There are two very different ways of looking at the character of the Doctor — two mutually-contradictory views of the character that have usually remained unspoken but which have fuelled decades of fan arguments, many of which have been proxies for one or other view.

The first is that the Doctor is not, in himself, a particularly special person. Yes, he can regenerate and possesses a TARDIS, but ultimately he does what anyone could do. He fights injustice because he happens to be there, but so could — and should — you. If you ever see a Dalek coming down your street, or a Yeti on your loo, you could defeat it by clever use of an umbrella and a witty quip, just like the Doctor. He’s an example of what the ordinary person can do in an extraordinary situation.

The other way of looking at things is to say that the Doctor is somehow special, somehow necessary to the existence of the very universe. He defeats the monsters because of his special gifts, which nobody else has, and without him nobody else could have done those things. He’s a wonderful, special, man. If you see a Cyberman emerging from the sewers, the best thing you can do is run and hide behind the sofa until the great man comes and saves the day.

While these two interpretations of the character are, of course, utterly incompatible, the best stories have a degree of ambiguity to them, allowing them to be interpreted every way. John Nathan-Turner, for all his faults, realised this, at least. When Silver Nemesis was originally pitched, the writer wanted to reveal that the Doctor’s secret was that he was really God. Nathan-Turner, thankfully, realised that this would be a cretinous idea, and so there were merely hints at some deeper secret. That wasn’t enough to save that story, but it was enough to stop the story from sinking the entire series.

But if ambiguity isn’t on offer, I’ll always take the first interpretation over the second. Given the choice between a world where anyone can make a difference and change the world, or one where we’re at the mercy of people who are just more important and special than we are, I would choose the former ever time.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t take into account Hickey’s Law, which states that the protagonist of any serial entertainment which appeals to geeks will, should the series last long enough, become a Christ figure.

This is obvious in, for example, Superman, who has become a character that it is actually impossible to use well in films because of all the heavy-handed Christ symbolism that has overlaid the character, to his incredible detriment, but it is true to a greater or lesser extent of the vast majority of serial SF.

I mention this because Human Nature does almost, but not quite, the same thing. It’s a story by the most overtly religious prominent writer of Doctor Who for the last couple of decades, Paul Cornell, and it’s one that fits into the current Doctor-as-God worldview of the series well enough that it could be adapted for TV in 2007 (a year which, with the exception of the adaptation of this story and one other episode which we’ll get to at the appropriate time, was the nadir of televised Who largely for this reason), but it takes a much more subtle approach than many lesser writers, because Cornell (and Kate Orman who helped him plot this) is a very strong writer.

Human Nature is the most overt Doctor-as-Christ story ever written. The book sees our Doctor contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man. While the plot of the book is inspired by Death Takes A Holiday, (and I suspect that was brought to Cornell’s mind by the then-recent Terry Pratchett novel Reaper Man, which has many of the same themes), the tale of a powerful being coming to earth, taking on human form and all the suffering that goes with it, experiencing and in the end sacrificing himself for humanity, is one that has an obvious appeal to a writer fascinated by religious themes.

I must note here that Cornell has said on more than one occasion that he never directly references his belief precisely because he doesn’t want to become known as ‘a Christian writer’. Certainly this is a book that could only have been written by someone who had a fascination with the idea of the Incarnation, but it’s not a Christian book in the way that, say, the works of C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton are, and definitely not in the way that the books found in American “Christian bookstores” are.

But while the book implicitly positions the Doctor as a Messiah figure, it nonetheless manages to do rather better than the paens to the Doctor’s specialness we have become used to. The crucial moment comes about sixty per cent of the way through, in a conversation between Doctor John Smith (the human incarnation of the Doctor) and Bernice Summerfield:

‘I’m not him, not the Doctor,’ he told Benny. ‘But he’s real. I know he’s real. He wouldn’t kill them, would he?’

‘No,’ Benny told him. ‘He wouldn’t.’

‘Even though they took first blood. Even though the war had already started?’

‘No,’ Joan told him, with a glance at Benny. ‘You wouldn’t.’

Smith nodded. He let go of the gun and grabbed the poppy with both hands, staring at it like it was the most important thing in the world.

‘So what would the Doctor do?’ he asked Benny.

‘He’d find a way to turn this around,’ Bernice told him, the words spilling out of her like this was the most certain thing she’d ever said in her life. ‘He’d make the villains fall into their own traps, and trick the monsters, and outwit the men with guns. He’d save everybody’s life and find a way to win.’

