Aired 26 May 2007
Part of the fun of Doctor Who is imagining how different incarnations of the Doctor would react to and resolve a situation. It’s well known that several of David Tennant’s early episodes were written with Christopher Eccleston in mind as the protagonist; even though the two actors and Doctors are radically different in style and tone, it also speaks volumes as to just how similar the different incarnations are. With that in mind, ‘Human Nature’ and its concluding half ‘Family of Blood’ are adapted from Paul Cornell’s The New Adventures Seventh Doctor novel Human Nature, and the end result is a superb spin on a classic formula that simultaneously celebrates everything that is and is not Doctor Who. At the same time, though he’s been very strong with the material given since taking over the titular role, this is the first episode where it’s impossible to even think of anyone but David Tennant as the Doctor.
Quite famously, the Seventh Doctor of The New Adventures range is a much darker and more manipulative figure than ever shown on television, this ‘era’ truly invoking how alien the Doctor is. Compared to almost any other actor in the lead role, however, David Tennant’s version seems like a much more human and open figure, and so the contrast between the Doctor and John Smith doesn’t seem as dramatic on the surface. In a way, however, this is exactly the point as the alien nature of even the Tenth Doctor becomes glaringly apparent when put up against Smith.
As the opening act, ‘Human Nature’ relies on some quick flashback scenes to explain why the Doctor has chosen to become human, hoping to escape the Family of Blood who will never escape their hunt for the Time Lord. The urgency of these scenes and Martha’s continued travels to the TARDIS to try to make sense of the ever-changing situation are both absolutely stellar. Indeed, although David Tennant truly dominates proceedings, the story asks a lot of Martha as well, and Freema Agyeman absolutely delivers. With the Doctor having completely overwritten who he is and what Martha means to him, Martha must suffer jibes from both Nurse Redfern and the Doctor- as well as typical racial insults of the era- while trying to resist the Family of Blood and heeding the Doctor’s pre-transformation instructions and advice.
The supporting cast is perfect here as well, Jessica Hynes the perfect choice to play Nurse Redfern and a love interest for John Smith. Without ever betraying her 1913 roots or the harshness of her past, she still manages to exude a warm congeniality and caring that meshes with Smith’s nature perfectly. Likewise, Thomas Brodie-Sangster is excellent as Tim Latimer, resisting the temptation to overplay his psychic connection to the Doctor and enhancing the overall nuance and mood of the story as a result. Harry Lloyd is also quite mesmerizing as Baines or the Family of Blood’s Son of Mine, though it would have been nice to see more of how grandiose his demeanour’s transformation from human was.
As mentioned, though, the impetus is on David Tennant to realistically portray two distinct versions of an identically-looking person. The only visual difference is that Tennant is in teacher’s clothing as John Smith, and initially it’s hard to believe that such a radical transformation has taken place. The fob watch holding his consciousness, journal, and dream sequences are all very nice touches, but it’s not until the disparate notions of Smith and the Doctor become more apparent that the subtle work Tennant and script are doing together becomes apparent. Smith fumbling through a romance and telling Latimer not to hide his intellect are quite Doctor-like, but Smith then turning around and condoning the beating of a boy for lack of bravery and later dismissing Martha’s warning as a racial and cultural inability to separate fact from fiction show that Smith truly is a man of his time period, generally good-hearted but limited by his surroundings.
Even as the beginning of a two-parter, it’s clear that this is the story of John Smith; though it’s clear that the Doctor is still bubbling away under the surface thanks to some clever scripting mechanics, Tennant does a great job in building up such emotion around this human character. This is a fantastic opening, and the cliffhanger where Martha puts herself in harm’s way and creates an impossible decision as Smith must choose whether Nurse Redfern or Martha survives is possibly the most emotionally effective of the new series so far.