July 2nd, 2013
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?