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Only Human

Doctor Who: The BBC Ninth Doctor Adventures #5
Finn Clark

If I were a new fan struggling through the 9DAs, this would be the one that hooked me. Even overlooking his often lacklustre comic strips I've had problems with Gareth Roberts's writing in the past, but Only Human recaptures all of his sparkle and none of his inconsistency of tone. It's not Gareth's most dazzling portrayal of a TARDIS crew, if only because the 9th Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack are all down-to-earth characters rather than eccentrics, but it's certainly the most vivid evocation to date of the Eccleston era regulars by a country mile. They live. They breathe. They're funny. I'd probably still be saying the same even had this book been published as part of a proper series of full novels.

Admittedly comedic portrayals of the regulars were Gareth Roberts's big selling point in his Virgin days. Nevertheless for the first time it feels as if an author has actually been watching Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper instead of just reading some writers' guidelines. These aren't just "accurate representations". They're rollicking opinionated people, exploding from the page with more life in a single Gareth Roberts chapter than they've had in the other five 9DAs put together.

He makes Captain Jack Harkness work on the page! I'd been coming to think that it couldn't be done! He's an innuendo machine, but (and this is important) it feels like the character sniggering and going "nudge nudge wink wink" rather than the author. It's the difference between Gareth Roberts and, say, Steve Cole or John Peel.

This book had me laughing out loud as I walked through Nagoya, my fingers turning blue in the Japanese winter. Nevertheless I'd expected humour. What I hadn't expected was a solid story and theme. This book juxtaposes Neanderthals, far-future biochemists and 21st century mankind in a story about "us versus them". Everyone thinks they're superior to someone. Terrible things are done to those who are seen as lesser races. However despite the bigotries and prejudices, as the title implies everyone's only human.

Admittedly these Neanderthals and proto-humans aren't as unknowably National Geographic as one might expect. Compare for instance with Paul Leonard, in Genocide and his not-so-short story The People's Temple in Short Trips. Those primitives were downright alien. Only Human's assorted people are almost jarringly mundane... but that's the whole point. It's not just a throwaway gag for cavemen and technobabble-spouting refugees from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to be basically the same useless spods underneath, but instead the main message of the book.

There's a side-benefit to this. "Noble savage" stereotypes can get a bit patronising, but there's no danger of that here. The book even deliberately undercuts any such assumptions. When Captain Jack starts treating Das the Neanderthal like he's mentally deficient merely because he's unfamiliar with technology, Jack gets cut down like a poppy in a wheatfield. Das was great and one of my favourite characters from a Gareth Roberts novel. Dare I suggest that he's verging on being the author's alter ego?

As a frivolous sidenote, Neanderthals have come to be quite well represented in Doctor Who. There's Nimrod in Ghost Light, Enkidu in Timewyrm: Genesis and now Das in Only Human. In addition if An Unearthly Child really was set in 100,000 BC then the Tribe of Gum could have been Neanderthals too. (They inhabited Europe and western Asia from about 230,000 to 29,000 BC, although Homo sapiens has been around for a good 200,000 years as well.)

There's another weird danger of time travel. I'm always up for those. Here we have a story spanning hundreds of millennia, with attitude, thoughtfulness and some great jokes. The only thing I'm not wild about is the ending. It's too witty and ironic to be dramatically satisfying. It just sort of turns out that the Doctor won, without him having to do something really brave and clever. What we get is amusing, but a barnstorming climax would have made this book damn near perfect. As it is the book just sort of stopped and I realised to my slight surprise that everything was over. However it's a compliment that I was disappointed to have to stop reading!

This book works on almost every level. To dislike it you'd have to be looking for precisely the kind of gnarled, intellectual writing which these kiddie-friendly 9DAs are trying to avoid. If you want thoughtfulness and thematic depth, it's here. If you want entertainment, there are jokes. If you just want to read some lively Doctor Who, then all three regulars get plenty of screen time and get caught in some extraordinary situations. In addition to everything else, this book has imagination in abundance.

This book is simply written, but that just goes to show that "simple" doesn't mean "stupid". Other reviews seem to indicate that this book has appealed even to people who haven't normally liked Gareth Roberts's work. I'm delighted that I finally read this.

