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Apr 15, 2006

New Earth, Old Story

Being a Doctor Who fan, context is everything.

Last year our beloved show did the impossible. Not only did it return in the first place - something which even the most optimistic among us doubted would ever happen - but it did so to commercial and critical acclaim. Fans - old and new - loved it, critics adored it, the establishment (God help them) showered it with awards and we all slipped further into the self-induced coma that began with Lorraine Heggesy’s fateful words that day way back in 2003. But most astonishing of all, not only was Doctor Who back, but it had once again captured the hearts and minds of a generation.

This year the expectation is huge, but could never possibly be as great. This year not so much hinges on the first episode and no-one’s going to be commissioning a fourth series on the strength of this debut outing. Which is a relief in oh, so many ways.

Because not only have we got a whole series to look forward to , but we’ve also got the freedom not to get it right first time. Last year the expectations for ‘Rose’ were so heavy that they threatened to topple the whole project before it had even begun; this year not only have we had the new Doctor’s always tricky debut under our belts, but some of us have learnt to give it time. A luxury we only normally afford to any show other than Doctor Who.

And most of all - and I’m sure the residents of my home town will be grateful to hear this - my disappointment at this inaugural offering will not extend to a birthday-fuelled stint on the karaoke circuit. For this - and for so many other things - we can be truly thankful that ‘New Earth’ only falls short of the high standards we set our show; and never stinks.

So what is the episode’s biggest problem? Well it might be a new year and a new, new Earth, but Doctor Who’s most prominent weakness remains its greatest strength: Russell T Davies. I know, it’s churlish to decry the very man without whom we’d none us have any reason to be contributing to this blog, week-in week-out, but it seems that the truism of last year remains as resolute this: RTD’s scripts are the weakest, most poorly-plotted of the show’s current crop. Crucial to the show’s very revival he most certainly is, but even a reduction to just five scripts this term has not - at least on the evidence of this example - sharpened his Who pen to the degree that we’ve every right to expect from the same man who gave us The Second Coming. Oh, admittedly the witty dialogue and the clever satire are all in place, but there’s no sense of what makes great Doctor Who in his scripts. And it might be putting my neck on the block at this very early stage, but I’d wager that the episodes by Messrs Whithouse, Moffat, MacRae, Gatiss, Jones and Graham will all knock the majority of RTD’s output this year into a cocked hat.

As with all RTD’s Who episodes so far, there’s a nice conceit at the heart of ‘New Earth’: humanity has settled on an identical planet to the Earth seen destroyed in ‘The End of the World’, where a new-age hospital has apparently eradicated all known disease. Of course, this being Doctor Who, nothing is ever as it seems and the Doctor and Rose are soon thrown into the thick of it; with the presence of an old enemy spicing things up.

So far, so good. But ‘New Earth’ shows up the flaw of many of last year’s outings in that it’s poorly paced given the brief forty-five minutes it has to tell its tale. No sooner are the Doctor and Rose investigating the mystery then everything’s going wrong. And we hurtle head-long into the rushed and somewhat predictable denouement. While the likes of Paul Cornell and Rob Shearman used their three-quarters of an hour last year with the modicum of padding, there’s an awful lot in a Russell T Davies script where you wonder why is it there? And even with the continuity her presence gives between this year and last, arguably the inclusion of last human Cassandra is superfluous - nice as it is to have Zoe Wanamaker’s bitchy trampoline make a return appearance.

Certainly while there’s plenty of serious, though-provoking drama in evidence, once more RTD seems more intent on tickling our funny bones just when things get a little too contemplative. And while I never quite reached a point where I was cringing as I did in the McCoy days, there’s no doubting that the humour in ‘New Earth’ is a little, well, broad., to say the least. Tennant and Piper both pull off the whole body-swap shtick with some aplomb, but it’s safe to say that you’ll be thinking of hiding behind the sofa for an altogether different reason during some of their more camp moments. In fact, given Russell T Davies’ perceived gay agenda, some purists will no doubt argue that the Cassandra-possessed Doctor is the closest we’ll get to a full-on homosexual cliché in the role (or at least until we one day get the real thing…)

And as for the body swap humour, haven’t we all seen this a thousand times before anyway? Take out Cassandra and you’ve got the potential for a typical episode where the Doctor uncovers the dark, nasty secret at the heart of another paradise. With her in it there’s little room to explore the moral implications of the Sisters of Plenitudes’ work (apart from perhaps noting that Russell T Davies doesn’t seem to have a lot of time for the current medical hot potato of stem-cell research; what with the use of humans as lab-rats being a thinly veiled attack on the practice’s ethics). And once Cassandra’s sabotage wreaks the hospital’s fragile status quo, we’re left with little more than a third-rate zombies-on-the-rampage adventure. As for the supposedly moving ending, are we really meant to feel sympathetic for a vain, murderous bitch whose already unnaturally-prolonged lifespan is finally at an end? Or just ponder how such base manipulation comes at the price of another character whose only crime is a lack of taste when it comes to who he reveres?

