On Human Nature


[Originally published in Bernice Summerfield - The Inside Story (Big Finish Productions Ltd., 2009), pp. 50-51, and posted as a preview on the Big Finish website.]

At 7.10 pm on 26 May 2007, BBC One broadcast the Doctor Who episode Human Nature by Paul Cornell. It saw the Doctor becoming human, teaching at a school just prior to the First World War, and even falling in love…

Rebecca Levene is not surprised that Human Nature has been taken up by the TV series, citing it as her favourite of all the New Adventures. ‘It’s a wonderful book,’ she says, ‘and Paul writing his own character.’ Peter Darvill-Evans adds, ‘I think we’re all going to agree on that one.’

‘It’s Benny’s best book, too,’ notes Ben Aaronovitch. ‘She carries most of it.’ Indeed, with the Doctor acting so out of character it’s in many ways Bernice who has to carry the story.

‘Cornell’s creation here has to keep an eye on the Doctor,’ explained Dave Owen in DWM #265 (3 June 1998), ‘and protect him from developments he is no longer equipped to deal with. At the outset, she is traumatised by the death of her lover in the preceding book, Sanctuary. She and the Doctor both realise that they are damaged, and in need of therapy. In common with the best of the author’s other Doctor Who work, Human Nature uses science at the level of magic to put characters the reader already knows and cares about in situations where in order to succeed, they must learn more about themselves.’

How much of Bernice did Cornell feel survived into the new, TV version? ‘Her emotional and practical function is the same, but her role in the world is different,’ he says.

So why make the Doctor human? ‘That was something I came up with while thinking about how Star Trek: The Next Generation has expanded the Trek mythos,’ Cornell told Craig Hinton in DWM #221 (18 January 1995, shortly before publication). ‘I thought we could do something similar with Doctor Who. The plot… went through many changes. The villains were originally Krynoids [from the 1976 story, The Seeds of Doom].’ In I, Who he also revealed, ‘then they were the Hoothi (from Love and War), then they were all 13 incarnations of the same evil Time Lord, who went about in a gang.’

‘It was originally set in Cheldon Boniface [the village from Timewyrm: Revelation],’ Cornell told Hinton, ‘and did feature the Timewyrm. Then the year changed from 1939 to 1914. It took a major re-plot with Kate Orman to get me on the right track.’

‘The earliest outline I've got of Human Nature dates back to May 1994,’ says Orman after she’s checked her old emails. ‘I have happy memories of travelling around Sydney by train with Paul in 1994, throwing ideas for it back and forth. I think Joan Redfern takes her surname from a train station in Sydney! In its earliest incarnations it was a very different story, some of the elements of which turned up in Happy Endings. But I think ultimately my main contribution was to act as a sounding board for Paul.’

The full text of the book, including extensive notes by Cornell, can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/classic/ebooks/human_nature/index.shtml. It even includes Bernice meeting someone who claims to be the tenth Doctor – though he’s eating a corned beef sandwich and the Doctor Benny knows is a vegetarian. He also, of course, looks nothing like David Tennant.

Artist Daryl Joyce was commissioned to illustrated this online version. ‘At least two other artists were lined up to do Human Nature before it finally fell to me,’ Joyce explains. ‘At one time there was a plan to do the illustrations in a style fitting the era in which the story was set, done by Kim Plowright, if I remember correctly. Then she had other commitments and Paul Cornell requested a certain artist – I don't know who that was – who wasn't interested and I got the call very much as a last-minute alternative. It was quite rushed as I was approached on Monday morning and the ebook was launched midday the following Friday. But Paul was quite happy with it when it appeared and did compliment me on my interpretation of Bernice.’

