Wednesday 30 October 2013

Who Book-Quest #9: Only Human by Gareth Roberts

After sixteen years of the novels being the major line of Doctor Who material, the return of the series to TV screens caused an inevitable change in the status quo. While we expected the novels to become more standalone, playing second fiddle to the TV series, what we got was still a massive comedown. From monthly novels that, for the most part, told strong, mature Doctor Who stories, the range was cut to a mere six books a year, released in batches of three. What's more, despite denials from BBC Books that the range would dumb down, the Doctor Who novels were shortened, become more standard TV tie-in affairs, and at first seemed to be aimed strictly at the eight-to-ten-year-old demographic. Not there's anything wrong with writing for that market, but with the new TV series balancing the adult and child audiences so well, the ninth Doctor books were a missed opportunity.

Except for one, a single novel out of the six that came close to matching the standard set by the NAs and EDAs. Only Human is by far and away the best of the ninth Doctor releases, marrying genuinely funny comedy with an engaging adventure that, unlike its stablemates, actually feels like it's a part of the TV series that it accompanies. Were it not for the enormous budget required, it would be easy to imagine Only Human being adapted for television, starring Eccleston, Piper and Barrowman.

Gareth Roberts was, strangely, overlooked when it came to the initial round-up of writers for the revived TV series. While Russell T. Davies recruited his fellow New Adventurers who had moved onto greater things, Roberts, author of some of the best regarded of the Virgin novels, was overlooked. In time, he wrote for The Sarah Jane Adventures and some supplementary material for the series, before finally getting onto the regular writing staff in time for Moffat's tenure as showrunner. To begin with, though, he provided Only Human, and it's hard not to see it as something of an audition piece for his TV Who work.

Perhaps part of the reason for his not being included from the off is that he is often regarded as one of the more old-fashioned authors in the range. His particular talent when writing for Virgin was recreating the Tom Baker era of the late 1970s in prose, only improving upon and updating it. However, his New Adventures generally tried new things, and even the ones that weren't particularly successful were at least interesting. And anyway, Mark Gatiss got a gig, and he's even more old-fashioned.

With Only Human, Roberts writes to his strengths. There's a strong core concept here – two, in fact – around which he hangs a funny, diverting tall tale. As part of the second trio of new series novels, Only Human features the ninth Doctor, Rose and Jack, a TARDIS team we never really got to see on TV (in The Empty Child Jack was a pseudo-villain being introduced to Doctor Who, in Boom Town Mickey was part of the team, and in the finale, the characters were forcibly separated for most of the run time). While we do get some good moments for the trio at the beginning, Jack is soon separated from the other two and given his own strand of narrative. This works well, since the Doctor and Rose's plot would have struggled to support him as well. Perhaps this goes to show that a regular Doctor Who adventure doesn't have room for both Jack and the Doctor.

All three characters are perfectly recreated on the page. It's one of those books that speaks with the characters' voices, with no effort required to fill in the gap between page and screen. The initial hook is the unexplained presence of a Neanderthal man in modern Bromley, which is batty enough juxtaposition to be both a perfect example of a new series concept and a Roberts one (Roberts's first book, The Highest Science, featured a double decker bus stranded on an alien planet, a concept he resurrected for Planet of the Dead). The Neanderthal in question, Das, is the triumph of the book, a fully fleshed-out, believable character. Unable to return home due to the deadly nature of the “dirty rip” time engine that brought him to the future, Das has to make a new life in 21st century Britain. Roberts chooses to relate this through diary entries, both those of Das and of Jack, who is assigned to help him assimilate. These provide some of the funniest moments of the book, and easily the most poignant, as Das slowly learns to be happy in the modern world.

The Doctor and Rose, meanwhile, travel back 28,000 years to find out how Das was thrown forward, and discover the other big concept for the book. The stone age has become a base camp for a group of humans from somewhere around the year 438,000. an unexplored part of the vast expanse of human history in Doctor Who, people from this era have no access to electric technology and have instead become masters of biology. In a plot strand that would later be co-opted for the episode Gridlock, people of this time suppress their negative emotions with a cocktail of drugs, with the exception of a few stubborn “Refusers.”

The actual plot is fairly perfunctory, with an ingenious mastermind creating a species of mutated human predators called Hy-Bractors, as a replacement for the human race. While the Hy-Bractors are pretty generic, the plot does the job of getting the Doctor and Rose into a series of misadventures that keep the story moving. The Doctor gets to converse with the n while she explored his brain, while Rose fares even worse, finding herself married to a hunky if distressingly primitive cave boy, before getting her head lopped off. She gets better though.

That's just the sort of weird imagery that this book is full of. Scenes that will stay in your head for days, ready to jump back in front of your eyes and make you smirk when you least expect it. Not many authors could get away with the Doctor wandering about in a drugged stupor, and still have him manage to outsmart the villain, or handle Jack's smutty adventures with nothing more than a mildly suggestive comment that leaves no doubt to what he got up to. Meanwhile, Roberts uses the interaction between the various subgroups of humankind to make some harsh observations about the human capacity for hatred and cruelty. While it's hard to believe that Neanderthals were quite as unfailingly good-natured as they are portrayed here, the Homo sapiens involved, prehistoric, contemporary and future, do not come of well in comparison. Yet, Only Human manages ultimately to become a story about different sorts of people finding a way to live together, if not harmoniously, then at least with the minimum of conflict, and shows that human beings really are capable of being quite incredible when we have a mind to be. The Doctor despairs of humans throughout the novel, but at the end of the day, we're still his favourite species.

Only Human was the novel that showed that the Doctor Who books still had something to say, and proved they were worth keeping alongside the new series.

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