THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

BBC Books
Only Human

Author Gareth Roberts Cover image
ISBN 0 563 48639 2
Published 2005

Synopsis: Somebody's interfering with time. The Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack arrive on modern-day Earth to find the culprit and discover a Neanderthal Man, twenty-eight thousand years after his race became extinct. Only a trip back to the primeval dawn of humanity can solve the mystery.


Reviews

Rose Glathigacymcilliach! by Joe Ford 13/10/05

There was a thread running on the book section of Outpost Gallifrey, "Are you excited by the return of Gareth Roberts?" which I failed to respond to because my answer was purely in the "no" side of the answer and I did not want to piss all over the generally positive answers people were giving. I have always felt like Roberts' Doctor Who books are severely overrated; his NAs are barely readable and his season seventeen fillers nowhere near as funny or cute as everybody else thinks. Only The Plotters really impressed me, with its detailed historical setting and beautiful use of the second TARDIS team and moments where I roared with the absurdity of it, it was Roberts living up to his reputation and delivering something extremely engaging.

Only Human is better than The Plotters. By the standard of today's Doctor Who books (ie Match of the Day, Winner Takes All and Island of Death) this is a work of genius; a light, frothy page-turner that manages to appeal to children and adults alike, brimming with fantastic jokes (and I mean fantastic, this is the funniest Doctor Who book you will ever read), engaging characters, clever observations, great plot twists... and all wrapped up in one of those wonderful READ ME! NDA covers. Roberts was always a confident but this novel glitters with exuberance, whilst books like Spiral Scratch and The Gallifrey Chronicles reward you for being a Doctor Who fan, Only Human rewards you for being a New Doctor Who fan, delivering a pitch-perfect renditioning of the dizzying atmosphere the series employs and lots of fabulous ideas to boot.

I mean how can you go wrong with the ninth Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack, clearly the most engaging lineup of characters since the fourth Doctor, Sarah and Harry (or the eighth Doctor, Fitz and Anji if we are including the books!)? There is a certain buzz about these three which Roberts has captured even better than any of their TV scripts, they are like Buffy's Scooby gang on speed, living on the edge, relishing their time together and openly thankful for the fantastic opportunity to travel through time and space. You can hear Eccleston, Piper and Barrowman saying their lines here, their dialogue is that good. They all get loads to do, be it the Doctor getting brainwashed by a psychotic control freak, Rose dismembered and married to a caveman (!!!) and Captain Jack given the important task of trying to adjust a Neanderthal to modern day Bromley. The Doctor gets to be all clever and sarcastic and yet piercingly dangerous too, Rose is sharp, witty and resourceful and Jack is wonderfully innuendo bound, dropping brilliant pop-culture references and hilariously arrogant in spots. To quote a certain Doctor, "Fantastic."

It felt as though Gareth Roberts has had so many great ideas since he left the Doctor Who novel-writing team and this chance to return to the fold has afforded him to use them all. Only Human is a curious breed of Doctor Who book, one that contains hilarious concepts (such as a Neanderthal attempting to understand Are You Being Served!), frightening ideas (the future of humanity having their emotions bred out of them, able to punch in an endorphin code to dispel any negative feelings) and some downright wacky (but wonderful) twists (such as Rose have to go through the arduous process of marrying a caveman so their tribe will listen to her and scarper from the approaching monsters!). The ideas keep coming, like a massive domino rally, knocking into each other, complementing the clever plot and enriching the novel with some incredible imagination.

All of the characters are great but my personally favourite were Das and the Wise Old Woman. Das affords Roberts the chance to write some his best ever Doctor Who passages as, thanks to the TARDIS translation circuits, a Neanderthal gets the opportunity to understand our bizarre modern day life. These brief breaks from the main action are inspired, like Troy Game's wonderful alien view of our world in The Suns of Caresh, only much funnier and full of more witty culture shocks. I loved Das' constant references to the television as his inspiration for things (he won't get on a plane until he sees how easily Will and Grace do it, he cannot understand why the mysterious laughter mocks the inability of the Grace Brothers in Are You Being Served... although Captain Jack turns off Farscape before his mind gets too twisted, as Das thinks all these programmes are reality!) and how he copes surprisingly well in the modern day, even to Jack's surprise, is uplifting to read about. His eventual fate is beautiful and heartwarming.

