THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Dr. Who & the Daleks
Dr. Who: Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD
Virgin Books
Human Nature

Author Paul Cornell Cover taken from the excellent Broadsword home page
ISBN# 0 426 20443 3
Published 1995
Cover Bill Donohoe

Synopsis: Dr. John Smith is a short Scottish professor in the village of Farringham, who wants nothing more than a simple life and perhaps a chance at happiness. But strange images of an alien from the planet Gallifrey are invading his dreams and a woman called Bernice may know more than even he does about his real past...


Reviews

A Review by Tom May 13/4/98

There are moments in this book that prompt me to suggest that it is the finest original Doctor Who novel. This may seem just a little premature, as I've been a rather irregular reader of the adventures "new" and "missing," but that's an indication of how good this story is. It is recognisably in the mould of older NA's I've digested and enjoyed, such as Nightshade and Conundrum. And Cornell's writing in Human Nature has distinctly improved on No Future.

The plot, if not more coherent than No Future's, has an extra depth to it-- which is, of course, the unique concept of the Doctor choosing to sample life as a human.

The said human, inevitably goes by the name of Dr John Smith, a melancholy Scottish History teacher. His relationship with a middle-aged woman by the name of Joan is superbly executed, and utterly believable and touching. The sharp contrast of the pacifism of the Doctor/Dr Smith with his employment in a military-training school is one of the many enthralling aspects of this book, as is the discovery of one young character's future death in the trench warfare of World War One.

Paul Cornell, as you'd expect, writes perfectly for Benny. He did, after all, devise the character in Love and War. His marvellous writing for the Doctor is what makes this book the classic NA. You can very easily visualise McCoy as both Doctors, Time Lord and human, and if this had got on to television, surely McCoy would've become perhaps the best Doctor. The dark, solemn, manipulative Doctor is in evidence here, but not as graphic as in the end of Nightshade for example. The Doctor appears weary and wistful, and you can understand his aims in this book very well.

The plot does contain a race of invading aliens, the Aubertides, who are not the principal focus of the story, but provide a test for the Doctor. Another truly great theme in the book is the expectation both Benny and the reader feel towards Dr Smith for him to defeat the alien presence. This, it transpires, isn't the case, as Smith is a mere human, and has some tough choices to make.

This book starts intruigingly, and ends on a truly poignant note, and I'd obviously recommend it for all Doctor Who fans as it is absolutely superb. 10/10


A Review by Sean Gaffney 11/8/99

Human Nature. Well, I suspected that this would be a quiet book, and despite the incredible amount of action, I feel justified in that. This is a book that you have to read slowly, taking everything in. Every character has a purpose, especially the very well-characterised villains. The Doctor (or Smith, or both) has/ve never beeen better written, and Benny, as you would expect, shines.

This is one of those books where you have to go back and read it again, immediately, to get what's going on. Like my other current fave, Falls the Shadow, the levels just aren't all able to be taken in (um...I know that's grammatically wrong somehow...) in one sitting.

10/10.


Who is John Smith? by Richard Radcliffe 16/3/01

I never liked Paul Cornell books. So many raved about him as the best author of DW Fiction. I found him to be too complex, trying to be too clever, and resulting in confusion for the reader. And then Human Nature came out, and I was blown away. Cornell could write great DW fiction after all. He could tell a simple story well.

The central premise of the book is beautifully simple - the Doctor takes a holiday from being himself, and becomes John Smith, History Teacher in 1914 England. Benny lives nearby, ever watchful, posing as the Doctor's niece. The book is, amongst other things, a romance. The Doctor meets Joan, a science teacher at the same school, and they become closer and closer as the novel progresses. The only weak link is the antagonists - the Aubertides. They are too "bland" for my tastes. But they are not the focus of the story, and don't detract too much from the magic.

It's delightfully written, full of warmth and wonder. It is bold and imaginative with a charm that's infectious. It combines everyday emotions we all experience with the wonder and magic of Who.

Cornell's masterpiece. 10/10


A Review by Finn Clark 2/4/02

Wow. I'd loved it back in 1995, but still... wow.

It's the best ever Doctor Who book! Or at least it is according to DWM's poll results, which gave Human Nature a not-yet-bettered score of 85%. Is it really that good? Um, yes it is.

The Aubertides are ridiculous, camp and annoying. I understand Paul described them as "Robert Holmes nonsense", but they barely pass muster as Bob Baker & Dave Martin nonsense. They're Cavis and Gandar five years before their time (albeit a little better on account of getting stuff to do), but that doesn't matter. They're not what the book's about.

The historical period isn't particularly rich either. It's never bad, but nor was the historical setting of the second half of Mark of the Rani. You don't taste the era. This is a Doctor Who adventure with touches of 1914 rather than a historical adventure with the Doctor in it. But again, that's not what the book's about... and anyway the epilogue went a long, long way towards giving the book some historical perspective (and broke my heart all over again to boot).

This book is a literal deconstruction of the Doctor. Our hero is taken apart, only to rediscover himself piece by piece. It's Timewyrm: Revelation all over again, but different. Oh, and gorgeous. It's a tragedy like Love and War, but beats it by being about the Doctor himself and not requiring anyone to be a bit of an idiot. Also the sacrifice here is self-sacrifice; Smith doesn't give up Joan to the bad guys, but instead himself. And then there's that scene afterwards between Joan and the Doctor...

It's full of neat touches. That's one artistic info-dump. You've got to admire the deftness with which Paul leads you through mysteries to their explanations. The Pod is the best McGuffin ever, bringing the baddies to Earth naturally rather than the usual contrived "yet more aliens decide to invade". Smith's childish reinvention of the Doctor Who mythos is interesting, not unlike a smaller-scale version of The Scarlet Empress's Aja'ib. And most importantly, you'll keep coming across charming little vignettes like the hug scene. It's delightful.

