Only Human made me realize how much I had missed the Ninth Doctor. The last Ninth Doctor novel I read was either the Stephen Cole one or the Jacqueline Rayner one, and at that it was probably two years ago. It was to Gareth Roberts’ credit that he was able to capture the banter of Nine and Rose so well that immediately I was back into their world. And what a wonderful world it is. Add to it that this is the first official novel I’ve read in which Captain Jack figures, and I may have been bouncing off the walls, so gleeful was I.
I can just imagine the brief Roberts was given. “10, 000 BC” but better. Keep the elements of danger, the rawness, the disbelief, but kick it up a notch—add futuristic tech and monsters. Rose in wedding furs and the possibility of Rose getting raped are certainly throwbacks to the 1963 story. Part of the brief, too, must have been the old “challenge our assumptions” bit. With the Doctor’s help, we are meant to see the Neanderthals as surprisingly civilized, the world they live in as natural to us as can be, that, with the TARDIS’ help, Neanderthals speak normally and ancient, early humans speak like Rose’s mum (as utterly annoying as Roberts’ attempts in “The Shakespeare Code” to get everyone’s dialogue “hip” and James Moran’s similar tendencies in “The Fires of Pompeii”). One of the Ninth Doctor’s most alien qualities—but in a standoffish way, what sometimes made him quite sexy—was his facility for piling on the guilt to humanity, mostly in the person of Rose. He does this a lot in Only Human, making Rose feel bad that her ancestors destroyed the Neanderthals, making her feel bad that her natural instinct toward the Neanderthals is distrust since they don’t look like her. Similarly he makes her feel bad about the humans from the future also included in this story and about her 2005-era common humanity. But of course, she is the exception to the rule so he is often forced to eat his words. Though Gareth Roberts has a good sense of the absurd—Minnie Mouse-voiced Neanderthal in fancy dress party in Bromley—I’d like to know where he got all his info about Neanderthals. He doesn’t list any sources. Poo on him.
Roberts’ talent lies in satire, but it’s tempered by his genuine, passionate love of Doctor Who the institution. I don’t know what Bromley ever did to Roberts, but he really takes the mickey out of it. Looking at it cynically, he’s absolutely right to put down current Western culture’s obsession with leisure time as portrayed by the residents of Bromley with Rose, the Doctor, Captain Jack, and the Neanderthal unfortunately dropped into the future by a time rip engine, Das, especially in contrast to the Neanderthals’ more industrious obsession with feeding “the tribe.” Future humans do not escape his scathing commentary: in that era, humanity has taken laziness to an extreme, popping packs of chemicals whenever there’s “wrong-feeling.” People are uniformly gorgeous but dull. I admire Roberts’ creativity in this aspect, I found the future world he created highly interesting and entertaining. Roberts pulls no punches as far as language is concerned, somewhat shocking me. (Even if Roberts claims the TARDIS filters out swear words—‘Did she really say blinking?’ asked Rose. ‘That’s the TARDIS—got a swear filter.’) Sometimes I honestly think he goes a bit too far, like a non sequitur sequence included just to get in a dig at the church (which he pursued to a degree in “The Unicorn and the Wasp”). It’s always great to read a Doctor Who author enjoying writing the book as much as you are reading it, and that’s certainly the case with Roberts, who seems to get a bit of himself (and the reader) into the character of Weronika, a Polish NHS nurse who meets the Doctor, Rose, and a buck-naked Jack for about two minutes (very funny sequence). As they entered the lift, she [Weronika] found herself wanting to scream, I don’t know who you are, but take me with you!
Rather strangely, several elements of Only Human reminded me of my novel-length Nine/Rose/Jack story, St. Valentine’s Day, which I’ve never been able to finish, mostly due to the research required—but I have plotted it out the end. For example, it decides early on to separate Jack from the Doctor and Rose. Jack is required to help Das, who is trapped in the 21st century, to his new life there, while Rose and the Doctor are to go back in time to where Das came from. Do great minds just think alike? Or did both Roberts and I see the potential, but subtle, character-building inherent on showing the Doctor’s jealousy over Jack? That said, Roberts writes Jack with unabashed relish, and he is, in all his pre-Torchwood glory, our galactic buccaneer. Rose winced. ‘Could those trousers be any tighter?’ ‘Is that a request?’ (Bit of the Tenth Doctor-in-waiting there!) Also in common with my story, Roberts has Rose required to marry an ancient human named Tillun (in my story the Doctor has to break up her wedding to a 17th-century criminal overlord, but that’s telling). This is another excellent vehicle for Rose/Nine shippers to indulge their whimsy: He [Tillun] leaned over and gave her the snog of her life. Over her shoulder she heard the Doctor sighing. ‘What a terrible ordeal for you,’ he muttered with more than a hint of something that was either envy or fatherly protectiveness, she couldn’t tell which.
Roberts makes an interesting decision regarding POV in that, while we are pursing the Doctor/Rose/ancient Earth plot thread, Das’ and Jack’s stories are played out in journal form. Das describes his love for eating all things fatty (one of the few things I remember about Physical Anthropology was human inborn desire for fats, salts, and sugars, which unfortunately has dogged us to this day—erm, it must be the same for Neanderthals) and Jack expresses disbelief that Das is able to find a “mate” (apparently they can have children?!?). I thought that Das’ inability to understand the concept of lying was going to lead somewhere, but all it creates are some mildly funny incidents, told to us in summary. What Roberts does do surprisingly well is create some scenes of genuine peril that were hard to put down—Rose and the Doctor about to be attacked by monsters on the plain of some prehistoric Earth.
Unfortunately, it’s the monsters where Roberts lets us down. I found this same disappointment in “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” to be honest. Roberts’ villain is a calm, cool, bland super-genius woman, boring by nature but therefore dramatically lacking as well. While the presence of frustratedly passionate Quilley the Refuser and references to “Kinda” and L. Frank Baum make up for the general vanilla flavor of the dastardly plot once it’s revealed, I found the end rather anticlimactic. The monsters, the Hy-Bractors, were appropriately violent, but I really couldn’t see them at all in my mind’s eye—always a bad sign.
Overall, though, this was just so—much—fun.