Smith made a decision. His hands enfolded the flower. He snatched for his umbrella, spun round, and stood up, a frown of terrible concentration on his face. ‘There’s another way,’ he told the boys. He dropped his hat and let the cape fall to the floor. ‘Throw away your guns.’

Here, we can definitely see the Christian allegory poking through — there’s very little difference between “What would the Doctor do?” and “What would Jesus do?” — but we also see that the crucial problem of the Doctor-as-Christ is sidestepped. John Smith is an ordinary man, and he’s doing the same things the Doctor would do, not because he’s special, but because he’s taken the Doctor as an inspiration. He’s in the position of the viewer or reader, and the book comes down unambiguously on the side of works, not faith — the Doctor would save everyone’s life, go and do thou likewise.

(This is one way in which the book is significantly better than the TV version, which is much less clear on this point).

A hero who inspires us to complacency, to waiting around for someone more powerful to save us, is no hero at all. The Doctor in this novel is still on the right side of that line, even if he’s increasingly being fetishised.

But what would happen when Fox got hold of him?

12 Responses to “Doctor Who: Fifty Stories For Fifty Years — 1995”

  1. New Who Post On Mindless Ones | Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] This one’s on Human Nature Share this:PrintEmail [...]

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Years ago, I got into an argument with Andrew Rilstone, in the comments on his blog. He had said that the one thing Doctor Who absolutely must not be about is The Doctor; and I said that on the contrary, The Doctor is by far the best thing about Doctor Who. (I may have cited Torchwood as an example of what you get when you try to make Doctor Who without The Doctor).

    Now I think the source of the disagreement was what you lay out at the start of this review. Andrew was (very properly) objecting to the increasing trend of making the Doctor important just because he’s the Doctor (see particularly Last Of The Time Lords); whereas I was talking about the Doctor in your second sense, someone who is pretty much like us but one step ahead.

    I wrote about the quality of the 11th Doctor in my very positive review of The Beast Below at http://reprog.wordpress.com/2010/04/10/the-beast-below-11th-doctor-episode-2/

    “Where David Tennant’s Doctor too often felt like he was pulling an arbitrary solution out of big Deus Ex Machina-shaped hat, Matt Smith (in this episode at least) gave much more of an impression that he was slowly putting the pieces together, arriving at an understanding through the same sorts of mental processes that we, if we were Time Lords, might be capable of. I like that: he’s a Doctor that I can admire rather than just being dazzled by.”

    I stand by that, and I think that one of the marvellous things about Smith is that he manages to keep conveying that sense even when the script calls for him to be Centre Of The Universe Doctor. The contrast with Tennant is striking, and I think it’s no coincidence that the best of all Tennant’s episodes was Human Nature, when he was playing a character that was not exactly the Doctor at all.

  3. Andrew Hickey Says:

    I absolutely agree — and while I wouldn’t like to speak for Rilstone, I know that, like myself, he loves the *character* of the Doctor.

    “I think it’s no coincidence that the best of all Tennant’s episodes was Human Nature, when he was playing a character that was not exactly the Doctor at all.”

    I agree. I simply cannot read the Tennant Doctor as having anything to do with the Doctor as I understand the character. Matt Smith and Christopher Eccleston are both clearly playing the Doctor, even when they have to work against the script to do so. Tennant is playing something altogether different.

  4. Gavin Burrows Says:

    “But if ambiguity isn’t on offer, I’ll always take the first interpretation over the second. “

    I’m entirely with you on this point. I’d add that, at least in my view, the specialness of the Doctor is an addition that wasn’t even considered in the early years of the show. It’s more a product of fan culture, one which has progressively come to infect the show. (And, by raising the ante, has lately come to start insisting on the specialness of the companion.)

    And yet there’s something paradoxical in our attitude because, like you, I prefer an ambiguity between the position I should prefer and the one I dislike quite vehemently. Perhaps it’s that ambiguity always keeps an art form alive and breathing, while clarity can just damn it to certainty. Perhaps also, we might like to think we could tackle a Dalek showing up down our street, we can’t really be sure we would. (Me, I don’t even own an umbrella.) So the special Doctor can’t be completely closed off.

  5. Tim O'Neil Says:

    I don’t exactly want to leap to a full-throated defense of Tennant, since I share many of the reservations regarding his characterization of the Doctor. But I would like to say that the show, on some level, seemed aware of the fact that he often acted considerably “out of character” for himself, and that his Doctor was more egotistical and powerful than the Doctor ever really should be.

