Another of the reviews of 'New' Doctor Who, and yes, at last, it's the fabled long-lost look at the two-parter Human Nature/The Family Of Blood - pretty much the best that the revived series has had to offer - which was written at the last minute as a favour when somebody else's planned review fell through, owing to it having been written from the perspective of Kelvin Carpenter from EastEnders or something. No, me neither. Anyway, this was done in about an hour, and while as a result it's arguably a bit rough-edged and doesn't go into much depth, it also almost accidentally captures the sheer excitement of just how good those episodes were. Better still, the original file actually went 'missing' for a while, leading to a load of tongue-in-cheek silliness about it being a 'lost classic' etc. In fact, for a while, in true Telesnap style all that existed of it were some bits that were later reworked into a massive overview of the whole Russell T. Davies era, as featured in my book Well At Least It's Free. Incidentally, the suggested titles for this were There's Nothing Wrong With Human Nature and We're The Scarecrow People (And We've Got Lots In Common With Who), late eighties indie references which were perhaps sensibly rejected. And in the absence of any easily traceable electronic version, this has been typed in again by hand... you don't get that with your 'My Marks For This Season Out Of Ten (None Below Seven)' signatures on Outpost Gallifrey!
Scarecrows - love them or hate them, you j... oh, alright, it's never going to be 'love them', is it? No matter how hard certain parties may have tried over the years to persuade us all otherwise, there's something insurmountably sinister about them, and there's just no way around that. Whether defending puppet elephants against witches intent on stealing their manners, plugging Linda McCartney's range of taste-free dishes, being sung about by Pink Floyd, or just knocking on a rain-lashed cottage door in search of some Knorr Farmhouse Soup, even the most ostensibly loveable of strawheads has never quite managed to get past that barrier of creepiness-by-association.
Even Doctor Who's past dalliances with crow-scarers, from Jon Pertwee's celebrated stint as literary crop-bothered Worzel Gummidge to that TV Comic strip where Troughton and Farmer Glenlock Hogan ran up against some walking scarecrows that turned out to be the Time Lords in disguise, haven't quite been able to evade it. Yes, Worzel may well have been a gentle soul with no more malevolent a thought in his head than where the next cup of cake and slice of tea was coming from, but as many erstwhile younger viewers were terrified as were entranced by him; indeed, Jon Pertwee used to bafflingly show off about this in interviews at the flimsiest hint of an excuse. As such, the big question is that if even a show that attempted to depict scarecrows as a genial and community-spirited bunch couldn't quite pull that off, why did nobody working on Doctor Who ever think it was a good idea to use them for pure scariness' sake?
Well, now they have done, and there's a big scary-looking scarecrow glowering out from the cover of the Radio Times, urging the viewing public to tune in to this Saturday's instalment of Doctor Who. It's quite possible, of course, that this could have the exact opposite effect on some viewers, but as front-page enticements to watch go it could hardly be bettered. And good thing too, as the two-parter in question, Human Nature/The Family Of Blood, was Doctor Who at its absolute finest.
Mind you, that cover was only really needed to pull in your average viewer-about-town; long-term watchers of the series will have already made a note in their diary on account of it having the title Human Nature and being written by Paul Cornell (and, um, the fact that they would be watching it anyway regardless). For those of you reading who aren't aware of this already - and let's be realistic about this, probably most of the people who are watching the revived series won't be - Human Nature by Paul Cornell was originally part of the long-lost 'New Adventures' project, basically a series of fan-written novels that sprang up to fill the televison series-sized gap when it looked like Doctor Who really was finished for good. What with the blockbusting return to the small screen and everything, this probably seems rather a quaint and puzzling idea to anyone who wasn't around at the time, but then again the New Adventures weren't exactly universally well recieved back then either. A handful of authors were, however, very good indeed, and one of them was Paul Cornell; if you want evidence of this, look no further than the fact that while the majority of books in the series can be picked up second hand for a couple of pence, his - including the original version of Human Nature, now change hands for those time-honoured 'dizzying sums'. In some ways it's surprising that Russell T. Davies should be tipping the hat to a decidedly less successful previous attempt at reviving Doctor Who, but if ever there was a non-televisual story that deserved to have something more substantial made of it (and didn't feature Frobisher), then Human Nature was it.
