Saturday, August 25, 2007

“I dream I’m this adventurer, this daredevil, a madman. The Doctor, I’m called…”: Doctor Who

As Freema Agyeman rightly points out during the episode’s online commentary, ‘Human Nature’ is such a radical departure from a typical Doctor Who story that it almost feels like an entirely different show. Indeed, one can see why Russell T. Davies put such straightforward tales as ‘The Lazarus Experiment’ and ‘42’ before it – aside from balancing the season as a whole, this approach makes the impact of Human Nature’s non-linear, unconventional narrative all the more powerful.

We begin with a brief TARDIS-set opening that jumps right in at a crisis point, only to be interrupted halfway through with the reveal that it’s actually a dream of the Doctor’s. Only it’s not the Doctor – all of a sudden David Tennant is playing an entirely different character, a schoolteacher in 1913 England called John Smith. John wonders at his dreams, putting them on paper in his Journal of Impossible Things (a beautiful prop – see photo), but other than these brief flashes he is completely human. Martha, now his maid, is trying very hard to keep it that way, dismissing both his dreams and Nurse Joan Redfern’s suspicions that there is more to him than meets the eye. Most of this is made clear within the first five minutes, yet is not explained until roughly halfway through the episode in a powerfully edited sequence revealing the chain of events that came before. It emerges that the Doctor and Martha are hiding from pursuers known as the Family. Although it feels a little rushed, this explanation is strong enough to support the more important goings on in the story.

Like Paul Cornell’s last Who script, season one’s excellent ‘Father’s Day’, ‘Human Nature’ is a lot simpler than it first seems. Plot intricacies aside, Cornell is basically posing and then answering a very simple question: What if the Doctor became human? Both stories explore seemingly impossible situations; in ‘Father’s Day’ it was Rose getting to know the father who died when she was a baby, while in ‘Human Nature’ it’s the Doctor falling in love with a normal, human woman. Said woman is Joan Redfern (played superbly by Jessica Hynes, formerly Jessica Stevenson), a widower who appreciates that John is unlike any other man she has ever met, and is attracted to this otherworldly quality. The two gradually fall for each other over the course of the episode, and it is to the credit of Tennant and Hynes’ performances, as well as Cornell’s script, that the development of their relationship really does feel gradual. By all rights Cornell could have gotten away with a sense of rush – after all, he only has forty-five minutes to establish this and many other plotlines – but by the concluding part ‘The Family of Blood’ the two really are believable as a permanent couple.

Meanwhile, Martha is forced to look on helplessly as the Doctor falls in love with another human, much like the relegation of Rose to a similar position in ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’. Poor Martha becomes progressively more desperate as the seemingly perfect plan disintegrates around her. Finally she decides that returning the Doctor to his Time Lord form is the only option left, only to find that the fob watch containing this part of him has disappeared. At this point Martha’s desperation becomes somewhat amusing, as for lack of any other plan she resorts to slapping Smith hard in the face. Of course we know that the watch has been stolen by Tim Latimer (Love Actually’s Thomas Sangster), a young boy who opens it and begins to see visions of the Doctor’s past adventures. Sangster is very good, communicating an impressive amount of confusion and wonder primarily through his face. Also throughout the episode, the Family take over the bodies of four humans and activate their army of scarecrows (a clever idea that unfortunately isn’t nearly as scary as it could have been). As the overtaken Jeremy Baines, Harry Lloyd’s superbly creepy line delivery makes him easily the standout of the villains.

As it always the case with Doctor Who two-parters, there’s a lot of important stuff which I can’t comment on yet. Yet although next week’s instalment is ultimately the better of the two, ‘Human Nature’ has one thing it does not: room to breath. It is leisurely paced, allowing the story adequate time to build up and giving each principal character & actor several moments to shine. Tennant especially is beyond fantastic, truly believable as an entirely different character while still retaining little hints of the man we know lurking beneath the surface. Episodes like this and next week’s are what make Doctor Who so much more than just another sc-fi show, so if you’re not watching there has never been a better time to rectify that situation.

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