    And that’s why I think the last few Tennant Doctor stories redeemed the character, to my mind, because they recast much of the series to date as having been about hubris all along. Tennant’s Doctor was an illustration of what happens when one man – who maybe isn’t quite so important as he led himself to believe – becomes too big for his britches and starts to think he IS a god. And maybe that doesn’t really fit in with how the Doctor should act – but I must admit, it was really effective to see all the Doctor’s chicken’s come home to roost in the last episodes. His last words were “I don’t want to go” – he’s selfish to the last in a way that previous Doctors would have found inconceivable, and the fact that the show ultimately came down on the side that this was an inappropriate way for the Doctor to act is a saving grace for Russell T. Davies otherwise spotty tenure with the program.

  6. moose n squirrel Says:

    I think that’s an altogether too generous reading of Tennant’s Doctor (or at least of the show during his tenure), Tim – the last couple specials, including “Waters of Mars,” sure, touch on those themes. But it’s far too little, too late, to make the run some kind of rebuke of his character. (And I’ve always read the “I don’t want to go” as RTD’s sign off – in fact, I think Davies himself has said something along those lines.)

    At any rate, the rot spreads far beyond Tennant – pretty much all of the godawful “story arcs” under Moffat’s run have all been about the Doctor himself, and some convoluted but ultimately boring mystery involving the Doctor’s past and/or future.

  7. Tilt Araiza Says:

    It’s something that’s afflicted superhero stuff for years now. Stories being “about” the hero have resulted in superheroes only fighting crimes of which they’re the intended victims. Captain Hero doesn’t go after the bullies because they stole your lunch money, your lunch money turns out to be just part of a message being sent to Captain Hero by Professor Villain. Big special people have big special adventures above and beyond the little people.

  8. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Tilt — absolutely. And it started at much the same time in comics as it did in Who. I suspect once again that people badly copying Alan Moore is the problem — particularly copying The Killing Joke.

  9. kieron Gillen Says:

    Andrew: I dunno. I think this is a case where it’s less about Moore and more about the accepted wisdom of story-structure that’s hammered into people. It’s a “It has to be personal. What’s the character’s stakes?” It’s one of those accepted writer wisdom things. It’s the “Killing a city doesn’t matter – saving Lois Lane does” sort of theory.

    And it’s right, as far as it goes. The problems with it are caught by Tilt above. It leads to really small-worlded heroes with a myopic focus.

    (This sort of thinking went into my Uncanny run, really. I wanted to do a sort of procedural superhero comic with the X-men for once – who more than anyone are a “come at me, bro” sort of group.)

  10. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Hmm… you may well be right, Kieron. Of course, I’m fairly contemptuous of that “accepted writer wisdom” anyway — I think that certainly it is *a* good way of telling stories (or can be) but too many people say it is *the* only way of telling stories. I think in the hands of many writers it leads to tremendous ethical blind-spots (as you say, killing a city but saving Lois).

    I tend to assume, perhaps unfairly, that the less intelligent or interesting comic writers out there — the ones who seem to have no interest in doing anything other than retelling old Marv Wolfman or Roy Thomas stories but with added ultraviolence — have read little or nothing outside comics, and so don’t credit them with taking influence from anything other than comic writers. I should perhaps realise that a bad writer can be badly influenced by anything.

  11. Tony Morris Says:

    The “it’s got to be personal” approach to stories seems to have come about (at least in part) with the demise of serial fiction some time around the 80s. Before that it was accepted that the lead character was designed to get into unrelated adventures time after time, whereas now every story has to be personal. It’s not enough for James Bond to be sent on a mission by M any more, he goes rogue for personal reasons every chance he gets.

    It’s a completely unrelated example, but the one I always think of is the difference between the late 60s / early 70s vigilante characters (The Executioner, Death Wish, The Punisher), who were motivated by personal tragedy but went on to fight crime in general terms (in the first Death Wish movie Paul Kersey doesn’t even try to find the criminals who killed his wife). Whereas every vigilante movie made since the 80s has just been a revenge film – the “hero” tracks down and kills those who did him wrong and that’s it because it’s entirely personal.

  12. Matthew Craig Says:

    Not that I want to, y’know, be too me about this, but as far as Marvel/DC are concerned, it all goes back to Spider-Man. His bosses, his friends, his friends’ fathers, his girlfriend – the Spider-Man universe is one great soapy spaghetti monster.

    The escalation of personal stakes doesn’t begin with Gwen Stacy (or Norman Osborn), but it certainly crystalises it. It spreads out across the line/shelves from there – X-Men, Cosmic Marvel, Miller’s DareDevil, in a minor way. And plenty of people reading that comic went on to do both comics and not-comics. And then comics.

    (RAMBO’S CREATOR)

    //\Oo/\\

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