The message of the book is utterly Whoish. Paul is a huge Brigadier fan and has done some great stuff with him, but too often this has meant lots of soldiers and battle scenes. Human Nature also gives us gunplay, but this time Paul's rejecting it unambiguously.

Human Nature isn't perfect. It's got the Aubertides and it introduces Wolsey. But perfection isn't all it's cracked up to be. I loved it, loved it, loved it.


A Review by Terrence Keenan 15/7/02

I had been reluctant to try another novel by Paul Cornell after reading The Shadows of Avalon and walking away feeling disappointed. A second read of Avalon made all its faults more glaring. However, after talking with a few friends and trusted sources, I finally got a copy of Human Nature. I read the reviews here and at a few other sites, saw that Human Nature was acclaimed the "Greatest Doctor Who Novel of all time", saw it topped the novel rankings, etc.

I read Human Nature in about three days.

Well?

I am willing to admit that it could just be me, but I haven't hated a DW book this much since I wasted a week of my life reading Seeing I.

Um... where to begin? For starters, ripping off an Anne Rice story idea (The Tale of the Body Thief) is not smart. Never steal bad ideas unless you have a way to make them good. Cornell steals a bad idea and makes it worse. Bad thing number one.

Paul Cornell is not a tight plot kind of guy. Okay, no big problem. Loose plots are fine, if you can manage them the right way. However, Cornell doesn't do this. Instead we get lots of cliches and unfinished set pieces that start too late or end too early.

The other way to counteract loose plots is to have strong, or at least interesting characters. Cornell fails miserably on this part as well. Major Problem number one is that we get no insight into the Smith character, how he ticks, what he's thinking, except for a few lines that are repeated with slight differences. The rest of the characters have little motivation, and seem to act according to whatever manifesto agenda that Cornell is interested in promoting. For example, Alexander Shuttleworth, who is the quintessential horny old man (he hits on Bernice, for fuck's sake), becomes gay (in the fucking epilogue, of all places!!!!!) just so Cornell can have a token positive gay relationship in his book -- it smacks of tokenism and is blatantly insulting.

Even more insulting and annoying was one bit where Dr. Smith is singing an Isley Brothers song and his girlfriend Joan asks if the Isley brothers are a "n****r band." Bernice hears this comment and says nothing then, but later screams at Dr. Smith in an attempt to get him to become the Doctor once more that Joan is a racist. All right, Joan is racist -- which considering what period she comes from isn't much of a surprise. And Bernice, who is from the future and enlightened, calls her on it. What offended me is that there was no point for either brief line except for Cornell to show he's against racism. Fine, Cornell is against racism, which we all should be (DUH!), but the lines do fuck-all to advance the story and smack of token PC politics, worse than Shuttleworth's coming out of the closet.

The human and alien villains are bullies with little motivation -- see the most annoying Orman cliche besides companion shagging. Cornell has the bad aliens -- forerunners to the even more putrid Cavis and Gandar from Avalon -- kill children just to show how bad they are, only to have the chutzpah to have the human bullies try the same thing as well. The only two interesting characters are Joan, Smith's girlfriend, and Tim Dean, who starts to take on some of the Doctor's Time Lord physiology and personality. Of less said about Bernice "more annoying than New Ace and OrmanBlum Sam" Summerfield, the better. Her job is to basically spout more political manifesto and grate on the nerves whenever possible.

The characters, however, aren't the worst aspect of the novel, nor is the god-awful hippie political ideals. It's the schmaltzy, sappy-sentimental tone of the whole book. Instead of possibly tugging at the heartstrings, or going for true tragedy, Cornell rips them out and dumps more ham-fisted melodrama than the end of the movie Pay it Forward (avoid), or any Douglas Sirk film. This oppressive tone angered me to the point where I had to play the first six Black Sabbath albums to achieve some balance and finish the book without dancing on it.

As previously stated, I'm willing to admit that its me, that I just can't understand the beauty of Paul Cornell and his sappy, utopian ideals for Doctor Who, and that Human Nature is the best Doctor Who book of all time.....

Um, no.

If you really want to read a story about the Doctor really motivated by love and willing to do anything for it, then read Father Time. It's a similar concept, done much better, with a tighter plot, killer characterization, real emotion and no bad political agendas.

Avoid this book.

Supplement, 20/8/03

Why would I want to re-read a book I trashed?

It all started when I grabbed it off the shelf on the way to the laundromat. I meant to pick up Dead Romance and spend some time in the Larryverse. But, since I had managed to grab Human Nature instead, I felt obligated to give the book another go-round.

Um, as mentioned before, Paul Cornell's writing style doesn't grab me. There's something about his novels that cause lots of eye rolling and muttering of vulgarities. There's a feeling of sloppiness. Cornell tends to over-characterize some of his novel creations, while taking shortcuts with others. He sets up tragic scenarios and fails to let them culminate properly. And lastly, Cornell seems to play to his reader's sentiments instead of taking them along for a ride.

A glaring correction from the previous review -- Shuttleworth doesn't become gay in the epilouge. And it's Tim Dean, not Tom, who finds the pod. Humble apologies to Mr. Cornell and anyone who read the first review. (The whole thing is really awful, so it's best ignored.)

For the record, I'm not all that enamored with romances in any of my fictional entertainment pursuits. They tend to get my inner cynical git working overtime to spot the false notes and snort with smug contempt when I notice the hoary cliches. If you're going to do a love story in Who, it has to be exceptional.

