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Viserys got off easy.
I’ll Explain Later
Human Nature is possibly the New Adventure needing the least introduction: it’s the book from which Paul Cornell’s two-parter in Series Three is adapted. As one might expect, it’s somewhat acclaimed. At the time, Craig Hinton called it “the finest Doctor Who book to date.” Lars Pearson calls it “a must-not-be-missed bold experiment.” It’s at number one in Sullivan’s rankings with an eighty-eight percent rating. And, you know, it’s good enough that they made a TV story out of it. DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry. Original post.
It’s May of 26th, 1995 2007. Rihanna and Jay-Z Oasis debuts at number one with “Some Might Say Umbrella.” They remain get knocked out a week later by Livin’ Joy, who also enter the charts at number one with “Dreamer,” a rerelease of their 1994 single. They’re unseated a week later by Robson and Jerome, making a debut at number one with “Unchained Melody/White Cliffs of Dover.” Unlike the previous two songs to enter at number one, they actually stay there for more than a week all story. Bjork, Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, Maroon 5, Akon, Snow Patrol, and the Manchester United 1995 Football Squad Booty Luv also chart.
In the news, the Cutty Sark caught fire while under repairs in Greenwich, in what was believed (but not proven) to be an act of arson. The Crown Prosecution Service decides to charge Andrei Lugovoi for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. AC Milan defeat Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League final. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approves a bill funding the Iraq Jacques Chirac is elected president of France. The Dalai Lama picks a fight by naming the eleventh Panchen Lama. Three days later the six-year-old boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, is detained by the Chinese authorities, and Afghanistan wars, with progressives failing to get a timetable for withdrawal included, while the Supreme Court issues its ruling in Ledbetter v. Goodyear, which declares that one cannot sue for discriminatory pay disparity if the initial decision was made more than 180 days ago. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, dissenting, makes the rare decision to read her dissent from the bench, and the Court’s holding is consciously reversed in 2009 by Congress. A has not been seen in public since. A year later the People’s Republic of China names their own Panchen Lama. Christopher Reeve is paralyzed from the neck down in a horseriding accident. Japanese police arrest Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo sect, over the sarin gas attacks in March. attempt to lift the commercial moratorium on whaling fails, not that this stops them from whaling, since they just claim that it’s “scientific research.” And Scotland Yard determines that Bob Woolmer died of a heart attack and was not, as some suspected, murdered.
While in books on television, Human Nature/The Family of Blood. Ah. A big one. The book is better than the movie. Let’s get that out of the way, and then, perhaps more importantly, let’s leave it there. We’ll be back to this story eventually, and we can talk about comparison then. But since I know better than to think I can leave it entirely, the book is better than the movie. So let’s just talk about the book. by which I mean focus on it for a bit. First of all, let us note that saying that the book is better than the television version is not, as such, a criticism of the television version. This is an extraordinary story, through and through. Indeed, the basic question of why one is better is largely one of personal taste, having to do with the fundamental differences between the two.
For now let’s look at the question of authorship. Perhaps the most obvious thing to point out is that it would be difficult for a story with this sort of authorship not to be fantastic. The original book was Paul Cornell, working from a plot he hashed out with Kate Orman, with a tiny but significant assist from Steven Moffat (who plotted John Smith’s children’s fantasy book). The density of quality around the book was staggering even before Russell T Davies shows up to start rewriting bits, which he did, at great length. On top of that you have the authorship of twelve years of history, such that we have a second Paul Cornell involving himself in the authorship. So in total we have a story written by two Paul Cornells, Kate Orman, Steven Moffat, and Russell T Davies.
Except Davies’s authorship is also complicated – Davies has said that his rewrites involve imitating the original author, while Cornell has said that Davies pushed him to hew closer to the original book than he’d intended. So we have another author that is a strange hybrid of Cornell and Davies. And this is before we start dealing with the authors who are not writers; David Tennant, for instance, whose Doctor is fundamentally different both from Sylvester McCoy’s and from the Virgin Books iteration of McCoy’s Doctor, itself an alteration of McCoy’s television work.
