THIS STORY TAKES
PLACE BETWEEN THE
AND THE BIG FINISH
AUDIO BOOK "BERNICE
SUMMERFIELD AND THE
OFFICIAL VIRGIN 'NEW
RELEASED IN MAY 1995.
The inhabitants of
enjoying an early
that war is on the
way. Amongst them
is Dr John smith, a
from Aberdeen. He's
having a hard time
with his new post
as housemaster at
Hulton Academy, a
school dedicated to
her holiday in the
town, getting over
the terrible events
that befell her in
France. But then she
meets a Doctor FROM
THE FUTURE, and VERY
QUICKLY things start
to get dangerous.
With the Doctor she
knows gone, and only
a suffragette and
an elderly rake for
company, can Benny
fight off a vicious
alien attack? And
will Smith be able
to save the day?
The Latin “Maius intra qua extra” translates as ‘bigger on the inside than the outside’, apparently – sentiments that could certainly be applied to this fine novel. In the expanded universe of Doctor Who literature, Human Nature is the literary equivalent of
a television serial like The Caves of Androzani or The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Even
those who don’t consider it to be the best, generally accept that it’s there or thereabouts.
And just as Human Nature is widely accepted as being one of the best Who novels, its writer Paul Cornell is almost universally acknowledged as one of the best Who novelists. He’s an immensely talented and imaginative writer, and has a wonderful knack of taking some often quite heavy subject matter and making it palatable. Not protracted or verbose, Cornell’s pages of beautifully concise prose just fly by.
After his epic conclusion to the New Adventures’ ‘alternate universe’ arc of stories, Cornell has opted to go in a completely different direction with this book. Human Nature may lack
a lot of the punch that his last two novels have had, but it more than makes up this in how it explores the Doctor’s character. In his 1991 debut novel, Timewyrm: Revelation, Cornell took Ace on a journey inside the Doctor’s head that examined his neuroses in great detail. Here, the author once again looks at the Doctor’s anguish, but this time from a different angle. By the time of Human Nature, the Doctor is old. Even just the seventh Doctor is
old - since his last regeneration he’s had so, so many adventures and suffered so much
grief and pain, and so in this book he looks to leave all that behind. He gives it all up to be human.
“He’s like me, only inhuman. Dangerous. Loves greatly, but not small-ly. He’s Merlin.”
The Doctor transforms himself both physically and mentally into a human being. He has one heart; a heart capable of loving. Now this book could really have been a disaster area in the hands of another author. The Doctor? Love! How dare they make him fall in love! One can imagine the furore. But this is not the Doctor. The Doctor can’t love - not in that way, anyway – and that’s the whole point. That’s why he wanted to be human. That’s why he created ‘Dr John Smith’, the schoolteacher. To experience human life and human emotions.
And initially, that’s exactly what he does. It’s delightful to read about Smith’s charming but humble existence and the simple pleasures that he takes from his life. He’s not perfect and he makes mistakes – at times, as the reader, you’re thinking “c’mon Doctor, you bloody sell-out, do something!” or cringing as he spouts propaganda to young Tim. It’s only as the novel progresses that you realise that despite his eccentricity, Smith is a completely different and separate entity, and when faced with the prospect of becoming the cold and calculating Lord of Time again it isn’t surprising that he doesn’t seem over-keen on the idea.
Even Smith’s choice of lover is dubious,
or at least Benny thinks so. In her many
scenes with Benny, Joan comes across
as being stuck-up; even quite pompous
and patronising at times. However, in
her scenes with Smith she is a different
woman all together. Lonely, vulnerable,
and caring. In fact, her only true vice is
her apparent racism, though bearing in
mind that this novel is set in the months
leading up to the Great War, she can hardly be blamed for it. Like many half-sympathetic characters in Mark Gatiss’ brilliant novel, Nightshade, and Ben Aaronovitch’s outstanding television serial, Remembrance of the Daleks, racism has simply been drummed into them since birth. They just don’t know any better.
Benny herself is also handled superbly by her creator, as always. Sanctuary was a hard act to follow, but Cornell pulls it off wonderfully, immersing Benny in the completely alien culture of England, 1914. As with her escapades in Birthright, Benny finds it incredibly difficult to adjust to human beings that seem, well… primitive. Society’s attitudes towards gender, war, race, and even homosexuality all rear their heads at some point to rile her. I particularly like her sub-plot featuring the character of Alexander and the harrowing news from the future that she inadvertently brings to him.
Cornell also evokes the atmosphere of 1914 superbly. Of course, it’s impossible for me
to say that definitively not having lived back then, but I have read a lot about the period and likewise, the author seems to have really done his homework. Aside from the setting and
the period touches, the schoolboys are particularly well-drawn – some, like Hutchinson and Merryweather, are portrayed as bullies; military idiots. Others, like Tim and Anand are much smaller and quieter – the abused. There are some nasty scenes of torment here, culminating in a horrific act of brutality that I really didn’t see coming.
The one element of Human Nature that often seems to be criticised by fandom is its alien threat – the Aubertides. They are a strange and a sick bunch, unified by their bloodline and their desire to become Time Lords – “because there’s nothing else to do”. I understand that after No Future, Cornell didn’t want to write about another big super villain – he just wanted a little gang of rogues; a nasty little group that would cause some trouble, but not detract from the book’s central theme of the Doctor’s character. Well, that’s exactly what he wrote, though that’s certainly not to say that there’s any shortage of action here - practically half the book is schoolboys fighting Aubertides with machine guns!
There’s also quite a lot of continuity crammed into the story, which is great when you’re reading the novel as part of the New Adventures series, but as a stand-alone novel I don’t think Human Nature would works anywhere near as well. If the reader isn’t familiar with the Doctor’s recent experiences, they won’t be able to understand why he would want to make himself human and, perhaps more importantly, the reader really needs to be familiar with at least Love and War to fully understand the story’s end, where Death comes to take Smith
as part of the bargain that the Doctor made with her in that book. Even from Benny’s point
of view, these events follow on directly from the bereavement she suffered at the end of the previous novel, Sanctuary, and many of the early chapters (delightfully written as her entries in her infamous diary!) deal explicitly with her loss. One particular in-joke really did make me cringe though – Mr Moffat, the curly-haired Scottish bursar, sounds suspiciously like a writer-friend of Cornell's to me, who just happened to pen Smith’s children stories for this book…
All in all, Human Nature is a watershed story for the New Adventures in lots of ways, and
if Virgin were ever going to regenerate the seventh Doctor than this would have been the perfect swansong for him. Long before the TV Movie put forward the notion that the Doctor
is half-human, Human Nature took the bull by the horns and showed us what would happen
if the Doctor were to become fully human, affording us a rare glimpse of the his personal hopes and fears, and, even more importantly, re-affirming exactly what it means to be the Doctor.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Quite astonishingly, and no doubt contrary to authorial intent, the events of this adventure can be reconciled with the events of the later television adaptation. This is because this story takes place in April 1914, several months after the tenth Doctor’s escapades. However, this theory admittedly relies on one being prepared to accept that the Doctor could enjoy two suspiciously similar adventures with suspiciously similar protagonists and then forget all about the earlier one, but we’ve made bigger leaps...
Unless otherwise stated, all images on this site are copyrighted to the BBC and are used solely for promotional purposes.
‘Doctor Who’ is copyright © by the BBC. No copyright infringement is intended.