There’s a general view (sometimes held by us here at TV Today) that television isn’t what it used to be. We are bombarded by cheap reality shows, twee Sunday night dramas, cookery, property, wife swaps and diminished opportunities for children’s drama. Yep, sometimes watching television can be a real chore.
And then along comes something that restores your faith, that brings home all the things that are great about this most frustrating of mediums and reminds us of how lucky and privileged we are to have huge talent in front of and behind the cameras making television. That happened on Saturday night watching Human Nature, the first of a two-part Doctor Who story. Not only is Human Nature the best piece of Doctor Who I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been there through thick and thin), it ranks up there with the best television drama I’ve ever seen.
Long story short - some bad guys are after the Doctor’s Time Lord DNA, so he decides to lie low for a bit and willingly give up his memories, identity and race to become human. And so we meet John Smith, an unassuming teacher at a boarding school in 1913, and his maid, Martha Jones. Martha’s looking after everything, making sure that Smith keeps his head down until the heat from the alien bad guys goes away. The Doctor has left her a list of things that cover all eventualities and a pocket watch. If anything goes wrong, Martha must open the watch.
There are just three small problems: the Doctor didn’t say what to do in case his human alter ego falls in love, the creepy Family of Blood turn up to literally sniff the Doctor out and the watch goes missing…
This is unlike any Doctor Who story you’ll ever see, yet at the same time it maintains its identity underneath, much like our central character. There’s a fabulous To Serve Them All My Days feel to the period backdrop, with Smith breezing through corridors in mortarboard and cape as black suited boys run from one lesson to another. In amongst this, we have the charming courtship between Smith and the school Matron (Jessica Hynes), played with such a deft lightness of touch you forget you’re watching Doctor Who.
But that all changes when a green light is seen blazing across the sky, and Martha is immediately on her guard. Freema Agyeman is magnificent. With the Doctor effectively gone, she has to take centre stage and becomes the driving force of the episode. Such a strong performance makes a mockery of The Sun’s report this weekend that Freema Agyeman has been axed from the next series due to a sub-standard turn as Martha. If Martha isn’t in series four (and anything is possible from a narrative perspective) then it certainly isn’t down to poor acting.
It isn’t long before malevolent scarecrows are stalking the countryside, attacking lone villagers who then turn up possessed in the creepiest manner. These sequences are some of the scariest the series has served up, and I bet the seven-year-olds were lapping it up. Of note here is Harry Lloyd as schoolboy Baines, the first to be possessed by the Family. He goes from swaggering public school oik to creepy possession with ease, and it’s hard to reconcile his performance as being from the same actor who plays Will Scarlett in Robin Hood. He’s so drably forgettable in Sherwood, and one suspects, on the evidence here, that’s down to poor writing and direction on the Beeb’s other Saturday night adventure series.
With the Family closing in on the Doctor/Smith, Martha sees no choice but to press the panic button and open the watch - but its gone, taken by Latimer, young schoolboy with a predilection for second sight. And the watch is talking to him…
There’s nothing duff in this episode. Not one off-note performance, wasted shot or fluffed line of dialogue. And as always, there has to be praise for David Tennant. Once again, he takes us in ever more surprising directions, and with his showing here as Smith, you realise there are some very definite choices layered into how he plays the Doctor. It’s a real performance, and by not playing the Time Lord here, this is never more apparent than in Human Nature. More than any other episode this is about what it means to be the Doctor and what can happen if he isn’t there to save the day.
Then there are the fan pleasing moments. Impossible things with cricket balls, references to Sidney and Verity as Smith’s parents (nods to Doctor Who’s architects Sidney Newman and Verity Lambert) and the sketches of Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann and Peter Davison in Smith’s journal. Moments to make a diehard Who fan’s heart swell, but never intrusive enough to ever alienate your mainstream audience.
Am I being too gushing? Possibly, but it’s a measure of how successful and beautiful this episode is at being both Doctor Who and breathtaking, Bafta-worthy drama. And I refuse to be an apologist for liking something so wholeheartedly.
The most startling thing about the episode is that the spectacle is achieved without resorting to much in the way of special effects. A light in the night sky here, a green blaster beam there; there are no CGI backdrops or monsters, and it’s a refreshing change. This shows up the best qualities at the heart of the Doctor Who concept, that all it needs to charm and scare us are some pitch perfect performances, heartfelt direction, great writing and bloody scary men in scarecrow suits.