Quite a while ago, probably about three or four months even, I bought the Virgin New Adventures Doctor Who novel Human Nature, written by Paul Cornell. As you probably know, it shares its title with one of the best episodes of the modern show, “Human Nature” and its second part, “The Family of Blood.” That’s because the episode, also written by Paul Cornell, was an adaptation of the novel, which involved the Seventh Doctor and his companion Bernice Summerfield, for television with the Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones. I was put off by it at first because of its style (understandable as it was published in 1995, before even the Eight Doctor’s movie came out) and because I had never before seen anything with Bernice (Benny) as the companion, but by the end, I have to admit, I liked it a lot. However, I will warn you right now that there’s no way to discuss this novel without spoilers.
I’m going to say up front that it’s not fair to evaluate this novel against its namesake modern show episode. Just like any piece of media, it needs to be considered on its own, but even then, comparing it to one of the absolute best Doctor Who episodes ever created isn’t fair at all. The novel and the episode share some basic ideas – the setting, the idea of the Doctor making himself human, a family of aliens hunting him to steal his Time Lord essence – but they really are very different.
At the start of the novel, the Doctor is Dr. John Smith, a teacher at Hulton College, a school for boys outside of the town of Farringham. He’s used a piece of alien technology to hide his Time Lord self in a small red sphere (at one point, it is mistaken for a cricket ball). Benny pretends to be his niece, an artist living in the town, and she hides the sphere in a tree in an abandoned orchard. Dr. Smith is a bit strange, somewhat forgetful, a pacifist among former soldiers with a blatant disregard for rules and tradition, and the schoolboys as well as Headmaster Rocastle consider him unreliable. He strikes up a friendship with the science teacher, Joan Redfern, which blossoms into love. Meanwhile, a family of aliens called Aubertides (shapeshifters – they could take the form of any being they came in contact with) come to find the sphere: they want to take the Time Lord essence for themselves, and while they can’t just steal it from a Time Lord, they can steal it while it’s stored in the sphere. Before they can find it, though, it’s found by a schoolboy, Tim Dean, who becomes influenced by the sphere, gaining some telepathy and future sight. As the Aubertides start killing people in the town to find the sphere, Benny convinces Dr. Smith that he’s really the Doctor, but he decides to simply let the Aubertides have it, as he doesn’t like the man he’s supposed to become and he’s content with his life with Joan. Eventually, the sphere itself shows him the future, that the Aubertides, with the power of Time Lords added to their own, conquer the Time Lords themselves, and he sees Flavia and Romana die horribly rather than give up the last Time Lord secrets, in their last attempt to save the universe from them, and that (along with some other events) change his mind. He becomes the Doctor again and defeats them.
One of the main things I liked about this book was the depiction of the Aubertides. The Family of Blood always seemed a little two-dimensional, as all they seemed to want was immortality; there was always the question of why they didn’t continue to reproduce. The Aubertides were born from a queen, who buds every so often. Each bud is only able to reproduce six times, and once those six individuals died, that bud was dead. Thus, these aliens were desperate to get the sphere to not only live longer, but also give themselves the ability to reproduce more: each bud would create six bud, each of which could produce six buds, etc. Then, once they acquired the TARDIS, they would be able to create their own army and invade anywhere in space and time. Each of the Aubertides had distinct personalities: one jumped in with the most violent solution to any problem, while another was strategic in nature and spent much of his time holding the first one back. That second one often had to make plans around the first one, knowing how he would react in situations and trying to use it to his advantage (or mitigate the problems he could cause before they could happen).
Probably the hardest thing to get used to in this novel was Dr. Smith himself. Unlike John Smith in the TV episode, who was thoroughly human with no Doctor traits, Dr. Smith was obviously influenced by the Doctor’s personality. Thus, he wasn’t quite human and said and did some strange things, which throws a number of people off, but also didn’t quite sit right with me, if only because if the point was to hide his Time Lord self away in the sphere, why was he still so like the Doctor? Also, his romance with Joan was not particularly emotional, almost cold, and once he realized who he was and had to make his decision about what to do, though he decided to give up the sphere to stay with Joan, his discussion of it was rational and logical. When he changes his mind, again, there’s no fear or sense of loss, and it just didn’t ring true. I suppose this reaction might stem from knowing the TV episode, but I can’t shake the feeling that it should have been more emotional.
The novel did shock me, however, with its violence and gore. This is something that I think that we forget when watching the TV show, either classic or modern: there’s a lot of death in Doctor Who, and it’s extremely sanitized on screen. In the classic show, people get shot by laser guns and simply collapse. If they’re eaten by a monster, it’s a full-body chomp with no blood. In the new show, it isn’t much different. In “The Name of the Doctor,” the Whisperman reach into the bodies of the Doctor’s companions to rip out organs and it’s barely shown. Instead of agonized screams, we’re treated to funny lines from Strax. In the books and audios, while they can’t show you what’s happening, they don’t pull punches with their words and sound effects. In Human Nature, the schoolboys are excitedly defending their school when the Aubertides attack with a tiny projectile that attaches itself to the boy next to Dr. Smith. The boy turns to him and apologizes, and his head explodes. Dr. Smith is drenched in blood, and all of the schoolboys are sprayed in a fine red mist. The next few paragraphs describe them as they deal with the horror, Dr. Smith hugging the headless body as blood continues to spurt from its neck. While I certainly wouldn’t want to see this in the TV show, I do think that it glosses over the violence, inuring us to it, since there are rarely any consequences for the Doctor and his companions, even though the Doctor is supposed to care deeply about every single death that occurs – NPCs die all the time and not much more than a sad glance is spared to them. It was refreshing to see how much the violence in this story affected the characters.
All in all, this was a good novel, though the style of writing hasn’t aged well over the last 19 years. I’m not sure whether or not I want to read more of the Virgin New Adventures, as they do depart a little from the canon established by the modern series and don’t mesh well with it on some points, but on the other hand, so far all three Paul Cornell stories I’ve been exposed (Human Nature, “Father’s Day”, and “Human Nature” / “The Family of Blood”) to have been excellent and I am eager to read more of his work.