victims into little clouds of ash, and the idea of the Doctor's Time Lord persona being in a pocket watch is a cute idea and very well handled. I can see kids in the playgrounds pretending to find invisible spacecraft, and eyeing the school nurse strangely ... not to mention that new teacher.
There are so many subtle nuances to the story, in the way it unfolds and is paced that it is a joy to watch. I really enjoyed it, and on a second viewing I enjoyed it more. I really can't wait for the concluding episode next week, and I hope that it manages to maintain the high standards set by the opening half.