Tuesday, 29 May 2007

DOCTOR WHO 3.8 – "Human Nature" (Part 1 of 2)

Tuesday, 29 May 2007
26 May 2007 – BBC 1, 7.15 pm
WRITER: Phil Cornell DIRECTOR: Charles Palmer
CAST: David Tennant (The Doctor/John Smith), Freema Agyeman (Martha Jones), Jessica Hynes (Nurse Joan Redfern), Harry Lloyd (Jeremy Baines), Thomas Sangster (Tim Latimer), Tom Palmer (Hutchinson), Pip Torrens (Rocastle), Rebekah Staten (Jenny), Gerard Horan (Mr Clark), Lauren Wilson (Lucy Cartwright), Matthew White (Phillips), Derek Smith (Doorman) & Peter Bourke (Mr Chambers)

In 1913, an ordinary English schoolteacher is disturbed by a recurring dream he's an adventurer travelling through time in a strange blue box...

Writer Phil Cornell adapts his own novel for the latest Doctor Who adventure, creating one of the series' most unique and entertaining episodes. For a series that's already dangerously close to becoming formulaic in its third year, Cornwell's twisting of Who's storytelling template comes as a breath of fresh air.

Human Nature begins mid-adventure, with The Doctor and Martha on the run from an unseen enemy. As The Doctor hatches a plot to avert disaster, the episode suddenly lurches into the idyllic calm of a 1913 school in rural England. The Doctor now believes himself to be John Smith, a teacher at the school who's been having strange dreams about weird creatures, time-travel and a mysterious blue box...

It's an interesting twist on the usual storyline, with The Doctor now fully human and oblivious to his real identity. Only Martha knows the truth, working as a maid at the school and keeping an eye on The Doctor until their enemy, known as The Family, lose their scent.

David Tennant gets to play a different character here, essentially a charming, quiet and introspective academic, without any of The Doctor's manic energy. Being human also brings the unforeseen prospect of true love for the former Time Lord, in the buxom shape of Jessica Stevenson's Nurse Redfern.

Freema Agyeman is great here, entrusted with saving the day without the usual backup from The Doctor. As his guardian and protector, it's a neat reversal in their relationship and Agyeman continually impresses. It's clear she's a great deal more resourceful, trustworthy and pragmatic than most companions. The subplot of The Doctor romancing a human also brings its own heartache for Martha, as jealousy gets the better of her.

Once the episode plays its hand with The Doctor's new identity, Human Nature gradually falls into more customary territory. The Family arrive on Earth in a cloaked spaceship and begin to possess various townsfolk; from preppy schoolboy Baines (Harry Lloyd, excellent), maid Jenny (Rebekah Staten), Mr Clark (Gerard Horan) and a little girl called Lucy (Lauren Wilson).

In the great tradition of Doctor Who villains taking form in everyday objects, The Family also animate various Scarecrows to act as foot soldiers. The scarecrows are very creepy, flopping about the countryside with their stitched grins, if not entirely necessary in the grand scheme of things. The Family members themselves are great; particularly Harry Lloyd's performance as Baines, whose lilting head movements, sniffing nose and deadpan voice is chilling.

Phil Cornwell, who wrote possibly the most emotional Doctor Who episode in Father's Day, makes a triumphant return to the series here. His original 1995 novel has obviously undergone a few changes (it starred Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor most notably), but it remains mostly intact. If anything, Human Nature is strong evidence that the TV series should be adapting other novels occasionally.

Human Nature is a spark of freshness for the series, forcing the audience to play catch-up instead of being spoon-fed the storyline. There isn't really a bad note throughout the episode, with the possible exception of a slightly underwritten role for Redfern (Jessica Stevenson) and schoolboy Tim Latimer (Thomas Sangster) being conveniently "psychic".

Overall, this is a great start to the two-part episode, expertly juggling sci-fi adventure with solid human drama. Fans will also get a kick from the various in-jokes and allusions to the past (particularly John Smith's notebook with previous incarnations of The Doctor drawn in scratchy ink).

A great story, beautifully told.