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.
In the news, 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 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. And Japanese police arrest Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo sect, over the sarin gas attacks in March.
While in books, Human Nature. 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.
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 what we have is, on the surface, uninspiring. 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 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, mixed freely, in this case, with stern lessons about the horrors of war that are using 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?
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 rewriting 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.
Like any Paul Cornell book, Human Nature is in part a reaction against the Pertwee era. At its heart it is an alternate version 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 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 Paul Cornell, that is not a matter of falling to earth. Far from it, the Doctor finds himself rising to earth.
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 harkens back to Troughton’s fateful declaration in The Moonbase: “there are monsters out there, yes. Terrible things. But you don’t have to become one in order to defeat them.”
And if this comes perilously close to calling Pertwee’s Doctor a monster, 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. 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 that we see the weird dissonance 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.
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 is doomed. Everything about it serves to wreck Doctor Who as a concept. And since Cornell knows it he’s able to outright invert it. Instead of threatening a narrative collapse 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 reassemble, finding the path by which the Doctor can build himself out of the tattered remnants of his own identity.
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 and the Doctor. 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.”
So, the usual for Cornell: triumph of the never cruel nor cowardly. And typical of Cornell, he goes with the Gaiman-esque strategy of tell-don’t-show, giving the Doctor a nice, proper monologue about how this is the core of 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 the frock/gun debate, 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 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. 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 frocks, 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. A story that is unabashedly sentimental, full of humor and warmth, and nevertheless genuinely and unapologetically dramatic. This also makes sense of the somewhat over-obvious World War I setting. 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 about how a man who is never cruel or cowardly can stand up to those horrors. It needs 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.
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. 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 recognizes that irony, camp, and outright silliness are not only compatible with drama, they make it better and more effective.
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 a better world we’d just skip the intervening decade and bring Doctor Who back now while frantically waving this book around and saying “Look! Look! See how good it can be!” We can’t. We didn’t. This is the nasty consequence of that whole gap we discussed about Sliders. Too many people think that Doctor Who is just like Sliders. On a good 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 television can be done.
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 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.