The love story between John Smith and Joan Redfern was hokey to say the least. But, it worked well enough this time around to seem plausible. I still think the familial love of Father Time is stronger, and works better in a Who concept because the Doctor is much better as a Father/Uncle figure. However, Cornell does manage to come through with the tragic finale of this doomed romance. John Smith has to become the Doctor once again and give up Joan.

The big message of the book is an anti-war one. Subtle as a sledgehammer, too. Kids make for instant pathos, unless you're heartless. This could have driven me to Tourette-style vulgar shoutings, but I let it go. Messages are tricky things, and some authors are better at it than others. The OrmanBlum are worse at such things, and because it's more of a subplot than the romance, I was able to let it pass.

My big beef with the book this time around are the Aubertides. There's no excuse for characters this bad. I kept asking myself why Cornell thought he could get away with it. Cornell referred to them as "Robert Holmes nonsense" in an interview. Okay, does that mean you have to write them as such? I cheered when Apashia bought it not because she's a villain, but because I would be spared more of her annoying traits. The only semi-interesting one was Serif, and even he made me want to throw up in disgust. Part of my enjoyment of Love and War -- still Cornell's best by a long way -- was the strength of the Hoothi as a villain/monster.

One more problem. Cornell ruined a powerful ending by adding an epilogue that added a layer of touchy-feely goodness to a book as a way to allieviate the tragedy. The last line with Wolsey watching the Doctor weep in private over losing Joan may be way out of character, but it works! The epilogue with Richard surviving by having Dean save him and the bit at the memorial service really got on my tits. Tim has already found out that the future is not set in stone, why beat it over the reader's head with an epilogue whose only purpose is to say "Everything's all right. All the nice people live long happy lives, and the bullies get it in the end." ... although the bit with Greeneye the cow did cause me to grin for a second.

I should touch on Bernice Summerfield. Not as patronizing this time around, but the "wrinkly old racist" line was too much. Especially when later on, she tried to bend over backwards to approve of John Smith marrying Joan. The diary bits were the strongest in Human Nature. Most of the time, she just took up space.

John Smith gets the uber-characterization treatment. From a technical point, it's well structured, however, I still had a hard time engaging with him. I'm unsure why. Some things felt right -- the awkwardness around Joan, the sudden advancements in the relationship, the snogging -- but the permissiveness and indecision of the character bugged me. It might have been the point that a human version of the Doctor (especially this one) might be prone to waffling, but after a while, I wanted to give him a foot up the ass and tell him to make up his mind, one way or the other.

Okay, Human Nature isn't as bad as I thought it was. I still think that the flaws outweight the merits and in the end, Human Nature is not worthy of the praise and hype placed in its name.


A Review by Rob Matthews 14/8/02

Funny thing about Terrence Keenan's reviews - and I'm sure he won't mind me saying this, because he could probably say the same about mine - is that though I very often disagree with them, they're always amongst the first ones I click on to read. And I generally admire them because of their passion and because they go against the grain.

So I was surprised when I read his review of Human Nature to find myself in partial agreement - particularly in regard to the comparisons with Father Time, which Mike Morris has also commented on in his own review of that book. In addition, I've recently been discussing the matter a bit with both of them, so I guess this review was inevitable. Actually Terrence's review has given me some kind of angle to tackle this book from, because though I always liked Human Nature, with reservations, I was never able to assemble any coherent take on it.

I suspect now that that was actually because of the rather loose and blurry structure of the book. It's difficult for me to review. The best analogy I can come up with is that it's is like trying to reach into an impressionist painting and grasp hold of something solid. The book overall, its central premise, is a beautiful, great one. The Doctor becomes a normal man so that the normal man can learn to become The Doctor. The book is the greatest valentine to the worth of a children's TV hero that you could imagine. It's such a good idea that it almost completely overrides the details - most of us fans rather indulgently overlook the banality of the Aubergines, or whatever they're called -, and leaves you with a glowing sense of the essential worth of this fiction and its values.

And those I'll come back to shortly.

The point I'm trying to make here is that despite the brilliance of the central premise I've never quite seen it as a masterpiece of Who fiction, and Terrence's review alerted me as to why. Structurally it's a mess, full of set pieces that - as he put it - go on too long and end too quick. Purely in terms of structure and discipline I'd agree that Father Time is a superior work. But at bottom, I never escaped the feeling on reading Father Time that the idea behind it was 'let's do another Human Nature'  - something the EDAs have in fact been doing big-scale following the events of Ancestor and Adventuress. Father Time might emulate some of the themes and emotional effect of Human Nature, and might do it in a more polished and well-plotted way, but the one thing it cannot do is beat the first book's originality. Cornell got there first, and that's why his work is the better one. Even if he does have a passage narrated from the POV of a bloody pussycat, and even if he does open the book with a quote from a review of a Prodigy gig.

(and in fact that's nowhere nears as bad as the 'Father Time: the Album' postscript to Parkin's book, which latches cynically and massively irritatingly onto the current eighties nostalgia fad which I utterly, utterly despise and which suggests to me that nature has pegged the human race for extinction and soon the world will belong to the roaches... whaddya mean 'digression'?)

Few people have commented on the setting of the book; England, 1914. Which is odd because I found it to be one of the most effective choices of place and time I've seen in a Doctor Who book, as good as those in Christmas on a Rational Planet and Set Piece, if not as thoroughly evoked. The story takes place at the eve of what is arguably the defining event of the twentieth century and the world we now live in, and features members of the suffragette and socialist movements. It's the perfect fable-like location for a 'rebirth' of the Doctor, a place - though slightly artificial and schematised - to root our modern values (or postmodern if you prefer , I'm not getting into that one).