To start, it’s good. Better than good. Back with Warlock we played at the idea that the New Adventures could compete with serious literary science fiction, but the ruse was see-through. Andrew Cartmel doesn’t have the prose style for it, though he’s not dreadful by any stretch of the imagination. But go ahead. Put Human Nature up against The Diamond Age. It can hold its own and then some. Are there enough different ways to calmly explain that this novel is an absolute triumph? Perhaps not.
And yet so what we have is, on the surface, uninspiring a mess. A text with so many authors that determining the actual process of its construction is nearly impossible. And that’s before we get into the messy question of how to treat the different versions as events within Doctor Who. On the one hand, Human Nature/The Family of Blood is used as an explanation for why Human Nature is non-canonical. This is unnecessary in many ways – there are enough differences that the two can exist without contradiction. They take place in different years, at different schools. On the other hand, there is something The plot isn’t just ripped off from Death Takes a Holiday (clearly something in the air, as three years later the movie was remade execrably as Meet Joe Black), it’s unapologetic about it, even still including the Grim Reaper within it. It’s one of those terribly clever awkward about the idea of the Doctor having such a similar adventure twice. Equally, however, there’s something bizarre about deciding that because the New Adventures were so massively influential that one of them was directly adapted to screen that they are therefore not canon.
But the two versions themselves seem to push us in different directions. The first is largely about novels, and its plot seems to mostly be a canvas stretched out so that Paul Cornell can scrawl his usual enthused claims about the virtues of mundane everyday life and , mixed freely, in this case, with stern lessons about the horrors of war, that are using particularly World War I, the single easiest war of the twentieth century to demonstrate the horrors of, to make their point. The premise is clever, but almost inevitable: the most obvious novel Paul Cornell could possibly have written at this point. So what is it about this book that sparks so gloriously?. The second, however, is far more ambivalent about war. In the book, Timothy is a Red Cross volunteer and conscientious objector in World War I, and in the wartime section he saves Hadleman, a character with no equivalent in the television version. In the television version he not only fights in the war, he explicitly rejects Martha’s claim that “you don’t have to fight,” saying, “I think we do.” And he saves Hutchinson, the thuggish (though less thuggish than in the book) and posh schoolboy, who, in the book, is explicitly killed in the same shelling that Hadleman survives. This is not the only place in which the televised version actively softens the anti-violence of the book. Both book and televised version contain scenes in which Hutchinson demands permission to beat Timothy. In the book this leads to a lovely scene in which John Smith at first attempts to get out of having to punish Timothy, and then pulls a fluffy pink slipper out of his bag, happily proclaiming that it shouldn’t hurt, leading Hutchinson to abandon the idea of punishing Timothy. In the televised version, Smith pauses, then grants Hutchinson permission to administer a beating, and that’s the end of it.
[Perhaps the most obvious thing to point out is that it would be difficult for a story with this sort of authorship not to be fantastic. This is Paul Cornell, working from a plot he hashed out with Kate Orman, with a tiny but significant assist from Steven Moffat (who plotted John Smith’s children’s fantasy book). The density of quality around this book is staggering even before Russell T Davies shows up to start and his rewritinges bits. And while it may be an obvious Paul Cornell book it’s worth pointing out that Cornell has never had the freedom to write one of those before. His previous three books were all Big Plot Event books – two wrapping up long-running story arcs and a third doing Ace’s departure. This is actually the first time he’s actually had the freedom to just write a Doctor Who story like he wants to write it without any distractions to speak of. are a complicated business. I manifestly do not mean this ethically. The fact that his rewrites are simply part of the television business is clear. Note that the list of writers he doesn’t touch is clearly not based on quality, but on professional courtesy; he doesn’t rewrite people who have been in charge of their own shows. Davies is on fine ground here – writers like Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon also do rewrites on scripts. Davies, unlike, say, Sorkin, generally does not take a writer’s credit, and his regard for the original authors’ vision is clear. Furthermore, the moments where it feels most objectionable – where he’s talked publicly about it – are almost all from A Writer’s Tale, a remarkable book that works precisely because of its candid and uncensored nature, and because it reveals more than is normally revealed about process. It would indeed be awful if Davies routinely vocally took credit for the writing on every story, but he doesn’t. He talks openly about his process in one very specifically tailored book.]
