Although I’d obviously enjoyed series three’s second big two-parter enormously, I had neither the inclination nor the intention to review it, as I’d already been asked to review another later episode, of which more, well, later. However, that all changed when I got a rather desperate email from the fanzine’s editor; the person that he’d asked to review Human Nature and The Family Of Blood had submitted a review in character as Kelvin Carpenter from EastEnders or something, which he felt was a bit too arty and abstract to use. Would I be prepared to throw something together so there would at least be something fitting the ‘house style’ to go out on schedule? Yes I was. It was so good that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to say something about it.
I think I wrote this review in around an hour – probably much of which was taken up with congratulating myself for calling it We’re The Scarecrow People (And We’ve Got Lots In Common With Who), in a reference to an XTC song that at least some people did notice this time; I also very nearly went for There’s Nothing Wrong With Human Nature, referencing an early nineties dance hit by Gary Clail And The On-U Sound System which on reflection doesn’t really work and I doubt anyone would really have ‘got’ – and remembered it as having been a bit rushed and insubstantial with no real analytical depth. It was a nice surprise, then, to re-read it and discover that it actually inadvertently captures the excitement of simply watching that tremendous run of episodes on a Saturday Evening like a regular viewer. It’s more impulsive, reactive and expressionistic than I’d normally tend to be in a review, and there’s probably a lesson in there worth noting. Though you don’t get enough references to ancient forgotten sci-fi serials that way. Incidentally, you can find a huge overview of the whole Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who in my book Well At Least It’s Free, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Scarecrows – love them or hate them, you j… oh, alright, it’s never going to be ‘love them’, is it? No matter how hard certain parties may have tried to persuade us all otherwise, there’s something insurmountably sinister about them, and there’s just no way around that. Whether defending puppet elephants against witches intent on stealing their manners, plugging Linda McCartney’s range of taste-free dishes, being sung about by Pink Floyd, or just knocking on a rain-lashed cottage door in search of some Knorr Farmhouse Soup, even the most ostensibly loveable of strawheads has never quite managed to get past that barrier of creepiness-by-association.
Even Doctor Who‘s past dalliances with crow-scarers, from Jon Pertwee’s celebrated stint as literary crop-botherer Worzel Gummidge to that TV Comic strip where The Second Doctor and Farmer Glenlock Hogan ran up against some walking scarecrows that turned out to be the Time Lords in disguise, haven’t quite been able to circumnavigate it. Yes, Worzel may well have been a gentle soul with no more malevolent a thought in his head than where the next cup of cake and slice of tea was coming from, but as many erstwhile younger viewers were terrified as were entranced by him; indeed, Jon Pertwee used to bafflingly show off about this in interviews at the flimsiest hint of an excuse. As such, the big question is that if even a show that attempted to depict scarecrows as a genial and community-spirited bunch couldn’t quite pull that off, why did nobody working on Doctor Who ever think it was a good idea to use them for pure scariness’ sake?
Well, now they have done, and there’s a big scary-looking scarecrow glowering out from the cover of Radio Times, urging the viewing public to tune in to this Saturday’s instalment of Doctor Who. It’s quite possible, of course, that this could have the exact opposite effect on some viewers, but as front-page enticements to watch go it could hardly be bettered. Good thing too, as the two-parter in question, Human Nature/The Family Of Blood, was Doctor Who at its absolute finest.
Mind you, that cover was only really needed to pull in your average viewer-about-town; long-term watchers of the series will have already made a note in their diary on account of it having the title Human Nature and being written by Paul Cornell (and, um, the fact that they would be watching it anyway regardless). For those of you reading who aren’t aware of this already – and let’s be realistic about this, probably most of the people watching won’t be – Human Nature by Paul Cornell was originally part of the long-lost ‘New Adventures’ project, basically a series of fan-written novels that sprang up to fill the television series-sized gap when it looked like Doctor Who really was finished for good. In the light of the blockbusting return to the small screen, this probably seems rather a quaint and puzzling idea to anyone who wasn’t around at the time, but then again the New Adventures weren’t exactly universally well received back then either. A handful of authors were, however, very good indeed, and one of them was Paul Cornell; if you want evidence of this, look no further than the fact that while the majority of the books in the series can be picked up second hand for a couple of pence, his – including the original version of Human Nature – now change hands for those time-honoured ‘dizzying sums’. In some ways it’s surprising that Russell T. Davies should be tipping the hat to a previous attempt at reviving Doctor Who, but if ever there was a non-televisual story that deserved to have something more substantial made of it (and didn’t feature Frobisher), then Human Nature was it.