Oh yes, and they're liberal values. We're getting into 'Big Lie' territory here.

Lawrence Miles' theory on the Cornell-sculpted NA worldview is pretty well-known, and one I'd largely agree with. In brief, the UK's government had for over a decade been a conservative one and as a totem of liberal values - the liberal values shared by most of his readership, championing diversity and co-operation -, the NA Doctor and the NA series were a reaction to their time, and hence the perfect Doctor Who stories for their time. All of that I agree with - the NAs were absolutely brilliant and I wouldn't still be taking an active interest in Doctor Who if it hadn't been for them. But I also know that they were of their time and wouldn't work any more today - that's no bad thing. They did everything they set out to do, and for me it's a case of a job well done; that rarest of things, 'fulfilled potential'.

Miles' problem with the 'Big Lie' - more in Kate Orman's work, in fact, than Cornell's - was that he saw the books as projecting the impression that the universe itself was on the side of the late twentieth-century liberal. This tendency I haven't really experienced in any of the NAs I've read, but then Miles was referring more to some of the later NAs, which are harder to get hold of.

Anyway, I wouldn't at first glance have thought 'The Big Lie' was much of an issue in this book. The Eternal Time is present, but doesn't represent the universe as a whole, or a God - any more than the Eternals Pain, Death and Stinky who turned up in No Future.

Miles' 'People Like Us' theory perhaps applies for those who don't like Human Nature, what with the aforementioned supporting cast of suffragettes and socialists and gays (oh my). Terrence Keenan mentioned "token PC politics" with regard to Shuttleworth's turning out to be gay. I was dismayed by this - not because it wasn't an interesting point, but because of the use of 'PC', the abbreviation of that awful phrase 'political correctness', which is and always has been a nebulous bogeyman phrase used by rightwingers to rubbish the values of people like me. It's a fucking propaganda term, and it's always annoyed me that it passed into common currency. For 'political correctness' read 'respect for other people'. That's really all it boils down to. That rightwingers think of this respect as some kind of pretension says something very disturbing about them.

(Obviously I'm not including Terrence in that, I just hate that phrase and what it implies)

Similarly, I'm not sure what this 'political manifesto' is that Bernice apparently spouts at every opportunity. All I can think of is that she shows support for the suffragette girl - well, yes, so would I. What's wrong with that?

I try to go along with the idea that Doctor Who should be apolitical (again, see Mike Morris on Father Time), but really I find it impossible. The Doctor was conceived as anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment character. Conservatism is about supporting the authority of the establishment. The Doctor champions open-mindedness and fights inequality, tyranny and repression. Conservatism is by its very nature close-minded and deferential to the kind of nonsense that creates inequality, tyranny and repression - forcing organised religion into schools is one example, Thatcher's section 28 is another. Toadying up to the Monarchy depite the surreal Monty Pythonesque ludicrousness of their existence is one more. This is a broad strokes argument, I suppose, but, yeah, broadly the Doctor seems to me inescapably left-of-centre and aligned to what we'll call liberal values. And yes, it's naive and bad for storytelling credibility when an author allow these values to spread from the characters to the Whoniverse itself. I don't think that happens in this book.

Terrence referred in particular to Joan's speaking about a "n***** band", and to Shuttleworth's 'coming out of the closet' in the epilogue (actually, it's earlier than that). He argues that Cornell uses the former only for the purpose of showing that he's not racist, and as such it's offensive, because condescending. Fair point, but I suspect that if Cornell hadn't put this bit in, I would have been the first one to complain about his rose-tinted vision of the past. Bernice gets angry about it because, well, you would. Yes, racism was prevalent back then, but it's hard to take the long view of the past when you're standing in the middle of it. For me, the comment and Bernice's reaction to it are careful inclusions. They're not dwelled on, but they're necessary. And Bernice's reaction is a character-based one rather than a Cornell lefty agenda ploy.

Neither do I think the revelation of Shuttleworth's sexuality is a case of the author suddenly deciding to turn a character gay. Homophobia was prevalent back then too, you know, hence the character's hetero-lech old rake act. Yes, you could cry tokenism, but on that logic no-one would ever be able to include any gay characters in Doctor Who books for fear of them being branded as such, or given far more analysis than the straight characters.

Which I'm doing right now, in fact, but only in response to a previous review.

My take on Human Nature, on the story itself, is that it expands the horizons of the Doctor's character considerably and is a highly effective and influential Doctor Who book. It's also important as part of the thematic arc of the NAs, fall and redemption. But it's no masterpiece. I said when I reviewed Love and War that Cornell's writing can often be clumsy and often beautiful. By comparison Human Nature tends more towards the former. That it's a very good book is due more to the overwhelming impression it leaves than the grace of the prose.


A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 9/6/03

When I first read Human Nature back in 1995 or 1996, I thought it was quite good. Not perfect, but quite good. Since the mid-90s, the book's reputation has done nothing but skyrocket. Finally declared as the greatest New Adventure in various polls and reviews, I fully expect to see it posited as the supreme work of English fiction by sometime in the next century.

Rereading it today (well, last week to be specific), I found that my opinion hadn't changed all that much. It's still a really good book with some outstanding sequences and genuine emotion. But it also contains some fairly blatant missteps. It's a shame that Paul Cornell didn't quite make his villains as interesting as his heroes, given that both factions are given huge amounts of screen time.