This is part of a much larger set of differences between the two. Perhaps most tellingly, Human Nature/The Family of Blood has a second title, and one that is perhaps more apt. This is not a story entirely about human nature; it focuses on its monsters in a particular way. The idea that Paul Cornell’s novel could ever be called The Family of Blood, as if it were about monsters as such, is ludicrous. But on television The Family of Blood becomes its own second version of Human Nature.
In this regard, Like much of the Tennant era, any Paul Cornell book, Human Nature The Family of Blood is in part a reaction against the Pertwee era Davies-era Doctor Who at large. There is a line of dialogue in it where Hutchinson accuses Timothy of being a coward, and Timothy replies, “oh yes, sir. Every time.” This line, of course, evokes the Ninth Doctor’s declaration to the Daleks in The Parting of the Ways. And yet while Timothy may adopt that position initially, by the end of the episode he has, as we’ve seen, reversed his position, seemingly inspired by the Doctor, such that The Family of Blood serves as a reiteration of the fact that, in the eyes of the series, the Doctor fails in The Parting of the Ways, and it is only Rose who saves him.
At its the heart of its this engagement with the Davies era is an engagement with Human Nature itself, which has an alternate different verision of the question of what the Doctor coming to Earth and living among people would be. Instead of a stand-offish patrician defined heavily by how he separates himself from the world and by his inadequate performance of humanity we get, at last, the alternative: a man who loves being human. Nature is about A man who is, if anything, too good at being human, who does not put himself above the world but allows himself to be pulled into it. And being mid-90s Paul Cornell, that is not a matter of falling to earth. Far from it, in Human Nature the Doctor finds himself rising to earth.
But in The Family of Blood the Doctor most certainly does fall to Earth. In Human Nature, the Doctor becomes human to better understand Benny. In The Family of Blood he does it to avoid a bunch of monsters, as a quickly cobbled together ruse. In Human Nature The parallels to the Pertwee era are instructive, simply because they are so numerous. Not just in the “becoming human” aspect of it, but in a larger set of inversions and parallels. Spearhead From Space is, of course, where the Doctor acquires his second heart, becoming less human than he’d ever been. In Human Nature he sheds it, undoing that mistake. Human Nature reveals itself to have had a Time Lord monitoring the entire situation, turning its events symbolically into a response to The War Games in that it is another test for the Doctor to prove himself in. And, of course, The War Games is heavily concerned with the nature of war, and specifically with the first World War. Instead of landing in early 70s Britain the Doctor this time lands in the lead-up to the same war. If The War Games punished the Doctor for his inability to help the lost soldiers of World War I who were caught up in a mismanaged and disastrous parody of war, Human Nature finally thrusts him in their midst and demands that he find a way to help them. The climax of the book, in which John Smith makes the decision to sacrifice himself, even harkensing back to Troughton’s fateful declaration in The Moonbase about monsters, saying that “there are monsters out there, yes. Terrible things. But you don’t have to become one in order to defeat them.” But in The Family of Blood Smith is (like Eccleston’s Doctor) too much the coward to change back, requiring Joan to push him towards it. And the ending, with the Doctor’s horrific punishments of the Family, makes it clear that in fact you do have to become a monster to defeat them, or, at least, that he does.
And if this comes perilously close to calling PertweeTennant’s Doctor a monster, focusing heavily on his we can at least accept this in the strictest etymological sense. Monster shares a root with “demonstrate,” both deriving from the Latin, and meaning “to show.” Monstrosity is thus primarily a factor of exhibition: of being seen. (This is why the phenomenon of monsters lurking in the shadows is powerful: because the monster must necessarily exit from the shadows and be seen in order to be monstrous, creating tension.) Monstrosity is a visible and spectacular otherness. As a television episode, much of the point of The Family of Blood is simply to show off David Tennant’s acting chops. Tennant is credited in the first episode as playing John Smith, and this is apparently how he introduced himself at the read-through when it came time to announce his name and what part he was playing. It is difficult to say that this is a bad thing as such; Tennant is a very good actor. Indeed, in many ways his presence is what justifies the story. Much as I love Sylvester McCoy, this story wouldn’t actually have worked on television with him. He doesn’t have the flexibility to pull it off. Even though the novel trades gorgeously on the fact that John Smith is not a straightforwardly beautiful leading man, but is instead a weird and unsettling figure, McCoy himself could never do what Tennant does in the closing scenes, successfully playing the Doctor impersonating John Smith and having it be distinct from either the Doctor or John Smith. Few actors could – it’s hard to imagine this story working with Eccleston, or even with Matt Smith. The only other actor the series has ever had that could pull a script like this off got one in the form of The Enemy of the World.
