There are a number of fans who might once have said that you can’t turn a New Adventure into a television programme; that such stories belong in their own time and place, contextually removed from the series by readership, maturity and the eagerness to break many of the taboos of the old TV series. That the New Adventures represented in themselves stories which simply could not be reduced to fit inside a small box of wires and light, and that in the language of this episode they were, literally, Books of Impossible Things. Those people were right, for the most part; but Human Nature is one of a few exceptions, because its author Paul Cornell writes small enough for the small screen, in the most important ways.
What made Human Nature‘s reputation is that it was a simple idea executed masterfully, without the distractions of space opera settings, alternative realities, cyberspace (yikes, remember that?) conclusions and the remnants of a Cartmel Masterplan(tm). Here in 2007 we are in the thick of a Davies Masterplan, and that’s always going to be more intimate and personal and emotionally-driven; so our man Cornell, who writes for these things predominately and very very well, is in his element.
There are hazards associated with the story’s relocation to Davies’ era however; part of the original Human Nature‘s charm was that it featured a Doctor visibly matured and for whom ‘settling down’ was a mildly outrageous concept. What we have now with the Tennant Doctor is a young man Time Lord who’s already professed his eternal love for one and a half ladies while of sound mind and body. He also has a young companion in town following him around with puppy dog eyes (again), so the ‘surprise’ has been anticipated before this series. Cornell has to work harder to make the romance between ‘John’ and Joan more plausible and significant, but make it work he does, despite the casting of a known-face in Joan and aided undoubtedly by the luxury of a double-episode, allowing the story to be told steadily. It deserves to be told well; the story is not about love but sacrifice, and without the time to discover what is at stake and who is under threat from The Family, the Doctor’s pursuers, the story risks becoming a set piece runaround-with-snogs, in the manner of The Girl in the Fireplace. Of paramount importance of course is that this is not the Doctor’s story, it’s John Smith’s and that of his maid, and we shall see the importance of that in the story’s second act.
In the mean-time, some last points: Harry Lloyd is a great find – there’s a future in upper-class cads for this guy, if not lop-grinning alien fiends. Tennant is, alas, on top form as John Smith; it’s almost painful to admit that the Doctor (as he and RTD interpret him) is not missed, and this vulnerable, fumbling and believable reluctant protagonist is at times preferable to our usual hero. The ‘Doctor-ish’ scene with cricket ball and piano seems distracting as a result – drawing too much attention to the Time Lord lurking in the wings, surely to reappear. But while he’s away this is a joy to watch. It’s not Doctor Who, but it must surely become Doctor Who, just as John Smith must inevitably be shrugged off to find our hero hiding within.
With a build-up like this, the resolution has a lot to live up to.