TV EYE: Doctor Who, Week 8: “Human Nature”

The eighth episode of the third season. Fear the spoilers…

High expectations are dangerous- especially where New Who has been concerned. I’ve learnt through bitter experience that it’s best to go in with an open mind and a willingness to put up with plentiful annoyance on the off chance that we might get a decent episode this week. Things were even riskier considering that I’d read the source material for ‘Human Nature’ – the 1995 novel that was published as part of the ‘New Adventures’ series when Who was in the midst of its lengthy days of non-existance- and absolutely loved it. It’s one of the New Adventures that I loved unreservedly, in a series of books that often made the mistake of trying to ‘adult up’ the Who universe (something which- despite my many issues with RTD’s methods- New Who has been mostly sensible enough to steer away from), and when I heard that Paul Cornell’s latest two-parter was going to be a fairly close adaptation (as opposed to the ‘loosely inspired by’ influences on ‘Dalek’ and ‘Rise of the Cybermen’), I was definitely interested. Of course, I had to be careful- I’ve loved a lot of Cornell’s fiction, but I wasn’t a big fan of Father’s Day, disliking the gigantic lapses in logic, and the sledgehammer tearjerking. There were no guarantees, and I couldn’t exactly see how something as literate as Human Nature was going to fit in with New Who’s somewhat hyperactive style.

As it turned out, it fitted in spectacularly well, and we’ve gotten one of the finest episodes of the new series so far. I was surprised by the gentle, slow-burning pace of the episode, and even more surprised by how well they did at evoking the period, and the differences in attitude between then and now. Instead of trying to dumb any of the novel’s ideas down, most of the themes are still present and correct, and while there may have been a couple of moments of excess (such as the disintegrating pensioner, just there to make it clear how evil the bad guys are, and the piano sequence which was great fun but borderline silly), most of it was very delicately told, and anchored by a very believable relationship evolving between Tennant and Jessica Stevenson (I’m sorry- I’ve watched too much Spaced to get used to this ‘Hynes’ surname-changing yet…). The build up with the aliens was handled well, with the right level of creepiness, and they even managed to cast the role of Tim with a decent child actor- a role which so easily could have gone wrong. Not only does it show exactly how good Tennant is when he calms down and isn’t trying to do mad-as-a-badger every ten minutes, but it’s also another story which shows Freema Agyeman in a very good light, and proves the Doctor/Companion relationship between the Doctor and Martha is so much more interesting than any of last year’s nonsense between the Doctor and Rose. While Martha’s unrequited love is a little OTT at times, it’s a pleasure to see that she’s actually having to prove herself and earn the Doctor’s respect over a series of episodes, rather than the instant adulation that was hoisted upon Rose for her wonderful earthy normalness. Yes, given a choice, I’d have preferred the army of scarecrows to be a little harsher and scarier, and for the action at the end of the episode to be a little sharper, but ‘Human Nature’ is about as close to how I wanted New Who to be as makes no odds. Even if the whole show isn’t like this, it’s moments like this, and last year’s Girl in the Fireplace, that make the whole thing worthwhile. New Who is a fantastic gateway drug for science fiction, and the fact that they’ve managed to bring Human Nature to the screen with such fidelity to the original ideas is something worth celebrating.

Here’s just hoping they don’t manage to fudge it up in episode 2…

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