But there’s a narcissism to it – a degree to which this story is simply a matter of showing off. It knows full well that it’s going to pull on the heartstrings, and it engages in a relentlessly methodical quest to get the audience to cry. Yes, it managed handily, but it’s also visibly aware of its inevitable success, so much so that at times it feels like it’s just calmly patting itself on the back for how very, very good it’s being. Again, this isn’t a criticism – it’s actually every bit as good as it thinks. But it also fetishizes its own exhibition in an almost monstrous way.
And that, at least, does describe the Pertwee era, both in terms of Pertwee’s glammed up Doctor and in terms of the era’s conceptual dissonance with the rest of Doctor Who.
This hinges, of course, on something that was invisible to the Pertwee era itself. Following on a mere six years of history, two radically different Doctors and a show that had already wildly and dramatically transformed itself from a broad anthology to a focused weekly roll of Man vs. Monsters, the Pertwee era could throw it all out and reinvent itself. Shows did that. The Avengers, in its first season, had almost nothing to do with the show it became. It’s in hindsight, there’s a that we see the weird dissonance symmetry between this and of it and the way in which an earthbound Doctor was a blind alley that didn’t last two seasons. But the Pertwee era didn’t have the ability to realize that it was, in the larger context of Doctor Who, a narrative collapse. This context is emboited within the story in the form of the Journal of Impossible Things, itself a reworking of Steven Moffat’s contribution to the original novel. It’s telling that the Journal is a fundamentally messy document. It is a Cornell knows it going in. He’s not about to hand Andy Lane a human Doctor who doesn’t travel in space and time and lives in the World War I era. The premise of this book in which is doomed. Everything about it serves to wreck Doctor Who has been as a concept. And since Cornell knows it he’s able to outright invert it. Instead of threatening a narratively collapsed, its textual primacy challenged. The book is full of crossed out passages and chaotic writing, resembling nothing so much as the manuscript for William Blake’s great unfinished work The Four Zoas, which, after abandoning, he and averting it at the end, Paul Cornell just collapses the narrative at the start and spends the entire book threatening to rebuild it. Much as the Doctor rises to earth here, the narrative does not collapse but reassembled into his last great prophetic book, Jerusalem. And yet within it is the history of Doctor Who. Tellingly, within it we get our first proper glimpse of the wilderness years from which Human Nature originated, with all possibility that Paul McGann doesn’t count officially rejected on screen. Except that the book is cobbled together such that we might as well have seen Richard E. Grant. The book is the truth of Doctor Who, but it’s only finding the path by which the Doctor can build himself out of the tattered remnants of his own the show’s identity. This is echoed in other odd and coincidental ways – John Smith’s costume, for instance, is in many ways a dead ringer for Matt Smith’s, while in Human Nature one of the villains’ plans is to impersonate a future incarnation of the Doctor – specifically the Tenth. Entertainingly, Benny sees through the ruse because the supposed future Doctor is not a vegetarian, which, of course, Tennant’s Doctor isn’t either. The story, in other words, is drenched in the iconography of a disassembled and collapsed Doctor.