If you think that the book is weird and wacky at the beginning where the Doctor and company are on the trail of a Neanderthal on the loose in Bromley (Bromley?) then wait until they pop back in time to the Neolithic times! It's wooden cities, lumpy aliens and jeans and baguettes ahoy! Roberts uses the TARDIS's communication abilities to get us inside the minds of the cavemen and listening to them spout bloody cockney is too funny for words. The Wise Old Woman speaks a lot like Jackie Tyler (who makes a brilliant, unexpected cameo), loud, proud and very chavvy! Her dialogue is some of the funniest in the whole book simply because she is so revered and yet she is so casual about things, marrying off her son on a whim and attacking the Neanderthals because they're a bit different.

Quilley is another character who provokes a lot of amusement, a Refuser, someone who refused to surrender his emotions and is astonished when the Doctor and Rose turn up, releasing lashing of OTT emotion on them simply because they WILL respond. His urges towards Rose bring out the protective side in the Doctor in a surprising fashion.

I wanted this book to be longer. I wanted to stay in Roberts' wacky and wonderful world forever. This isn't the best Doctor Who book ever written simply because it is light and therefore cannot be compared to other classics such as Adventuress of Henrietta Street and Nightshade which are darker and aimed a more mature audience but it is one of the best books to come out of any Doctor Who range and offers nothing but hope and joy for the future of the range, the NDAs in particular. This is a book which can be enjoyed by anyone, with some surprisingly risque moments, lots and lots a gigglesome scenes and a sense of verve and confidence that only truly great Doctor Who can sweat. If you are avoiding the NDAs because of their kiddie-friendly reputation I pity you, you are missing out on some of the best ever Doctor Who in print.

B-R-I-L-L-I-A-N-T!


A Review by Finn Clark 7/3/06

If I were a new fan struggling through the 9DAs, this would be the one that hooked me. Even overlooking his often lacklustre comic strips, I've had problems with Gareth Roberts's writing in the past, but Only Human recaptures all of his sparkle and none of his inconsistency of tone. It's not Gareth's most dazzling portrayal of a TARDIS crew, if only because the 9th Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack are all down-to-earth characters rather than eccentrics, but it's certainly the most vivid evocation to date of the Eccleston era regulars by a country mile. They live. They breathe. They're funny. I'd probably still be saying the same even had this book been published as part of a proper series of full novels.

Admittedly comedic portrayals of the regulars were Gareth Roberts's big selling point in his Virgin days. Nevertheless for the first time it feels as if an author has actually been watching Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper instead of just reading some writers' guidelines. These aren't just "accurate representations". They're rollicking opinionated people, exploding from the page with more life in a single Gareth Roberts chapter than they've had in the other five 9DAs put together.

He makes Captain Jack Harkness work on the page! I'd been coming to think that it couldn't be done! He's an innuendo machine, but (and this is important) it feels like the character sniggering and going "nudge nudge wink wink" rather than the author. It's the difference between Gareth Roberts and, say, Steve Cole or John Peel.

This book had me laughing out loud as I walked through Nagoya, my fingers turning blue in the Japanese winter. Nevertheless I'd expected humour. What I hadn't expected was a solid story and theme. This book juxtaposes Neanderthals, far-future biochemists and 21st century mankind in a story about "us versus them". Everyone thinks they're superior to someone. Terrible things are done to those who are seen as lesser races. However despite the bigotries and prejudices, as the title implies everyone's only human.

Admittedly these Neanderthals and proto-humans aren't as unknowably National Geographic as one might expect. Compare for instance with Paul Leonard, in Genocide and his not-so-short story The People's Temple in Short Trips. Those primitives were downright alien. Only Human's assorted people are almost jarringly mundane... but that's the whole point. It's not just a throwaway gag for cavemen and technobabble-spouting refugees from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to be basically the same useless spods underneath, but instead the main message of the book.

