Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Doctor Who: Only Human - 50th Anniversary Edition Review

Doctor Who March 2013 Re-Release
Published by BBC Books
Only Human

Written by: Gareth Roberts
Featuring: The Ninth Doctor, Rose Tyler and Jack Harkness

Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz for The Gallifrey Times.

This review may contain spoilers.


To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, BBC Books have re-issued eleven original novels, one for each Doctor. And being the new Who fan that I am, I went straight for the three new Who novels. First up, it's Gareth Roberts' Only Human.

Only Human concerns a Neanderthal being let loose in modern-day Bromley... and if that sounds slightly nutty to you - that's a good tone-setter for the rest of the novel. The story then takes a slight left turn, as the Doctor and Rose head off to prehistoric times to solve the mystery of how the Neanderthal found himself in the 21st century, and Jack is stuck in 2005, integrating the Neanderthal, Das, into society (the reason why Das can't go back to his home is explained briefly in the novel).

As you might have picked up from the summary above, Only Human is split into the traditional A and B plots. The Doctor and Rose' adventures in prehistoric times might be the main focus of the novel, but Jack and Das' diary entries are interspersed throughout the novel, providing a lighter, slightly inconsequential B plot to the story. They're ultimately irrelevant to the plot, but they are really rather funny (especially Das' endearingly naive attempts at understanding modern life), and I was always pleased to see one pop up in the novel.

Gareth Roberts explains in the brand new foreword that his intention was to show three different types of human: the primitive Neanderthals and early humans, modern-day humans and future humans, who've made a way to control their emotions, via 'popper packs' that block negative emotions. It's a neat idea, and it's one that's at the forefront of Only Human. It's also the catalyst for an awful lot of comic moments (and being Gareth Roberts, there are plenty), with the oblivious, care-free humans providing some genuinely funny moments.

I've been a fan of the main line of New Series Adventures for a while now, and there's always been a bit of a problem with them: they've always been a little insubstantial. Only Human does nothing (not surprising, considering it's one of the first NSA novels) to counter that - it's a light, fluffy tale that's more suited to being read in one session. There's nothing particularly groundbreaking here - it sticks to the classic list of Who tropes, and while it's an entertaining blend, it's not a very original one.

Thankfully, the forgettable story is more than made up for by how well Roberts writes the characters. He captures the voice of the Ninth Doctor, Rose and Jack (even if Jack's innuendo is ladled on a little too thick) perfectly - it's a huge cliche to say that you can really imagine the characters saying the dialogue... but you really can imagine the characters saying the dialogue. And it's not just regulars - the characters are spot-on throughout, with the amusingly casual Chantal being a, if not a particularly threatening villain, a highlight.

But sadly, the story really is a little weak. There's plot holes galore (including some ludicrously convenient plot elements), and while an alien adversary is introduced later on, there's no real threat. It helps that Only Human wasn't exactly aiming for a complex story, but especially considering it's been hand-picked as the best Ninth Doctor novel, I was expecting something a little more thoughtful. There's a nice bunch of emotional moments and moral dilemmas towards the end, but it's still a little empty.

Still, Only Human is a fun, zippy novel that moves along like an anti-grav motorbike, with great characters and dialogue. It's just a shame that the story's predictable, weak fare, with no real threat.

The Gallifrey Times Rating: 7/10