Put another way, the question that The Family of Blood asks is “who is the Doctor.” In Human Nature, this is answered The key moment comes two thirds of the way through the book, after one of John Smith’s students has just been violently killed by the attacking aliens. Smith considers grabbing a gun and attacking the aliens, but hesitates, realizing that this simply isn’t who he is, no matter who he is. He asks Benny what the Doctor would do, and she answers, “he’d find a way to turn this all around… He’d make the villains fall into their own traps, and trick the monsters, and outwit the men with guns. He’d save everybody’s life and find a way to win.” And Smith considers, then turns to his students and declares, “There’s another way. Throw away your guns.” It’s striking to compare this to the account of who the Doctor is given in The Family of Blood: “He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And he’s wonderful.” What’s interesting is that so much of this is more accurate as a description of Human Nature’s Doctor – that is, the New Adventures version of the McCoy Doctor.
This is not So, the unusual for Cornell,: who delights in Gaiman-esque tell-don’t-show statements that triumphantly explain the basic nature of the Doctor. One of his best, of course, harkens from Love and War, where he adapts Terrance Dicks’s “never cruel nor cowardly” . phrase as the Doctor’s self-description. This, of course, has implication for The Family of Blood, where Timothy invokes Eccleston’s previous renunciation of that description.
[And typical of Cornell, he goes with the employs Gaiman-esque imagery at a key moment, using a strategy of tell-don’t-show, giving the Doctor through a nice, proper monologue about how this is the Doctor punishes the Family, imprisoning one in chains forged in the core of a dwarf star, and another in “every mirror,” which is an image nicked directly from Gaiman, who in Sandman locates Despair’s realm as lying behind every mirror. who he is, as either Smith or the Doctor, and how he doesn’t want to give that up. It works beautifully, as ever. It’s all the sort of unapologetic frockery that defines Paul Cornell. The book even has a joke about it, as Benny, upon reading the Doctor’s instructions on what’s going on, stomps off for the wardrobe room, proclaiming that “this adventure was going to require a serious frock.”]
It’s a good phrase, and an important one, as it gets at an easy thing to miss about But what’s really telling about this is how it shows the fundamental thematic differences between Human Nature and The Family of Blood. Human Nature is ultimately about the old frock/gun debate that raged during the wilderness years. Cornell was always an unrepentent advocate of the , which is that it’s equivalent to the comedy/drama division, or even the serious/unserious division. Which should be obvious, as nobody would have come up with a whole new distinction just to do comedy/drama. I’ve used the phrase “serious drama” more than a few times, but in general as a sort of mocking phrase that implicates a particular type of drama that is deeply invested in its own self-seriousness. In its most extreme form “serious drama” becomes borderline unwatchable – the sort of thing one watches purely because it’s “serious drama” and thus one has some sort of moral obligation to do so. This was the crux of my ambivalence over Sanctuary – that it was trying for “serious drama.” And more to the point, that Doctor Who just isn’t all that good at that.
But implicit in this critique of “serious drama” is the idea that “serious” and “drama” are in some way inherent allies, or that “unserious drama” or “serious comedy” are non-sensical things that are obviously inferior. And this is at the heart of the gun/frock debate: ultimately both sides are shooting for drama. Even the most comedic of the frocks, which is probably Gareth Roberts, consistently grounds his stories in human drama and experience and tries to tell genuinely moving stories. And this also gets at the ways in which the “gun” side is almost completely outflanked in this debate. The frock perspective, which allows itself a Terrance Dicks-style ambivalence that recognizes that the dramatic and the over-the-top romantic are not only not antagonistic but actively complimentary. In Human Nature, in fact, Cornell openly mocks Whereas the gun perspective, by deciding that drama comes out of gravitas, leaves itself wide-open to critique. A critique, it should be noted, that Cornell gives voice to, having a character muse about “how close masculinity is to melodrama.” Which, well, yes. Yes it is. And that’s the problem with the gun side – it so rarely realizes just how silly it is.
The problem is that Human Nature was such a wild success that it basically killed the gun/frock debate off. The frocks won, much like Xena: Warrior Princess, know exactly how silly they are, but decline to accept that this in some way imposes a limitation on what they can do. And this book is Paul Cornell going ahead and demonstrating just how far frockery can go and just how dramatic and effective it can be. Nobody who watches the new series can seriously doubt that A story that is unabashedly sentimental, full of humor and warmth, and can nevertheless be genuinely and unapologetically dramatic. But this, in turn, makes the This also makes sense of the somewhat over-obvious World War I setting strangely unnecessary. In the Because this isn’t a book that’s retreading the ground explored by Blackadder Goes Forth about the horrors of war. It’s a book, World War I is needed to show about how a man who is never cruel or cowardly can stand up to ithose horrors. It needuses World War I not as an easy crutch to make a statement about how horrible war is, but as the single most horrific moment of war available to it, so that it can show the Doctor as up to the task of outshining it.