The storyline is very simple, very traditional in all but one major area. The Doctor decides to take a vacation. Weary with the weights and responsibilities of being the Intergalactic Man Of Mystery, he decides to create an artificial persona for himself (the hints of where his false memories come from are great fun), and places his consciousness into the human body of Dr. John Smith (his own body, after undergoing a gobbledygook process to temporarily rid it of its Gallifreyan heritage). While his own thoughts, experiences, and Time Lord know-how are placed into a container, a group of alien baddies arrives on Earth intending to steal the Doctor's essence for their own nefarious schemes.

Everyone who discusses this book eventually gets around to criticizing the alien Aubertides. I will not be breaking from convention. They really are pathetic adversaries. Actually, it would be more accurate to describe them as depressingly ordinary. While the Smith/Doctor storyline captivates and enthralls the reader, one is instantly jolted back to banality every time we're forced to continue with the Adventures Of The Irritating Aliens. And the biggest problem of all is that they're present and nauseating for so much of the book. Had they just appeared from time to time to remind us of the main Doctor Who practices, they wouldn't have been quite so annoying. (Unfortunately, Cornell would not learn from this lesson. Cavis and Gandar of Shadows of Avalon somehow manage to be much, much worse.)

Cornell also cheats a bit with his plotting. Fortunately, he's a strong enough writer to be able to keep the story moving fast enough, so that most of the stretches aren't quite as damning as they would be had they come from the pen of a lesser. Even so, there are some absolutely insane coincidences, people acting stupid just to move the plot along, and places where the action stops completely dead for some silly and preaching moralizing.

I apologize for having spent so much time taking about the portions of Human Nature I found to be irritating, because overall, even with its flaws, this is still a damned good book. The progression of Dr. John Smith back into the Doctor figure is extraordinarily well done. His relationship with a rather mundane Earth woman is nicely understated. I loved the fact that while I (and Benny) found her to be slightly haughty and grating, I could still understand completely how Smith started falling for her.

What Cornell does with the Doctor here is absolutely fantastic. Seeing Smith slowly but surely regaining his essential characteristics is mind-blowing. The way that Cornell places the crucial Doctor qualities into another secondary character is subtly cool. The final thirty pages are gorgeous.

In other places, the book also scores a bull's-eye. I read this one straight after Sanctuary, and the difference in writing couldn't have been any more obvious. While the previous tome had dense prose that I found difficult and distracting, the pages in Human Nature just flew by. The words and phrases can seem as light as a feather, but can be utterly devastating when need be. It's like an expensive, rare, and pleasant wine. A few sips are absolute heaven, and after a good long session, you find yourself knocked on your ass.

As I said, I liked Human Nature despite its fairly obvious flaws. On the other hand, I think somewhere out there is a version of this book written entirely as extracts from the dairies of Benny and Dr. John Smith, keeping the character stuff even more at the forefront, and banishing the Aubertides to well-deserved obscurity. That version may very well be the greatest Doctor Who story of all time. But that's not the version we have here, which isn't even the best of Paul Cornell. Yet it's still quite good and definitely worth reading.


Perfect book to begin with by David Lotito 2/4/04

::written in April 2003::

After watching most of the Doctor Who episodes, and after disassociating myself with fandom, a spark still held onto me; to try something different with the Doctor. Not only that, but to also experience a format that I've been ignoring, and a story that seems to break many conventions and hidden taboos. When I decided to give in and start reading a Doctor Who book, I didn't expect a story to change my view of the character. I didn't expect a story to make me fall in love with the character all over again. That could be part of the magic; The Doctor is full of everything you don't expect.

The book in question is Human Nature by Paul Cornell. It involves the Seventh Doctor, and Bernice Summerfield, taking a holiday, in 1914, England. This time, he decides to become human in body and mind, and taking the guise of "John Smith", he also becomes a teacher at a private military school. He manages to fall in love, and notice the little things in nature, while taking a break from himself; trying to find his true self.

The school's cadets are portrayed well as hazing and training are depicted. I especially love a scene where a straw dummy is being shot. The poetry is so alive in some places, and so is the brutal honesty. Bernice seems to be along for the ride, until she stumbles across the Aubertides, who are after the Doctor's essence that's being kept in a hidden pod. What follows is a brutal depiction of what war is really like; people dying in graphic detail, its consequences, and full of suspenseful drama and action. It also shows what being in love is really like, and being human. John Smith is shown to have weaknesses like anybody does; him dropping to the ground and weeping after the Aubertides take "Joan" is a perfect example.

The story itself goes beyond the plot and its concept. It's essentially finding one's self amidst rules and patterns, and changing everything to do it. It's about taking chances and risking everything, and in this case, to find meaning, at least. It's a book that's fueled my interest in the Doctor Who books, but it also has renewed my literary spark, and made my intellect shine brighter. It's a story in the series that doesn't follow the rules, and does it well. If nothing else, it's a perfect story to interest others in the Doctor Who books. Have fun reading; I know I did.

::written in Feburary 2004::

I've slowly became more involved in fandom, bit by bit. Since Human Nature, I've read Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Well-Mannered War, City of the Dead, Damaged Goods, Witch Hunters, Festival of Death, English Way of Death, All-Consuming Fire, Alien Bodies, Dying Days, and have enjoyed them all. Thanks, Mr. Cornell.


A Review by Mike Morris 18/10/05

Well, it had to happen sooner or later. Having raved quite incoherently about the Cornell worldview in the guise of a review of Father's Day, it occurred to me that it was long past time I tackled this book. Which is, to my mind, something of an exemplar of Paul Cornell's Who fiction. The good and bad; the sublime and the substandard. All in here.