Without wanting to give too many plot details away, on the off chance that anyone out there is still seeking refuge from ‘spoilers’, Human Nature concerns The Doctor’s attempts to evade a powerful adversary by passing himself off as a human – a teacher at an early Twentieth Century boys’ school, to be precise – courtesy of a mysterious fob watch which allows Time Lords to temporarily assume the biological structure of straightforward Earthlings. He has of course posed as plain old ‘Doctor John Smith’ on many previous occasions, always taking care not to give the game away by constantly smugly hinting that he might not in fact be human after all, but this was the real deal and the first ever real opportunity to explore this much-vaunted ‘human side’ to the character. And what’s that human side like? Well, a bit… Doctorish, really.
The question of what precisely constitutes ‘human nature’ is one that has been touched on by Doctor Who many times – including, far less successfully, earlier in this same series – but it’s through exploring it in a more subtle and less melodramatic context that this story manages to come up with a halfway convincing ‘answer’. There is indeed far more to The Doctor than his supposed ‘humanity’, which is treated here as simply one facet of a more complicated character. The period setting also allowed for some interesting points to be touched on; the realistic depiction of Martha as a sort of reluctantly ‘tolerated’ ethnic associate of an academic said much more than any amount of heavy-handed moralising, while the salute to those who fought in the First World War was all the more touching for refusing to go down the Blackadder Goes Forth route (or, indeed, over the Blackadder Goes Forth top, in whichever sense you want to take that) and treating it as a matter-of-fact reality of one young (and later old) man’s life. In fact, while this may not have been the production team’s actual intention, at a time when it’s becoming more and more difficult to convince younger generations of the importance of events like Remembrance Sunday, especially in the face of deluded appropriation by historically illiterate knuckleheads with an axe to grind against anyone who isn’t sat at the same pub table under a dumb flag as them, it’s probably this kind of approach that stands the best chance of continuing to get the message across.
Sadly, much of this seems to have been overlooked in the post-transmission rush to bicker over the rights and wrongs of how The Doctor ultimately dealt with his pursuers, and whether or not this officially constituted some sort of ‘radical’ ‘departure’. What’s odd about this idea of the ‘darker’ Doctor – which, this time around, seems to involve something more substantial than just his coat changing colour a bit – is that fans seem determined that the current approach is somehow at loggerheads with everything seen in the series prior to now, although when pressed on this, seemingly all they can come up with is the Third Doctor getting a bit narked when the Brigadier elected to blow up the Silurians’ caves. David Tennant and Russell T. Davies’s take isn’t necessarily any ‘darker’ than when previous Doctors were dispassionately leaving Drahvins, Zygons, Gelth or a Hand of Omega-wielding Davros to their self-inflicted fates, and the First Doctor was positively ruthless in this regard. What we should be mulling over, of course, is how closely the conclusion ‘resembled’ Adventure Four of Sapphire & Steel. But anyway…
As a two-part story, this was the first time that the revived series has really taken advantage of the opportunity to revisit the cliffhanging days of old, with the actual story taking up its extended running time by weight of force rather than feeling like a good deal of padding with a tacked-on ‘crisis’ in the middle. Which in a sense actually made it superior to vast swathes of the cliffhanging days of old. Yet it’s difficult to praise these episodes without detracting from the fact that Paul Cornell did much of the groundwork for them back in a time when nobody was getting to do any cliffhanging at all, and without the encouragement and pressure of huge viewing figures to spur him on either, though through accepting (well, in a roundabout fashion) the better end of the New Adventures and indeed that troublesome Paul McGann ‘era’ as welcome facets of the show’s history, Russell T. Davies has shown himself to be a lot less haughtily proprietorial about his own reinvention of the show than many of its fans are.
And quite right too – we could debate their literary merits and position in the Doctor Who ‘canon’ until entire episodes of The Sensorites have elapsed, but the truth of the matter is that, like them or hate them, the books and so many similar projects besides played their small part in keeping interest in the series going during the wilderness years, making it just that crucial bit more easy for some overenthusiastic showrunner to start insisting that it should be brought back in the face of massive audience and industry apathy. Never mind the legions of independent producers and their harebrained ideas for relaunching the series – it was Paul Cornell, along with Steve Lyons, Mark Gatiss, Gary Russell and all those other skilled and imaginative writers who kept that faintest glimmer of hope in the future of Doctor Who glimmering, and what better way to salute them than with two whole episodes of outstanding television drama.
Some things that may need explaining…
Those fictional scarecrows in order – Scarecrow from Here Comes Mumfie, a mid-seventies ITV lunchtime puppet serial made by some of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s former production team; a participant a dreadful advert where assorted farmland characters whistled an inane sing-song refrain, eventually revealed as having the lyrics ‘Linda Mc-CAAAAART-neeee!’; The Scarecrow, originally the b-side of See Emily Play and later on the album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, which is about as far removed from what most people understand as ‘Pink Floyd’ as it’s possible to get; the focus of a terrifying 1986 advert that does precisely what it says on the, erm, tin.
