“Human Nature” has a myriad of fascinating aspects marking it, but one of the most noteworthy is that it’s the first televised Doctor Who story based on a book. Paul Cornell’s Human Nature was published in 1995 as part of Virgin’s New Adventures series, and it quickly became the standard by which all other Who novels would be measured. The book featured the Seventh Doctor altering his DNA so as to better understand the suffering of his companion Bernice, who in the previous novel had lost someone dear to her. The TV adaptation, also written by Cornell (“Father’s Day”) shakes the premise up a bit and finds the Doctor and Martha on the run from a vicious group of aliens, but the lyrical song remains the same.
The Doctor: “I’ll have to do it. Martha, you trust me. Don’t you?
Martha: “Of course I do.”
The Doctor: “Cause it all depends on you.”
Martha: “What does? What am I supposed to do?”
The Doctor: “Take this watch, because my life depends on it. This watch, Martha, this watch is—”
The story begins with the above, frantic exchange and immediately cuts to Dr. John Smith (David Tennant) waking up in bed from the dream. He’s a quiet, reserved English schoolteacher in 1913 who seems to have numerous dreams wherein he is someone else, and he proceeds to explain them to his maid, Martha (Freema Agyeman). Maybe because I was familiar with the source material, I was able to more or less see from the beginning what, exactly, was going on here; I’d like to believe, however, that to someone seeing the setup for the first time, it would be confusing, magical and dreamlike. How far has Doctor Who gone this time, and what kind of story is this?
John Smith: (to Martha) “Sometimes I have these extraordinary dreams…I dream I’m this adventurer, this daredevil—a madman! ’The Doctor’ I’m called…and last night I dreamt that you were there.”
The idea of the Doctor becoming human is grand. His alien nature is the one thing that’s always separated him from humanity, which is obviously his favorite species. When all of sudden he is finally one of us, it’s disorienting; because of this development, Cornell’s story is undoubtedly one of the most important Who tales ever.
As the episode unfolds, the pieces fall into place. The Doctor and Martha were on the run from a group of aliens with a limited lifespan and thus his solution is that the pair hides out until they die (three months precisely). He does this with a device called a chameleon arch, which rewrites his internal DNA as well as wipes his memory. Everything that is “the Doctor” is stored in a fob watch, which should be opened only under the direst of circumstances, which would mostly be if the aliens should find them. He’s left this instruction along with a set of rules in the powered-down TARDIS. Luckily he gave Martha a key in “42” so she can visit the machine for consultation from time to time. She is his protector at this point, yet the human John Smith doesn’t know it. But the one instruction he failed to give Martha is, what if he should fall in love? This spanner thrown into the works causes more problems than any other when Smith falls for the school nurse, Joan Redfern (Jessica Hynes). And maybe Martha should’ve taken better care of the fob watch, too, because a rather odd student, Tim Latimer (Thomas Sangster, Love Actually) not only nicks it from Smith’s study, but opens it. Before long, the aliens come a knockin’ and scarecrows across the countryside start coming to life. Where is the Doctor when everyone needs him? Well, he’s something of a quivering, human mess, and the fob watch is nowhere to be seen.
“Human Nature” has a lot going for it, but much of whether it works or not comes down to David Tennant, and his ability to play someone that isn’t recognizable as the Doctor. It’s tough for a while because we aren’t even sure what he knows and doesn’t know, but as the episode moves on, it becomes clear that he’s indeed out of the loop. One of the great scenes is when he shows Joan his “Journal of Impossible Things,” a chronicle of his dream state. The volume contains text and illustrations of Daleks, Cybermen, Autons, K-9, Rose (“She’s just an invention”, he says), and the TARDIS. One of the great pictures that sets most any Who nut’s heart all aflutter is the page full of old Doctors (pictured at the top of this article): Sylvester McCoy, William Hartnell, Colin Baker, Peter Davison and, oddly, Paul McGann, who’s front and center. He waxes bizarrely nostalgic with Joan in the scene (as Martha looks on), blissfully unaware of why he has these dreams, yet quite proud of their diversity and imagination. David Tennant sets John Smith a universe away from the Doctor, and his performance is the backbone of the story. To watch the man we know is the Doctor falling in love while knowing that it must ultimately not work out is heartbreaking.
But lest ye think this is a simple tale of “Hey, Won’t You Play Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” evil lurks on the periphery. It closes in on the school dance in the episode’s final moments and demands that Doctor come forward, as the series issues what may be the best cliffhanger sting it’s yet unveiled.
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based critic and columnist, a contributor to The House Next Door, and publisher of The Rued Morgue.
NEXT WEEK: Nothing! Even a Time Lord masquerading as human needs to take a break. Sci Fi gives Doctor Who the Labor Day weekend off. Tune in in two weeks for “The Family of Blood”.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Check out Peter Davison’s first story, the M. C. Escher-inspired, “Castrovalva”.