The notion of Cornell actually having a "worldview" is important, because not many Doctor Who writers have expressed one in their books. Lawrence Miles (the anti-Cornell, really) leaps immediately to mind as someone who does, but a "pure" storyteller like Justin Richards doesn't and a writer of sublime entertainments like Lloyd Rose doesn't either. More surprisingly, even someone like Kate Orman doesn't really incorporate her entire belief system into books like Paul Cornell does, and after the extreme darkness of her early NAs wears off she often seems to be overtly aping Paul Cornell and not quite pulling it off. Oddly, given that Orman is a more gifted constructor of a plot (and a better prose writer), her books frequently feel looser - even though Cornell does include silly quotes, does put in a moral message here and there, and does spin his books around some of the daftest plots in the universe ever.

That "tightness" in Human Nature comes, I think, from its central question. What elevates Paul Cornell above his imitators (he's generally a good but uneven prose writer) is his ability to work out exactly what question his books are addressing, and then resolves it with the minimum of fuss. He comes across as a highly analytical writer who's a stern self-critic (he has been openly negative about No Future and The Shadows of Avalon). Human Nature's central conceit can be expressed in one sentence - can an ordinary person become the Doctor? - and this makes it read almost as a parable. What makes Human Nature so satisfying, in spite of numerous flaws, is that the reader knows that each event is going towards resolving this question, and that the entire story has been constructed to give us that answer. The answer is "yes", of course, which is both predictable and uplifting; but it gives rise to some really breathtaking moments as the confused bumbler that is John Smith becomes someone truly heroic. Take out the initial passages with Bernice going on the piss and this could, in fact, play very easily to a non-Who reading audience. In fact - and I mentioned this in my review of the first three 9DAs - it's a really wonderful children's book, much more comparable to Harry (bloody) Potter than, say, Damaged Goods or The Left-Handed Hummingbird. That isn't faint praise - His Dark Materials is also a children's book (oh, all right then, trilogy), let's not forget, and that's got a thing or two to say to an adult audience. Besides, Human Nature sets itself up as overtly a children's book; morality is black and white, the prose is simple, and characters are drawn with fat lines. It's these childlike elements that makes its nastier moments so effective - exploding students, H-bombs, Constance stew, tumours on the bowel and ritual hangings are horrific here, whereas elsewhere they might come across as tasteless comedy.

The question of whether the Big Central Question is actually just PC soapboxing is quite important here. This book has been criticised because the author "introduces his own agendas", which are a damn sight too preachy. Hmm, hum. There's something in it - the best example might be the Alexander-is-gay revelation, which isn't for anything. Not that it has to be, of course, but it's revealed in a sort of fanfare gosh-wow moment as if the author thinks he's saying something important. It's difficult to figure out what; so the guy's gay, so bloody what? It serves no storytelling purpose, even if Alexander and Hadelman are rather sweet, and in a book so focused it's clearly an indulgence.

And yet I can't claim to be bothered all that much, simply because it's so clearly an indulgence. It doesn't detract from the core of the book because it's so obviously not a part of it. What annoys me, still, is when the term "PC" is attached to this sort of thing; I can't think of any phrase more bullying, to be honest. "Politically correct" actually started out as meaning deliberately obscure linguistics that stink of fear of the law courts, such as saying "vertically challenged" instead of "short". It's now almost a truism to denigrate someone as a PC pinko if they object to anything on moral grounds. Fact is that most "PC agendas" are, in fact, quite right, and dismissing them offhand is bloody irritating. I speak as someone who hates, absolutely hates, to be preached at (not averse to doing the preaching, of course - a double standard's better than no standard, I say)...

...but Human Nature doesn't preach at us at any point, on this or any other topic. There are no homophobes who get their comeuppance, there's no pink pride message. There's just a couple in it who are gay. The fact that Paul Cornell seems to have included them because he feels he should is what makes it seem like an agenda, but it's not pushily done. And if we're talking agendas - well, what else should authors do? Books are for people who want to say something. If Cornell feels he should include a gay couple, well I see it as an irrelevance... but I see the Big Flying Saucer in Father Time as an irrelevance too, and what's more it's a silly one that goes on and on forever. In fact, that's every bit as agenda-driven - it's Lance Parkin introducing his agenda that Doctor Who Isn't About Agendas - but it's achieved by introducing something hackneyed and crap that sabotages the plot and ducks numerous questions that the first two-thirds of the book raised, whereas Cornell introduces his "agenda" by creating a rather touching middle-aged couple in love with each other. What's more, Cornell's agenda matters; Parkin's doesn't. I fail to see why Parkin's version isn't a thousand times shitter.

Anyway, to get back to the point and continue the Father Time comparison; Human Nature has all sorts of irrelevant asides, but it remains blatantly clear that's exactly what they are, and it's obvious what we're talking about. Whereas, if anyone can precisely define Father Time in a sentence I will buy them several pints next time they're in Dublin (Define it to my satisfaction, that is; important disclaimer there). In fact, while it's easy to say Human Nature is "preachy" and Father Time has a plot, I'd see it more that Cornell knows what he's saying and his book is structured around that, while Parkin doesn't and hence has to introduce a daft plot to disguise his book's lack of clarity. Both books have asides, but Cornell's feel like asides whereas Parkin's feel like confusions - you say silly death-balloon, I say silly positronic brain.

