Sunday, May 27, 2007

Doctor Who - Human Nature

What a difference a week makes. From the generic SF of 42, to something intelligent and thoughtful in Human Nature. This is why Doctor Who is the greatest show on television ... nothing else can present such differing episodes and still be the same programme!

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 effects throughout the story are awesome. The invisible Family spacecraft is magnificently eerie, I loved the green lights everywhere and the alien voices. In fact, the spooky scarecrows were perhaps the least successful element - I wondered why they all looked the same. Did they all come from the same farm perhaps? The direction of their first appearance was also a little sloppy and non-threatening. Something of a lost opportunity I thought. As was the whole elaborate sequence with the piano falling. A great idea, but the execution was clumsy, spoiled by never actually seeing the woman with the pram in the same shot as the piano until the very end, thus not bringing home the tragedy that Smith was averting.

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.


Abu Yair said...

I watched this one this morning at 6.15 while taking an intercity bus to the British Consulate. The journey took about 55 minutes, but I hardly noticed it.

I agree with you that this was a far more engrossing episode than last week's meaningless noise. Like you, I was impressed from the start. I noticed that only twelve minutes into the episode, so much had already happened that I assumed that the story was going to begin to resolve itself. It was only when the episode ended that I realised that there are another 42 minutes to come.

The story has done something to restore my faith in the ability of the present production team to produce something on a par with the original series at its best. It has also confirmed my opinion that the 45 minute story format operates entirely to the detriment of the development of a meaningful plot and well-rounded characters.

My enjoyment was particularly enhanced by the fact that I never read the original novel (or in fact any of the non-TV adaptations) and did not recognise any of the guest actors except for the chap who was in Love, Actually (a dreadful film, by the way). I can thus enjoy these episodes as an interested viewer rather than a critical or knowledgeable fan. I understand that the actress playing the matron is a well-known comedienne, but I've never seen her before, and only discovered that after the fact. For me, it's better that way.

One aspect of the story did not hold true for me: I do not believe that children in the cadet corps used machine guns (I was briefly required to to some such training in my childhood and the best that we were allowed were single-shot manual-reloading rifles from World War One!), nor to I think that most schoolmasters relished the prospects of their pupils going to war. There is a different between believing that a man can prove his bravery in battle and hoping that he will get his chance to prove it. It strikes me as the kind of thing that only a person who has never lived through a war would write.

If the preview of next week's episode is anything to go by, it seems that it's a brave story that tries to take the programme into new territory. For the first time in ages, I can't wait till the next episode appears.

The Doctor said...

I would kill for one copy of the Journal of Impossible Things-I would love to have it to read nd gaze at and wander what is out there! i actually love Doctor Who so much(and this website is great)
Is there was a download link for the whole journal online? If so can someone post it on here! Or let me know the website it is on:
email me a
My name isnt actually Michael though!!!!

the doctor said...

Sorry if i'm not allowed to add my email adress- forgive me, but please publish it-cos ive found the site to download it! JOY TO THE WORLD!