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11. Paul Cornell (1995), Human Nature

This is, of course, the novel on which the two-part Tenth Doctor story, Human Nature / The Family of Blood is based. I read it online courtesy of the BBC, but did so increeeediiiibblllyy sllooooooooooowly over a series of short sessions while eating lunch-time sandwiches at my desk. Since I don't have that sort of lunch-break every day, and indeed often do not do so for a week or more at a time, it has taken me since last December (when I finished The Well-Mannered War) to complete the book. That wasn't too much of a problem for understanding the plot, since it is similar enough to the TV version for my memories of that to have helped me keep track of it between gaps in reading. But it probably did mean I maintained less of a grip on all the various minor characters than I might otherwise have done.

The novel features the Seventh Doctor rather than the Tenth - although, spookily, someone claiming to be the Tenth incarnation of the Doctor does pop up at one point. The premise is also slightly different from the TV version. In the novel, the Doctor comes to the Aubertides wanting to be human, and the technology to enact that transformation comes from them, not the Time Lords. The only problem is that they have offered that technology as a bait, in order to get a Time Lord into a vulnerable enough position for them to be able to steal his technology and ability to regenerate from him. Hence their pursuit of the unsuspecting school-teacher, John Smith - protected in this instance by Bernice Summerfield, a companion of Cornell's own creation.

I think I actually prefer this set-up to the TV adaptation. One obvious difficulty with the TV version is that it requires us to accept that the Doctor has known how to transform himself into a human all along, without ever having mentioned it before. That's one of the problems you run into after forty years of continuity, and I wouldn't want it getting in the way of good stories. But having the technology come from a previously-unencountered source instead does feel more convincing. The setting for the novel also changes the Doctor's motivation for becoming human in the first place. Whereas in the TV episode, he does it in order to save the Family of Blood from their own desire to hunt him down and devour his life force, in the novel he knows nothing about that at the point when he makes the decision. Instead, it is implied (though never explicitly spelt out) that he does it because he wants to understand humans better, and perhaps also take a break from himself - something that is certainly an outcome of his actions in the TV series, but not his actual reason for doing it. That said, perhaps his motivations in the TV version are more in keeping with the established character of the Doctor - certainly of the Tenth Doctor, anyway.

Either way, the idea of making the Doctor experience life as a human is real genius, and even with my rather limited experience of Doctor Who novels, I think I can fairly safely say that this is as good a Who novel as the TV adaptation is a Who episode (or two). The writing is markedly better that the other Who novels I've read so far, and there are lots of great little scenes set into the narrative. I especially enjoyed one early on in the novel, where the Doctor / John Smith finds himself teaching the boys about the rebellion of Boudicca / Boadicea. Cornell uses it as an opportunity to set their early-twentieth century understanding of war and rebellion against the Doctor's 'out-of-time' (but obviously late-twentieth century) perspective. It works nicely in its own right as a case-study of the way that history shifts and changes entirely according to the needs and interests of its interpreters, and it also serves an important narrative purpose in bringing out some of the main themes of the novel - aggression, resistance, and the acts of individuals caught up in wars beyond their control. But in the context of a story which in itself also constitutes a particular interpretation of early-twentieth century Britain, it also draws attention to the fact that we too are viewing the past through the filter of the present as we read. We end up with multiple different histories all bouncing off one another, and I thought it was fantastic.

That's not to say the novel is entirely flawless. There are occasional sentences which haven't been proof-read carefully enough, and contain awkward repetitions: for example, "The blast knocked Smith's party off their feet, blasting the wooden pub tables into the field beyond the garden." There is also a rather long and boring back-story all about Aubertide society in chapter 7. I personally felt that it would have been better to leave this out, and just concentrate on the one renegade family which actually features in the book - and RTD clearly felt exactly the same way, since that's what happens in the TV version. It also seems rather implausible that this long and ponderous Social and Political History of Aubis is narrated to Bernice while she is tied up as their prisoner, despite a few knowing jokes at the beginning of the process about how they're not going to be tricked into revealing all their plans just because they have captured her - which is precisely what they then go on to do. On the whole, though, this is a jolly good read, and I quite often found myself actively looking forward to reading another little chunk of it on my way in to work.

It gets bonus points for a Hitch-Hiker's reference: Bernice grabs some Aldebaran brandy at one point in chapter 4, which I rather think she must have acquired from the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I was also intrigued to note that the phone in the front panel of the TARDIS rings in chapter 12 as a means of communicating with Timothy, the boy who has found the pod with the Doctor's bio-data inside it (what would become the fob-watch in the TV version, but here looks more like a cricket-ball). Obviously, this crops up in The Empty Child as a means for the child to communicate with Rose - but I'd be very interested to hear from more knowledgeable Whovians than me about this device as a story element. Had it ever happened before this novel was written, or is this the first instance? More props to Cornell for creative use of the TARDIS's police box disguise if it was.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 5th, 2009 09:46 am (UTC)
where the Doctor / John Smith finds himself teaching the boys about the rebellion of Boudicca / Boadicea

That sounds amazing - I must read at least that bit forthwith!
Sep. 5th, 2009 10:40 am (UTC)
It's in chapter 3, I believe. I can't easily link to it directly, as I'm on the train writing this on my mobile, but if you follow the link to the e-book at the top of my post, each chapter has its own individual link from there.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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