Cornell, of course, doesn't do himself any favours here. His claim that the "nigger band" bit is an anti-racist message (that's a second-hand quote, but I trust Rob Matthews, I do) is patronising and daft because, let's face it, everyone but Ron Atkinson knows that "nigger" is beyond the pale (esoteric football reference #742). But we should be judging the book, not the writer - writers are often the worst critics of their own work - and no matter what Paul Cornell thinks he said, I can't for the life of me see this as soapboxing. Joan doesn't get taught the wrongness of her views and Bernice does not come to see things in context. There's no lesson, there's just a depiction of the character's attitudes that are used to create a tension - and that's not preaching, that's storytelling. This reads as him portraying a very unremarkable woman in a warts-and-all way, and Bernice reacts because, well, how could you not? The "nigger band" was actually a moment when I thought phew, well done there Paul, at least you're not letting the reader get comfortable.

I dribbled on about this in my spectacularly incoherent Father's Day piece, but hopefully I'll express my view of "sanitising" more clearly here. Paul Cornell very carefully avoids sanitising his worlds in all his good books, certainly this one, and in the Father's Day rant I confused "sanitised" with "optimistic." His view is that "there's always good in everyone, if you know where to look", as he said in Goth Opera (one of his weakest books, but that's another story). That doesn't mean things aren't ugly - in an era when the 80s are the kitsch decade of choice, Father's Day didn't have a single Miami Vice reference and was much more recognisably the England of The Boys From the Blackstuff. Or, in what I promise will be the very last comparison with Father Time, in Human Nature, the most beautiful image Cornell describes is the remains of a school after an atomic explosion. In Father Time, Lance Parkin turns everything into rose petals. I don't have to spend long asking myself which is the daring image and which is the hackneyed one. Since watching the clichéd pap that was American Beauty I have a deep-held moral conviction that Rose Petals Can Fuck Right Off anyway, so maybe my buttons are just being pushed, but the fact remains; Cornell is willing to get his hands dirty in a way few other authors are. I suspect this is why he does actually get under my skin with the touchy-feely stuff, because he goes to great lengths to make his worlds real and mucky. The fact that John Smith falls for a rather dull woman who speaks offensively about foreigners (I wouldn't call Joan racist as such) is an important example, and by no means the only one.

This is what Kate Orman can't quite manage, no matter how admirable many of her other qualities are. Her worlds are much more middle-class and her people aren't as dirty as Paul Cornell's - Cornell made Rose's clumsy, play-away Dad the hero, but Orman's heroes tend to be middle-class pretend-hippies with driven ideals. Orman actually likes Sam. Nothing wrong with that, but it's hard to shake the feeling that Kate Orman's range of good guys are the sort of people she'd like to hang around with; Cornell's frequently aren't. He can drift that way, but he generally avoids it or acknowledges it (as in the Trisha-friendship in Timewyrm: Revelation, where Ace realises it was her own preconceptions making Trisha such a bitch). Cornell's heroic couple in Timewyrm: Revelation are resolutely ordinary people, and I don't think it's unintentional in Love and War that Jan is a bit of a dick. In Human Nature, Cornell plays the same game with Rocastle. He starts him out as a bullying character and Rocastle continues to do some nasty things, but by investing him with a massive degree of self-doubt we're given a great level of sympathy for this character. In fact, it's Smith and Joan (bad joke there Paul) who become the bullying characters as they sit blissed-out in a field and discuss Rocastle in bitchy, one-dimensional terms that we as the reader have seen to be wholly unfair.

And here's where Human Nature shows real balls, poses real questions, shows an author being hard on himself. Rocastle eventually sacrifices himself in a way that neither Smith nor Joan would ever have the courage to go through with - effectively the author turns on his heroes, showing them up as judgemental and mean-spirited. They don't come to see their error, which is a good example of Cornell's restraint; to the reader it's very obvious that Rocastle's self-sacrifice is completely in the man's character, but Smith and Joan speculate that he had become a bit Doctorish. At this point, they seem like complete assholes. And, as Smith might be seen as someone with similar outlooks to Paul Cornell, we're effectively seeing Paul question his own moral stance. What right do I have to look down my nose on people like that? Why is it that people whom I wouldn't ever like can do heroic deeds that I couldn't? Am I, in fact, a preachy middle-class pussy? Paul Cornell might dislike people like Rocastle, but that doesn't prevent him from empathising with him and he still gets to be a hero.

Or take the setting, say. It's Innocent-England-Before-The-Great-War times one million, and it's really terribly pretty in its country lane way. But Cornell never falls into the trap of portraying this as an idyllic wonderland upon which the Great War dawned unbidden; it's clear that the beautiful setting is actually what gave birth to WWI, and that sort of nastiness is streaked through a book that's bursting with optimism. The scene with the Gatling gun is the obvious shocker, and Rocastle's description of the two types of bullet is very chilling. The notion that the war "was won on the playing fields of Eton" is given a twist here, with the school unapologetically drawn as a hellhole run on the basis of a horrible social elitism (compare this questioning to the oh-so-magical Hogwarts, where every good child must win points for their house and it's seen as acceptable that a magic hat tells twelve year olds whether they're inherently good, evil, or just a worthless mediocrity). This a setting where the apparently nice patterns of society make evil possible. This is also the plot (the Aubertides descending on the village just as the war will), and the central character (the Doctor is very nice but Is He Really?). This is the sort of structure that leads to proper books.

Now, the Aubertides. They're crap of course... but well, actually... yes, I rather like them and I think they're very appropriate.

No, really.

Again, Paul Cornell has shot himself in the foot here. His comment that the Aubertides were "silly Robert Holmes villains" is what really rankles with people I think, and quite rightly too. I don't know whether he just tends to talk himself down, but this is disingenuous. The fact that Cavis 'n' Gandar in The Shadows of Avalon are cut from the same cloth would seem to indicate that he's making some sort of point, even if he's not making it well enough for it to really work.