But it’s not all bad, just in case you were starting to wonder. Both Tennant and Piper ease back into their roles; adding a real frisson of sexual chemistry to the Tenth Doctor/Rose dynamic only hinted at with the Eccleston Doctor. And Tennant - given a proper debut following his largely pyjama-clad false start at Christmas - offers the right mix of Doctorly pathos and steel which I’m sure is going to make him one of the unqualified successes in the role. Elsewhere the Face of Boe has one or two enigmatic hints as to how this Doctor - and Season Two as a whole - are going to go; not least of which with the revelation that both are now the last of their kind. And while Boe keeps his dying secret for now, you kinda expect there to be much, much more of this before season’s end.

It’s a sign of how spoiled we’ve become that a generally inoffensive episode like ‘New Earth’ can’t help but disappoint. But with last season raising the bar so high - and with the strong belief of much better to come - it’s inevitable that this episode will likely become one of the ones you forget about come series’ end. Which is fine, because if we learned nothing else last year it’s that when this show hits paydirt it’ll be something truly special. And when it happens it’s the likes of ‘New Earth’ that’ll make the wait all the more worth it.

Quote/Unquote:

‘They’re not real people…they’re specially grown’ (RTD throws his hat into the ring regards the inflammable stem-cell debate).

Best bit:

The Doctor powers up his time-ship in the opening scene.

Tennant’s leverage

: granted just one TARDIS interior scene, there’s little chance for la Tennant to show-off his prop-handling skills. But given the verve and enthusiasm of just these few seconds, we’re still talking a very healthy

8/10

(‘The Bumper Book of Made-Up Doctor Who Facts’ has this to say about ‘New Earth’: accused of having a ‘gay agenda’, Russell T Davies claims that this episode was in fact an attempt to put more pussy into ‘Doctor Who’)

Comments

Little chance? The man was making sweet love to the console. It only showed as much as it did, b/c it'd have to be post-watershed if they'd shown anymore..

Little chance? The man was making sweet love to the console. It only showed as much as it did, b/c it'd have to be post-watershed if they'd shown anymore..

(‘The Bumper Book of Made-Up Doctor Who Facts’ has this to say about ‘New Earth’: 15 April 2006 will become known as the day that "pussy" became the new "Brokeback.")

From the content of the review, I was very surprised you gave it 8 out of 10.

Judging by size of his/her head, and being both topical and in line with the human experimentation theme of New Earth, I think I've guessed the Face Of Boe's secret which s/he will doubtless impart cometh the end of this series ie, this year's Bad Wolf methinks.

I think the FOB is going to tell the Doctor not to go down the same road as s/he did, namely taking part in those guinea pig experiments that make your head swell. Don't do it kids!

PS what is the face of Boe exactly? In The Long Game there was a news item saying that FOB was pregnant and yet here the new Doctor referred to FOB as 'he' - any theories? I thought it was only male seahorses who were pregnant!

Agree with your review, though like Kat I was surprised at the 8/10 score you gave it - no doubt it was a case of eight out of ten CATpeople preferring it!

I was going to review it this week but a slight technical computer glitch coupled with a chronic attack of writer's block (the case when an episode is neither totally crap nor brilliant but just...is!) means that I'll have to wait until next week's Victorian Werewolf in Glasgae.

Natch - Only among EARTH creatures male seahorse etc etc..

Then again, there was an episode of Enterprise where male engineer Trip Tucker was impregnated by a female alien. Who knows what other planets' species do for reproduction. Maybe the Face can self-impregnate, for all we know.

It's thanks to Typepad that it looks as though I'm giving 'New Earth' 8/10 - that mark should be on the previous line ending '...very healthy' and is in fact for Tennant's lever-pulling qualities in the opening scene. You'll have to ask Neil if you want the full relevance of this...

Not that I like giving marks out of ten - in fact I despise it - but just for the record 'New Earth' gets 5 from me.

Good point Salem, good point.

And as for your 8 out of 10, Sean, I stand corrected and now know the full reasons!

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