Human Nature/The Family of Blood, by Naomi Jacobs and Philip Purser-Hallard (and Paul Cornell)

So, the 13th in the Black Archive series of analyses of Doctor Who stories reaches a particular favourite, the 2006 Tenth Doctor two-parter Human Nature / The Family of Blood. It was in fact the first and only Who story so far to be based on a novel, Paul Cornell’s 1995 Seventh Doctor novel Human Nature. So I’m going to take the novel first, even though (as is my usual practice) this time round I watched the TV episodes and then re-read the novel.

Just in parenthesis – the first Doctor Who TV story based on a previously published book was actually the first Seventh Doctor story in 1987, Time and the Rani, which is draws heavily on the Sixth Doctor “Make Your Own Adventure With Doctor Who”/”Find Your Fate” game book Race Against Time, also by Pip and Jane Baker, published the previous year (and handy when they needed to write a story in a hurry, as we’ll see with my next entry). However, that is not a novel. There are other cases as well, of course, with Blink based on a short story and Dalek to a certain extent on a Big Finish Play; and Gareth Roberts plundered two of his own comics for The Shakespeare Code and The Lodger.

Back to the original Human Nature novel. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The Captains sat at the back, and the boys at the front, and all of them stood to attention as he entered. He caught a paper dart happily, glanced at it, tweaked the wing a notch and threw it back, straight into the hands of the boy who threw it.

When I first read it in 2005 – before the TV story was transmitted – I wrote:

This Seventh Doctor plus Bernice Summerfield New Adventure is really rather good. Paul Cornell here asks the unaskable: what if the Doctor were to try being human for a while, to live and love like the rest of us? He has managed to get to the heart of the Doctor’s mythos. I found it very satisfying, and raced to finish it, to the point of waking up early this morning to do so. It’s the first of the Doctor Who books I have downloaded that I would really like to spend money on for a dead trees version.

Bits I particularly liked: I thought the character of Verity resonated particularly effectively. “Verity” of course means Truth, and she holds the key to the truth about the Doctor’s character; the name of course also recalls the real-life origins of Doctor Who; and the character herself is of course a very close reflection of Neil Gaiman’s Death.

I also very much liked the human relationships of the book. I caught on to the true nature of Shuttleworth’s liaisons pretty early on; the John Smith and Joan Redfern relationship was neatly done; and the Epilogue, which the author admits he had doubts about putting in, was very effective.

Great lines, too:

“You may know me as mild-mannered John Smith, history teacher, but secretly I’m the Doctor, universal righter of wrongs and protector of cats.”

“So what did you say to him,” the Doctor asked.
“That he believes in good and fights evil. That, with violence all around him, he’s a man of peace. That he’s never cruel, or cowardly. That he is a hero.”

Sure, the book has its flaws, as mercilessly pointed out by some of the Doctor Who Ratings Guide reviewers (though most of them loved it). I’m with the Discontinuity Guide folks, though. I don’t think I’ve read a better Doctor Who novel.

When I reread it in 2011, I wrote:

This is still the only Who novel to have been adapted for television rather than the other way round. I first read it, gulp, seven years ago – the first Seventh Doctor novel I ever read – and would have been rereading it anyway as I shall be rewatching the TV episode soon.

Now that I have read the previous 37 New Adventures, I still think this is one of the best in the series. It is better than most Who novels as a standalone (though Niall Harrison found the continuity heavy going), the major reference to previous novels being to Benny’s loss of her lover in the Albigensian crusade. The Doctor is absent from most of the book and needs to be explained to his own alter ego, John Smith, whose final sacrifice is very effective.

An easy Bechdel pass with Benny bantering with a group of women at a bar in the prologue.

Coming back to it now, I still think it is very effective, and I still think it is one of the best Doctor Who novels ever (and I’ve read a lot more of them since 2011). It is amusing that one of the baddies tries to convince Benny that he is the Tenth Doctor, of all incarnations to choose. The schoolboys are really horrible, with the brutality against Timothy particularly awful. I had also forgotten that one of the boys turns out to be n Gvzr Ybeq va qvfthvfr. But the other thing about the BBC online version (downloaded by me years ago and retained ever since) is the rather lovely artwork by Daryl Joyce. Sadly that’s been dropped from the newly edited version, which you can get here.

The other thing I should say probably at this point is that between reading the book and watching the TV story, I met Paul Cornell at a convention in Dublin, and we have been friends ever since, last seeing each other in Los Angeles in February, and hopefully again this coming weekend at Eastercon (where I am a Guest of Honour this year, and he was a Guest of Honour ten years ago).

So, finally to the TV story. My comment on the first episode when first broadcast was:

Crumbs


There is much more to be said than this, but I will save it until next week.