Eddy Wolverson

It’s very difficult to compare these Ninth Doctor novels with anything published before 2005 as they are so different to the Virgin and BBC novels that we have become used to. They all have a lighter page count than their predecessors and they are certainly more attractive to look at on the shelf, but clearly the greatest difference is one of tone. Although I love the gritty darkness of the ‘New Adventures’ and a lot of the BBC books, ‘Only Human’ is another novel in the Ninth Doctor series that does its job wonderfully – tells a fun, light-hearted story that has serious undertones. Gareth Roberts creates a Ninth Doctor adventure that fits seamlessly into the all too short Eccleston era. If you’re a fan of the new series and pick up a copy of ‘Only Human’ you will not be disappointed, no matter what your age.

Roberts has to be given a lot of credit for just how well he handles the regular characters. The Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack are brought to life on the page buzzing with energy and with some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read in any Doctor Who novel. The biggest compliment that I can pay to Roberts in how he handles the Doctor is that from the first time he opens his mouth there is no doubt that this man, “…his eyes alight with childish optimism…” is the ninth Doctor. He spends most of the novel in an investigative role back in the past, and when his enemy, Chantal, is revealed, she’s unique in that she is a human from the far future who can use chemistry to control (and even remove) emotion. There are some lovely scenes where the Doctor realises he can’t berate this woman; can’t get under her skin or make her lose her cool as he can with your normal run of the mill baddies, it’s like she just isn’t there, and it makes for a very entertaining read.

The Doctor’s relationship with Rose comes over well on the written page. I particularly enjoy an argument they have about the human race where Rose, finally sick of all the Doctor’s anti-human comments, asks just why he actually hangs around with them so much if he obviously can do nothing but pick fault with them. He brilliantly replies,

“You can be brilliant, terrible, generous, cruel. But you’re never boring.”

Rose is absolutely put through the meat grinder in this story, almost literally at one point! Within the space of 251 pages she breathes fire, marries a caveman (who she is worryingly attracted to) and has her head amputated (and subsequently re-attached!) Even with the production standards of the 2005 series, these things would have stretched the budget to say the least – it’s good to see the writers are still taking advantage of the freedom the written word allows. Rose ‘Glathigacymcilliach’ (nee Tyler) has some great character moments in the book too – her reaction when she realises that humans wipe out the Neanderthals and how she’s unsure whether the Doctor’s offhand comments at her wedding are said with jealousy or “fatherly protectiveness” stand out in particular.

If ‘Only Human’ can be criticised for anything it should only be for having Jack sidelined for the bulk of the novel, being left behind in the 21st century to help the Neanderthal, Das, acclimatise to the century of which he has become a prisoner. Although we don’t hear as much from them as we do from the Doctor and Rose, I enjoyed the passages featuring Jack and Das more than any others. Not only was it some of the funniest Doctor Who I’ve ever seen, read or heard (we’re talking ‘City of Death’ level of comedy), but Roberts presents the passages in diary form, so essentially we get the same story told twice; once from each character’s perspective. For example, Jack has trouble teaching Das about the concepts of ‘fiction’ and ‘lying.’ He just cannot grasp them. He sits watching TV all day, believing the Grace Brothers in ‘Are You Being Served?’ to be real! Moreover, I think the author has to be given a lot of credit for how he portrays Das’ attitude to modern life. Rather than take the old ‘modern life is rubbish’ attitude, Das embraces the future wholeheartedly.

“I love this world of plenty and boredom.”

At the end of the day, ‘Only Human’ is a fantastic novel written to tie-in with the 2005 series. You can happily read it cover to cover in a few hours and when it does reach its (rather rushed) ending you will be sorry it’s over. Surprisingly, it does contain a few adult references much like the Virgin and BBC novels of recent years, however unlike those books there are no continuity riddles to be solved, no mentions of Gallifrey or pre-“Rose” adventures that would confuse the new audience; ‘Only Human’ is simply a first-class adventure written in the spirit of the new series, and I loved every page.

Lawrence Conquest

As a novelist Gareth Roberts can be rather hit and miss. Broadly speaking his work can be divided into two distinct piles: his best work is set firmly in the past (usually featuring the 4th Doctor, Romana and K-9) and acts as a virtual love-letter to the Graham Williams era of the TV series – plot-wise these novels are at best mediocre, but the authors nostalgic love for the era combined with a dash of humour mean these novels are at worst enjoyable fluff. Conversely Roberts’s attempts to join the New Adventures crowd were fairly disastrous, as he proved incapable of writing more cutting edge gritty material. All that was a long time ago though, but with Roberts return to Doctor Who literature it was certainly a valid concern as to whether the author could still produce an entertaining read without being able to channel the voices of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward.