There's a side-benefit to this. "Noble savage" stereotypes can get a bit patronising, but there's no danger of that here. The book even deliberately undercuts any such assumptions. When Captain Jack starts treating Das the Neanderthal like he's mentally deficient merely because he's unfamiliar with technology, Jack gets cut down like a poppy in a wheatfield. Das was great and one of my favourite characters from a Gareth Roberts novel. Dare I suggest that he's verging on being the author's alter ego?

As a frivolous sidenote, Neanderthals have come to be quite well represented in Doctor Who. There's Nimrod in Ghost Light, Enkidu in Timewyrm: Genesis and now Das in Only Human. In addition if An Unearthly Child really was set in 100,000 BC then the Tribe of Gum could have been Neanderthals too. (They inhabited Europe and western Asia from about 230,000 to 29,000 BC, although Homo sapiens has been around for a good 200,000 years as well.)

There's another weird danger of time travel. I'm always up for those. Here we have a story spanning hundreds of millennia, with attitude, thoughtfulness and some great jokes. The only thing I'm not wild about is the ending. It's too witty and ironic to be dramatically satisfying. It just sort of turns out that the Doctor won, without him having to do something really brave and clever. What we get is amusing, but a barnstorming climax would have made this book damn near perfect. As it is the book just sort of stopped and I realised to my slight surprise that everything was over. However it's a compliment that I was disappointed to have to stop reading!

This book works on almost every level. To dislike it you'd have to be looking for precisely the kind of gnarled, intellectual writing which these kiddie-friendly 9DAs are trying to avoid. If you want thoughtfulness and thematic depth, it's here. If you want entertainment, there are jokes. If you just want to read some lively Doctor Who, then all three regulars get plenty of screen time and get caught in some extraordinary situations. In addition to everything else, this book has imagination in abundance.

This book is simply written, but that just goes to show that "simple" doesn't mean "stupid". Other reviews seem to indicate that this book has appealed even to people who haven't normally liked Gareth Roberts's work. I'm delighted that I finally read this.


A Review by John Seavey 16/5/06

In a way, this book is so good it's practically depressing.

Let's face it: the BBC books have been doing a dead-man's float the past year or so; they've been treading water, expending the minimal amount of energy needed to keep alive while all the while hoping that something's going to come along and save them from drowning. So when you read something like Only Human, something that really actually understands what the new show is doing and demonstrates that being "stand-alone" and "kid-oriented" doesn't mean "bland" and "lazy", well... you sit there and wish that every book could be like this. And you know that the next six certainly won't be.

One of the main things this book demonstrates is the way that the new series has energized the old guard of writers; the last time we saw Gareth Roberts, it was with a book (The Well-Mannered War) which can be charitably described as having the message, "All Doctor Who since 1979 is rubbish." But here, he's clearly in synch with the new series. It fits his own style of writing better than any other era ever did, and he understands the sharp, pop-culture-savvy, humanistic style of the new series with an almost intimate flair.

For starters, he gets the TARDIS crew. We only got a very brief span of episodes with this particular crew on TV, so there's certainly lots of room to flesh them out, and Roberts... well, let's just say he takes the phrase "fleshing Jack out" a bit literally in one scene. But seriously, he has a perfect grasp of Jack, Rose, and the Eccleston Doctor, finding ways for each one to contribute to the plot in their own way. (Some have complained that Jack is "sidelined" babysitting Das, the Neanderthal... it's true to some extent; in that he's not in the book nearly as much as I'd have liked. In point of fact, I wouldn't have minded getting an entire second book with the Adventures of Jack and Das. Their interludes are some of the best comic material in the book.)

And, having given us a note-perfect TARDIS crew, he then gives us a plot that feels like something that the Davies era of Doctor Who does best. No bog-standard "base under siege" plot here; we've got time travel, Neanderthals, a sociopathic villain who disassembles people without killing them, and monsters who politely check to make sure that you're a human before killing and eating you. It's all over the top, absurdly sensible, and totally played for laughs except when it's very serious. It is the essence of 2005 Doctor Who.

Ultimately, this book hits all the right notes in a way that will make you very sad that they aren't tracking down more of the bright lights of Who's literary era and seeing whether they've found new things to say about the series.