Frobisher was a wisecracking hard-bitten shape-shifting detective stuck in the form of a penguin, who was Colin Baker’s initial comic strip companion. For the record, I would also quite like to see Nick and Jed, the two ‘Blaxploitation’ companions that Jon Pertwee had in TV Comic (and with whom he – and I am not making this up – broadcast on Pirate Radio), reappear in spinoff media.
The ‘Darker’ Doctor – the idea that the Seventh Doctor would become ‘darker’ was repeatedly promised, but explored surprisingly little on screen, and most of the scenes that related to it ended up being cut before broadcast anyway. His coat did change colour a bit though.
The sketch of the Eighth Doctor – astonishingly, there had been some passionate debate – between lunkheads – over whether Paul McGann ‘counted’ or not. The inclusion of a sketch of him in The Journal Of Impossible Things in this story seemed something of a confrontational move at the time.
The Sensorites, in the unlikely event that you’re not aware of it, is a notoriously slow-moving 1964 story in which some things possibly happen but nobody is entirely sure. You can find a feature on my attempts to remember which episode of it I’m up to – never an easy task – here.
Early nineties proposals to ‘bring back’ Doctor Who ranged from independent film production company Coast To Coast and their plans for a movie where nobody could ever quite work out what they involved, pitches from former showrunners Verity Lambert and Gerry Davies which basically amounted to ‘it was good when I used to do it so we’ll do it like that’, and The Dark Dimension, about which I have absolutely nothing to say. I will not even dignify David Burton with inclusion on that list.
Once again, I was struck by how immediately and decisively Human Nature gets straight to the action, avoiding the temptation to indulge in mysterious atmospherics with a voiceover wittering through a rewrite of the lyrics of Life by Haddaway in favour of Martha and The Doctor panicking in the console room with sparks flying all around them, and setting up that business with the fob watch plainly and clearly with no accompanying mythology. This is exactly what’s going on, no questions needed. The fact that I have been taken by surprise by this common feature of three episodes now speaks volumes about what has followed since. More surprisingly, I found that I’d changed my stance on The Family taunting the Headmaster about preparing his pupils for war (“Will they thank you?”) entirely; what seemed on first viewing like a straightforward ‘war=bad’ moment packs a lot more of a wallop from this distance. He is clearly scarred and haunted by “using my dead mates for sandbags” but still believes that he did the right thing in the wider scheme and is doing his best to equip his charges to endure, and hopefully survive, any future conflict they might become caught up in. All in all, they quite probably would thank him. It’s rather like that scene in Blackadder Goes Forth where you realise that Captain Darling isn’t quite so much of a straightforward bureaucrat after all, and that – entirely in keeping with the theme of the serial – there’s an actual human underneath it all. Meanwhile The Family’s ‘profound’ question is really just an – ultimately futile – attempt at psychological manipulation. That said, it does add to their supremely punchable smugness.
Equally jarring from this distance, and not in an altogether pleasant way (though not the one you might expect), is Martha’s treatment by the other characters. Throughout the story, she is subjected by pretty much everyone – including ‘John Smith’ – to low-level racism, ranging from charmless gags about skin colour to simple but loaded assertions that she should know her place. Why this makes for uncomfortable viewing now is that back in 2007, all that was needed to emphasise that this was a backward and boneheaded attitude was a well-timed look from Martha. Fast forward ten years and, as you can read more about here, matters have changed sufficiently for Doctor Who to need to literally punch this attitude in the face to make the same point. It’s also more than a little strange to be reminded that casual viewers and indeed casual fans once outnumbered ‘actual’ fans. I’m quite surprised too to see how harsh I was on the other two-parters in comparison to this. I was probably being unduly hard on Aliens Of London/World War Three, and definitely on The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, although despite my enthusiasm for them, Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution Of The Daleks really do struggle to sustain their combined running time.
In a sense, though, all of this only serves to make Human Nature/The Family Of Blood seem more remarkable still in retrospect. The climax, and its baffling collision of wishy-washy modern ‘sophisticated’ horror films and the lyrics of Girlie Girlie by Sophia George, still jars a little, but the rest of it feels like a superlative collision between If… and Hammer Films and now seems locked in time as a perfect example of what Doctor Who can and should be. I’m not sure I can think of more fitting praise than that. Incidentally Human Nature has since been reissued by BBC Books – you can get it from Amazon here.
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Not On Your Telly is a collection of columns and features with a slant towards ‘forgotten’ television, including plenty of pieces related to Doctor Who. Not On Your Telly is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Paul Cornell has been a guest on my podcast Looks Unfamiliar, talking about amongst other things Australian sci-fi series Phoenix Five and the BBC’s space-themed Saturday Morning show Outa Space!; you can listen to it here.
You can hear me talking to Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding about politics and Doctor Who in The Zeitgeist Tapes – the show where politics and pop culture collide – here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.