Thankfully those fears prove to be groundless, as Only Human turns out to be a high-quality light-hearted romp in the Missing Adventures tradition, only with the 9th Doctor, Rose and Jack seamlessly grafted in. The storyline is one of those classic ‘something is interfering with Earth’s history’ jobs, only thankfully without recourse to any dull paradoxes or alternate histories. The plot kicks off with the discovery of a Neanderthal in modern day times – evoking memories of both Stig of the Dump and Ghost Light – and it’s at this early point that the TARDIS team split up. Captain Jack initially looks to have got the short end of the stick when he has to stay in modern times and nursemaid the Neanderthal (named Das) - on a plotting level this seems to simply be a means to shunt an unwanted additional character out of the storyline (and is reminiscent of those periods when the early TV scriptwriters would struggle around newly joined companions (such as the unwieldy early Jamie/Polly/Ben trio) or actors absences due to holiday or sickness). In effect though, while Jack’s page count is significantly slighter than that of the Doctor and Rose, he does get some great comedy material as Das struggles to fit in with modern day life, with a scene where a Neanderthal watches Are You Being Served? being the sort of bonkers hilarity you can only really get with Doctor Who. Unlike the serious Jack portrayed in Justin Richards’ The Deviant Strain, Gareth Roberts goes out of his way to highlight the more comedic nature of the character, with plenty of flirting and nudity.

At the other end of time the Doctor and Rose get into some scrapes with a scientific experiment gone very wrong. With a group of emotionally-controlled slave workers, and a rebelling ‘refuser’ manically expressing every forbidden emotion he can there’s more than a faint whiff of early Doctor Who Weekly comic strip City of the Damned here, but Roberts keeps the action moving thick and fast, and when he has Rose recreate an infamous moment of OTT comedy gore from Re-Animator you know that despite the new high budgets the novels are still capable of producing material we would never see on television. At both ends of time the novel derives much of its comedy from the supporting characters total failure to correctly comprehend the society they find themselves in: whether it’s a Neanderthal attempting to understand fiction, or a scientist from the future misunderstanding compact discs, Only Human is essentially a comedy about fish out of water.

Occasionally the plotting is a bit ropey: an early moment of drama is neatly bypassed by one of those annoying characters that suddenly (and for no reason) implicitly trust and aid the Doctor on sight – why does this never happen to the bad guys eh? – and the Doctor’s method of defeating the Hy-Bractors at the finale is rather dubious to say the least, but the novel is fast and fun enough that most of the time such distractions aren’t important. Occasionally the novel can slip from comedy into downright silliness – Rose manicuring a bunch of cavemen for example – but at it’s best even the most ridiculous moments of pantomime can turn into laughs, witness the Monty Python-esque Great Fish of Matrimony.

Only Human isn’t a perfect novel, and it occasionally stumbles along the way, but with this much humour and off-the-wall zaniness it’s easy to forgive it any slight missteps. Bizarre and silly, but in it’s own way the most ambitious of the Ninth Doctor novels so far published – the 5th Ninth Doctor novel is the best one yet.

Joe Ford

There was a thread running on the book section of Outpost Gallifrey, “Are you excited by the return of Gareth Roberts?” which I failed to respond to because my answer was purely in the ‘no’ side of the answer and I did not want to piss all over the generally positive answers people were giving. I have always felt like Roberts’ Doctor Who books are severely overrated; his NAs are barely readable and his season seventeen fillers nowhere near as funny or cute as everybody else thinks. Only The Plotters really impressed me, with its detailed historical setting and beautiful use of the second TARDIS team and moments where I roared with the absurdity of it, it was Roberts living up to his reputation and delivering something extremely engaging.

Only Human is better than The Plotters. By the standard of today’s Doctor Who books (ie Match of the Day, Winner Takes All and Island of Death) this is a work of genius; a light, frothy page-turner that manages to appeal to children and adults alike, brimming with fantastic jokes (and I mean fantastic, this is the funniest Doctor Who book you will ever read), engaging characters, clever observations, great plot twists…and all wrapped up in one of those wonderful READ ME! NDA covers. Roberts was always a confident but this novel glitters with exuberance, whilst books like Spiral Scratch and The Gallifrey Chronicles reward you for being a Doctor Who fan, Only Human rewards you for being a New Doctor Who fan, delivering a pitch perfect renditioning of the dizzying atmosphere the series employs and lots of fabulous ideas to boot.