I didn’t in fact get around to commenting further the next week, but when I got around to the rewatch in 2013 I wrote:

It was good to come back to Human Nature / The Family of Blood so soon after rereading the book, though inevitably it meant doing a bit of compare and contrast; I won’t do this in detail, since Niall Harrison did it back n 2007, but the things that jumped out at me were the following:

Positive points

* On the screen, the appearance of David Tennant playing a different character who happens to look like the Doctor is far more effective than the gradually revealed Mr Smith of the book

* Likewise, Jessica Hynes’ performance as Joan brings far more to the concept of the Doctor’s human self’s lover than did the book, though age of course means she is a very different character

* Similarly, the watch rather than the cricket ball, and the Book of Impossible Things, exploit the TV format beautifully

* The Family of Blood are gloriously sinister, far more so than the Aubertides 

* And basically the fact of the Doctor being human because of the threat from the Family makes much more sense than the original idea of the Aubertides just happening to home along just after the Doctor has arbitrarily decided to try the single-heart club.

Less positive points

* The fate of the Family of Blood still bugs me. The Aubertides in the book are defeated in a fair fight; the Doctor’s meting out of judgement on the Family seems cruel – who made him the judge?

* The battle scene doesn’t work for me. The tragedy of real life war, especially the First World War, is that the other side is human, and the linkage between fighting scarecrows in 1913 and fighting Germans in 1915 seems to me both leaden and mistaken. Frankly turning the entire school to glass would have been a better solution (though technically more difficult).

* The fantasy life-with-Joan-and-kids section is too obvious a borrowing from The Last Temptation of Christ.

* Poor Martha gets much less of a look-in here than Bernice in the book; apart from Blink it’s probably her least visible episode.

It should be added that during the 2020 lockdown, two short story sequels to the TV story taking forward the Daughter-of-Mine plotline were written by Paul Cornell and released on Youtube, later published as part of the Adventures in Lockdown anthology. In case you missed them, here they are, both really short:

Coming back to the 2007 two-parter, I still like it a lot. Tennant’s characterisation of Smith is the heart and soul of it, and reminds us what a versatile actor he actually is. The battle scene grated less for me this time, I guess because having read a lot more about the First World War in the meantime, I’m now more tolerant of different takes on it. One also appreciates knowing that it is setting up one of the most spectacular reveals in the whole history of Who in a couple of episodes’ time.

One interesting aspect is that before this, there had been very few Doctor Who stories set in schools (I listed them here). Now there have been loads, including an entire spinoff series, thanks in part to having a companion who was explicitly a schoolteacher. Of course, for most kids, the boarding school is a fantasy environment anyway.

Paul Cornell is the first New Who writer to get two write-ups in the Black Archive series (from Old Who, David Whitaker has already got there); it should also be said that he’s been a fantastic advocate for the show over the years, even though he is concentrating on other things at the moment, and is probably the most visible writer in broader SF fandom who has emerged from Doctor Who. This is possibly the most extended analysis of his work that I have seen (though saying that may expose my ignorance); the earlier Black Archive volume on Scream of the Shalka concentrated much more on the production than the story.

There is lots to write about here, and Naomi Jacobs and Philip Purser-Hallard give themselves an extra burden by opting (correctly) to write about both the TV story and the book; it would have been weird to try analysing the former without the latter. I think even if you don’t love both stories you would find it a pretty satisfactory analysis.

The chapters cover:

  • A straightforward comparison of book and TV story, looking at the different plot elements and the way in which they were changed from page to screen and from Seventh to Tenth Doctor (and from Benny to Martha).
  • An examination of war, peace, cowardice and trauma in both versions of the story and in the Whoniverse more broadly.
  • A brief survey of schools in the Whoniverse and a briefer examination of the concept of family in this story (in both versions). The second paragraph of this chapter is:

Interestingly, though, both these absences [stories about school and/or family] have been filled during the 21st century, by successive showrunners. Russell T Davies embraced family relationships within the series’ drama, bringing relatives particularly to the fore in his companions’ backstories and present conflicts, while Steven Moffat would make more extensive use of school settings in 2013-16 than all of his predecessors, as well as increasing the prevalence of child characters.

  • A really meaty chapter looking at the story in the context of Christianity, given Cornell’s well known interest in religion; themes touched on include self-sacrifice, the nature of divinity, justice, resurrection/regeneration and temptation. This chapter alone is almost worth the cover price.
  • Another very meaty chapter matching the plot of both book and TV story to the Hero’s Journey of Joseph Campbell.
  • A brief conclusion, followed by four brief appendices.
  • A brief table of correspondences between characters in the book and TV story.
  • Speculation on the life-cycle of the Family (which would no doubt have been expanded if the authors had known about the two 2020 stories).
  • A thought on the Doctor as Merlin.
  • A brief attempt to force both versions of the story into the same continuity.

As I hope will be clear from the above, I think this is one of the better Black Archive books looking at one of the better New Who TV stories and also at one of the best spinoff novels. Recommended. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)

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