May 1995. Long ago in an English spring. It’s over five years since Survival. The belief that the show might return sometime soon is fading. Since the celebrations of 1993, the BBC seems to have cooled towards the show. BBC2’s repeats finished in March with Pyramids of Mars, and only viewers with satellite TV channel UK Gold could see past adventures. In the absence of any positive noise from the BBC, some fans have responded by making their own, copyright-skirting videos – Shakedown and Downtime. By the end of 1995, the real reason for the BBC’s quiet will become clear.
In the meantime, Virgin’s New Adventures are in their imperial phase. Ace has been written out, this time for good, in February’s Set Piece, and there is even talk of regenerating the seventh Doctor into a new incarnation “played” by David Troughton – an idea ultimately nixed by the BBC, which has other plans.
Still, by hiring ‘name’ writers, refusing to be tied to the cast of the old series, and publicly declaring themselves the one true continuation of Doctor Who, the New Adventures pretty much became just that. Luckily, a significant proportion of the books are actually good enough to justify this presumption, and none more so than Human Nature: the only ‘tie-in’ story so unmissable it was remade for TV, in 2007 (Dalek, Rise of the Cybermen and Planet of the Dead were inspired by elements in Jubilee, Spare Parts and The Highest Science – but Human Nature is a straight-up adaptation).
Basically, by 1995 the New Adventures were churning out Doctor Who stories good enough to be remade 10 years later. A comparison of the novel and TV versions of Human Nature shows them to be remarkably similar: many of the differences are of context, rather than content. Paul Cornell himself points this out in his introduction to the novel’s 2015 reissue. The previous New Adventure, Sanctuary, was the books’ first ‘pure historical’: a reimagining of The Massacre with Bernice and Guy de Carnac standing in for Steven and Anne Chaplet. This – plus the fact that they’re interesting to Cornell – helps explain Human Nature’s themes of sacrifice, loves and lives chewed up in the grand sweep of history. The novel concludes ‘that’s the thing about time, its like a big story and its never over’ – a vast universal narrative in which we’re all just characters appearing for a few scenes, and only the Doctor can dip in and out of other pages.
The novel is also about core principles: the heroic characters, even the unbending headmaster Rocastle, are ultimately defined by (and often willing to sacrifice themselves for) their principles. In contrast, the Aubertides (the novel’s ‘Family of Blood’) are superficial, unprincipled creatures, lacking any morality at all. This dwelling on principles is key because the book is maybe the ultimate articulation of the theme that haunts all of Cornell’s books, summed up in Terrance Dicks’ description of the Doctor:
Much has changed about the Doctor over the years but much has remained the same. Despite the superficial differences in appearance, at heart, or rather at hearts (the Doctor has two) his character is remarkably consistent.
He is still impulsive, idealistic, ready to risk his life for a worthy cause. He still hates tyranny and oppression and anything that is anti-life. He never gives in and he never gives up, however overwhelming the odds against him.
The Doctor believes in good and fights evil. Though often caught up in violent situations, he is a man of peace. He is never cruel or cowardly.
In fact, to put it simply, the Doctor is a hero. These days there aren’t so many of them around.
All of the above is present in the TV version, although Russell T Davies adds his own flourish to the description of the Doctor:
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.
The TV version also adds a new theme not greatly present in the book: the ambivalence that haunts the revival:
The Doctor might be wonderful, but thinking back, I was having such a special time. Just for a bit. I had this nice little gang, and they were destroyed. It’s not his fault, but maybe that’s what happens if you touch the Doctor. Even for a second. I keep thinking of Rose and Jackie. And how much longer before they pay the price.
Elton Pope’s words echo in Joan Redfern’s final question: ‘If the Doctor had never visited us, if he’d never chosen this place on a whim, would anybody here have died?’
The equivalent scene in the novel is equally heart-wrenching, Joan is fundamentally the same character, a prim Edwardian able to maintain a stiff upper lip when faced with ‘two hearts but no love’. In both, her brusque dismissal of the alien Doctor precludes any further discussion.
Essentially, the changes are cosmetic. Human Nature points the way forward for stories that, in contrast to the classic series, are unambiguously about the nature of the Doctor, echoing through the oldest question, ‘Doctor who?’, and the twelfth Doctor asking ‘Am I good man?’
In Human Nature, John Smith is given to asking himself similar questions about his nature, ‘For what season or circumstance was I built.’ He also ponders that his appendix feels newly made – no problem with the colour of the kidneys, though. Once you know (from Cornell’s foreword) that Steven Moffat had a hand in these diary entries, you can’t help but look for hints of the future, of what these writers are eventually going to do. The seeds of Rose were in Survival, but the roots are in the New Adventures.
So by 1995 the books have given us Paul Cornell, Gareth Roberts, Mark Gatiss and now Steven Moffat. How could they possibly be more of a lead in to 2005?
Next Time: ‘When you’re a kid, they tell you it’s all, grow up, get a job, get married, get a house, have a kid, and that’s it. But the truth is, the world is so much stranger than that. It’s so much darker, and so much madder. And so much better’ – Damaged Goods