It comes down to Cornell-morality again. In his world, characters are fundamentally good provided they really believe in something, anything. So long as they have that level of thought, Cornell can excuse their deeds - the people might be misguided, corrupted, screwed-up or just plain nasty, but they aren't evil. But his out-and-out villains, the ones that don't get redeemed, are the people who don't believe in anything - they're people who mock believers. It's understandable, because Paul Cornell's books are so bloody easy to mock and to bully. A good example is in Timewyrm: Revelation, when the Doctor recycles his "Look me in the eye, end my life" line from the series - a line that The Discontinuity Guide singles out as summarising all of Doctor Who - and is greeted with laughter. "Well you said it!" says Chad Boyle, and cuts him down.

The Aubertides have reached some sort of diabolical amoral Nirvana where they find everything funny. They're the sort of people who find the Doctor a laughable figure. Now, the reason that they sit uneasily in the Doctor Who canon is that Doctor Who's villains tend to be fanatics - they tend to people who really, really believe in something, who take everything a damn sight too seriously. Cornell's villains are those who take nothing seriously - not death, not destruction, not morality, nothing. Taking a religious fanatic as an example, Paul Cornell will find some seed of goodness in there, and he has a belief that if he can get the person to really see the error of their ways then the goodness will win out. Whereas with villains like the Aubertides, and later Cavis 'n' Gandar, they have seen the error of their ways a hundred times over and just don't care. The Doctor - particularly the McCoy Doctor - can tie fanatics up in knots with a few well-chosen words and let their own actions destroy themselves, all without breaking sweat. But if the Doctor's way of winning is to win without violence, without resorting to evil, then these villains are the toughest proposition of the lot. A bad guy like Kane was easy to defeat; look up a few star charts, have a chat, and pish-posh he melts himself. The Aubertides aren't that stupid, so much so that it's hard to think of a villain that would be harder to defeat here. Cornell sets himself the task of defeating the bad guys without guns, and he doesn't cheat on his reader by making it easy. The Aubertides aren't unstable, or mad, or fanatical, or stupid, and they don't make mistakes. They are very, very dangerous.

This threat is one thing that makes Smith's turmoil work. The other is the peripheral presence of the Doctor, someone dark and distant who would view the struggle in cold, inhuman terms. By being superficially similar to McCoy's Doctor (not the New Adventures Doctor perhaps, but certainly the televised version), Smith emphasises the otherness of the Doctor. His slow realisation that, say, he can't just trundle up to the Aubertides and give them what they want should be laughable. It's not. It works because he doesn't seem to have any other option; he can't win by force, and the other choice is to surrender himself to someone who's unknown and doesn't seem sympathetic. Instead it feels like something working out the truth from first principles; taking maxims that we all know to be true (and hence don't think about, and hence can conveniently forget whenever we want to bomb a little country full of brown people) and actually determining where they come from.

And that is brilliant, brilliant children's literature. Ultimately, that's the highest compliment I can pay Human Nature; it is a thoroughly brilliant children's book. It has a high level of discipline, it is very thoughtful, it's well-structured, it's shocking and it's very emotionally honest. The plot hinges on something a bit silly, but everything else is worked through with unflinching honesty. We get our happy ending, but it works because - and this is where Cornell's unsanitised worldview is so important to the mix - it's always possible that the worst will happen, and we frequently believe it will. When Hadelman is dying in a field at the book's end, I really did think he was going to die. So when he didn't, I cried with joy.

And unlike "adult" fiction, children's literature simply has to be that good. Kids don't put up with the sort of crap we do. 9DA writers, please take note.

Fair;s fair, a book like The Adventuress of Henrietta Street is playing with more complex, more difficult themes. But the measure of Human Nature is that it can stand comparison with some of the best non-Who books in its field. It's not His Dark Materials, not by a long chalk, but it is a really fantastic children's book. It works because, while the morality it espouses might be corny, it's not easily achieved and it's so damn right. That's why it^Òs got something for us grownups too, something important.

A bit like a certain children's TV series I can think of, then.


If You Read Only One Doctor Who Novel Let This Be The One by Matthew Kresal 10/6/10

This is Human Nature: The basis for the revived TV's series two part story Human Nature/The Family of Blood. Written by Paul Cornell and published back in May 1995, this novel has earned a reputation as one of the best Doctor Who novels ever. Having read quite a few of them, I'm willing to go one step further: Human Nature is the best Doctor Who novel ever written.

Human Nature is (to paraphrase a famous quote from the series) far more then just another Doctor Who story. It is a strong story about love, war and what makes us human. One of the reasons for this is because it's a novel full of real characters, not just one- or two-dimensional cutouts. This is especially true of the at-times nearly malevolent seventh Doctor, who becomes a human being and leaves his companion Professor Summerfield having to save him.

While the novel features a fair amount of action and typical science-fiction material, the story has a love story running through it. That is the love between the humanized seventh Doctor (Dr. John Smith) and Joan Redfern. While it might initially seem out of place, Cornell makes it fit. Cornell creates a realistic relationship between the two and whenever they're together the pages really do light up. In fact, Smith and Joan are the literal heart and soul of Human Nature. It is their relationship and its climax that really make this novel stand out.

The novel's only real flaw is its villains who are a bit of a joke for the most part. The Aubertide shapeshifters are clumsy to say the least and very rarely (if at all) do they have menace. That said, they have a great moment in chapter six, but for the most part Cornell drops the ball in terms of the villains and in turn creates the novel's only real problem.

Don't let that flaw deter you though. This novel is what science fiction is at its best: a morality tale in a very different dressing. To put it another way: if you read only one Doctor Who novel, let this be the one you read.