By this time, many different artists had interpreted Bernice. So who did Joyce base his Benny on? ‘I looked at quite a few of the interpretations of Bernice from the New Adventures covers,’ he says. ‘Some I really liked but apart from the physical description of her in Human Nature I didn't feel any particular obligation to base my portrayal on anything that had gone previously. I even did a few sketches of Lisa Bowerman – who played the character for Big Finish. Ultimately though I went my own way and whilst taking note of the general “Benny style” I actually based the main Bernice picture on a photo of Linda Thorsen – Tara King in The Avengers. Albeit with a few significant changes so that it wasn't at all obvious.

Bill Donohoe painted the cover to the original novel, which showed the Doctor in a mortar board – based on a photograph Donohoe says he ‘cut out of Doctor Who Magazine’ – watching as a schoolboy fires a machine gun. ‘I used a lad from over the road from me,’ he continues. ‘He was about twelve or something. He’s back from university now. I got him to pose and gave him a copy of the cover. Now he’s got it as the wallpaper on his mobile phone.’

No Future had received mixed reviews, but Cornell rewarded one positive reviewer with a special place in his new book. David Darlington, later sound engineer on many of Bernice’s audio adventures, explains: ‘I wrote a breathlessly positive review of No Future in [fanzine] Paisley Pattern, which Cornell read and was amused to quote back at me, directly, right at the start of Human Nature. The words are "they seem, in places, to address me so directly it's almost uncomfortable". I’m very proud of that...'

After the not-entirely-brilliant response to No Future, the book was very well received. Cornell was especially keen to see what DWM’s Craig Hinton made of it. ‘Apparently [this is] Paul Cornell’s final Doctor Who novel, and he has gone out with a bang,’ wrote Hinton in DWM #226 (7 June 1995). ‘We are again treated to the definitive Benny. Given the important task of watching over the human Doctor Smith, her observations of 1914 Norfolk are both amusing and revealing. Still reeling from the traumatic events in last month’s Sanctuary, her feelings towards the Doctor are more protective than ever, and helps underline his “real” romance. … I found myself caring about every character, and freely admit that the emotionally charged ending had me crying my eyes out. … Definitely Paul Cornell’s finest Doctor Who book and … I’d go so far as to say the finest Doctor Who book to date.’

The readers agreed. Human Nature won a Doctor Who Magazine poll for best New Adventure in 1998. The book, said Dave Owen, ‘typifies the range’s dissimilarity to the television show… Human Nature also signposts a more independent Bernice Summerfield.’

In 2003, this win was acknowledged by a special presentation at the Panopticon convention in London – which also celebrated 30 years of Doctor Who. Cornell was surprised to receive an award from Terrance Dicks. How does Dicks feel his protégé has done?

‘Enormously well!’ Dicks enthuses. ‘But it wouldn't be true in any sense to say that Paul is a protégé of mine.’ That’s how he's described himself. ‘Oh, bless his heart. I've known Paul since he was a keen young fanboy ingratiating himself with me by buying pints of beer at conventions. He's a nice, bright chap and I've always liked him and enjoyed talking to him. Over the years we've become friends. The relationship has changed because Paul has become an established writer in his own right. There's no such thing as a Doctor Who writer: there are professional writers who now and again do a Doctor Who. And that’s what Paul has done. Although he came out of Who, he’s worked on a lot of other shows and he's become a professional, working script writer – but obviously one based on the influence of and very close to Who. As I say, we've become friends over the years, we have lunch together every now and again and I went to his wedding. I'm very fond of Paul.’

So Dicks has read Human Nature then? ‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘a way back.’ And what did he make of it? There’s a long pause. ‘Not a lot,’ he laughs. ‘I find Paul's writing much more complex and diverse than the kind of thing I do myself, and the kind of thing I like myself. Paul tends to be amazingly complex – I put that down to youth. He is very talented, he’s full of ideas and he works really, really hard. He's had a well-deserved success. He's a very good writer and I'm immensely pleased that he's done so well. I am very fond of Paul and have great admiration for him.’

Human Nature also introduced a new companion for the Doctor – in the shape of Wolsey the cat. Wolsey, who’d play much more of a role in Benny’s life later, was rather overshadowed by the next new arrivals.