Without wanting to give too many plot details away, on the off chance that anyone out there is still seeking refuge from 'spoilers', Human Nature concerns The Doctor's attempts to evade a powerful adversary by passing himself off as a human - a teacher at an early Twentieth Century boys' school, to be precise - through the auspieces of a mysterious fob watch which allows Time Lords to temporarily assume the biological structure of Earthlings. He has of course posed as plain old 'Doctor John Smith' on many previous occasions, always taking care not to give the game away by constantly smugly hinting that he might not in fact be human after all, this was the real deal and the first ever real opportunity to explore this much-vaunted 'human side' to the character. And what's that human side like? Well, a bit... Doctorish, really.
The question of what precisely constitutes 'human nature' is one that has been touched on by Doctor Who many times - including, far less successfully, earlier in this same series - but it's through exploring it in a more subtle and less melodramatic context that this story manages to come up with a halfway convincing 'answer'. There is indeed far more to The Doctor than his supposed 'humanity', which is treated here as simply one facet of a more complicated character. The period setting also allowed for some interesting points to be touched on; the realistic depiction of Martha as a sort of reluctantly 'tolerated' ethnic associate of an academic said much more than any amount of heavy-handed moralising, while the salute to those who fought in the First World War was all the more touching for refusing to go down the Blackadder Goes Forth route (or, indeed, over the Blackadder Goes Forth top, in whichever sense you want to take that) and treating it as a matter-of-fact reality of one young (and later old) man's life. In fact, while this may not have been the production team's actual intention, at a time when it's becoming more and more difficult to convince younger generations of the importance of events like Remembrance Sunday, it's probably this kind of approach that stands the best chance of continuing to get the message across.
Sadly, much of this seems to have been overlooked in the post-transmission rush to bicker over the rights and wrongs of how The Doctor ultimately dealt with his pursuers, and whether or not this officially consituted some sort of 'radical' 'departure'. What's odd about this idea of the 'darker' Doctor - which, this time around, seems to involve something more substantial than just his coat changing colour a bit - is that fans seem determined that the current approach is somehow at loggerheads with everything seen in the series prior to now, although when pressed on this, seemingly all they can come up with is the Third Doctor getting a bit narked when the Brigadier elected to blow up the Silurians' caves. Tennant and RTD's take on the character isn't necessarily any 'darker' than when previous Doctors were dispassionately dispensing with Drahvins, Zygons, Gelth or the Hand of Omega-wielding Davros to their self-inflicted fates, and the First Doctor of course was positively ruthless. What we should all be mulling over, of course, is just how closely the conclusion 'borrowed' from that of Adventure Four of Sapphire & Steel. But anyway...
As a two-part story, this was the first time that the revived series has really taken advantage of the opportunity to revisit the cliffhanging days of old, with the actual story taking up its extended running time by weight of force rather than feeling like a good deal of padding with a tacked-on 'crisis' in the middle. Which in a sense actually made it superior to vast swathes of the cliffhanging days of old. Yet it's difficult to praise these episodes without detracting from the fact that Paul Cornell did much of the groundwork for them back in a time when nobody was getting to do any cliffhanging at all, and without the encouragement and pressure of huge viewing figures to spur him on either, though through accepting (well, in a roundabout fashion) the better end of the New Adventures and indeed that troublesome Paul McGann 'era' as welcome facets of the show's history, Russell T. Davies has shown himself to be a lot less haughtily proprietorial about his own reinvention of the show than many of its fans are.
And quite right too - we could debate their literary merits and position in the Doctor Who 'canon' until entire episodes of The Sensorites have elapsed, but the truth of the matter is that, like them or hate them, the books and so many similar projects besides played their small part in keeping interest in the series going during the wilderness years, making it just that crucial bit more easy for some overenthusiastic showrunner to start insisting that it should be brought back in the face of massive audience and industry apathy. Never mind the legions of independent producers and their harebrained ideas for relaunching the series - it was Paul Cornell, along with Steve Lyons, Gareth Roberts, Mark Gatiss, Gary Russell and all those other skilled and imaginative writers who kept that faintest glimmer of hope in the future of Doctor Who glimmering, and what better way to salute them than with two whole episodes of outstanding television drama.
You can find my huge piece on the entire Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who in my book Well At Least It's Free, available as a paperback here or as an eBook here.