But by the time of The Family of Blood this isn’t necessary in the same way, and so World War I becomes a scene of tragic honor, a point hammered home by the episode ending with the Doctor and Martha paying an elderly Timothy one last visit. Which is, in many ways, the central problem with The Family of Blood. And, of course, the real point is that this sort of drama can only happen from Cornell’s approach. A serious-minded dramatic approach could never come close to the emotional impact of Human Nature comes specifically from the context of 1995. It comes from the fact that Paul Cornell is at once a hopeless romantic and an heir to the social justice-minded approach of the Cartmel era – that he has one foot in the angry punk world and one in a more optimistic one. It’s a book by a twenty-eight-year-old who still entertains the possibility that blowing up the world might be a good idea, whereas this is television by an older and wiser forty-year-old. In the end, I’m more sympathetic to the twenty-eight-year-old, but then again, as a thirty-one-year-old, one imagines I would be. But the result is that what was originally a book about righteously making a case for a particular vision of what Doctor Who could be becomes a television story about confidently telling the story of a doomed love affair. Human Nature worked because it had the possibility of controversy. In a The book only works because it openly invites the reader to be an unrepentant romantic about things. It’s not just that this works dramatically, it’s that its sense of levity and joy is the reason it works. This is Cornell killing the gun/frock debate off. And fair enough. Well done. Aesthetically speaking, debate over, frocks win. This is the future: an aesthetic that where everyone recognizes that irony, camp, and outright silliness are not only wholly compatible with drama, they make it is somewhat less better and more effective.
But so much of this comes down to how titanically good the original was. In a better world we’d be able to jump ahead here. Not that there aren’t some marvelous books to come in the next decade of Doctor Who, but let’s be honest, because hindsight lets us be ruthlessly accurate here: this is a good enough Doctor Who story to be made for television in the modern era. It was good enough to get a Hugo nomination a decade later, and for a version of itself that wasn’t even as good as this book. In the original post I a better world wishe’d we could just skip the intervening decade and bring Doctor Who back now while by frantically waving this book around and saying “Look! Look! See how good it can be!” We caouldn’t. We didn’t. And This is the nasty consequence is that when the circumstances arose and the series could come back, some vital part of the book’s fire had drained away. The original book burns with a passionate vision of what of that whole gap we discussed about Sliders. Too many people think that Doctor Who could be is just like, even as it runs into the agonizing frustration that it cannot be that, at least not as a piece of mass culture, and that were it to come back, it would in practice end up as a cut-rate Sliders. The Family of Blood honors the book’s success, as well it should. This is the last time we’ll talk about Paul Cornell on the blog, and there are few better ways he could go out. That the series was able to acknowledge the debt it owes to his 90s work, and to admit that he provides the missing link between the Cartmel and Davies eras is as good a thing as the fact that Terrance Dicks got to write a Tenth Doctor novel. And the episode is On a good. It’s better than good, really – it’s day it’s just like The X-Files, which is at least a halfway decent show, but is still little more than as well-done as cult a television can be done. version Human Nature can possibly be.
But in between these two versions, in the space between vision and revision, made up of fragments of the two is the true Human Nature. The one that properly demonstrates the inexpressibly When in fact Doctor Who is like this – something more remarkable and weird and beautiful than any of those. But there’s nothing close to this in the vocabulary of television yet. Right now the closest thing on television to a working model for Doctor Who is Xena: Warrior Princess, and it’s utterly, comically limited compared to this. So instead of a twenty-eight-year-old cutting away to victory we get ten years of Doctor Who second-guessing itself and stumbling around messily while television tries to finally catch up to Paul Cornell. Alas. Hooray.