‘The Black Archive #13: Human Nature/The Family of Blood’ reviewed

❉ An intelligent, stimulating and worthwhile read.

Back in the mists of 2008, when things like Jodie Whittaker’s casting, The Underwater Menace’s partial recovery and the Paradigm Daleks’ bums were a thing of the dim and distant future, I was a pupil at the University of Sussex.  One sunny day, sat in a nondescript office with a lovely man, I discussed my forthcoming postgraduate dissertation: a look at the Western Folk tale hero as defined by Max Lüthi in comparison and relation to Super Mario.  The idea was that I was going to write a serious work on the validity of Nintendo’s games as fairy tale texts across 200,000 words.

They accepted my proposal, and the eventual work (written in a little under two weeks; my laptop was dropped and I had forgotten to back up my texts because I’m an idiot) scraped a pass, but throughout I had an awful lot of people outside of academia question why I was writing the dissertation in the first place as it was a strange subject to tackle.

I suspect the same people would raise collective snarky eyebrows at the notion of a serious academic study of a throwaway children’s television show, but that hasn’t stopped Doctor Who being endlessly dissected.  Without even scratching the surface, one can find looks at the show through social, political, religious, sexual, gender- and media-based, racial, and historical prisms.

The Black Archive series from Obverse Books is increasingly becoming a torchbearer for this line of study, with a look at Human Nature/The Family of Blood by Naomi Jacobs and range editor Philip Purser-Hallard being the 13th entry and a rather unique one, seeing that it covers a story which has been both a highly acclaimed novel and a highly acclaimed television serial.

The book starts off with a glossary of terms differentiating between the print and visual versions of the story, ends with a discussion on the canonical validity of both iterations of Human Nature existing with one not necessarily cancelling the other out, and in-between takes in Pagan and Christian symbolism, fan fiction, the morality of war and takes on pacifism, and the metaphor of scarecrows, whilst finding the time to quote Terry Pratchett.

For a text that takes in relatively heavy subject matters and weighty theological and social concepts, it’s an amazingly light and easy read because Jacobs and Purser-Hallard write with a lightness of touch and none of the proposed symbolism feels forced.  It helps that Paul Cornell himself has remarked upon some of the conscious and unconscious messages and metaphors in his original text, but this is at times but a springboard for far wider-reaching and intriguing discussions, such as John Smith as flawed hero and unaware god, and differing media formats resulting in different messages regarding the wider perception of the First World War (justified on screen, harder to justify in Cornell’s original novel).

In order to fuel these discussions, comparisons are made throughout between novel and televised outings for Human Nature.  These glimpses are at their best when looking at the sometimes contradictory wider messages in there (such as the aforementioned pacifism, and a look at how the differing roles of Bernice Summerfield and Martha Jones impacts upon the plot and story told), and at their more functional (as in, necessary but not as interesting) when doing simple compare and contrasts, but that’s unavoidable in a critical analysis of this nature.

The highlight of the book for me was the discussion of links between this story and fan fiction as a concept, and how texts engage with this wider universe of unofficial tribute to the parent show; certainly the notion that Human Nature takes the AU fan-fic challenge and makes it flesh is an irresistible one and has made me appreciate Cornell’s work here is a whole new light.

It would be very easy for a book of this kind to be overly worthy or stretch credulity, but never once does this occur (except, oddly, for the final appendix discussing canon. I can see why this section was included, but the arguments made are at best loose and lack the weight and, crucially, believability of everything else discussed).

A story of war, identity, racial politics and love, of all the stories covered by The Black Archive so far, Human Nature is in many ways the most obvious candidate and this book certainly makes for a very rich and stimulating read, the duality of looking at those themes and looking how format alters content and story making for a varied analysis.

To be blunt, if you are of the “why analyse children’s television?” mindset, this book will drive you round the twist.  If you are more open minded to the notion though, and want to see it done well with true merit, this book will at once interest, challenge and engage you throughout and shows that Obverse Books are wise to champion, nurture, print and celebrate The Black Archive.

An intelligent and worthwhile read.

❉ ‘The Black Archive #13: Human Nature / The Family of Blood’ by Naomi Jacobs and Philip Purser-Hallard is published 1 September 2017 by Obverse Books. Visit the Black Archive: http://obversebooks.co.uk/theblackarchive/

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