I mean how can you go wrong with the ninth Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack, clearly the most engaging line up of characters since the fourth Doctor, Sarah and Harry (or the eighth Doctor, Fitz and Anji if we are including the books!)? There is a certain buzz about these three which Roberts has captured even better than any of their TV scripts, they are like Buffy’s Scooby gang on speed, living on the edge, relishing their time together and openly thankful for the fantastic opportunity to travel through time and space. You can hear Eccleston, Piper and Barrowman saying their lines here, their dialogue is that good. They all get loads to do, be it the Doctor getting brainwashed by a psychotic control freak, Rose dismembered and married to a caveman (!!!) and Captain Jack given the important of trying to adjust a Neanderthal to modern day Bromley. The Doctor gets to be all clever and sarcastic and yet piercingly dangerous too, Rose is sharp, witty and resourceful and Jack is wonderfully innuendo bound, dropping brilliant pop culture references and hilariously arrogant in spots. To quote a certain Doctor, “Fantastic.”

It felt as though Gareth Roberts has had so many great ideas since he left the Doctor Who novel writing team and this chance to return to the fold has afforded him to use them all. Only Human is a curious breed of Doctor Who book, one that contains hilarious concepts (such as a Neanderthal attempting to understand Are You Being Served!), frightening ideas (the future of humanity having their emotions bred out of them, able to punch in an endorphin code to dispel any negative feelings) and some downright whacky (but wonderful) twists (such as Rose have to go through the arduous process of marrying a caveman so their tribe will listen to her and scarper from the approaching monsters!). The ideas keep coming, like a massive domino rally knocking into each other, complimenting the clever plot and enriching the novel with some incredible imagination.

All of the characters are great but my personally favourite were Das and the Wise Old Woman. Das affords Roberts to write some his best ever Doctor Who passages as, thanks to the TARDIS translation circuits, a Neanderthal gets the opportunity to understand our bizarre modern day life. These brief breaks from the main action are inspired, like Troy Game’s wonderful alien view of our world in The Suns of Caresh only much funnier and full of more witty culture shocks. I loved Das’ constant references to the television as his inspiration for things (he wont get on a plane until he sees how easily Will and Grace do it, he cannot understand why the mysterious laughter mocks the inability of the Grace Brothers in Are You Being Served…although Captain Jack turns off Farscape before his mind gets too twisted…as Das thinks all these programmes are reality!) and how he copes surprisingly well in the modern day, even to Jack’s surprise is uplifting to read about. His eventual fate is beautiful and heart warming.

If you think that the book is weird and whacky at the beginning where the Doctor and company are on the trail of a Neanderthal on the loose in Bromley (Bromley?) then wait until they pop back in time to the Neolithic times! It’s wooden cities, lumpy aliens and jeans and baguettes ahoy! Roberts uses the TARDISes communication abilities to get us inside the minds of the cavemen and listening to them spout bloody cockney is too funny for words. The Wise Old Woman speaks a lot like Jackie Tyler (who makes a brilliant, unexpected cameo), loud, proud and very chavvy! Her dialogue is some of the funniest in the whole book simply because she is so revered and yet she is so casual about things, marrying off her son on a whim and attacking the Neanderthals because they’re a bit different.

Quilley is another character who provokes a lot of amusement, a Refuser, someone who refused to surrender his emotions and is astonished when the Doctor and Rose turn up, releasing lashing of OTT emotion on them simply because they WILL respond. His urges towards Rose bring out the protective side in the Doctor in a surprising fashion.

I wanted this book to be longer. I wanted to stay in Roberts’ whacky and wonderful world forever. This isn’t the best Doctor Who book ever written simply because it is light and therefore cannot be compared to other classics such as Adventuress on Henrietta Street and Nightshade which are darker and aimed a more mature audience but it is one of the best books to come out of any Doctor Who range and offers nothing but hope and joy for the future of the range, the NDAs in particular. This is a book which can be enjoyed by anyone, with some surprisingly risqué moments, lots and lots a gigglesome scenes and a sense of verve and confidence that only truly great Doctor Who can sweat. If you are avoiding the NDAs because of their kiddie friendly reputation I pity you, you are missing out on some of the best ever Doctor Who in print.