April, 1914. The inhabitants of the little Norfolk town of Farringham are enjoying an early summer, unaware that war is on the way. Amongst them is Dr. John Smith, a short, middle-aged history teacher from Aberdeen. He’s having a hard time with his new post as house master at Hulton Academy for Boys, a school dedicated to producing military officers.
Bernice Summerfield is enjoying her holiday in the town, getting over the terrible events that befell her in France. But then she meets a future Doctor, and things start to get dangerous very quickly. With the Doctor she knows gone, and only a suffragette and an elderly rake for company, can Benny fight off a vicious alien attack? And will Dr. Smith be able to save the day?
Despite the fact that I own about ten of The New Adventures novels starring the Seventh Doctor, I’d never read any of them. It took a .pdf of Human Nature hosted on the BBC website (sadly no longer available) to compel me to finally check one out.
Why Human Nature? Because this novel is the basis for a rather emotional two-parter in the third season of the new incarnation of Doctor Who. I was curious to see how the original novel differs from the televised version (for those fortunate enough to snag a copy of the .pdf before its disappearance, author Paul Cornell does devote part of his endnotes to a discussion of the process of adapting the story for the screen) and also eager to read about Bernice (“Benny”) Summerfield, a companion of the Seventh Doctor whom I have previously encountered only in audio dramas.
The basic gist of the plot is the same in both versions. The Doctor has hidden away his Time Lord essence and is living as a human named John Smith, an unconventional teacher at an all-boys’ school in England on the eve of the first World War. As Smith, the Doctor writes fanciful stories and falls in love with fellow teacher, Joan Redfern. Bliss does not ensue, however, due to a family of aliens that has followed The Doctor and ends up attacking the school. It’s up to The Doctor’s companion to remind Smith of his true identity, and up to Smith to decide whether to remain human and pursue a chance at happiness with Joan or don the mantle of the Time Lord once more and save the day.
The differences are in the details. Why The Doctor chooses to live as a human, for instance. The identity of his companion and her relationship to Smith. The reasons the aliens have for pursuing him. These things don’t matter all that much, but in nearly every instance I prefer the televised version. It’s a much more emotional story—largely because it’s more easy to believe David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor as a romantic lead than Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh—and I sympathized with Smith’s dilemma more when I could physically see the agony the decision was causing him.
Too, boiling the story down to its most essential bits results in a tighter, more coherent tale. The book’s well-intentioned but random attempt at a gay romance is excised, for example, as is Benny’s brief and ill-fated friendship with a suffragette. (If you thought I’d pass up this opportunity to make a “Benny and the ‘gettes” joke, you are much mistaken.) Some of the dialogue in the book doesn’t sound natural, either, like this line from Joan when she’s meeting The Doctor for the first time:
‘Oh…’ Joan closed her eyes for a long, hard, instant. Then she opened them. ‘I’m very pleased to meet you, Doctor. Is there nothing about you that’s like the man to whom I’ve become engaged?’
I mean, I love me some grammar about twelve times as much as the next gal, but I’m pretty sure I would dispense with it in a moment like that! I do like the detail about her eyes, though.
Complaints aside, there is one thing that the book has that the televised version lacks, and it’s for this one thing alone that the book is worth reading: Benny. I positively adore Benny. She’s brilliant, competent, funny, bawdy, and a bit of a lush. Part of why I love her might be because Cornell based her on Harriet Vane, the awesomely independent and intelligent writer of detective fiction from Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Whenever I snickered whilst reading this book, it was all due to Benny, like this description of a table of women at a beverage tent on some planet’s marketplace:
They looked like they all came from different places, and had clustered together out of the familiar realisation that internal gonads are best, actually.
Her presence gave me something new to look forward to in a story with which I was familiar, and I liked her so much that I am going to try to find time to read Love and War, another New Adventures effort from Cornell that introduces the character. Any other recommendations?